The Outta My Way, I’m Walking Here Issue

My Love Affair with Luxury Cars and a Professional Baseball Player

How did I end up behind the wheel of a $140,000 Maserati that had just smashed into a pair of parked cars?

by Gemma Sieff
Jan 20 2015, 5:00am

Illustrations by Feroze Alam

The first time I crashed a car, it was gently. The car was my parents', a tasteful, superannuated European station wagon. I was 18, late to fetch our dumb blond terrier from the groomer, and I swung into a parking lot too fast, misjudging my wingspan and sideswiping a deserted Japanese sedan. Our silver paints commingled, and our bumpers were embracing in a way I hoped was an optical illusion, like a heat shimmer on the highway. I had no idea what to do next and was relieved by the prompt appearance of the other car's owner, a cool mom who took pity on me and my quavery face. She told me not to worry and to back up slowly. Separating the Siamese machines was less horrible than I'd feared. Now that we could see the side of her car with its new decorations, she shrugged, declining with equanimity to swap contact info—it was too much of a hassle. Hers was an old car, I was a new driver, and I should think of this as a lesson: Slow down!

At 30 years of age, I had not learned my lesson, not at all, since my second car crash had much in common with my first, though the sound was louder, the stakes higher, and the repercussions steeper now that I lived in New York City. The car still wasn't mine; I had impressively backstitched a Maserati GranTurismo—low-slung and snouty, like a Disney cartoon—into a snug spot on 18th Street. Pulling out, I winched the wheel all the way to the right and gave what I thought was a bit of gas. The acceleration was superb. In one or two seconds it shot out from under me and scorched a diagonal across the clear street, merging with two parked cars on the other side. The speed of this action actually outpaced my eyesight; when I heard the big boom, I thought a nearby crane had dropped something, and it was only the many people shouting around me to put the car in park that broke my trance.

I felt the engine churning low and insistent beneath my feet. One of the cars I'd struck had jumped the curb and knocked clear a parking sign, which fell just short of shattering the glassy front of a West Elm store. I put the car in park and sobbed, afflicted by whiplash, the caterwaul of car alarms, and dreadful thoughts of vehicular homicide. It was a Sunday and the start of Fashion Week, and the street was full of tourists. People were taking photographs. A friend later forwarded me a tweet, "Yooooo old white woman crashes Maserati," and it wasn't off the mark. I looked elderly with cowering posture, frail hunched shoulders, grandmother sunglasses. When the auto blog Jalopnik put up a blind item—"Which Journalist Crashed This Maserati During NY Fashion Week?"—I was by the grace of God unidentifiable.

Before the cars and the crash there was Fred (not his real name). He was the reason I was driving a $140,000 Maserati, at least the main one. Until Fred I'd barely driven in New York, sensibly afraid of its darting pedestrians, stalled delivery trucks, and hungry taxis.

My first encounter with Fred was voyeuristic. This was in college, when I spent a weekend at the summer house of his then girlfriend and walked in on a few seconds of accomplished sex in broad daylight. An awkward and innocent person, I was impressed by their upright position and sophistication but most of all by their unfettered rapture. I recalled this primal scene eight years later when I met up with Fred in a bar on the Lower East Side. I'd been in a sportier bar a month or so earlier and, on a whim, texted him something dumb like "I'm watching a baseball game." Now we were facing each other in red velvet armchairs and smiling in pleasant surprise. Fred had become a professional baseball player, though he was taking a break from the big leagues to recuperate from injuries to his wrist and shoulder. Afro-Cuban with a Greco-Roman physique, he sported dreds and tats, amulets on thin chains and rings on his fingers, Bambi eyes and enviable lashes. He'd written a novel from the perspective of a rad bisexual rap critic. He was lighting up the drum machine, reading Annie Dillard. I was in the quick grip of love at second sight. I demanded a kiss.

After we started dating, he taught me how to parallel-park in his old BMW. "Sorry," I kept saying as I tried and failed from the hard side—the driver's side—of a one-way late at night outside his apartment in Bushwick. I tried six times, I failed five and a half, he fixed it up for me, and as we walked the little block back to his fluorescent-lit stairway he put his arm around me and said, "Don't worry, you'll get it."

From my sunken position, it was then 50 miles of spooky nighttime highway to Gonzales along marsh and bayou that I drove at about 90 miles per hour.

With the intention of getting back in the game, Fred went off to Louisiana to train, just him and a former teammate juggling, lifting, eating right, and heading to the cages to hit off the tee. I missed him, and I missed driving. To visit him I rented a car from a shady outfit that was fine with my debit card and responded to my happy banter with an upgrade to an appalling cobalt Mustang, its bucket seats so low that even fully forward I could barely see over the deep neon-studded display. From my sunken position, it was then 50 miles of spooky nighttime highway to Gonzales along marsh and bayou that I drove at about 90 miles per hour, leaving the airport at midnight and reaching Fred by 12:30. His teammate ribbed him the next morning about a dorky purple convertible, but he didn't mind—he just laughed.

Once the season started, I went to many an away game, all away games for me. I siphoned a Zipcar subscription to reach one stadium on Long Island. I took the New Jersey Transit to Camden, bringing the Pom Wonderful–brand pistachios his father and I liked, whose shells he said it was OK to toss under the seats.

We were en route when Fred texted to say he had hurt his shoulder during the warm-up and would not play. Dutifully, we watched the game and then the firework finale flaring and floating in front of the Philly skyline. We waited for our guy while he showered unnecessarily and chowed down with the team, the sportsmanly action. At last he got in the back of his mom's Toyota and his dad drove us home. It was raining. Fred's dejection hung on us, and his mom put on some Cuban music to lighten the mood. He took my hand. I understood how he felt, at least I imagined I did—another at-bat squandered by a new muscle that had given up.

I too was floundering and feeling out of my depth. I'd left a worthy creaky institution for a big slick one, where I couldn't quite fathom the rulebook. Still, glossy-magazine life had certain perks, and when presented with the chance to check out posh cars like library books, I ran with it. It got me out of the office and nearer to Fred. I incorrectly fancied he would appreciate my showing up in style.

It all started when my employer sent me to the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, where I met a delightful aristocrat named Charles Gordon-Lennox, the Earl of March and Kinrara and heir apparent of the 10th Duke of Richmond. Lord March was good enough to invite me to Goodwood, his magnificent Georgian pile in Sussex, where rich men in period dress gather annually to admire early automobiles in spectacular motion. I was fetched and ferried for the occasion by Rolls-Royce, whose unrufflable driver I liked and whose buttons I pushed, the car's and the driver's, by asking politely for drive-through French fries. At one point the driver and I swapped places, and I took the reins of the Ghost or the Wraith or the Phantom, interchangeably oxymoronic names for the most ostentatious cars in the world. On the wrong side of the road in a £200,000 behemoth with the suspension of a meringue, I shyly approached a roundabout and my phlegmatic companion erupted, barking at me to "Make a decision!" I gave an inch of petrol and we nipped around a hatchback onto the skinny motorway, a neat and clean maneuver for which I was congratulated.

Back in New York, I wrote a fawning column that had the desired effect, not to nudge a sheikh toward a purchase (though who knows) but to inspire rival manufacturers to woo me with new offers. When Bentley invited me to tour their factory in Crewe, England, I proposed instead that they supply me with a range of Bentleys to test on the streets of New York City. They obliged with a hat trick, the Continental, the Mulsanne, and the Barnato, the last a handbag rather than a car but still a deal I could live with.

We'd been biggish fishes in biggish ponds, and now we'd entered strange waters and were having private identity crises.

In a Bentley Continental GT, ladylike and relatively understated at $250,000, I drove six hours south to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Fred had been unhappily traded to a minor league team. It was a downgrade with an upside—he was closer to New York City. I parked in the players' lot, a dark triangle of asphalt overlaid by the stadium's undergirding. The guys had the nice rides of relatively recent stints in the big leagues—a lot of Audis, Lexi, an M-Class Mercedes truck. Butch Hobson, Fred's coach, emerged with him from a side door and made his way over to a steroidal pickup parked next to me, a Ram I think, puffed up on platform wheels and painted Tonka red. I searched for the button on the walnut console that would make my passenger window go down. I found it. The window went down, very slowly. Butch, who had coached the Red Sox for a hot second before being fired for receiving cocaine in the mail, gave me and the car the once-over. "Nice," he pronounced, as Fred rolled his eyes and I searched for the button to unlock the passenger side.

Fred being the better driver, after we had properly reunited across the cushiony leather divider in an abandoned lot lit by factory floodlight, I improperly let him drive. We were breaking all the rules on our way to his extended-stay hotel. We passed the Amish whipping a high-beamed horse-drawn buggy and reached the hotel, which boasted an ambitious bar, a kind of Ye Olde jungle gym with wooden turrets and a little footbridge, now rocking and roaring with weekend revelers.

"Do you want to have a drink?" I asked Fred. I thought it looked a little bit fun, bad dancing to irresistible anthems.

"Definitely not," he said.

He told me he preferred the loaner Audi he'd driven a year ago, when his own was in the shop, to the Bentley I'd brought.

Though it was difficult to discern at the time, we were both out of sorts in new jobs we didn't want to adjust to. We may have shared the fear that our best days were behind us. We'd been biggish fishes in biggish ponds, and now we'd entered strange waters and were having private identity crises. I went on joyrides and took up smoking. Fred had tasted fame and was gritting out the comedown. On a triple-A team he found less free equipment, fewer pretty girls peddling performance-enhanced hydration, and fewer plane rides. We each hated to be unhappy around the other, though he was more honest about it.

The Bentley knew to lock its own doors as we carried off the key toward the lobby. "What a smart car," I nearly said, but no one wanted to hear it. How difficult it was to combine showing off with cheering up.

The next day, searching for his phone or mine in my non-Bentley handbag, Fred stumbled on the minty Dunhills I'd stashed at the bottom, along with a foot-long Rice Krispie treat. Not very rhetorically, he asked what was wrong with me.

I couldn't answer, so I stopped at a gas station—the car was often thirsty and its tab was triple-digit obscene. Some unemployed drunks hanging out in front ambled over to inspect our moon landing. Gallant Fred was paying for this round. "This is your car?" asked a drunk.

"He got it for me for my birthday," I said.

"Can you open the hood?" asked a different grizzly fellow. "We don't see a lot of stuff like this around here."

I struggled with the latch for a long minute until Fred came to my rescue. The engine block was topped with burnished metal that looked expensive and hid a lot of pistons, but collectively we couldn't make much sense of it.

Vanilla in color and flavor, it was more boring than a Prius, so boring that I fell asleep at its wheel on one of Michigan's very wide highways for a few seconds.

Next up was Cadillac, a big quick Escalade with invisible fencing sewn into the seats that zapped you in the hindquarters if you drifted too close to the margin. We drove it upstate for a dismal weekend of rain and weeping babies. I got a different Caddy for Detroit, where we flew for the first of three summer weddings. Vanilla in color and flavor, it was more boring than a Prius, so boring that I fell asleep at its wheel on one of Michigan's very wide highways for a few seconds, and luckily, or frighteningly, the car didn't drift at all. The wedding was in Homer, and afterward we drove to the bottom of the Upper Peninsula to stay in a town called Manistee. Although it was the height of the season, no one was there. Even the casino was empty. Our historic inn was totally silent. It was like The Shining, only boring. We walked along a Great Lake, arguing about aliens. We returned to Detroit, arguing as we reached the outskirts of the city on the brink of bankruptcy. "Blight is only poetic to white people," Fred said, and I conceded he was right.

The next car was better, a Maserati Quattroporte—that's four doors—for another wedding, still not ours, in Newport, Rhode Island. The car looked like a shark, gray and understated with a muscular torso and pale interior, and moved like one, nosing swiftly into lanes of traffic that scattered like so many dinky minnows.

The wedding was at a yacht club on the water near a big bridge. White sailboats eddied underneath. The groom was a friend from little league. His mother seemed to think my celebratory car was upstaging the nuptials. Fred, easygoing and accustomed to my gaucheries, said we'd be driving his friend and gorgeous bride to the downtown bar where the reception continued. I was a good chauffeuse: The slow crawl of traffic showed off the happy couple, and I played upbeat love songs, though I did not shuffle past "Material Girl."

The next morning, Fred announced he was leaving straightaway for the desert. I feigned nonchalance. "So you aren't coming with me to meet my family?" We were expected for lunch on a beach in Massachusetts.

"I'm really sorry," he told me, hastily packing a duffel bag. His friend Ty (not his real name) had scored two tickets to Burning Man, an unmissable opportunity.

No phones on the playa. Burning Man is breaking up, said friends of mine who knew all about it, but I was committed to him and to my role of cool girlfriend. I tried to focus on the psychedelics instead of the fluffers and other dumb new vocab like FOMO, fear of missing out.

Ten days later, I arranged to borrow his favorite marque and waited at the airport in a peppy Audi RS 5, blue and cute. I hoped he would greet me with extra fondness, but he seemed depleted, stowing his dusty pack in the deep trunk and staring out the passenger window. Fred's Burning Man name—everyone gets one—was King Louie, as in Satchmo, after he did a Louis Armstrong impression while working behind the makeshift bar. He had served a nondescript hippie kid a drink, and the kid had opened a briefcase. Fred said he was a "wispy-looking" guy who gave him some of the strongest acid imaginable. He and Ty tripped all night, then hitched to Reno, but Fred had forgotten his laptop in the back of a truck belonging to someone named Hagie. Now he was missing both the laptop and the Burn, returning to New York for another wedding, to which I had not been invited. In a desiccated state, he had overslept and missed his lift to the Hudson River Valley. I was miffed about everything, but having wheels and raring to go, I agreed to drop him off on my way to a vintage-car rally taking place in Lime Rock, Connecticut.

Fred had the worst hangover of his life. It probably wasn't fair to torment him for 1.5 hours up Interstate 84. "How was the tent?" I asked passive-aggressively. He'd bought it a few weeks before, in Vermont, and we'd slept in it together one time on my parents' sloping lawn.

He said he had a splitting headache. "I don't know what it is you are asking me."

"Think of it like an Amazon product review," I said. It went on like that for a while. I drove up a long driveway of pines to a lodge-like facility, and he got out and slammed the door.

At the car rally, I sat in a stationary E-Type Jag from the early 70s, and it calmed me down for an hour. I called Fred later from the RS 5 he had cruelly spurned. He told me he was contemplating quitting baseball and moving to Nicaragua for a while. Fred was no fly ball, he was a Jeet-ish line drive I was kidding myself I could catch, and there's only so long a lady can tell herself that wanderlust isn't about her.

My first, perhaps my only, legitimate religious experience took place in my last borrowed car.

The Friday after we broke up, I woke up flush with the intermittent magic that has made my life sparkle darkly from time to time. I felt Fred's mind flickering at me; I wondered where he was going and what he was doing. I dressed carefully. I went into the office and edited an article about Japanese keratin treatments that reshape the hair follicles for incredible Roz Chast–to–Rapunzel results. Then I texted my buddy at Maserati to see whether they had a spare. The veneer of my title meant that such a preposterous ask did not get me laughed out of the bank. On the contrary, the producers and purveyors of astronomically priced items tended to bend over backward to oblige my fickle whims. I was in luck. My friend had a zippy little number he could give me for the weekend, though they needed it back by Monday, when it would travel south by flatbed to an auction block in Miami.

In 24 hours I did a variety of crazy things in this car. I drove a man named Ray Christiano Irving, whom I'd met in a restaurant when I mistook him for the rapper T. I., to the airport. We chatted speedily on the highway. He'd penned a self-help book, The Formula, and spoke movingly about his brother and mother, whose lives, he said, demonstrated the thin line between madness and genius—brilliant people whose forthright insights made it difficult for them to participate in mainstream society. He was seriously impressed by the Maserati, I liked his Norf London accent, and when his flight was delayed, we kissed briefly and watched Doc Brown and Ricky Gervais spoof-rapping on the tiny screen of his phone. My phone had been dead for hours, and I felt untethered and free.

Driving back to the city over the Williamsburg Bridge, I was humbled by the presence of the divine. The skyline was backlit by sunset, the on-ramps and arteries mingled like tendrils, a smooth ribbon of asphalt streamed out from under me, and driving was scarily easy. I was aware of the city's moving parts and firm edifices as beautifully coordinated components of a celestial clock. It wasn't an accident, so much beauty, it was by design, and how lucky I was to be alive to behold it. Who dreamed this up? was my thought. The radio was playing all the right songs, and the sky behind the buildings was a pure shade of pale gold. My first, perhaps my only, legitimate religious experience took place in my last borrowed car.

After I parked in front of my apartment on East 108th Street in Harlem, I found my brother and his love interest sitting on my fire escape. It was early fall, and the night was warm and lovely. Since my phone was off, Fred had called my brother. "Yeah, she just got here," said Ben, handing me his cell.

"I tried calling you," said Fred. "I missed you. I'm in the city."

"You are?"

"Do you want to meet in Williamsburg?"

Did I ever, but on the way there I got a bit lost. I asked a guy where Berry Street was, and he pointed to his crotch.

Fred was with the unshakable Ty in a place called the Levee—"a fake metal bar for tourists, a weekend bar," Ty said. We drove to another place called the Woods. We drove to an after-hours dance party. Fred and I kissed in public, which we never did. We kissed in a way we didn't usually in private. We watched the beginning of the sunrise. We were parked in front of a bank of Citi Bikes. He slept as I drove home. Ever the masochist, I read his phone. Text messages described his indecision and sadness. When he woke up, I dropped him off at his friend's house near Union Square, and an hour later I crashed the Maserati.

After crumpling two cars, the Maserati was towed away to get its nails done. Fred left for Managua. I parted ways with my glamorous job.

It was all fun while it lasted, a time-stamped high I had to give back, beautiful but unreal, not mine to keep. After crumpling two cars, the Maserati was towed away to get its nails done. Fred left for Managua. I parted ways with my glamorous job.

I re-quit driving for the rest of the year, but in the summer, I briefly entertained a deadbeat for access to his wheels. He had seven of them: a Piaggio MP3—a three-wheeled scooter that looked like Adam West's Batcycle—and a beige Toyota Sienna in which both rows of back seats had been replaced with a short stack of Oriental rugs. For a little while I drove the van around town and sat on the back of the bike like a morphed Power Ranger. I've been a borrower through and through, but I'm finished with it. The dude was dumb, he just made me miss Fred, and I kicked him to the curb. I won't be getting on a motorbike unless it's mine and I'm driving.