Road Trip Series: Crossroads
A new set of wheels and a clever license plate help derail writer Steve Salerno’s stereotypical midlife crisis.
Another birthday had come, marking four decades complete.
Hardly ancient, but evidence of decay was everywhere. A roll of flab obscured my belt. My jawline seemed less defined, dare I say, jowly. I had less hair on top, and more hair peeking from unwelcome places.
If the visible signs were unsettling, the hidden ones were downright ominous. A recent heart-rhythm disturbance had served notice of my mortality. My knees ached. My back periodically gave way.
Then, as I continued to study the dismal reflection, I had my epiphany.
Professionally, life was good. A TV version of one of my books had just been filmed; a second movie deal was being negotiated. Clearly it was time
to announce my triumph over mediocrity and age. Clearly it was time to become a cliché.
Forty-eight hours later I peeled out of the Corvette dealer’s lot in a gilded knife blade of a driving machine, in debt for a sum that would’ve bought my parents a house. (Yeah, but could a house take corners at speeds approaching the escape velocity of a Mars orbiter?)
The wife was unimpressed. “You’ve got to be kidding,” Kathy said as I made the introductions. “And what do we do with the kids?”
“We have the minivan. The Vette’s for us.”
“Us, huh?” Kathy frowned.
In the ensuing weeks, I began to remake myself in the sleek image of my new wheels. Whereas once I’d venture out in an old sweatshirt and grungy Mets cap, I now dug into my dresser for the pricey sweaters I’d acquired as gifts. I started jogging, watched what I ate (with newly whitened teeth), got my heart rate down to a steady 52 bpm. I even had the remnants of my hair permed so I could remove the glass roof and let the air whoosh through my tresses.
Still, there was one necessary upgrade: the generic car plates. I needed a vanity plate befitting a man of such substance, and it needed to
tell the world just how I’d attained such substance. C MY FLK seemed pretentious. Finally I settled on BY MY BK. It sounded glamorous and, I figured, might spark conversations that earned me added royalties.
The day the plate arrived I reverently removed it from the plain brown packaging. The kids smiled indulgently and applauded, as if I were a child opening my gifts on Christmas morn. Kathy smiled in a way that conveyed something like pity.
Soon after, my A-list fantasies disappeared faster than a gallon of gas in the Vette’s formidable power train: That second movie deal never happened, and the follow-up book project got killed. By then my grungy Mets cap was back on my (unpermed) head. And the Corvette had become more of a couple’s car.
Once its seductive exhaust growl—the soundtrack of male menopause—stopped exciting, I found my clarity: The Vette was something bolted onto my life, much like the spoiler bolted onto the car itself. This beautiful woman sitting beside me, and the children we adored, they were my life.
Cars. They’re a microcosm of family life. A four-doored home on wheels. And, as this series of essays reveals, a little magical. Cars provide a window to the past and the future. They can shift gears to make you feel 20 years younger or add a touch of gray. They can wipe away emotional scars, bring us closer together or transport us somewhere else. We asked writers to take a look in their rearview mirror and recall a car ride that impacted the way they look at life, love and the pursuit of happiness.
Salerno has been a feature writer, essayist and investigative reporter for Esquire, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times Magazine and others. He is also the author of SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless.