Seven years ago, I drove my Audi station wagon to a hardware store in Sag Harbor, N.Y., near where I own a small weekend place. When the aluminum extension ladder of my dreams measured 11/2 times the length of my car, I was shaken to learn that the station wagon was not a station wagon at all but rather a "sport" wagon.
Station wagons are longer than regular cars. They have third rows of seats in the rear that, when collapsed, create cargo space for backyard jungle gyms requiring assembly. Sport wagons are marketing concepts. They are designed for "people on the go" minus the burden of having to schlep their own stuff.
The experience of waiting for delivery of my ladder was, understandably, emasculating. The need to possess a pickup truck of sufficient size to haul a ladder, mulch or perhaps a pallet or two of sod assumed a level of urgency previously unmatched by any desire on my part to haul a ladder, mulch or a pallet of sod.
A few weeks later I found myself in a Manhattan Restoration Hardware store, a pricey purveyor of small-town nostalgia and, by way of example, another excellent marketing concept. Seduced by an oversize coffee-table book featuring layouts of classic American pickup trucks in auto-erotically charged positions, I was reminded of the '59 Chevy Fleetside my father drove when I was a kid on our farm in Ropesville, Tex.
Suddenly, the truck had to be old and the drive to get one had become something for my shrink to sort through.
In searching for a suitable candidate, I found several trucks, partially restored, in the $15,000-$20,000 range. These trucks, I came to learn far too late to save my retirement, are essentially restoration roadkill. Owners, depleted of savings, regularly unload partially completed trucks -- generally always for a fraction of their original investment. Because they have frequently undergone the most costly and time-consuming steps of repair, they can represent big savings for the astute buyer.
Suffice it to say, I lacked a practical grasp of the situation and rejected them for reasons no better than that each appeared to be art-directed by the same "Pimp My Ride"-addicted 17-year-old. Spending money to reverse regrettable taste did not seem rational.
Some people, upon learning that I restored an old truck, are quick to picture me hunched over a chassis, late at night, up to my elbows in grease. Generally speaking, these are not people who know me. My retired father offered to oversee the project. He found a '51 Chevy in Texas and a man named Ed to do the job. My sole responsibility was to provide funding.
Following assurances that the engine was solid, I agreed to buy a truck for $1,500. Ed estimated that I would spend about $16,000 fixing it up, $20,000 tops.
In the beginning Ed ordered things that bolstered my enthusiasm for the project -- door handles, mirrors and a sparkling new chrome hubcap. Ed, perfectly aware that there would be no wheel upon which to place that hubcap for years, played me like a banjo.
Old trucks, like most things over 35, have skeletons. Mine was no exception and not apparent until well after the title of ownership had been transferred into my name. The truck had the rusty frame and body of an elderly cargo ship on its farewell cruise. After passing the $15,000 mark in parts and labor, with no truck in sight, I realized that we were in the middle of a frame-up restoration, where all bets are off.
Over the course of the next three years, occasional periods of activity interrupted long stretches of silence, during which I imagined Ed lounging on a beach, developing a taste for imported beer, courtesy of my monthly checks. Other than a single heroic act of rescue, where Ed liberated the dismantled pieces of the truck after the painter skipped town with my deposit, the ordeal became an extended test of my lungs' capacity to hold my breath.
On the eve of the truck's completion I received a call from my father. His voice was unusually tentative. He asked if I remembered the engine.
Sure, I said, anticipating the punch line.
"Well, it has to be replaced. Sorry."
By now, the running tab of my compulsion totaled $44,379.81. A low growl emerged from my core: "This must end."
All was forgiven when the truck was delivered the following summer. Restoration experts might grade it a B-plus or an A-minus, but to me it surpassed any expectation. The bulbous fenders, the prominent hood blunting into a massive chrome grille, the sweeping running boards capped off by the satisfying lack of adornment -- it was perfect. It was so perfect, in fact, that hauling a pallet or two of sod was clearly out of the question, now that I feared scratching the newly laid oak bed in the back. Rather than drive it, my inclination was to put it under glass.
With pressure mounting, I grabbed the keys and decided to drive the truck into town for bananas.
Short of being crowned homecoming queen, nothing could have prepared me for that first trip. People rolled down their windows, craned their necks, and smiled at me like I was a puppy or a very well executed "Extreme Makeover" candidate. One guy -- the kind of guy who does not normally talk to guys like me -- extended his thumb and yelled, "Pretty ride," an expression of approval, I later confirmed.
Leaving the store, I came upon a woman photographing the truck. She found the curves, the angles and the glassy black paint perfect for capturing depth perception. Since depth is not a quality normally associated with me, I encouraged her to jump onto the running board for a better shot.
Dazed and somewhat giddy with my newfound celebrity status, I weighed my two options. I could a) never drive into town again, or b) drive only into town.
Today, in addition to retrieving bananas, the truck and I go to the garden center, to the beach and to the dump. Its natural cruising speed of 40 miles per hour works for me after a week of racing around New York City.
Although less precious than upon first arrival, the truck regularly attracts small crowds wherever parked and prompts dinner invitations that I suspect are extended more to it than to me. But we are a package deal. I simply tag along for the ride.