Periscope Depth

I told the girl that my prospects were good

Many months ago, John and Melissa took us on a tour of the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, MA. Anderson came from a wealthy family and married into another one, and lived a life of plush diplomatic posts – minister to the court of St. James, ambassador to Japan – from the 1890s through the early 20th Century. In addition to a life of philanthropy and public service, Anderson also collected cars. At a time when automobiles were the playthings of only the wealthiest, his repertoire was still enviable: touring cars, sports cars, limousines, and even an early electrical car. The trustees of the museum have supplemented it with rotating installations of classic cars since Anderson’s time. There was a collection of mid-century British imports, including the legendary Jaguar XK-E, when we visited.

I was reminded of Larz Anderson, Society of the Cincinnati, husband to the wealthiest woman in America, when the dealership called with an estimate for repairs to my car. The total bill would come to about 15% of my annual salary. And yes, we were talking dealer prices, but the repairs would still set me back a step. This is what car repairs do to one’s wallet, of course; this is the price of owning a car.

I thought about that for a bit: how oddly presumptuous it was that, in one of the most walkable cities in America, I should have a two-ton vehicle with an immensely powerful engine available to me at all hours of the day, ready to run at thirty seconds’ notice. That’s a sign of real wealth. But it’s a sign that most of America not only takes for granted, but that the civic order bends over backwards to accommodate. It’s impossible to find parking downtown in [Boston / DC / LA / NYC / take your pick] because everyone has a car and everyone wants to go downtown at the same time. The logistics of it – hell, the sheer physics – are impossible; not everyone who wants to go into the city on a Saturday morning can park within 10 yards of their intended destination; it just can’t be done. Yet nobody wins votes by saying this.

Fortunately, long-standing Catholic guilt makes me immensely uncomfortable with wealth. On realizing there was no reason I should shell out good money to maintain a car I drive three times a week, if that, I signed up with Zipcar*. I did the math, and at the highest rate of driving I might conceivably use, I would be paying 10% less than I’ve paid to gas, insure, and maintain my car in each of the last five years. And even if it were the same, the peace of mind I’d be buying in not having to worry about upkeep would be worth it.

I’m in the process of selling or donating my old car, soon as I can dig up the title and find time to post word online. If anyone’s in the market for a 2003 Audi with fewer than 90K miles that, while still drivable, needs a lot of work, drop me a line. Alternately, if anyone wants a referral for a Zipcar membership, drop me the same line but for different reasons.

* Of course, if you want to talk about the wealth we take for granted, consider the ability to rent a car for a few hours by filling out a form online, walking up to it and tapping it with an RFID card. Between my automatically renewing T pass, direct deposit, and now Zipcar, most transportation problems are solved by literally waving a piece of plastic around. I am deliberately atrophying those muscles which would help me calculate how hard it is to get somewhere, cloistering myself in a nest of skyscrapers.

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