Wanted: A Car that Sparks Joy

FOR THE PAST FEW WEEKS, I’ve been engaged in an activity that has me questioning my own mind. In recent years, at least, I’ve thought of myself as a fairly decisive person, a person who knows what she wants and how to go about getting it. Even major decisions, like buying a house, have not given me as much trouble as this latest pursuit: car-shopping. I’ve become a ditherer.

About a month ago, I said goodbye to my vehicular partner of 11 years, my trusty runabout, a 2008 Honda Fit with a manual transmission. It served me well on trips around town and from Brooklyn to and from my properties in Philadelphia, on Long Island and upstate New York. It hauled compost and mulch, yard waste, furniture, groceries, cargo loads beyond its apparent size.

Battered though its body was from years of New York City parking incidents and minor fender-benders, at 120,000 miles its engine and other moving parts showed no signs of dying any time soon. Sure, I replaced bits and pieces over the years — it was hardly maintenance-free — but every time I brought it in to John and Alex under the BQE, they’d assure me, “Oh, you’ll get 160,000 miles out of this car!” And I’d sigh and say, “Really? That’ll be years from now! I was hoping to get a new car before then.” They seemed disappointed.

I wanted a new car, one whose fenders were not attached with rusty screws. I was tired of owning a beater, and downright embarrassed when an event called for valet parking.

So a month ago, I put an ad on craigslist and soon found a young woman who was delighted with the Fit, Bernie Sanders bumper sticker and all.

I patted the Fit’s steering wheel and dashboard, thanked it for its service and immediately turned my attention to the new-car market. I wanted — ahem, thought I wanted — the following:

  • a manual transmission, the only kind of car I’ve ever owned
  • a car no longer than the Fit’s 160-inch exterior length, for NYC parking purposes
  • a cooler-looking car than the new Fit’s uninspiring design
  • a quiet car (the Fit was not, particularly)
  • a comfortable car (ditto)
  • good cargo space and easy loading
  • good gas mileage, but that goes without saying nowadays
  • something in the $20,000 range (wishful thinking)
  • a new car, not pre-owned, since I will probably also keep my next vehicle for a decade

So that brings us to a compact hatchback with a stick shift, and there’s the rub. It is unbelievably hard to find manual transmissions these days! I think I’ve figured out why this is so: younger people don’t know how to drive them (except my own kids, who didn’t have the option of learning on any other kind), and car makers have figured out how to make automatics equally fuel-efficient, so that advantage is gone. Also, the whiz-bang safety features with which new cars are loaded don’t all work with manuals, apparently. And forget about color choices — if you insist on a stick, you have to take what you can get.

My search for a stick shift has taken me, via public transit, all over the tri-state area. I’ve test-driven eight cars over the past three weeks. Four were Volkswagen Golfs, which required me to get over what I knew would be my dad’s disapproval, were he still alive. I did this by remembering the excellent quality of the German products I’ve purchased over the years, from Miele vacuums and Bosch dishwashers to Wusthof knives and Reiker shoes.

One VW, a base-trim Golf S in Staten Island, was even an automatic. I was trying to be open-minded, but I found it un-engaging. Driving an automatic is just steering and braking; my left foot and right hand were bored.

In Rensselaer, N.Y., I test drove a silk-blue Golf manual with an ivory interior (rode like butter). In Bayside, Queens, I tried a Golf SE — more luxurious, with a bigger engine, but I didn’t want to pay extra for a headache-inducing sunroof — and an even more macho GTI, because the dealer wanted me to. The GTI was very vroom vroom, with plaid seats and fancy hubcaps — so not me.

Then I fixated for a while on the Toyota Corolla hatchback, new this year, after reading an article in a car magazine. I drove a midnight blue XSE in Kinderhook, N.Y., and a silver SE in Jersey City, but found them too loud, with not-great visibility out the “raked” rear windshield. And I had trouble with the aggressive-looking front grill, like the face of a toy shark.

I even went back to Bay Ridge Honda to give the new Fit a go. It’s a completely different animal now, with a spruce interior and all the bells and whistles, at a great price (under $18,000). I enjoyed driving it, and the car publications all give it top ratings. So…? They’ve changed the design for the worse, I think, with what one critic called a ‘jellybean body.’ But the main thing is, I want something different for a change. I think.

I’ve read hundreds of trade and consumer reviews, solicited opinions (all over the place) from friends and relatives, and tried to visualize how the various cars would look in my Long Island driveway, against the weathered stockade fence. I’ve tried to picture how I would look getting out of the conservative VW Golf (like an old lady?) or the sporty Corolla (like a ridiculous old lady?)

I’ve questioned my original parameters. Do I really need that much cargo space? (I can always hire somebody to deliver mulch.) Is near-silence that important? (Yes, it is.) Can I live with an extra foot of car length? (Other people seem to.) And must it really be a manual? (Most def.)

I haven’t paid that much attention to the new safety and entertainment technology. Back-up cameras are old hat already, I suppose, but now there’s a blind spot warning and lane assist and any number of other intimidating features. We’re well on our way to the self-driving car, while I persist in clinging to habit, making car-shopping harder than it needs to be by insisting on a manual.

Well, I’m learning a lot. Maybe someday I’ll even understand what torque is. But I haven’t pulled the trigger on a car.

I have an appointment to test-drive a Mazda3 hatch next week.

This Wondrous Summertime World


If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere – Vincent van Gogh

Beauty has not been hard to find this summer, despite the heat. Almost everywhere I’ve gone, and I’ve moved around a fair amount, I’ve been hyper-conscious of the natural beauty of this fragile world.


Even in the heart of the city, the sky, the light, has often been breathtaking.

Above, early evening view of Manhattan from Roosevelt Island. Below, mackerel sky over the Brooklyn Museum.


“This world is so beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists!” That was Ralph Waldo Emerson. He could have been reflecting on a scene like the one below, in Western Massachusetts:


Or these, in upstate New York:


But not to give short shrift to the human-made, either. Because this is an omnibus post after a three-month-long drought, I’m going to stuff it with a few more images that caught the eye of this lazy blogger in my summertime travels, and move on, we hope, to a more prolific fall.


Fireworks over Shelter Island, N.Y.


Vintage service station in Chester, Mass.


Victorian brick pile in Schoharie, N.Y. Cornices, shutters, columns — all outstanding.

Schenectady, N.Y. is a trove of historic architecture and that is not a joke. Below, three views of the Stockade District, a substantial, intact neighborhood of 18th and 19th century houses, about forty of which are over 200 years old.


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Hot Town, Summer in the City


IT’S NOT OVER ‘TIL IT’S OVER, but as soon as you start seeing ads for back to school shopping, you know it can’t be long before the Halloween decorations come out.

The knowledge that it will soon be September has always cast a pall over August. Growing up, I waited eagerly for the big fat back-to-school issue of Seventeen magazine to show up on my local newsstand August 1st. I was so bored I devoured its 600 pages of wool skirts and cable-knit sweaters immediately. Though it was still high summer, I was painfully conscious that its appearance signaled the beginning of the end.

Later this week, I’m off to Montreal and Quebec City for a few days and will be blogging my ass off while there, no doubt, so there’s that to look forward to. In the meantime, the days count down on summer in the city. With frequent forays out of town, y’know, it hasn’t been half bad.

July began with a day trip to Kykuit, below, the Rockefeller estate in Westchester County, a century-old Italianate-style ivy-covered pile, romantic on the outside, boring within. Chief joy and surprise: Nelson Rockefeller’s collection of modern art, relegated to a basement space, world-class though it is, and wonderful outdoor sculptures (like the Elie Nadelman figures below), perfectly placed.


I abandoned Brooklyn again to ferry over to Governor’s Island, where my daughter is now working, and what a surprise. In the past couple of years, they’ve (almost) completed a park called The Hills, as close to unspoiled nature as you can get in New York City, with a skyline view at every turn.


For culture, I joined a friend at the Whitney Museum in Chelsea to see Alexander Calder’s mid-century mobiles, below, so simple and yet so brilliant. The views from the outdoor terraces there are always stunning.


Then there was a two-day road trip to Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Mass., cultivated over a period of decades, exclusively with plants native to the region. We found accommodation nearby at the oldest continuously operating lodging in the U.S., the pre-Revolutionary Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass., below. (It burned nearly to the ground and was painstakingly rebuilt in the 1950s, so it’s hard to say what’s original and what’s not, but the illusion is impeccable.)


I tried a few new-to-me Brooklyn restaurants, including L’Antagoniste in Bed-Stuy, a tad precious and a tad pricey, and the French-Senegalese Cafe Rue Dix in Crown Heights.


Even treading city sidewalks in summer is made pleasanter by overflowing window boxes and creatively planted tree pits.


Follow me on Instagram, where I’m having some fun… @caramia447


Drive Slowly, Look Closely: Thru Indiana and Ohio on the Historic National Road

Another never-published travel story from the vaults, this one commissioned — but the magazine, an AAA publication, folded before my story ran. It’s safe to assume the over-the-top Indiana Theater in Terre Haute has landmark protection and the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Springfield, Ohio, is in fine shape, but re-reading this piece a decade later makes me wonder: Are those antiques shops filled with Midwestern glass and pottery still open, or have they gone the way of eBay? Did Richmond, Indiana’s Depot District ever take off? I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s all still more or less as described here.


The Historic National Road contains multitudes, from faded movie palaces and picturesque “pike towns” to cornfields and 1940s motor courts

A ROAD IS A ROAD IS A ROAD, some might say. But when it’s the Historic National Road, a 2002 Federal designation for that ribbon of highway conceived by Thomas Jefferson to open up the West, it’s nothing less than the road that built America.

Once the only road from the Eastern seaboard to the frontier, the National Road was begun in 1811 in Cumberland, Md., as a log-reinforced trail for pioneers’ wagons. It reached Vandalia, Il., by the 1830s, just in time to be superseded by rail travel. Later, that same road was used by bicycles and early automobiles, then partially paved with brick in 1914 to bear the weight of Army trucks on their way to war.

In the 1920s, the National Road was straightened, paved once more, and re-named U.S. Route 40. So it remains, a more tranquil alternative to I-70, the truck-jammed interstate that runs roughly parallel.

In some places, Route 40 is two lanes through cornfields and cow pastures. Elsewhere, brash 21st century commerce obscures the layers of history that lie in wait for those willing to slow down and look.

Girl Detective ISO History 

In the spirit of a detective seeking the past behind the present, I set off with a friend from Terre Haute, Ind., to travel a 340-mile swatch of this once-vital artery through the hearts of Indiana and Ohio.

Over two days, we bounced around in time, encountering architectural gems from the Federal era to the Post-Modern. Here and there, where signs indicated, we turned off onto untouched sections of original early-19th century road, lopped off when 1920s builders chose a more direct course for Route 40. These eerily quiet, often overgrown stretches are the stuff of a road aficionado’s dreams, invariably worth the detour.

In once-glittering Terre Haute, a town built on breweries and baking powder, we got a closeup view of the 1922 Indiana Theater, a 2,000-seat movie palace dripping with ornamentation in Hollywood Baroque style. Precious few such intact theaters remain. This one, designed by John Eberson, the premier movie-house architect of his day, retains all its elaborate plaster work, including robust nudes holding up the lobby’s coffered ceiling.

Inspecting a framed pastel in the lobby, I communed with the swells in top hats and boas who flocked to the floodlit Indiana in its heyday. Built for vaudeville as well as films, the theater had its own orchestra, a Wurlitzer organ and live peacocks onstage. Today, it shows second-run films and rents itself out for theme weddings — but at least it’s still standing.

The National Road really sprang to life for me at Rising Hall, an imposing brick farmhouse in Stilesville, Ind., where we met 83-year-old homeowner Walt Prosser. Prosser remembers being taken, as a small child in the late 1920s, on a family outing to see this astonishing road with its double lanes of traffic. “It was miraculous,” he recalled. “Some cars going one way, and some the other!”

Rising Hall was built by Melville F. McHaffie in the late 1860s on land given to Civil War veterans in lieu of money. Prosser, a retired engineer, and his wife June, bought the house and its vintage barn in the 1980s. Long abandoned, except by marauding hogs and goats, they spend a decade restoring it and now give tours by appointment. With its arched windows and other Italianate details, it was and is the finest house around.

We got a vivid sense of what life was like in the 19th century for stagecoach passengers, pioneer families in their Conestoga wagons, livestock drovers and other travelers along the National Road at Huddleston Farm near Cambridge City, Ind. Now a museum, the three-story white brick inn and its outbuildings were among the many establishments that sprung up to take advantage of passing traffic. “This was the interstate of the 1840s,” said Joe Jarzen, executive director for the Indiana National Road Association, whose headquarters is at Huddleston Farm. “Several hundred wagons a day passed by here.”

Furnished rooms and an exhibit in the barn tell the story of John and Susannah Huddleston and their eleven children, who played all the angles: boarding weary travelers and their animals, providing blacksmithing and wagon repairs, selling brooms, cheese, flour and ammunition. “No liquor — they were Quakers,” Jarzen said.

If you time it right, you can attend a Civil War camp reenactment at Huddleston Farm of participate in one of the popular harvest suppers, where guests help prepare meals on an open hearth.

Centerville, Ind., is the region’s outstanding “pike town,” the term used for communities that developed and thrived because of their location along the National Road. Many of its lovingly restored brick rowhouses, separated by arched alleyways, are now used as guest houses, cafes or antique shops. The town bills itself as “the hub of Antique Alley,” some 1,300 dealers in a 33-mile stretch of eastern Indiana. A thousand of them, at least, are in behemoth antiques malls, where you’ll be overwhelmed by showcases full of made-in-Indiana glassware like Carnival, Fostoria and Heisey.

Off Route 40 in Richmond, on the Indiana-Ohio border, the ongoing rehab of the majestic brick-columned Pennsylvania Railroad Station, designed in 1906 by the Chicago firm of Daniel Burnham, is sparking positive change in the surrounding Depot District. The city is proud of its origins as an early center of jazz recording: Louis Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael were among the musicians who got off the train at Richmond to record at the seminal Starr-Gennett studio. Elegant Victorian storefronts once housed barber shops, newsstands, cafes and bars for the convenience of fail passengers. Now there’s a gourmet Italian deli and kitchenware emporium, antiques shops, upstairs blues clubs and local eateries.

Our first stop in Ohio was the glorious Westcott House, a newly restored Frank Lloyd Wright masterwork just off Route 40 as it passes through Springfield. “Fallingwater gets all the attention,” grumbled Andrea Rossow, the operations coordinator. Maybe so, but the less well-known Westcott House was one of the architect’s own favorites, and it’s far less crowded.

Opened to the public in 2005 after a five-year, $5.8million restoration, the Prairie Style house was commissioned by Burton Westcott, who made his fortune in seeding machines and auto manufacturing, and his wife Orpha, in 1906. Designed after Wright’s first trip to Japan and steeped in Japanese influence, the house is set into a sculpted hillside, with a reflecting pool flanked by monumental urns, and small paned windows reminiscent of shoji screens. Inside, walls are trimmed with oak, and stained glass skylights suffuse the rooms with amber light. Just how ahead of his time the architect was is most evident in the kitchen, where the original cast-iron stove, decorated with Victorian scrollwork, looks incongruous against the building’s understated modernist lines.

Past Zanesville, a faded industrial town whose antique shops are crammed with highly collectible local pottery (Roseville, McCoy, Shawnee, Weller et al), several sandstone “S-bridges,” unique to the National Road, have been stabilized and preserved. So called because they zig-zag over streams, the 1820s S-bridges at Salt Fork, Peter’s Creek and Fox Run, which sheltered runaway slaves in their time, have been turned into small parks that make handy off-road picnic spots.

For our final foray before picking up the interstate to make time back to New York, we turned onto the most evocative remnant of original road yet. Peacock Road, paved with mossy brick, skirts a forest as it winds gently uphill past a clapboard farmhouse. The feeling of days gone by is palpable here and in nearby Old Washington, a town bypassed in the 1920s road re-construction and seemingly stuck in time, its deserted main street elevated by the presence of several grand pre-Civil War mansions.

Nostalgia gripped me time and again as we traveled the National Road and took its tempting detours. A turn of the steering wheel and you’re in the back of beyond, far removed from the rush of modern life.

Two Days in Vermont

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IT TOOK ME A WHILE to get this blog post up, mainly because I’ve been annoyed at myself for all the images I did not capture on a recent two-day trip to Vermont.

Where are the über-charming farmhouses with their gaudy cottage gardens, the spectacular barn architecture, all the square-ish Italianate Victorians? In my head, but not in my camera.

It’s hard to keep stopping on a road trip, especially when you’re not the driver. You’d never get anywhere, and we had just two days for this pilgrimage from the small state’s southwestern-most corner, up through Bennington to Burlington, on the shore of Lake Champlain, then back down through national forest and dairy lands dotted with cows.

But enough with the apologia. Here is some of what I did see of midsummer Vermont.

Top: Hummingbird wall in surprisingly urban Burlington, Vermont’s largest city


A 19th century commercial building in Bennington, housing the South Street Cafe & Bakery (“Coffee – Community – Culture”), a perfectly timed lunch stop.

Vermont’s college towns, of which there are many, are good places to find hip (but not too hip) cafés, with house-made bread and desserts, and really good local cheese.

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Storefronts on Bennington’s Main Street retain their vintage character.


Ye olde covered bridge, one of several 19th c. lattice-truss bridges over the Waloomsac River in Bennington, where there was once a paper mill.


The first gun shop I saw, above, was shocking. Then you get used to them.

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Vermont’s roads are in tiptop shape. They’re constantly working on them. We were stopped four times in two days for periods of up to 15 minutes to accommodate road work.

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Though I’m no longer interested in stopping at every antique shop or barn sale, there are some that look intriguing.

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A fine, faded Greek Revival outside Bennington.


No interstates for us.


The 19th c. brick commercial architecture of Burlington rivals that of Boston and New York, on a smaller scale.

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Sparkling Lake Champlain at close of day, seen from Burlington’s waterfront. Credit longtime mayor Bernie Sanders for the exquisite mile-long recreational development of the waterfront, including parks, bike lanes, marinas.

We found a terrific dinner at a farm-to-table restaurant called Hen of the Wood.

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A detour in search of scenery took us through the minuscule town of Wallingford, where we stumbled on Handmade in Vermont, a shop worth a half hour’s browsing, in a two-century-old stone building that once housed a pitchfork factory.


Scenery found.