THE best moment is swooping south on the F.D.R. Drive, just before the Manhattan Bridge, when the highway elevates again and it is like you are in a little airplane taking off.
The view unfolds just over the silver hood: the downtown skyline, the East River bridges, Governors Island, the harbor. It's best at sunset, of course, when the piers in Brooklyn are painted orange, but that's usually rush hour. So make it just after midnight, when the windows of the skyscrapers are like stars. I've had the Miata for just over a year now, and that stretch of road is my favorite in the city, ahead of the Belt Parkway or beneath one of the towers of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, where it is oddly frightening to look up (just for a second, officer). Then there's Warren Street in Cobble Hill, where the summer-full trees create a scratchy ceiling of leaves, and the F.D.R. from the other direction, coming up to the Brooklyn Bridge from the south. No traffic there, even in rush hour.
It's little surprise, I guess, that driving a convertible around New York is as good as I'd imagined it would be all those times I'd watched one zip by. Little surprise that the city is not just in front and behind, but up and around. And when you are stuck in traffic or waiting at a red light, you can inspect a new universe of gargoyles, water towers, breezeways, faded ads, cornices, steeples and building tops. A universe once hidden by the car roof.
But forgetting for a moment orange-painted piers and windows that turn into stars, there have been surprises, and lessons learned. Just as you experience the vertical city anew, so does the city experience you; you are wide open, exposed. When you say to your wife, "Look at that jerk in the backward baseball cap" while inching through the crowds in Greenwich Village, that jerk in the backward baseball cap can hear you. If you sing along with the radio for a verse or two, everyone around can hear you. And it takes a while to get over the feeling that some crazy person might hop into the passenger seat.
The lessons? Well, let's see. Listen to the weather report, and look out for truck and S.U.V. drivers who cannot see you from their lofty perches. Resist the temptation to compete with people who want to drag race. And whatever you do, do not lose your temper, because while it is very, very unpleasant to be yelled at by a police officer in front of a crowd of people, it is even more unpleasant to be given a disorderly conduct summons by one.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Something about driving a convertible in New York is incongruous. They seem more suited to Southern California, to the country, to wide-open spaces, than to the five boroughs. Some place with sun, and sky, and a speed limit faster than 35 miles an hour. Keeping a convertible on the street in Red Hook, Brooklyn, seems even more incongruous; anyone walking by with a Swiss Army knife could open up the top and have a look inside.
But I'd had the idea in my head for years, and I wasn't going to be moving to any wide-open space any time soon. The simple lines, the pop-up headlights and the super-cool oval air intake of the first Mazda Miata in 1990 had attracted my eye and, by last year, my 35th, the price of a used one had dropped squarely into my price range, or at least the price I was willing to spend on a second car with no practical purpose and a dubious life expectancy. So I paid $4,000 for a silver 1991 Miata that I found in New Jersey on the Internet, and an additional $500 for a quick paint job. Insurance -- just liability, no theft or collision -- cost roughly $75 a month from Geico, which already insured my four-door baby-seat-equipped Honda Accord.
The Miata had just more than 80,000 miles on it but ran like new. It passed inspection, although it needed two new tires ($100 each). I planned to keep it on the street, slipping a $20 bill every now and then to the the building next door's doorman, Neville, who goes by the nickname Panama.
Not bad: just under $5,000 for the whole thing, and a few dollars each month. If it were stolen or crushed by a cement truck the day after I drove it home from the Jersey Shore, my heart might break, but I wouldn't go bankrupt.
So, on a blustery overcast-with-breaks-of-blue-sky day in spring, I started exploring the city from my new vantage.
The little silver car and I went up along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, then the Gowanus, then the Belt Parkway, which turns sharply west at 65th Street in Bay Ridge. There, the panorama of the Lower New York Bay unfolds, the water somehow a deeper blue-green from truck-bumper height, contrasting with the rusted reds of the waterlines of the freighters and tankers riding at anchor. The briny smell of the harbor blew around the windshield.
We went down Broadway from Columbia University to the Brooklyn Bridge, edging through the cavernous video game of Times Square, with people walking around and looking down at the top of my head, and then down through the 20's, forking left at the Flatiron Building.
WE went around Manhattan, stopping and starting on the West Side, zooming along the Henry Hudson in the 80's where it feels as if you are in a Woody Allen movie, crossing over on Dyckman Street, getting splashed with some sort of whitish liquid leaking from an underpass on the F.D.R. Then that great moment near the Manhattan Bridge.