Four months ago, I bought the car of my dreams. I had desired it for years, saved for it nearly as long, shopped for it with care, negotiated for it with patience, and, finally, bought it with joy and excitement.
But recently I came to a horrifying realization about my new Volkswagen Cabrio.
I own a chick car.
And by that, I don't mean I have a "chick-magnet" car that women would want to ride in with me. I mean I have a car that women would want to drive. By themselves. Or with their girlfriends.
Now don't get me wrong. I consider myself a fairly progressive guy who wouldn't normally admit to having any sexual identity hang-ups--I mean, I took a few women's studies classes in college and I live in Dupont Circle, for God's sake.
But the amount of ribbing I've been forced to endure from my friends, family and strangers has started to freak me out and make me wonder about myself.
"Cute car," said a female friend. "But isn't that, you know, kinda, well, er--feminine?"
A female co-worker related an anecdote about how her boyfriend and his buddy were listing things that men would never do and the buddy said, "Buy a Cabrio."
"And my boyfriend agreed!" my co-worker reported gleefully.
A few days later, an e-mail popped up on my computer screen at work. It was from a male colleague.
"Hey. I heard you bought a girl's car."
"Do you really think it's a girl's car?" I typed back.
"Well, actually, someone told me to say that as a joke."
I sighed, slightly relieved. But then another messaged flashed: "But now that you mention it, I don't know any guys who have that car."
Everyone seemed to have some sort of gender-issue comment or joke to relate. "I know some men who drive that car," said a male friend, before adding the homophobic punch line: "But you're the only one dressed like a man who does."
On the roads, I took an unscientific survey and, sure enough, there seemed to be a lot more women than men driving Cabrios. For a more scientific opinion, I called Volkswagen's national office.
Steve Keyes, a company spokesman, revealed that the company does indeed track the sexes of its customers. For example, 74 percent of the people who bought a Volkswagen GTI last year are men, as are 62 percent of those who bought the Passat, 53 percent of Golf buyers, and 47 percent of Jetta buyers.
Even the new Beetle--a feminine-looking car if you ask me, with its swooping curves and bright colors--is popular among men: 54 percent of its buyers are male.
I couldn't help but notice that he had yet to mention the car that had prompted my call. "And what about the Cabrio?" I asked, tentatively. "What percent of its buyers are male?"
"Twenty-eight percent," Keyes answered chipperly.
Depressed, I went outside and looked at my car.
Nothing about it, taken individually, looked remarkably feminine.
Not the colors--navy blue and black.
Not the shape--boxy, but also slightly sporty.
Not the tires (alloy) or the rearview mirror (rectangular) or the headlights (square and clear).
Then I considered the Convertible Factor.
The Cabrio is a convertible, and convertibles, by their nature, have a feminine feel to them. They're cute, not rugged. They work best if you have long hair that flows in the wind. They give off a divaesque, look-at-me-I'm-the-center-of-attention aura.
On the other hand, nobody would call the classic "bathtub Porsche" roadster feminine.
The only thing I could figure was that when you put the pieces together, you have a bright, sporty, perky convertible, and something about the way the Cabrio's lines and curves and colors flow together must evoke images of unicorns and rainbows. The car looks a little bit too fun.
Which, of course, brings us to the larger issues of why we are so willing to make absurd, gender-related assumptions, and why our cars act as an extension of our personalities in the first place--why what you drive is seen as so telling about who you are in our society.
Except for those characteristics we have no control over--age, skin color and often religion (oh, did I forget to mention gender?)--cars are as much a defining factor in our lives as anything. Maybe you have a muscle car like the Ford Mustang, which says you're all about speed and recklessness and action; or you have an intimidating Nissan Pathfinder sport utility vehicle, which says you're all about power and size and doing what you damn well please; or you have a sleek Mercedes or BMW, which says you're rich and successful; or you have a safe, conservative Volvo or Honda Accord, which says you're a family man who wants reliability and stability.
Which brings me back to: What does my car say about me? I bought the Cabrio because I thought it would be fun to have a convertible and, frankly, it is roomier than the tiny Mazda Miata, but less expensive than, say, a BMW Z3. But to be honest, I also like the way the Cabrio looks: fun but not too flashy, sporty but not like an Indy car.
Is that so wrong?
Well, yes, apparently. I mean, I'm a man and by common definition that means I should want power, speed, intimidation--not cuteness, perkiness, fun.
The other day, one female friend, apparently trying to console me, said: "Well, yeah, it is a chick car. But you're one of the few guys I know who can pull it off."
What did she mean by that, I wondered? My mind raced: Did she mean that I was masculine enough to overcome the womanliness of my car? Or that just the opposite was true: that my personality, my air, my very being was essentially feminine?
I can't stand it anymore. I've had my car for four months now, and I'm resigned to keeping it for a while longer, primarily because I have many more payments due on it. But if you see me around the city, I'll be the guy with the three-day growth of beard, the gruff, virile sneer and the T-shirt with the pack of Camels rolled in the sleeve.