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.
All of which brings me to that police officer.
It was a warm July night, sunset, medium traffic getting onto the Brooklyn Bridge from Centre Street in Manhattan, the twin towers still there in the background. I was behind the wheel, Helene in the passenger seat, WBGO's jazz on the radio, and we were heading home from a dinner out with my parents.
We saw the cab after crossing Chambers Street. We were in the left lane, the double yellow line to our left. The cab was going in the same direction, but he was to our left, too -- passing us going the wrong way toward traffic coming off the bridge. He screeched past, pulled in front, and then stopped abruptly as the light changed, forcing me to hit the brakes.
A second later, at that sharp left turn at the bottom of the bridge, the luck of traffic and the laws of physics put me next to him again. So I did what any reasonable, mature person would do: I pulled in front of him, stopped the car, got out as Helene asked, "Honey, what are you doing?" and began jumping up and down and yelling at him.
This went on for a very short time until I heard someone shout: "Hey! Stop it! Now!"
A female police officer stood behind the fence on the walkway path onto the bridge, her uniform pressed razor sharp, a Glock on her hip, her hat pushed high on her head, the shiny brim covering her eyebrows and even the tops of her eyes. She looked like a very efficient police officer. She was shorter than I was, but she seemed much taller, as I was now the size of a tiny little mouse.
"Get back in your car and wait for me," she said before walking around the fence. Her trip took about 30 seconds. It felt much longer. As I sat in the driver's seat and the other motorists who I'd delayed drove past, I was again reminded how much New Yorkers can curse.
A crowd gathered on the walkway. Then my father drove by in his Honda. He didn't curse, but he looked very grim.
The cab sat behind me. The officer came up and asked me what happened. I told her, and she said: "I know you have a very nice car here, but you can't do that, you can't go around yelling at people. This is New York City. Even if he hit you, you shouldn't have yelled at him."
FAIR enough. Then she went to talk to the cabbie before talking on her radio for a while and leaning on the hood of the cab to write something down. Good, I thought, she is going to give him a ticket for that hugely illegal move he pulled getting on to the bridge, the move that nearly killed me. Maybe he'll get his license suspended and lose his job. Maybe he'll go to jail.
She walked up and handed me two disorderly conduct summonses, one for making "unreasonable noise," the other for making "obscene gestures."
She then told me when to be in court, and that she would see me there. She told me to drive safely.
As we started up again, and as the lyrics, "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time" played over and over in my head, I thought about what the officer had said, "I know you have a very nice car here." If I'd been in the Honda, would she have said, "I know you have a very practical car here"?
I asked Helene, who was so angry with me that her face was bright red. (For a second I thought she was going to ask the officer to arrest me.) Her answer came quickly: "Don't you see? People hate you and your little silver car."
They really did.
A few weeks later, I had my hearing at the criminal court building on Centre Street, a few blocks from the scene of the crime. I put on my nicest blue summer suit and a proud yet contrite-looking red-and-blue tie, and took the subway into Manhattan. I got there early.