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The Secret to Happiness: a 1994 Subaru Legacy GT Step Roof

“The secret of happiness is not in doing what one likes to do, but in liking what one has to do.” - J.M. Barrie

March 26, 2020.

Today marks two weeks since the start of Utah’s Covid-19 shelter-in-place-work-from-home experiment, with seemingly no end in sight. Our federal government is doing what federal governments want to do: report V-Day instead of D-Day. State governments are doing what state governments want to do: point the finger of blame at the federal government with one hand, while simultaneously requesting dollars and resources from it with the other. People on social media are doing what people on social media want to do: shame people for being happy, shame people for being sad, shame people for going shopping, shame people for not going shopping, shame people for shaming people, and record videos of themselves dancing and singing at home. 

Several friends in New York City have or recently had the virus--12 days of trying to sleep off a 104 degree fever and a hacking cough, with only tasteless food and Netflix to mollify the worst flu they’ve ever had. My social distancing won’t do anything to help them. A passenger in a lifeboat who can hear the splashing of the unlucky, I often feel sad for the many others who have lost health, jobs, and lives. 

To add to distress, a 3.3 magnitude earthquake this morning reminded Utahns of last week’s 5.7 and 4.0 earthquakes and their accompanying aftershocks. A $48.5 million geologic gang-up on Salt Lake County, all too real and not to be overshadowed by the novel coronavirus. My wife, inspired by the recent tremors, just purchased a few hundred dollars of emergency preparedness equipment for Utah’s impending 7.0 ‘big one.’ “Liquefaction zone” is now in my vocabulary.

April also revealed its janus face by snowing all night, chilling the hope out of whoever’s left in downtown Salt Lake City and closing the I-80 pass for a couple of hours earlier this morning which rarely happens. The cold, desert air breaks up whatever skin is left on my knuckles from all COVID-killing handwashing. Light snow continues to fall in an on/off manner, as if the machine responsible for precipitation has faulty wiring.

But honestly, I’m not thinking about any of the bad news at the moment. My wife and I are standing in an empty section of a Target parking lot on the industrial side of Salt Lake City, and all I can think about is how happy I am. A vehicle transport driver in a facemask and blue surgical gloves greets me and passes me a clipboard. I’m not wearing a facemask; my smile is naked.

“Please sign right here. I think it would be best if you use your own pen,” he says, gripping his own in the hand furthest away from me.

I pull mine out of my pocket, dutifully following the instructions of not only the driver but also his scheduler, who texted me hours earlier to simultaneously update me on the driver’s whereabouts following the freeway closing and notify me about a new bring-your-own-pen-so-you-don’t-get-or-give-coronavirus policy.

“This is for you,” the driver states, handing me a single key. I accept it without hesitation, zero care to where it’s been or what’s been on it. I can see the brass on both the bit and bow where the silver finish has rubbed off, a nice patina. 

“And $1100, if you don’t mind…” The delivery fee.

“I don’t mind,” I reply, handing him a stack of $20 bills from multiple ATM visits. I smile at the ridiculousness of the situation.

“Umm…” He stows the clipboard underneath his arm and accepts the money with both gloved hands. It’s lightly snowing, again.

“Is it all here?” he asks. “Because I don’t really want to count it.” His tone tells me he’s hoping that I’m an honest person.

“It’s all there,” I assure him. “Thanks, man, and stay safe.”

It’s March 26, 2020. My wife turns 31 today. Yes, coronavirus is here. Utah’s earth quakes. Winter just sucker-punched spring. The driver is putting cars back on his transport. And, I can’t stop grinning as I look at my new right-hand drive, twin-turbo 1994 Subaru Legacy GT wagon, freshly imported from Japan, by Japanese Classics.

My new old car is painted in the original Emerald Green Metallic with added yellow rally lights in the front and a purple tint on the side and rear glass. My wife dislikes the tint, and, later, a random guy with a scraggly beard and beanie calls it ‘pretty,’ reinforcing my wife’s position. I like how the purple filter turns cloudy sunsets into cotton candy. Regardless, there should be more green cars on the road; this purchase is me doing my part. Factory five-spoke wheels don’t draw any attention to themselves but get the job done, while factory rails line the roof.

The original EJ20H boxer motor shares compartment space with the two original turbos, twice as many as the current top-of-the-line Legacys sitting on lots without buyers as most commerce is temporarily halted. The internet tells me that horsepower output is somewhere between 250HP and the 279HP ‘gentleman’s agreement’ the Japanese OEMs adhered to during this era, the latter also being more than the current Legacy. The 4-speed automatic transmission is one of the first things I want to change, however, the powertrain scoots the car out of the Target parking lot and onto the snow-blown SLC streets just fine. I can feel RPM fluctuations and a slight shudder when I’m parked at lights. Cliff suggests I try straightening that out with a fuel cleaner additive, which I’ll pick up from a Walmart five minutes before closing one night, after navigating past the empty shelves of the paper product aisles just in case a late shipment of Charmin came in. The four spoke steering wheel offers solid feedback. The alignment skews slightly right, so I compensate for the moment by holding the wheel left a few degrees. There’s a button on the side of the transmission shifter labeled “Power,” making the engine and the transmission work for my enjoyment, making the car louder and faster. Though not the fastest vehicle on the road, the time in between stop lights is as banoodles as I want.

Speaking of buttons, every button and switch inside still works--including the folding and heated side mirrors, the heated, leather seats, and the rear sunroof--a quarter of a century testament to Kaizen. The front sunroof is fixed by design, with a shade that can be opened and closed easily with only a few fingers. When I change lanes, I signal my intent to turn with my windshield wipers by accident. I have to remember the turn signal is the right lever on the steering stock instead of the one on the left. I laugh at myself every time I screw up. The automatic climate controls work wonderfully with only slight wheezing every now and then. I push the blue and red arrows for hotter or colder until it feels right, because I don’t understand what the corresponding Celsius numbers on the LCD display are supposed to feel like.

The stereo is original, including CD and cassette players by Kenwoo. The CD player doesn’t read CDs for some reason. I’ll have to fix that down the road, but in the meantime, I can listen to classical music on 89.1 FM or one of three cassette tapes I ordered from Amazon: “Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1”, “Blue” by Third Eye Blind, and “Highlights, The Very Best of” by prog-rock staple Yes. When the radio receiver is engaged an antenna telescopes up and out from the rear left of the car, and when another media input is selected the antenna collapses back into its base. 

The interior has a perfume of cleaner, ‘90s leather and plastic, and something slightly musky, not entirely unappealing to me, like a library or a garage or someplace from a happy memory long ago. All of the original floor mats are in great condition. The owner’s manual is still in the glove box with some service receipts and Japanese handwriting. I can’t read anything in the manual, but I know exactly what’s going on from the plentiful cartoon illustrations, which happen to be the perfect representation of the whole experience: the ‘fun’ in ‘functional.’

Driving on the right-side of a car is like cutting a sandwich diagonally into two triangles. The sandwich is still all there, and it tastes the same. However, the process of eating a triangle is more pleasurable, a novel bit of happiness from repackaged perception of a humdrum task. Sir James M. Barrie, the Scottish novelist of Peter Pan fame, once wrote, “The secret of happiness is not in doing what one likes to do, but in liking what one has to do.” When driving on the right-hand side of the car, I share in that secret.

The CEO of the company I work at says all the time, “People don’t buy products, they buy experiences.” Every time I grab my single silver and brass key from the dish next to our front door, I realize more economic utility from my wire transfer to Japanese Classics and the stack of twenties I handed to the transport driver at Target. Every time I turn over the engine. Every time I modulate the turbo wine with the gas pedal. Every time Norman Greenbaum sings “Spirit in the Sky” from the cassette player through the sound system. Every time I tell someone I have a car with the steering wheel on the right-hand side, and they respond with, “Is that legal?” Every time my wife comments on how comfy the seats are. Every time I use the right lever on the steering wheel to signal my intent to turn. Every time I go for milk or my prescription medication. Every time I want to set aside, for a moment, my feelings on coronavirus, the earthquakes, the weather, relationships, work, my body, my shortcomings, my stress, I can temporarily replace it with something special.

The sun is now setting, and I’m driving down Foothill Blvd toward the best Indian restaurant in Utah. I didn’t have enough time to make dinner AND a homemade cake tonight, so I’ve ordered takeout for my wife’s birthday: butter chicken and lots of naan. I stop at a traffic light next to the University of Utah campus. A blue Ford Focus RS pulls up next to me. I look over at the driver, a clean-cut kid in a plaid shirt who doesn’t notice me. He and I are the only ones on what would normally be a very busy artery connecting downtown SLC to the freeways -- a new normal. The light changes, and I floor it. The boxer motor and the AWD system double team the notion of being stationary, and I pull away from the Focus RS. The shift from 1st to 2nd gear is violent. I don’t know the math yet to convert my KPH into MPH, but I feel fast. In my rearview, I see the Ford catching up to me, and then pull alongside me. The driver looks over, now noticing me. His face changes in surprise. “This isn’t a race,” I say to him telepathically. “This is ‘Hello!’” Two random people sharing a moment about cars. He mouths “What is that?” with eyes that tell me he understands what’s going on here. I can only laugh back at him, with a freedom of someone with zero buyer’s remorse. He smiles with his mouth open and flashes a “rock on” hand gesture, before turning off into a university parking lot. 

As I continue down the road, I wonder what my new friend, the clean-cut kid with the plaid shirt in the blue Ford Focus RS, did next. If he were me, I probably would have sat in my car after pulling into a spot and texted Cliff how a RHD green Subaru wagon just smoked me in my faster Focus RS. We’d laugh via SMS and talk about how cool import cars are, and how we’re glad someone out there buys them and drives them, because they make us happy.

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