Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Saab Story, Part One: Into the Wild Blue Yonder

Once upon a time, my husband, Eric, owned an electric-blue sports car called a Saab Sonett. It was a rare car, one of only 640 built in 1969, his model year. The car was unusual in other ways as well. Its body was made of fiberglass and it had something called a freewheeling clutch, which sounded alluring until I tried using it while descending from a mountain pass in the Sierras.

When I first dated Eric, in the winter of 1969, the Sonett had just been shipped to him from Sweden. On our first date, we drove to a movie theater on Route 9 in Amherst, Massachusetts, where we saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. With the Sonett's aerodynamic design and spaceship-like interior, it was the perfect vehicle to transport us into the futuristic world of HAL. Afterward, as Eric explained the meaning of the film to me, I marveled that I'd found a guy with brains as well as a snazzy car. Despite Eric's attractions, though, I broke up with him the following summer. At that stage of my life, I was too masochistic to settle for such a great guy.

I didn't encounter the Sonett again until January, 1972, during a visit to Amherst College. Eric, having taken a semester off, had just finished his senior year. I had recently gotten back in touch with him. I now regretted our earlier breakup and was trying to figure out how to rekindle the romance.

Enter Wendy Wasserstein. The future playwright and I had graduated the prior spring, she from Mt. Holyoke College, I from Smith, but we had both spent our junior year at Amherst, where we'd become friends. After graduation, we both moved to New York City and saw one another occasionally. The trip up to Amherst was her idea. A friend of ours was giving a French horn recital at the college and Wendy wanted to attend. She asked if I'd like to come along. This gave me the perfect excuse to visit Eric and crash on his couch.

Wendy and I arrived by bus on a bitterly cold evening. Icy snow coated everything and crunched underfoot. Wendy soon departed with our horn-player friend. After they left, I stood shivering outside the fraternity house where the bus had let me off, waiting for Eric. Five minutes passed. Ten. Eric's low-slung car finally roared around the corner and up to where I stood. Eric leaned over to open the door for me. He didn't look happy. Uh oh, I thought, this isn't starting well.

"Sorry, I'm late," he said. "I had a little accident." It turned out that, in his haste to meet me on time, he had backed the Sonett into his friend Rick's VW bug, barely denting Rick's car, but damaging the Sonnet's fiberglass rear end. On impact, fiberglass doesn't dent, but instead fractures. So, Eric's car now had a jagged scar. At the time, I worried that the mishap would spoil our weekend together. It didn't occur to me that Eric's momentary loss of motor control might have been due to his nervousness about seeing me.

Despite starting with such an unfortunate bang, the weekend went well. Eric played hard to get, which only heightened my interest. While I attended the French horn recital with Wendy, Eric stayed behind at the Hadley farmhouse he rented with friends, reading Plato, or so he claimed. When I returned, I found him in bed with The Republic, whereupon I persuaded him to abandon metaphysics for the purely physical. This seemed to help him transcend the trauma of the car mishap. In any event, by summer we were married and heading west to California in our blue Saab Sonett.

Fortunately, we had few possessions, so we were able to cram them all into the Sonett's hatchback. Included was a tent, which we used as we car-camped our way from Massachusetts to California. During our trip, Eric never tired of extolling the car's many virtues—its innovative roll bar, which he assured me would protect us even in the event of a head-on collision with a Mack truck; a windshield designed so that snow and even rain would glide right off, providing clear visibility without the use of wipers; a ventilation system that circulated fresh air, creating a delightfully cool and comfortable environment despite the lack of air conditioning; and, finally, that fantastic freewheeling clutch, which enabled the car to revert to neutral when the driver's foot was removed from the gas pedal, eliminating the normal braking action of the clutch and resulting in an extraordinary sense of freedom.

Thankfully, we didn't encounter a Mack truck along the way, so we were unable to test out the roll bar's effectiveness. As for the car's other supposed attributes, Eric's love for his Sonett was blind, or at least near-sighted. Regarding the vaunted windshield, for example, during the first few moments of a rain shower, the windshield did remain notably clear. However, any significant rain quickly made visibility impossible. To my dismay, though, Eric usually insisted that he could see just fine and often delayed activating the wipers until the rain was coming down in sheets. On the plus side, the windshield wipers functioned just fine once turned on, at least until a fateful day in Marin County (more on that in Part Two).

As for the ventilation system, a day traversing the Nevada desert wilted even Eric's conviction that the Saab's fresh-air flow would keep us cool no matter what. With the windows open and bugs of unusual size splatting against our windshield, we sweated our way through Nevada and began climbing the Sierras. By then, though, I had something else to focus on, for it was in the Sierras that I experienced the full impact of the much-touted freewheeling clutch.

Eric had done most of the driving during our cross-country trip. To be honest, he'd done virtually all of it. Back in Massachusetts, he'd taught me to drive the Sonett's manual shift and I'd taken a spin or two around the block, but I'd never driven on a highway, let alone on steep terrain. Now, he encouraged me to get behind the wheel. We were newlyweds and his faith in my driving ability touched me, so I complied, though not without some trepidation. Once in the driver's seat, I managed to put the car in gear and merge onto the freeway without killing us. We continued climbing, heading toward the pass. I began to relax. This was easy. I'd always been a good driver, after all, even an aggressive one. As we arrived at the summit, I stepped on the gas and the car zoomed downhill, picking up speed until we were approaching 85 miles per hour. I lifted my foot off the gas pedal. Although Eric had explained the freewheeling concept, I instinctively expected the car to slow down due to the braking action of the clutch. Instead, we hurtled down the highway at breakneck speed. What Eric experienced as extraordinary freedom felt like a total loss of control to me. I applied the brake pretty much all the way down from the summit into the San Joaquin Valley, until I finally found a place to pull over and hand the keys to Eric. I didn't drive the Sonett on the freeway again for the next two years.

Despite its quirks, though, I grew to love the Sonett. It had speed and maneuverability. Its black seats, though vinyl rather than leather, were sporty and comfortable. The car featured three-point seatbelts, which were far safer than the lap belts then standard in American cars. It had a simple, elegant dashboard and a powerful engine for its size, which gave it tremendous acceleration. It was even possible to switch that challenging clutch into regular mode rather than using freewheeling, though once I got used to freewheeling, I actually came to like it. Perhaps most important, the Sonett was a great-looking piece of machinery, a really cool car. We drew stares of appreciation wherever we went. In it, I felt instantly transformed from a staid, uptight kind of girl to the hip, laid-back woman I'd always wanted to be. By marrying Eric, I'd gained not only a husband, but a car and the image that went along with it. It remained to be seen if I could live up to that image.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Books & Books & NASCAR, Too

It's not an exaggeration to say that my husband, Eric, and I moved to Miami because of a bookstore. Once we discovered Books & Books in Coral Gables, it was only a matter of time before we decided to decamp from Massachusetts to Florida for the winter. When we began looking for real estate in earnest, we narrowed our search to the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami, only a ten-minute drive from Coral Gables and the bookstore of our dreams.

We had already been drawn to the area because our son, Aaron, spent his college years at the University of Miami, in Coral Gables. Although my parents had lived for over twenty years in Boca Raton, only an hour north of Miami, during our visits there we had rarely ventured to Miami. We thought of it as a high-crime city without much to offer culturally. I did, however, have fond memories of Coral Gables, having spent an idyllic week there in 1969, visiting my college roommate. Her parents' glamorous home featured a "Florida room," a sun-drenched enclosed patio filled with potted palms and other exotic flora, where we dawdled over breakfast before heading to the country club to swim and sunbathe the days away.

Eric and I had been yearning for a respite from New England winters, but we could never picture ourselves living in Boca, with its early-bird specials, homogeneous (read old) population, and its suburban feel, strip malls and all. When we visited Aaron, though, we found Miami to be a city transformed from its gritty past, boasting a dazzling skyline, almost blindingly white compared to the dark brick and stone of Boston. And then there was South Beach, its charming art deco architecture awash in pastels, and Coral Gables, as lovely as ever, with its Spanish tiled roofs and lush foliage. We promised ourselves that in the fall of 2003, after our younger son, Alex, had left for college, we'd spend some time in the Miami area and check out the real estate. We still weren't sure we could actually live there, though. With Miami's reputation for glitz, we wondered if it would suit our more literary tastes.

In November of that year, we flew down to Miami and started looking at apartments. In the evenings, we checked out the vast array of local restaurants. One night, we chose Cafe Abbracci in downtown Coral Gables. We found a parking space about a block away. As we got out of our car, Eric said, "Look. A bookstore." The sign read "Books & Books" and the store appeared to be arranged around an attractive open courtyard. We were already late for our reservation, so we decided to see whether they would still be open when we were through with dinner. To our astonishment, the sales clerk said they closed at the late hour of 11 pm. We surmised that some people in the neighborhood must care about books to justify such long hours.

After a delicious meal at Abbracci, we hightailed it back to Books & Books, which exceeded our expectations. The courtyard was still lively at 8:30 pm, its tables filled with people speaking English and Spanish, enjoying dishes prepared at a small cafe located inside the bookstore. We entered the store through a doorway off the right side of the courtyard. We could see a book group in progress at a table in a small room adjacent to the paperback book area. On the other side of the courtyard, we found not only hardbacks, but a reading in progress in a large back room which housed an impressive-looking collection of art books. From a listing on the bulletin board, we could see that such readings were frequent. Virtually everyday, sometimes twice a day, authors came to talk about their books. We were sold—any community that supported a bookstore as vibrant as this one was a place we could feel at home.

Our faith was not misplaced. Five years later, Books & Books is still one of our favorite spots. We've attended book groups that meet regularly at the store and we've heard authors as varied as Madeleine Albright, Jared Diamond, Dave Barry, Andrea Mitchell, Carl Hiaasen, and Angelo Dundee. These author appearances are not mere book signings. They're full-blown lectures, during which the author talks about the subject of his or her book, perhaps reads a bit from it, and then takes questions. The Dundee event was preceded by a boxing exhibition in the courtyard. Mr. Dundee turned out to be a delightful gentleman, who shared many wonderful anecdotes about his years as Muhammad Ali's trainer. After Mr. Dundee's talk, we were treated to a few words by the "Fight Doctor," Ferdie Pacheco, who became so emotional about appearing with his old friend that he actually cried.

Not long ago, NPR's Scott Simon came by to discuss his recently-published novel, Windy City, and next week, Jhumpa Lahiri will be visiting the bookstore to talk about her new book, Unaccustomed Earth. Some events are held at local churches, synagogues, and hotel ballrooms, to accommodate the enormous crowds well-known authors draw. Dave Barry rated the ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel and Madeleine Albright filled Temple Judea, which seats a thousand.

A recent Books & Books highlight was a performance by the Florida Grand Opera Young Artists, an event which was held at the bookstore. The performers sang selections from The Pearl Fishers, by Georges Bizet. Maestro Stewart Robertson, the Grand Opera's musical director, provided fascinating commentary about Bizet and his work. When the artists began to sing, the power of their voices in that intimate setting was simply breathtaking. Eric and I saw the entire opera a short time afterward at Miami's spectacular new Ziff Ballet Opera House. While I enjoyed the full production, I felt I had really understood the appeal of opera for the first time when I heard the music performed up close and personal at Books & Books.

Eric and I have learned it can be rewarding to attend events featuring authors whose subjects may not be of particular interest to us. A few weeks ago, we decided to take a chance on Liz Clarke, who was speaking about her new book: One Helluva Ride: How NASCAR Swept the Nation. At best, I had an anthropologist's interest in what makes NASCAR fans tick. I expected Ms. Clarke to be a brassy, hard-edged type, with maybe with a tattoo or two. Instead, I encountered a refined, articulate woman, a sportswriter at the Washington Post and a graduate of Barnard, who lyrically described the personalities of the drivers and the dedication of their fans. Eric and I were so inspired, we bought the book. We even persuaded some friends to drive down to Homestead-Miami Raceway the other day to watch some qualifying heats. Unfortunately, NASCAR wasn't in town, so we were forced to settle for Formula One and Grand Am heats this time. But NASCAR, here we come!

All of this cornucopia of book-related activity owes its existence to one man, Mitchell Kaplan. In addition to starting Books & Books, which now has branches in Bal Harbor, Miami Beach, and the Cayman Islands, Mr. Kaplan also co-founded the Miami Book Fair International, an event that attracts book aficionados and speakers from all over the country. He provides living proof that a single individual can make a huge difference in the cultural life of a community. In fact, I can't think of a better motivation to write a book than the opportunity to talk about it at Books & Books.