Mrs. Peel and Me: A Story of Automotive Betrayal

August 19, 2015

Mrs. Peel's grill. Photo by Lauren Larson

Mrs. Peel’s grill. Photo by Lauren Larson


I own an old car; if my wish comes to pass, I will soon be able to say owned, as in past tense. It is a 1967 Austin-Healey BJ8 3000 Mark III, a long name for a car, so when I bought it, I renamed it Mrs. Peel, after the character in the old TV series, The Avengers. I chose the name because the car is both British and beautiful, and because when I was a kid I had an immense crush on Mrs. Peel. Just hearing her say aluminum in British—aluminium—made my heart swell. If I recall correctly, her wardrobe consisted solely of leather jumpsuits that zipped down the front. Only Ursula Andress populated my imagination as richly as did Mrs. Peel.

My car is light blue or, to be more precise, Healey blue, with ivory side-panels and chrome bumpers and trim. It has wire wheels, with chrome knock-off caps that hold the wheels to the axles. My car came with a large hammer for loosening these caps in order to change wheels, and for periodically tapping on the caps to make sure they are tight and won’t fall off at seventy miles an hour.

And that is part of the problem with Mrs. Peel. She is dangerous, on many levels, and needs a lot of attention, and ever since the day I bought her, I have wondered what on earth I was thinking. At the same time, I understand how it all came to pass, a proneness toward obsession being my single biggest character flaw.

She came to me via Craig’s List. I had been looking for a nice old British sports car, ideally a 1960s MGA. Every night I scoured the car ads on Craig’s List. I used various search words, including MG of course, but also, convertible; I searched as well by dates, 1968 being a particularly fruitful year. My search expanded. I started ogling old Jaguars and Land Rovers, the rugged kind that always appear in photographs of safaris. I widened my search and started looking at old American muscle cars, including a 1968 Mustang GT, the model driven by Steve McQueen in the film Bullitt. I also considered 1950’s-era Ford Fairlanes like the kind my grandfather favored and that tended to be the police cars of choice in cold-war horror films. I added old Alfa Romeos to the mix, and some Fiats and Morgans, and for one brief insanity-inflected moment considered looking for an Aston Martin, until I realized that even rusted and battered Aston Martins commanded prices equal to that of a three-bedroom house in Des Moines, Iowa.

And then one night, it happened. I was scrolling through the Craig’s List ads, when I came to one for a 1967 Austin-Healey. The car was lovely. I had always associated the name Austin with old Mini Coopers and London cabs. But here was this blue-over-ivory beauty, with undulating fenders, wire wheels, and knock-off caps shimmering like chrome croissants.

I fired off an email, asking to see it. I wanted the earliest possible appointment, to beat what I imagined would be a crowd of British car enthusiasts in plaids and tweeds arriving with a convoy of flat-bed tow trucks to haul the prize away. The next morning I drove forty-five minutes north to a suburb of Seattle, feeling a little like I was about to launch an illicit love affair.

The morning was sunny, which probably contributed to my downfall. The owner’s home was of that variety that is unique to The Northwest, as Seattle folk like to refer to the region. Lots of wood, and a palette of grays and browns, surrounded by tall cedars. And there, in a corner of a broad blacktop driveway, stood the car.

I did not look at it as I walked to the front door. To look was to ignite an unholy passion. I knew this about myself. I could tell the car was trying to signal me. Shards of light glinted off the knock-off caps like flashes from an imminent retinal detachment.

The front door of the house opened. I had half-expected to find a rough character in jeans and hoodie with a shifty gaze, because the Craig’s List automobile ads have been known to shelter all manner of low-lifes and scammers, but the man at the door was dressed in simple weekend clothes. Slacks, a casual shirt. He was a doctor, no less.

I heard the car behind me. The owner clearly had taken it for a morning spin to warm up the engine, which now clicked as it cooled, with the sound of a ring-finger tapping the side of a porcelain cup. Impatient. Wanting to be off and away, on the road. With me.

As we moved toward the car, I learned that the owner was not enthused about selling it. The story emerged in pieces. His wife was making him sell it to help pay the college tuitions of their children. They had cut a deal with one another. He would put it on the market for two weeks. If he didn’t sell it in that time, he would be allowed to keep it.

But here is the thing: He had placed the ad 24 hours earlier, and on the morning I arrived he and his wife were preparing to set off on a two-week vacation, beginning the next day–the same two-week period in which he was supposed to sell the car.

As I examined the engine–original, with only 44,000 miles on it–I heard the owner take call after call about the car. It was like sitting at a bar with my wife and having someone ask her for a date, or like the time in the lounge at the Seattle airport when a man awaiting a flight to Paris took the seat next to my wife and, just as I returned, gave me a vermouthy look and said, “Who knows, maybe she could use a Frenchman?”

I wanted to run my hands over the newly polished fenders. The owner and I took a test drive. He did the driving. Austin-Healeys have tricky transmissions—no synchromesh from second to first, and they require double clutching when downshifting from third to second. This one also had an overdrive activated with a toggle switch on the dash, like something James Bond would have had in his car. The engine had six cylinders all in a line and the sound emerging from the tailpipe was like something sung by Edith Piaf. I was in love. But, I have this rule—the 24-hour rule. Whenever I face a big decision, like buying a house, or committing to a renovation, I always give it 24 hours. At the very least, I sleep on it.

But the owner of this car was cheating on me even as I stood there trying to decide whether to buy the car or not. I had my checkbook with me. Which is interesting. If I truly believed in my 24-hour rule, why did I have the checkbook in my pocket? This is another aspect of my personality. I delude myself on a routine basis. Is that dripping sound in the ceiling something I need to worry about? No, it’s just a one-time thing owing to the unique angle of that particular rain storm. Is the low tire-pressure warning light in my regular car telling me that in fact one of my tires is about to go flat? No, surely it’s because the weather suddenly got cooler, thus causing the air in the tires to contract.

My better instincts prevailed. I told the owner I’d have to think about it. I got into my regular car, and drove off. But as I pulled away I saw the Healey sitting there in that driveway, curvy and beautiful. If cars could smoke cigarettes this one would have had one of those long skinny cigarette holders that actresses always used in 1930s crime films. It would have blown a smoke ring and winked.

Once I was out of sight of the house, I pulled over to the curb. I sat there and mulled things over. I called my wife.

“Should I do it?” I said.

“Well,” she said, “it’s something you’ve wanted for a long time.”

“So I should do it.”

“I think you should do it.”

“It’s a beautiful car.”

“You should do it.”

“Because you only live once.”

“What do you want me to say? Don’t do it?”

I turned my car around and drove back. The doctor was still in the driveway, and once again was on his cellphone.

I pulled up, got out, and said, “I’ll take it.”

His expression was not one of joy. Nor was it one of sorrow. More bemused resignation. His two-week gambit had failed.

The first breakdown occurred on my first solo drive. I was driving on a boulevard in Seattle that runs along Lake Washington, a perfect road for an Austin-Healey. I felt like Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter in the Hitchcock film, Rebecca, racing along in an open car with the soon-to-be “second” Mrs. de Winter. The car had a muscular feel, none of the mushiness of modern cars. The steering wheel was a large circle of wood about three times the size of a conventional wheel, because the steering was manual and thus required more leverage. Motorcyclists approaching in the oncoming lane gave me the palm-down signal of respect that riders of big bikes give each other. People walking the path between the road and the lake shouted, “Nice car, man.” I adopted the serious, disinterested look that drivers of cool cars tend to adopt, even though their hearts are swelling to the point where bits of aorta are poking out their ears.

I came to a stop sign. The engine began to flutter. I looked at the tachometer, and saw the needle flinging itself from zero to a thousand and back. The engine began making a breathy, gasp-like sound, and then quit. I turned into a beach parking lot and coasted to a stop in a parking space, as if that was my intent all along. Nothing to see here, folks. Keep moving.

I turned the key, but now all I got were the sounds of the starter.

I tried again. Nothing.

I was not especially surprised. Everything I had read about old cars, especially old British cars—in particular Jaguars—was that you had to expect breakdowns. It was part of the joy of owning them. So I reached for my wallet and pulled out the insurance card issued to me by my classic-car insurance company. My policy included free towing on a flat-bed truck, for we owners of classic cars never accept tows from conventional tow-trucks. Our cars must be carried like maharajahs on sedan chairs.

The truck arrived. I directed the driver to take the car to my house. A few hours later I tried to start it again, and it started in an instant. The delusional me kicked in and I decided that this first breakdown was a one-time incident, nothing to worry about. The day had been hot. The temperature on the temperature gauge in the dash had soared. Maybe this old car just didn’t like heat.

I parked it in my garage. My car shamed my garage. My garage is dark, with an uneven floor and exposed studs and joists, and is cluttered with unused bikes, spider-filled inline skates, Christmas tree stands, paint cans, plastic bins of documents from past books, a broken desk chair, half a dozen old computer keyboards and monitors, and a lot of other junk awaiting the next visit of our trash guy, the “Happy Hauler.” The floor was covered with a thin effluvium of dried mud and gravel that had washed under the garage door during the rains of the previous winter. Bringing my car back to this was like bringing a new bride from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to a tar-paper shack in the Appalachians.

My car longed to be in the garage of my neighbor’s house. Or at least it would have longed to be in that garage if it knew what my neighbor’s garage was like. My neighbor—we’ll call him Kevin—has a 1960s vintage Ferrari which he restored from the ground up and which once won a national competition for his class of vehicle. When he moved to my neighborhood he renovated his house and added a two-story garage with real walls, as opposed to bare studs, and a white-enameled floor and banks of fluorescent lighting, and a hydraulic lift on which to store the Ferrari so that he could park his family van underneath. This told me two things: that he cared about his Ferrari and, possibly more important, that the car did not leak oil, because no one would park another vehicle under a car that leaked fluids. Kevin even owns a couple of old-style garageman’s coats, like what doctors wear, only longer, and sometimes wears them when he works on his car.

For my next drive, I chose a colder day, and decided to take a quick spin to Whole Foods to shop for ingredients for dinner. When you have a classic car you seek out mundane errands, because as you roll along in your Healey or Ferrari or Shelby or E-type Jaguar you feel as though you are setting off on an adventure full of glamor and twisty roads and tuxedos and skinny women in low-backed sequined gowns, rather than plucking turnips from a bank of produce and waiting for the fish guy to acknowledge your presence, which at Whole Foods can take a while.

The five-mile drive to the store came off without a single hiccup from the engine. I parked in a remote place in an underground parking lot. That is another trait we owners of classic cars have. We park in remote spaces. The more boorish among us park on a diagonal straddling two spaces, on the assumption other parkers will so respect the grand vehicle before them that they will not whip out their keys and scroll the word “asshole” along your gleaming side panels.

I arranged my one bag of groceries on the passenger seat, with the baguette just so, then started the engine and adopted my serious, disinterested look, and sped off. Dusk was near; the light was failing. A cold fall breeze filled the car, a good thing, because Healeys are notorious for having driver’s cabins that get very warm as the engine gets hot. The evening commute was building. The University Bridge, informally known as the Roosevelt bridge, lay ahead. This is a drawbridge over Seattle’s Ship Canal that also handles a lot of evening and morning traffic. I sensed behind me the start of the kind of slow-clap applause that screenwriters try to build into every movie with a happy ending. Look at that guy; look at that car; look at that baguette.

And then I came to the traffic light at the other side of the bridge, where I was to make a left turn. I came to a stop, and heard that same asthmatic wheeze. I stepped on the gas. The engine fluttered; a bang blew from the tail pipe. The engine died.

I tried the ignition a few more times, but of course got nowhere. Judging by the sound, I was now killing my battery.

So, there I was, at the peak of rush hour, stuck at the head of the left-turn lane at a crucial intersection for this part of Seattle, the kind of corner that gets mentioned in traffic reports on the radio. “Some guy with a serious, disinterested look has stalled his classic car at the intersection of Lynn and Roosevelt, causing a fifty-mile backup.”

As luck would have it, a friend passed by with her two kids seated in the back seat of her car. She made the left turn in front of me, pulled over to the curb and then, when the light permitted, she jogged out behind my car and told me to take it out of gear, she was going to push it.

So, adding to my shame, this lone female was going to push my car. Now, I happened to know a few mitigating details about this woman. Once upon a time she had been a competitive weight lifter, and in fact had on one occasion lifted so much weight that a bone in her leg snapped, causing her to abandon the sport. So having her push the car was in fact not so unchivalrous. Two young men also now jogged out to push, clearly unaware that once upon a time this woman could have lifted both of them over her head.

I maintained my serious, disinterested look. The three of them eased me through the intersection, and over to the curb, where I thanked them all and assured them I would be alright. This was a classic car. A beautiful car, blue, with ivory side panels. These things happened. My friend the female weight-lifter drove off with a wave of her hand. If worst came to worst, at least I would not starve. I had my baguette.

I waited. The engine cooled slowly, ticking away just as it had on our first meeting. I watched the temperature needle slowly make its way down. When it reached 160 degrees, I tried the starter again. The engine caught and thrummed. Serious and disinterested, I drove quickly home, avoiding all lights and stop signs. I pulled into my garage and sat there a few moments.

I turned the engine off, then tried starting it again. The drive had brought the engine temperature back up to 190. The engined coughed, did that breathy thing, and died. One-ninety–that seemed to be the magic line. If the temperature of the engine rose beyond, the engine lost its calibration, fluttered, and stopped.

I called my Healey mechanic, Pete, and made an appointment. Discretionary trips by tow-truck weren’t covered by my insurance company, so I asked Pete if he knew of a reliable company that could get my car to his shop cheaply and safely. He recommended Dave’s Affordable Towing. Dave himself arrived with his truck. He was excited. He had never carried an Austin-Healey before. He ticked off a list of other classic cars he had towed, and told me that he posted photos of his favorite tows on his website, and asked if he could post mine. I told him he could. I admired his passion for towing. He lowered one end of his flat-bed, affixed a cable that ran from a winch at the front end, and lovingly hauled Mrs. Peel aboard. She looked good up there, all blue curves and wire rims and gleaming chrome.

“Take care of her,” I said, feeling a little like Humphrey Bogart on the airstrip in Casablanca.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve only dropped one.”

This was tow-truck-operator humor.

He drove away.

I would like to say that this visit to Pete’s shop solved the problem, but it did not. Pete was as mystified as I. Inevitably, whenever the temperature gauge read 190 or higher, at the next stop the engine would die. Dave, of Dave’s Affordable Towing, and I became great friends. He would pull up, smile, and say, “Hmm, I think I recognize this car.” And off he would go with Mrs. Peel.

But then one afternoon, when I went to retrieve Mrs. Peel from her eight-thousandth visit to Pete’s shop, Pete himself met me with a smile on his face not unlike the smile on Dave’s face—a smile of pride.

“I think I’ve found the problem,” he said. “Here, I’ll show you.” He led me to the car and propped open the hood. “So, I decided to approach this like a detective story. We traced the spark from the ignition to the cylinders. We found nothing. Then we drove it, long enough until it failed. We got lucky. Usually you can’t make an engine fail on demand. It has to decide to fail on its own. Conditions have to be right. So, we quickly retraced the spark. It stopped at the tachometer.”

He looked at me with a look that said I was supposed to share his utter shock at this discovery.

He gave me a verbal nudge: “It’s an electronic tachometer.”

I gave him my best ah-ha! nod, though in fact I had no idea what he was talking about.

“I’d never seen anything like this before,” Pete said. “So I asked my dad.” His father had been a Healey mechanic until his retirement. “He’d seen it only once or twice.”

I waited.

“Don’t you see—if there’s a problem with this kind of tachometer, you won’t be able to start the car. Clearly what’s happened is that somewhere in the tachometer there is a component that separates when the engine gets hot, and breaks the connection. I would never have found it if we hadn’t been able to reproduce it. Never. I would never have thought even to look.”

“So, can it be fixed.”

“Yes. And I did fix it.” He looked at me with that same prideful smile that asked, want to know how I fixed it?

“How,” I asked. “What did you do?”

“I bypassed it all together. Ran a wire straight from the ignition to the coil. Now, you may want to get that tachometer fixed. I tried to remove it, but couldn’t, without damaging the dashboard.” The dash is burlwood, in a lovely polished brown. “You’ll either have to get it rebuilt, or buy a replacement. I’d get it rebuilt. There are people who specialize in instruments. But, it’ll cost you.”

The car started immediately and this time, on my drive home, even when the temperature needle passed 190, the engine continued its satisfying growl.

By now, however, it was too late for Mrs. Peel and me. My trust was gone. It happens to classic car owners. Even my insurance company understands this. In one issue of the company’s magazine for customers, a writer observed that if a classic car betrays its owner early on, that owner should get rid of it, because the relationship will never be good again. He should jettison the car, lest he lose his passion for old vehicles.

So now Mrs. Peel languishes in my garage, as I try to bring myself to sell her or donate her to NPR. Now and then I back her out into the alley behind my house, intent on cleaning her up and driving her to a car-consignment dealer in downtown Seattle, but every time, once I’ve finished waxing her curves and shining her chrome, I look at her and smile and, with a serious, disinterested look, drive her back into the garage.

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The Danger of Doggie Delusions

July 29, 2015

City dogs: A tough-looking   bunch.

City dogs: A tough-looking

We don’t have a dog in New York, at least not as of this writing. We did have a dog, once, a golden retriever named Molly. In our collective mind’s eye, she was the perfect dog. Gentle, sweet-tempered, obedient, and kind of a chicken, though she could sound very ferocious if there was a door between her and the outside world. I would be surprised if most people who have lost a dog don’t feel pretty much the same way—that the last dog was the most perfect four-legged creature ever to have peed on a carpet. It is a dangerous delusion when contemplating a future dog, which I am in fact contemplating (and not just one dog, but two), because there are many elements missing from our recollection, and once we work those into the equation the prospect of another dog becomes more problematic. At least you would think that would be the case.

As I write this, for example, I am watching people out on the street below, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, walking their dogs in a summer rainstorm. The people wear raincoats and carry umbrellas, but get drenched anyway. At least one dog is wearing a clear plastic poncho, like the kind that the operators of double-deck tourist buses give to people who insist on riding on the upper deck even on rainy days. In winter, I have watched as people walked their dogs through slush and snow with temperatures in the teens and twenties. One icy but sunny morning last winter I saw people walking their dogs when the temperature was 1 degree F, with a windchill of minus 16. The dogs, I should note, looked happy. The men and women walking the dogs looked like people I’ve seen in photographs of failed Arctic expeditions just before ice crushed their ship and polar bears began trotting off with stray limbs. Always in these photographs there are dogs seated and curled nearby in happy clumps, waiting for their masters to throw a tennis ball or a frozen whale steak.

What is it about dogs? Honestly, why do we love them so, when for a good portion of their lives they make our own lives miserable. They demand to be walked through downpours and hurricanes, and when they come back into our homes and apartments the first thing they do is shake themselves at such high velocity that water speckles the flat-screen TV two rooms away. They jump up on guests, even though you instruct these guests to knee them in the chest if they do, and then the kneeing thing becomes for the dog a new game to add to the fast expanding list of other games, like the No Game, the Leave It Game, and the Let’s Pretend We’re Beavers Game.

Dogs can find openings in fences that are invisible to the naked eye, and wander off, thereby forcing us to make Lost Dog posters and put them on telephone poles for miles around, only to return and find the dog asleep in the back yard with some neighbor kid’s pull toy. I speak from experience. We installed a fence at a beach house we once owned on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. It ringed the property, but I decided that where the ends of the fence met at a beautiful spruce, there would have to be a gap, because I did not want to harm the tree with the kind of pruning the fence installers wanted to do to bring the ends of the fence together. I reasoned that the spruce foliage was so dense that Molly would never know the gap was there. But I was thinking like a human, not a dog. I gauged the density of the foliage from my own point of view, which is that of a man who is six feet two inches tall.

The first day after the fence was finished I let Molly out into the yard, threw her a couple of toys, and then went back inside to have a glass of wine and read a book in front of the fire, easy in my soul for the first time since acquiring the property, because I knew Molly would be safe and could not wander off onto the highway that ran down the center of the island. Since it was a new fence, I decided to get up and check, just to make sure. I saw Molly moving along the fence line. I smiled. The fence was good. Molly was good. My heart expanded with love for the dog, the fence, the grass, the distant view, the quail that I knew lived in the blackberry brambles at the end of the property, the coyotes we heard almost every night, and of course the eagles that soared past each day. And then I realized that while Molly was indeed moving along the fence line, she was in fact moving along the outside of the fence.

I stared for a few moments, willing myself to alter my perception, which is something dog owners become very skilled at. I did not want to believe that this fence had failed to keep my dog in. I checked the gates. There were two conventional gates and two gates big enough to allow a lawn tractor inside the back yard. The gates were closed. I looked for evidence of a tunnel, and found none. The idea that Molly had found the gap in the fence still had not occurred to me. I coaxed her back into the yard, through a gate, and then used the treat bell to try luring her into the house. The treat bell was made of iron and sounded just like a harbor buoy. We banged it with a Barbie hammer with a pink handle. Usually Molly came running, even if there were rabbits in the yard, but this time there was no response. I walked back out. She was outside the fence again. This was our new game. Again I lured her back into the yard.

I walked to the spruce. This time I got down on my hands and knees, which of course drew Molly to my side, because she wanted to see whatever it was that had caught my attention. She looked at me, I looked at her, then we both resumed looking under the tree. From this new perspective, at dog height, all my illusions as to the integrity of my fence dissipated. I might as well have installed a lighted steel culvert with dog biscuits dangling at the outer end. The path Molly took was clear and unobstructed.

I bought chicken wire and threaded it under the spruce, which I had now begun to think of as that damn spruce. I secured the chicken wire with those little plastic ties that, once locked, are impossible to get off without cutting them with a knife, and which I suspect are a staple of sadomasochistic love affairs, though I stress here that I am only guessing, because personally I prefer the metal handcuffs with the key.

I went back into the house, poured another glass of wine, put another log on the fire, and once again settled on my couch. About ten minutes later, I went out to check on Molly again. This time she was not only outside the fence, but in a neighbor’s yard with her nose to the ground, following a scent at high speed. I called out. She stopped. She watched me. This was one of her other games. I walked to the nearest gate. She stood in her alert position, fur ruffled, ears cocked. We had played this game before. I opened the gate. She looked at me and, I swear, laughed. She bolted down the little service road to the beach, where, as I soon found—as I always found—she had danced across the barnacle-encrusted rocks and jumped into the bay. We worried when Molly jumped into the bay. I had spotted Killer Whales in our bay on a couple of occasions, for whom she would have made a delightful if somewhat hairy hors d’oeuvre. Okay, so maybe for one moment I hoped a whale would now arrive but it was just a moment, and it passed quickly.

The idea occurred to me then that a roll of razor wire around the entire spruce might be just the ticket, but then I realized this might be interpreted as an inhumane action that would draw animal rights activists to my yard. I did nothing more to the fence. Molly died before we had the chance.

But let us go back to the matter of self-delusion. One of the things I loved about Molly was the way she would commandeer the sofa in our living room and somehow manage to stretch out along its full length. She was the picture of repose, so pleasantly at rest that whenever I looked at her I felt my blood pressure tick down a couple of points. She could also curl herself into such a tight ball that she could fit on the seat of an armchair. Invariably this brought an assault from my daughters who found these resting positions so adorable that they had to run over and join her, and lift her up and roll her over and manipulate her ears so that she looked as though she could fly, a position that earned her the nickname Bat Dog. But we forget that Molly also was the first occupant of a brand new sofa that was upholstered with a cloth comprised partly of silk. When we came home from running an errand we found, by following a trail of droplets of water, that she had managed to transfer water from her bowl to the cushions of the couch, forever discoloring the silk. This led me to order her from the couch in my fiercest master voice, but the look she gave me was so sad and hurt that I covered the cushions with a blanket and invited her back up, and made a mental note never again to buy furniture upholstered in silk and for that matter never again to have a dog.

Molly also loved being in the back yard of our Seattle house, and would lunge at any hapless bird that opted to land within her view. She also liked to dig holes. These were not small holes. Big holes, framed with piles of black earth. And when we covered them up, she dug them again, always in the same place, until I sealed the holes with large flat pieces of rock. She also liked to dig up the various dead rodents buried in our yard, including Joey and Chandler, a pair of dwarf hamsters. Merely unearthing them would have been one thing, but what Molly also felt compelled to do was to roll in the remains, a behavior apparently exhibited by most dogs when given the chance. She also liked to roll on top of dead crabs and other sea creatures at the beach on Whidbey, after which she would climb up on that silk-upholstered couch and sleep. Occasionally in her deepest sleep she would whimper and her legs would move as if she were fleeing some threat, like maybe a mastiff or, given Molly’s nature, a toy poodle.

I will tell you the point at which dog delusions arise. It is when you are driving your dog to the vet on the last day of her life.

Molly was the sweetest dog, because in the end, after watching her head droop into my wife’s lap after our vet injected the lethal cocktail into her thigh, as we hugged her and watched through eyes blurred with tears, all the bad things disappeared in an instant and what remained was a shimmering trail of fine moments, of Molly running free through the auburn light of an autumn day, Molly stretched full length on the blanket that covered our ruined couch, Molly chasing rabbits and birds, and yes, Molly mocking me from the far side of that fence.

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July 14, 2015


The far Upper East Side.


While I love life in New York City, there are times when I miss the supermarkets of my suburban childhood, places so big and sprawly that their roofs could have doubled as runways for jumbo jets. Grocery stores in Manhattan tend to be small, cramped places filled with products marked with dubious expiration dates and priced in a manner that the rules of supply and demand cannot explain. In my neighborhood, Carnegie Hill, on the far Upper East Side, there are a number of small groceries that are very good at providing the last-minute things you forget to buy when you are about to cook that cassoulet for visitors who have overstayed their welcome, things like onions, beans, rat poison, and boxes of chicken stock, but you would never do a major shop there. What these stores lack in vastness and selection, however, they make up for with home-delivery.

This is the great miracle of Manhattan. Every store hoping to stay in business offers home delivery at no charge. My wine store will deliver a bottle or a case of wine, or multiple cases, to my building, and its delivery man (I have yet to see a delivery woman) will either bring the wine up the service elevator or, if it is evening and the service elevator is closed, he will leave it with my doorman, who will call me on our intercom and then put the wine on the elevator and send it up to my floor. This is so exquisitely magical I cannot stand it. When our intercom buzzes, my wife and I beam at each other. “Hmm, I wonder what that could be?”

Delivery is such a refined art in my neighborhood that you can set up standing accounts with all kinds of retail shops, even Feldman’s, a housewares store that lets you order goods with a phone call, everything from space heaters to scented candles to humidifiers and a solar-operated Pope Francis who waves whenever it is sunny. I like to think Feldman’s would deliver a single bolt and washer, though I have not tried to test that theory. My butcher will deliver a nice pork shoulder and some pancetta and a few pounds of flounder. He loves terrible weather, because that’s when demand surges, though I have to wonder whether his delivery people share his delight. My wife orders firewood from a grocery store nine blocks away. This is another miracle. The firewood comes from Estonia. Her mother is Estonian. It comes to the back door of our apartment and a nice man carries it inside.

The greatest miracle of all is Christmas, and I am not talking about religion here. I am talking about walking four blocks to the Christmas tree market at Lexington and E. 96th St., choosing a nice Frasier fir, and then walking home, followed in short-order by the tree, which a young man carries into our apartment. Last Christmas not only did he deliver it, he set it up in a green plastic stand which we got to keep for future use. Being veterans of many past Christmas forays involving trees tied precariously to the roofs of cars with twine knots that froze solid during the drive, this was to us a revelation on the order of having Joseph and Mary knock on our door and ask to borrow our fold-out couch for a night or two.

One day if or when I go crazy I will spend an entire morning on the phone ordering things to be delivered and see what happens as legions of people on battery-assisted bicycles or pushing dollies and handcarts, arrive at my building. I picture a scene like something from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment of the film “Fantasia,” with bags and boxes of food and wine and wrenches and duct tape and solar popes and Thai shredded garlic—with a side of sticky rice and imperial rolls—rising higher and higher and my intercom buzzing non-stop like some gigantic enraged bumblebee until someone calls the NYPD’s crack ‘emergency services’ unit and cops in jumpsuits come rappelling down to see what in flaming hell has happened to the occupants of apartment 8D, only to find a man of a certain age smiling contentedly with a napkin tucked into his shirt and asking, “Did you by any chance bring any Sriracha sauce?”

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