How to Be a Racing Pirate King

05.21.13 12:01 PM ET

Years ago, Ben Stein published a sweet eulogy for his departed father, the economist Herb Stein. Ben wrote of the pang he felt when he saw his father's obsolete Cadillac land yacht parked in the basement of his apartment building, like a horse awaiting its rider.

I've had a somewhat different experience these past days driving the car of my late father-in-law, Peter Worthington. My mother-in-law kindly lent me the car to help me visit the Toronto hospital where my own father is ailing. And I've noticed a very peculiar thing:

Peter had many great skills, but even in his prime he was a heedless driver. In his later years, he was a speeding menace to society. His bright red Subaru hatchback came to resemble … well, I can't describe it. Better just see the photo.

Here's the amazing thing. When you drive a car as battered as Pete's, you get a strange substitute for respect. Nobody wants to come anywhere near you, and the more expensive the other car, the wider berth it allows. "Watch this," I said to my two older children as we headed south on Toronto's Bayview Avenue. At a certain point, this artery suddenly allows side-of-the-road parking. At just that very point, I spotted a brand-new Porsche Carrera convertible to my right rear. What would normally happen in such a situation is that the Porsche would accelerate like crazy to nip in front of me before its lane disappeared. But not in Pete's Subaru! From the point of view of every gleaming luxury automobile nearby, I seemed a driving maniac with nothing to lose. I looked perfectly capable of trying to outrun the Porsche's maneuver, thereby producing a disaster that would mean nothing to me - what's one more smashed-in panel? - but would inflict the first heartbreaking scar on that lovely new car. Its driver fell well back and allowed me to take the lead.

It happened again and again. Just one look at me caused a new silver Bentley to double the distance between our two cars as drove up Toronto's Avenue Road. A new Lexus braked abruptly as we both bore down upon the same parking space at the airport.

No wonder Pete never feared to drive, even well past the time he should have stopped. I felt I'd hoisted the Jolly Roger atop the torn and dented little craft - and Pete in his time must likewise have felt a racing pirate king, as the bicyclists veered, the pedestrians hopped, and the other drivers insisted, "No, no, after you."