I have learned to drive a stick shift…about 23 times. I have always been the driver in our family. As soon as I got my learner’s permit, I would beg my dad to let me drive him up to Santa Barbara for coffee every weekend. I got my driver’s license at 9 am on my 16th birthday. Of course with the price of gas, those were some expensive coffee runs. But can you really put a price on father/daughter bonding? I think not.
So, I love to drive. I like windy roads. I don’t mind crowded LA freeways. I am an excellent parallel parker. And yet, there I was, four years ago, in my sister’s manual transmission ’94 Ford Contour, slamming my hand against the steering wheel. This first attempt at stick shift driving in a warehouse parking lot can only be called an utter failure. Including the part where a group of men got a good fifteen minutes of entertainment watching me stall and start and stall and start and burn out and stall and on and on.
Somewhere between lessons 2 and 12, my father and my sister were convinced that I had it down. I just needed to practice my skills outside of parking lots. “You’ll be fine!” And we were fine in the sense that all of the passengers, and the car, emerged intact from this trial by fire learning experience. Of course, by any other measure, it didn’t go very well. Especially that bit where I stalled through two cycles of a stoplight.
Then there was my dear friend Emily. Who was actually by far the most successful teacher. At the end of our stick shift lessons three years ago, I was maneuvering neighborhoods with relative ease. Or at least minimal stalling. We declared this a rousing success. I was quite sure I could handle main roads without too much squealing of tires. Until I got to a stoplight, panicked, and stalled.
There were sporadic teaching efforts made by my father after that, but it became increasingly difficult to muster the motivation to practice a skill that gave me heart palpitations when, oh, look, I have this lovely automatic Honda Civic right here. Then Matt came along. Apparently, it is the duty of a good boyfriend to teach his girlfriend to operate a manual transmission. I’m not quite sure how this came to be the case. I guess it sounds kind of cute and romantic on some level, just like it was cute and fun when my dad taught me how to shift the gears while he drove when I was a little girl. In truth, grinding gears and whiplash hardly sound like the makings of a fun date, but Matt was sure he would make an excellent teacher.
Like any good driving student, I played the petulant teenager, fully convinced I already knew what I was doing.
Matt: “So now put in the clutch, then move it into first.”
Me: “I know. I’ve only done this like a hundred times.”
Matt: “Okay, well I haven’t been there. And it’s my car.”
Me: *heavy sigh*
That part was actually in good fun. I even managed to mostly keep my mouth shut as he gave me the same directions I’d heard from my last three teachers. I turned easily through the parking lot, eventually getting up enough speed to enjoy the tight suspension on his little red car. After practicing starts about thirty times up a small hill, and proving that I could move easily from one gear to the next, Matt directed me out of the parking lot. He was fairly impressed, even, with how little I was stalling. This much is clear: if all the driving I did was in parking lots, I could drive a manual transmission with no trouble at all.
Things started off well enough. I managed stop signs and stop lights, even with cars behind me. I didn’t panic when I stalled once at a right hand turn. I drove slowly and carefully. I was doing fine. We were headed to a park, and Matt directed me through a neighborhood. “Turn here. Oops, wrong street. Turn around.” I carefully moved to the edge of the street so I would have enough room to turn around without needing to move into reverse. “Just make a left up here.” I looked carefully, and seeing not a single car on the quiet residential street, moved out make the turn. Correction, make that “attempted” to move out to make the turn. I stalled, rolled into the street a bit, stalled again, rolled, stalled again.
“You’re okay, just give it more gas,” Matt offered as I started to breath rapidly, “Calm down. Just try it again.” I stalled five, then six times, laughing in nervous, frustrated bursts as I tried over and over to start the car and get out of the street. Then two cars start appear from opposite directions, moving just quickly enough to frighten me into a panic as I sat in the middle of the street. Realistically, they were moving slowly enough, and could see me for long enough, that running into us would need to be a very intentional act. In my head, we were going to die.
Matt laughed lightly, trying to encourage me. Then he noticed the tears rolling from underneath my sunglasses as I clutched the wheel. Finally, the car lurched forward and continued moving. I shakily started to pull over. “I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore,” my words catching in my throat. Matt brushed at my tears and told me I was doing great. Then he jiggled the clutch and started laughing. “You were trying to start in third gear!” I laughed weakly and moved to the passengers seat, still shaking with adrenaline.
“That’s very impressive, you know. That you were even able to start the car at all from third gear.” Ya, that’s it. I was really just trying to show off my newfound stick shift prowess. I mean, with that skill I’m clearly ready for race car driving.