I've never cared about cars as status symbols. And it's a darn good thing, what with my having driven only pre-1970 VW Beetles for 35 years.
About three years ago, after my last VW went to The Great Scrap Yard in the Sky, its place was taken by a '95 Honda Accord. Though it suits me fine, it's hardly the pinnacle of class and flash. Certainly, some big shvitzer like Donald Trump will never be seen driving something like it, unless he's going to a party with the theme "Down and Out In Rural America."
But still, that's A-OK with me. Or at least it was A-OK till last week, when my brother and sister-in-law came up for a visit.
Don't misunderstand me - there was nothing wrong with them or their visit. What was wrong was the rental car they showed up in - a 2009 Mustang.
"What's this all about?" I asked, giving the tire a contemptuous kick.
"Not my choice," said my brother. "It was the only one they had left."
"Practical wheels for the practical man," I sneered. "Just think of the mileage."
"I already have," he said. "When I picked it up in Burlington, the tank was full. By the time I got going on the interstate, it wasn't."
But the mileage was irrelevant since the car was a fait accompli. It was here, it'd stay here for the week, and my brother would drive it the whole time. At least that's what I thought. But I was wrong. My brother wouldn't drive it - I would.
It happened not by choice but by elimination. My bro and s-i-l like to kayak and my kayak rack fit my car, not the Mustang. So - Voila! - suddenly I was transformed from just another North Country zhlub in another North Country rustbucket to a true Dope About Town.
The endless query
I'll admit the Mustang was quite the ride. With everything being brand new, squeaky clean and working perfectly - the exact opposite of my rig - all I had to do was drive it. With my Honda's array of dysfunctions and disabilities, I've got to do everything but say a prayer to St. Jude just to get the key turned to the "start" position.
But beyond functionality, the Mustang had something no car I ever owned had - cachet. It was, in wonderfully affected prose, a real "Je ne sai quois-mobile." And I was hardly the only one who noticed it: After driving it only one day I was confronted by almost everyone I knew, a look of tremulous wonder on their faces, asking the inevitable question: "So, is this really yours?"
Or as Bill Decker said, his shock evident: "Is this actually happening? I'm the one driving a Volkswagen and you're driving a Mustang?"
The notion of treachery even entered the discussion. One of my pals, who must remain nameless, confronted me, hands on hips, head thrown back, fire in her eyes and said, "What's this? Now you're too good to be driving an old car like the rest of us?"
My most memorable encounter was with one of my former students, Jim Bueche.
"Hey," he said, "if that sweet Mustang I see you driving is actually yours, you're my hero."
"It isn't, and I'm not," I said.
As soon as I said it, his disappointment was obvious.
"But cheer up," I said. "Even if I can't become your hero, I can always be your villain."
And so it went, with everyone first being amazed I'd changed so much I'd bought a new Mustang, and then being disappointed to find out I hadn't changed at all.
In fact, only one person figured it out from the get-go - my pal Patrick Wamsganz.
Patrick and his family live across the road from me, and ever since he was hatched, they've referred to me as Neighbor Bob. He's a sweet soul, as cute as a mouse's ear and wise beyond his years.
The Wamsganzes noticed the Mustang as soon as it appeared in my driveway. And, like everyone else, they started talking about it, in the course of which, Jason, Patrick's dad, asked the inevitable question.
"So," he said, "do you think that's Neighbor Bob's new car?"
Patrick took a long look, thought for just a moment, and then cut through all the nonsense to the one essential truth - as only a seven-year-old can.
"That's a nice car," he said. "But it's not one Neighbor Bob would own."