Walking The Showrooms With Stefan: (Part 2: The Zen of the Test Drive)

The weather was bleak on Monday, yet Stefan’s disposition was bright.  He was off today, and decided to call the seller of the Rambler he was thinking of buying and to tell him he would be there at about 4:30 p.m. .

He set the Garmin so that there would be no tolls; collected his gas-station coffee and a couple of Almond Joys , and set off.


As Magnetic Mary peered through the mist and fog ahead, he noted the proximity of her sled to the mounted Garmin.  He’d been reading Pirsig‘s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values”  a philosophical tour d’ force on the meditations of a middle-aged man on questions of ‘values’ and conceptualizations of ‘quality’.   This deeply personal narrative of  one man’s effort to achieve a reconciliation of science, religion, and humanism was riveting.  Not since Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge” had he been so moved by the recounting of a man’s quest to understand, by and through himself, the true nature of what is “good” …of the essence of ‘quality’.  Stefan was taken with Pirsig’s conclusion:  that the proper outlook by an ever-inquiring mind could indeed result in an inner reconciliation of the classical and the logical; of the artistic and the scientific; indeed; of the spiritual and the physical, by concentrating on the value of each to what, in the end, is “good”.  Today, for him, the icon  and the Garmin  on his dash were not at odds, but in harmony as they guided his heart and his mind through Pennsylvania to his destination.

He thought back over a decade to the pleasure and relaxation he had derived from long  trips on unfamiliar roads at the wheels of countless new cars he had driven to accomplish what was known in the auto business as “dealer trades”.   The first Acura Legend Coupes; the Audi S-4’s; the Porsche 911’s;  the Chevrolet 454 SS pickup trucks; the Monte Carlo SS’s; and even 3-cylinder Geo Sprints were all , to him, just regular one-day ‘vacations’ from prowling the dealership lots for creditworthy clients.  Especially so, when these cars and trucks were stick-shifts.

Most other salespeople preferred to have their ‘dealer trades’  done by retired gentlemen who received a flat hourly rate and a meal or two, which would be deducted from the gross profit of the sale before their commission was figured.  Stefan, even if he was not a cheapskate, could not comprehend why anyone would not want to drive one new car several hundred miles; and yet another new car on the return trip.   When he had sold the upper-price marques, if the model sold was rare, he even had occasion to hop on a plane or a bus to destinations  from where he would drive a very special car back.  He even had used big 3/4-ton pickups and Suburbans to tow vehicles back when mileage was an issue with the client, sometimes on dollies; and more than once, in an enclosed race-car trailer.

He was a ‘car nut’, after all.  And, for him, these trips had been “quality time’.  It had been too long.

By the early afternoon; he decided to have some lunch.


As he proceeded through the northwest corner of Pennsylvania into New York, the radio stations became too mainstream for his liking, and he turned off the radio.  There was music in his head, functioning as the musical score to his thoughts of  road-trips past; of  chapters in his life he identified with cars he had owned; and now, with the recent move of his mother to nursing care, of his own mortality.   Like Pirsig in “Zen” , his mind danced from one sense-memory to another, not in any sequential order, but, rather, in  the form of a dialogue between his heart and his mind.   The minutes and hours elapsed without monotony or boredom as he drove further into the undulating Alleghenies.

And then, as he began to approach Jamestown, his musings were interrupted by a serendipitous milestone on a journey hardly half completed:

“Chautauqua“, indeed!  Precisely the term Pirsig used as the most appropriate description of  the sequence of chapters in “Zen”:

…”  I would like to use the time to talk in some depth about things that seem important. What is in mind is a sort of  Chautauqua — that´s the only name that I can think of for it — like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America …. an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. “…( Pirsig, p.17) .As used by Pirsig, the term evolves into  “at once a ghost story, a travelogue, a romantic adventure, and a series of philosophical observations intended to entertain and edify an ordinary audience.”  (Charles Pinkava, a teacher of critical thinking at MSU, where, as a teacher of rhetoric, Pirsig first became obsessed with the question:  “What is quality?”).

He smiled to himself as he realized that he was travelling through the geography and topography of the cradle of the Chautauqua Movement.  Begun in 1874 by a Methodist Episcopal minister and a local businessman, and originally intended as a summer training camp for Sunday school teachers, it soon developed into a diverse program of  lectures and open discussions on a myriad of topics, from classic literature to homemaking.  Its’ popularity was such that it soon went ‘on the road’, travelling the countryside, with lecturers such as Samuel Clemens and U.S. Grant.  Intellectual and moral self-improvement for the working and middle classes was the goal.  For those in rural areas far from the universities of major cities, they functioned to afford a ‘curriculum’ of  activities that aimed at intellectual and moral self-improvement and civic involvement.  They flourished into the ’30’s, supplanted at length by the science of motion pictures; affordable automobiles; and radio.

His route was pleasantly rural, and as he pressed on through and past Jamestown and beyond, his thoughts quieted as he admired the features of the landscape around him.  That the weather was still overcast and damp did not diminish its’ beauty.

“Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive” (Pirsig, in Zen)

As he glided past lakes; through small towns with names of Indian derivation, and around state parks, he felt truly tranquil.  Regardless of what would happen in Syracuse, the trip was already more than worth his efforts.

When he noted on the Garmin screen that he was about 20 minutes away from Syracuse, he called the seller to confirm his arrival.  Magnetic Mary continued her vigil, peering through the occasional fog and mist as the speed limits slowly declined and the intersections and traffic lights became more numerous.  At length, he made the final turn onto the road that was his destination.  He slowed as the voice in the Garmin counted down the distance to the address.

Mary seemed to take over just then, for as the Garmin heralded his arrival, the sun finally broke out as he beheld this picture:


He pulled into the drive and parked.  He felt no fatigue nor need to pause and stretch, and he walked up the Rambler and shook hands with the seller.  The pictures he had received a week or so before were promising, but he knew from experience that pictures can hide flaws.

In this case, the pictures had not done their subject justice:




He could hear the sellers’ remarks, and could hear his own responses to them, but his focus was on the car.  The shop manual; owners manual; jack and spare tire (original!) were all accounted for.  He lifted the hood, and smiled like a boy who has found a long-lost toy under a box of  sweaters  in his closet.



 He checked the oil;  the tire pressures with the gauge he had brought with him; and the free-travel in the clutch pedal.  The seller handed him the keys.

He got in, adjusted the seat (reclining!) and the mirrors, and turned the key.  The engine started instantly, producing  the familiar sound of all in-line sixes, which he likened to that of  a gas-powered sewing machine.  Placing the column-mounted shifter into ‘neutral’, he plied the knobs and levers which actuated the lights; the turn signals;  the blower fan and the wipers (vacuum, not electric).  The needle on the temperature gauge began to move, and he knew it was time to drive.  With a smile and a nod to the seller, he eased into first gear; slowly released the truck-sized clutch pedal, and was off.

The sun shone ever more brightly as he turned off the street onto a country road to take it through second and on into third gear.  He was stunned at the lack of vibration in the huge; non-powered steering wheel.   He noticed that the clock on the dash did not work, but that the lighter did.   A mile or two of  60 miles-per-hour on that beautiful country lane, and he was sold.



Stefan pulled back into the seller’s driveway, noted the incline and set the parking brake.  He then released it, to ensure it would not stick.  The car rolled back, and he reset it.  Another turn of the key, and the engine instantly re-started.  No ‘vapor-lock’ here, and he was satisfied with the state of tune of the carburetor and ignition system.

Ever the cheap Ukrainian, he posed a counter-offer to the asking price.  The seller declined.  The deal was struck, the deposit made.  The seller ensured him the deposit would hold until  he could work out the logistics to return for delivery.  He thanked the seller and got back into the Cavalier.

He decided to re-set the Garmin to allow tolls so he could return home before 10:00 p.m.  A final smile, nod and toot of his horn, and he was off.

The trip back was uneventful, but not boring, as this more direct route was different than the one he used coming in.  Twenty or so miles from Syracuse, and the skies became gloomy again.

As he was about to exit the thruway for gas, he noticed an old VW bus on the road ahead.  A day before, he would have slowed down, perhaps even followed it. on the chance it might exit soon so that  he could approach the owner and at least look at it; talk about it; and even feel him/her out for a deal on it.



 But he did not slow down today.  Both he and Mary ignored the bus, pressing on  past Lake Cayuga, to get to his home on the Cuyahoga , where this Chautauqua would end.

As darkness grew he had his dinner.


It was especially delicious.






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