When the United States was on the bottom rung of The Great Depression, looking for a foothold, desperately clinging onto any shred of hope, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created The New Deal. Hand over hand, rung by rung, we sprung forward with innovative programs like The Tennessee Valley Authority, which still rests in my backyard today. No one got rich working a New Deal job, but it put a dollar in your pocket every day, and gave people a sense of pride. It wasn’t much, but it was yours, it was honest, and you earned it.
It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around what it took to survive in those days, but we’re still left with vestiges of their frugal and pragmatic legacy. Their kids, the Baby Boomers, have a peculiar dichotomy of thought.
Take, for example, Bob the Boomer. Bob drives a C6 Corvette. It’s an automatic convertible, of course. He and his wife Linda mosey on down to the Golden Corral on Thursday night to dip USDA-grade cat food meat into a Velveeta cheese fountain. Their house is a vinyl-siding monument to the 2008 housing bust, filled to a surfeit with Bob’s nonsense Bass Pro Shops doodads, like the goddamn singing fish. Bob always wants to show you his stupid singing fish, never mind the fact that it hasn’t even been a thing since 1999.
Bob is the epitome of everything I never want to be. If Bob seems aspirational to you, I strongly encourage you to consider launching yourself into the sun. Bob can never be a Jalop.
But Greg is. And his three-decade love affair with a 1987 Nissan Maxima is proof.
Three years ago, I was swiping around on Tinder and met one of Greg’s three wonderful daughters. After 10 months of dating, it came time to meet the man himself. Everything I heard from my girlfriend made me feel intimidated, because he’s an accomplished pathologist with his name on literally hundreds of published research papers over his three decade long career. I have a G.E.D., 18 karat gold teeth, and visible tattoos everywhere. Naturally, I thought Greg would disapprove of our pairing, put the kibosh on everything with a father-daughter talk, and it would be done.
But that’s not even close to what happened. Greg is the man we all aspire to be, and don’t know it. We connected instantly in our shared appreciation of science, skepticism, and our appetite for the same books. Jalops know each other across demographic lines. I now spend every Sunday morning with Greg, talking over coffee. That’s not an overstatement. It’s just how we are both wired.
Let’s say you’re a well-paid pathologist at a fine southern university, like Vanderbilt. Your daughters are grown, and you’ve paid off their college expenses. You could drive any car you want. Finances really don’t limit you anymore. What do you choose to drive?
Well, if you’re Greg, you drive a 1987 Nissan Maxima.
Greg has adopted postmodernism, because it was hard-wired into his Depression-survivor parents before him. Greg accepted globalization. That’s why Greg drives a 30-year-old Nissan with a 5-speed, and Bob drives an automatic Corvette. Bob doesn’t need a new car, but Bob wants a new car, and that’s enough reason to fulfill his vapid consumerism. Greg derives his value from the effort of his relationships. These two schools of thought cannot be reconciled with each other.
In 1945, the United States decided to melt two Japanese cities with atomic weapons, and nothing was the same ever again. Greg was a product of a mixed Boomer-environment, a post-Depression world with the specter of nuclear holocaust looming over his childhood with “duck and cover” drills. A pathologist has to keep everything in perspective, weighing all the variables, and then come to a conclusion.
Greg’s cold calculations inarguably got it right. His meticulous plans weathered several financial dips, including an oil embargo, a stock market crash, a dot com bust, a few wars, and a housing crisis. Through it all, Greg’s pulse never budged, because his parents taught him to prepare for events like The Great Depression.
When the economy goes south, Greg doesn’t worry, because he’s comfortable shifting early, just before the torque peak. Greg doesn’t need to prove to anyone his spending power can hit life’s metaphorical redline, because he’s content with the knowledge that he could, if he wanted to.
When Greg was in the market for a car back in 1990, it never occurred to him to purchase a brand new car. Secondhand would do just fine, as long as he got a mechanic to look things over. “Hondas and Toyotas kept a higher resale value, but I saw Nissan like a nice middle ground,” he recounted as we walked out the door and towards his pride and joy.
There it was in front of me. A three-box Japanese sedan from Nissan’s best era of so-called four-door sports cars. It was a piece of quality, in an era of some objectively bad American options. In 1987, Infiniti didn’t exist, so the Nissan Maxima was something a Japanese status car. While the Camry and Accord were respectable but boring, the Maxima was a four door sports car. That’s as brilliant a marketing tagline as there’s ever been for a car, even if it was never really true.
At 225,000 miles, Greg’s Maxima fires to life before settling at an even idle. You’d never mistake it for the disconnected and distant feel of a modern car, but the mechanical shake of the car made me feel like I knew the car already.
It’s a person you meet, and immediately feel you know — like when I first met Greg. The Maxima is old friend that you haven’t seen in 10 years, but with whom you pick up a conversation like no time passed at all.
This Maxima is no ordinary Maxima - in car terms, we call its history “provenance.” Greg purchased it with just a tick under 60,000 miles from John Stockfish, arguably one of the greatest rock/folk bassists of the 1960s and 70s. You’ve probably heard his bass lines on songs with Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce, Mel Torme, Cab Calloway, and others. “I tried to pretend I didn’t know who he was when I bought it from him. But I knew,” Greg told me, “... and it was a square deal. The car was only $6,000, and had lost about two thirds of its value in just three years. It was what I needed.”
Even with those high miles, the clutch is still original, and it still bites. I’m going to repeat that right now because it seems insane: The clutch doesn’t feel like a 225,000 mile clutch. It feels like a 10,000 mile clutch.
Greg has recently replaced all the shocks and struts on the car, doing away with the air shocks and sticking with metal. “I considered doing the air shocks again, but the cost was too high, and springs seemed simpler.”
As I’m driving over some low grass to get towards our shooting location, he chimes, “Mind the grass. The catalytic converter doesn’t have its shield on it. I’d hate to start a fire.” Then he chuckles a bit.
“The plan was, I’d get the girls through elementary school, and then I’d get a new car. Then elementary school passed, and the car was still in great shape, so I just figured I’d get them through middle school.”
Taking the meandering two lanes through Belle Meade, the contrast is sharp: Greg lives among his peers. These are all doctors and lawyers, investment bankers, and famous musicians. The money in his neighborhood is palpable, and yet the Maxima feels substantial.
I didn’t feel inferior when I saw an M4 appear in my rearview mirror. Sure, that guy in the M4 spent more, but he didn’t have the same connection to the car. The M4 was “store bought”, while the Maxima was “homemade.”
No one would ever say this Maxima is fast. It’s not. The old 3.0-liter VG series V6 engine has likely lost some compression over the years, and Greg feeds it a quart every 3,000 miles. In his trunk is every fluid he might need as a spare, towels, and a small tool kit. Greg is prepared for anything that might beset the path of his Maxima.
“I don’t think I have spent more than two car payments per year on this car. I told Erin (his daughter, my girlfriend) to just sock away a car payment every month for five years, and you can buy your next car with cash,” Greg said.
It’s a mentality that doesn’t exist in the modern world, but it resounds with me, because I have purchased every car I have ever owned with cash. We’re kindred spirits in that sense: Financing a depreciating asset is for suckers.
Greg and I arrived at a picturesque waterfall, but it was lacking in water. He was beaming. I mean, I don’t think he’d ever seen someone else really appreciate his baby. That’s something you need to understand about Greg’s car: He loves this car. He literally told me that as we were looking at it, while I was taking photos.
“I was thinking about getting one of those Ford Transit vans and camping when I retire. But it had those half black dots on Consumer Reports, so I’m not sure I want one. Maybe I’ll just get this car restored.” He laughed, because he wanted me to assume he was kidding, but I’m not so certain he was kidding.
As he creeps closer to 70, I realize Greg is a lot like his old Nissan Maxima. Yeah, it has a few spots of rust on the fenders, but there is plenty of life left in there. College basketball ravaged Greg’s knees early on in life, and his height lends him towards having back problems, but he manages. It’s not about pushing it as hard as you can go, but about knowing the limits, and maintaining for as long as you can.
“Crawford Z used to take care of this car, but it’s not close to work anymore, so I take it to Lawson’s for anything,” he said. “They know me at both places. The last time I was there they laughed about me a little. ‘Who else would daily drive a Maxima that’s 30 years old?’ Once it hit 25 years I could have gotten the antique tag, but it’s not an antique. I’ll probably put more than 6,000 miles a year on this car. It’s good to drive.”
I was about to cut in, but Greg interjected quickly, “You know, I’ve had some fun cars. I had the Porsche 356 when I was younger. You know, it was fun, but this car,” Greg paused, “I really love this car.”
When I got handed the keys to Greg’s car, I felt like I was doing something special. It somehow felt like an even more forbidden experience than dating his daughter. I was nervous, to say the least.
Nothing on the car is broken, and everything gets gentle treatment. The pneumatic strut under the hood is solid. All the power windows roll up with speed, and the sunroof doesn’t leak. Every seat looks brand new. Only the center armrest shows any signs of wear, from three decades of elbow rest. Mechanically the car is as perfect as a car with 225,000 miles can be.
Honestly, after driving the car, I’m blown away by Nissan’s engineering. Since there was no Infiniti, the Maxima had to be luxurious, and for its time, it was. The dash stitching even looked nice by today’s standards. The double-din stereo has a built in equalizer, and all the speakers are clear, if not very loud. But really, if you’re listening to James Taylor, how loud do you really need?
Greg cares for his Maxima with the same precision and sensible nature he raised his daughters. You’ll never want for anything in your life, but it probably won’t be a luxurious lifestyle. I know this from talking to Erin, that her parents never really spoiled her or her sisters. They all got what they needed, and everyone was cared for - but there wasn’t much excess. They still scraped the bottom of ever mayonnaise jar. Only one thing was verboten in their home: Waste.
Sure, he could hire a landscaper like all his neighbors, but Greg mows his own lawn. He values the process of maintaining what he has, because there’s pride about something being yours, and being honest. It takes me back to what my great-grandpa used to tell me about The New Deal, and what Greg and his wife were telling me about over our Sunday morning breakfast: It’s not about what you have. It’s not about how much. It’s about the honesty, and how much you appreciate it. Work is about the purpose it gives you.
“When I got the girls through college, I figured I’d just keep it until I retire. When I retire, I’ll get a new car.” Greg seemed sad saying this aloud. I was pulling into the driveway, and he seemed disappointed, because our moment was gone. “I’ll get a new car when I retire. I need knee replacements anyway.”
He never said he’d trade it in. He never said he was replacing the Maxima. He never said he would sell it. The maxim of loving a Maxima is like a marriage with a partner you love, or the children you raise together. It takes maintenance. It takes time. Sometimes, you’ll be frustrated when things break down - but loving a car takes communication. Greg loves his Maxima.
I’m 30 years old, and he’s owned this car for 27 of those 30 years. He has a longer relationship with his car than I have with anyone in my life, except my parents.
Greg made a promise to his wife to love her forever. He made a promise to his three daughters to love them, put them through college, and always be a guiding light. And he made a promise to his Maxima, and he just keeps on keeping it.
Shane Morris has a Schillerstövare named Dory, a girlfriend that is probably too attractive for him, and he likes smoked pork butt with brown ales.