I am not normally prone to weeping. I’ll sniffle occasionally at a Meryl Streep movie or an episode of Emergency Vets. You might hear me choke up in an attempt to speak about a loved one at some ceremonious occasion. But one does not generally find me in a crumpled ball surrounded by a flood of salty tears. Until…I decided to buy a new car.
Inspired by my Seattle surroundings, I was seriously going green. I ate local. I purchased recycled toilet paper, environmentally-friendly dishwashing, clothes-washing, face-cleansing, body-scrubbing, counter-cleaning products, and I started composting….everything, including the hair from my hairbrush. I flushed when necessary, forwent one shower each week on the minimal sweating days when I had no plans for any exceptionally close hugging. Most of what I owned: clothes, furniture, electronics, had originally been, in their newness, in the hands of someone else. As I began to scan the larger contributors to my carbon footprint, I saw potential further eco-salvation in the purchase of an alternative car that relied not on Chevron but on the transformed substance from the discards of the local greasy spoon: Biodiesel.
I liked this idea. Biodiesel stations were popping up in a few near-by neighborhoods and I had heard word of a couple guys who made their own stuff from Tempura. My friend, Sam, was a customer and I had enjoyed the subtle yet continuous scent of donuts when riding in his car. I thought “Yes, this is, indeed, the right next step.”
After a test drive with a biodiesel Mercedes left me feeling as if I was behind the wheel of a large sailing vessel, I determined to sleuth out a slightly daintier model. I practically groped the internet in search of one that I hoped would elevate me to the position of having officially snubbed Exxon and his evil siblings, Shell and Arco. Adding to my eagerness for a speedy purchase, was an impending 5 hour drive to a snowy section of Oregon that would require the use of a more trustworthy vehicle than my Buick, which sputtered, stammered and slid in any hint of precipitation. Plus I was becoming weary of having to manually click my left turn signal which had refused to work on its own accord over the past year, eliciting many curious looks and comments from those in the passenger seat about why I fondled my automobile every time I needed to make a left. Additionally, the dried up SPF 15 lotion I had accidentally spilled across the entire dashboard 2 years prior had subsequently stained the area likening it to a lame Jackson Pollack painting. I had neglected cleaning it for 6 months thinking that when I “had the time” (i.e. the 7.5 minutes it might take to bring a washcloth and Windex out to the car), it would readily disappear. I was mistaken and was now stuck with a permanently sullied console.
One late evening online, I happened upon an ad in craigslist for biodiesel cars that could be shipped by an individual vendor from Montana. One cute and hip VW Golf was right in my price range. Now, I write “VW Golf” as if I actually knew what that even meant at the time. Hailing from New York City where I didn’t get a license until I was 25 years old, I had a brief moment when I thought the listing might be referring to a golf cart. Luckily a conversation with the seller, “Scott”, cleared that up and I began to move forward with the purchasing proceedings. There were references given and phone calls made to former customers with glowing reviews of this car peddler. There was a lovely and friendly phone conversation with “John”, an affable auto mechanic in Montana who checked out the Golf and gave it the oil-stained thumbs up. It was all clear. I felt ready to complete the wire transfer and join the ranks of French Fry scented exhaust pipe proprietors. The car would arrive two days before my trip and I would be all set to go. In my excitement, I called my friend Andy, also a biodiesel enthusiast, to share my eco-news.
“That’s great,” He chimed. “Is it an automatic or a stick shift?” I chuckled.
“Oh, it’s an automatic, of course. I don’t know how to drive a stick shift.” Then….panic. WAS it an automatic? Had Scott and I discussed that? Did John make mention of it as he enumerated the many aspects about the car that were functional? I made the phone call that night.
“Uh Scott, this is a silly question but the car is not a stick shift, is it?”
“It sure is”, Scott chirped. “That’s what it said in the ad: ‘5 speed’.”
My jaw dropped. My stomach quivered. 5 speed. Yes, I had remembered seeing that. However, in my vehicular ignorance, I had thought, “Sure, 5 speed. Sounds great. That’s what cars do. They have speeds. Really slow, slow, kind of fast, fast.” SHIT.
The wire transfer for 1000’s of dollars of my money was in progress as I drooled in disbelief on the phone mouth piece.
“Uh, Scott” I faltered. “I don’t know how to drive a stick shift. I’m not a strong driver on an automatic. I’m not sure I even know what having a stick shift means.”
A long breath emerged from the end of the line. “Well, it was in the ad, Mary.” Scott tried to sound amicable. “Plus stick shifts are more fun. It makes you feel like you are actually driving because you’re more in control.”
I don’t want to be in control, I reflected. I just want to sit down and put my gear into drive until I stop and need to put it into park. I don’t need to have fun while I drive. I just want to get somewhere. Suddenly the thought of my sputtering faulty left-turn signaling jalopy was like warm soothing firelight in my anxiety ridden vascular system. A five hour drive to snowy Oregon seemed more and more daunting. Curse my foolishly blind aspirations to be green.
“Let me let this all sink in, ok, Scott?” I said. “I’m going to make a few phone calls, maybe meditate on this for a minute and I’ll call you back.”
We hung up and I immediately telephoned three standard car owning friends, explaining in what felt like verbal burps: “Internet”, “Montana”, “5 speed”, “Scott”, “John”, “Biodiesel”, “killing the environment”. In 15 minutes I had 3 lessons set up and a healthy meditated upon vision of me driving happily to Oregon, shifting away, my smile swelling with each gear. I called Scott.
“It’s a go!” I yipped, falsely ebullient in my car confidence.
With the Golf due to arrive on Thursday evening, I had scheduled lessons on Monday and Tuesday to give me ample time to prepare my right hand and left foot for the additional jerking and thrusting necessary to operate a standard.
However, the stick shift tutorials left me more insecure than my original moment of panic after learning the true nature of my vehicle. My patient instructors, who also agreed to have me practice on their cars, attempted to soothe my nervous energy.
“You’re doing great,” encouraged my pal Andy, as I stalled in the middle of a driving island, a toothless ruffian in a yellow truck, honking madly behind us.
“Ease up on the clutch” advised Pete, my second teacher, and my left foot would disengage, sending us both shooting forward into the grasp of our seat belts, the car no longer running. I hated the clutch. I hated the stick shift. I hated the environment for getting ruined by my comforting 20 miles a gallon Buick.
Two friends gave me my final lesson pelleting me with the advice “Neutral is your friend” and something along the lines of “You can roll into second gear”, a very apropos suggestion which I promptly forgot as soon as I stepped out of the car and onto solid ground, my left leg still buzzing from the exerted pressure.
When my new Golf finally rolled into my driveway at 10pm on Thursday delivered by two lovely Polish guys who worked for Scott, and who spoke not a lick of English, I thought I’d give it a go on my own. I figured that with the late hour, there’d be fewer people around and less light to reveal my lack of license plates. I hopped into the driver’s seat, revved up the engine and slowly backed out of my driveway into a road heading west. I had made it out and my heart lurched with pride and self-admiration at my skill in mastering this new vehicle. When I peered into my rearview mirror, I was startled to see that, in fact, many cars seemed to be suddenly coming out of nowhere towards the road on which my car sat now awaiting my next move. At first the cars idled patiently behind me while I cautiously switched from reverse to first gear, released gently my left foot while pushing gently, GENTLY with my right and …..kaphlumph, the VW halted. No way. I was four feet out of my driveway. But I decided to remain calm. Ignition started, deep breath, determination in my soul, left food on the clutch ready to release, right foot on the gas ready to give and… kaphlumph. Repeat. Kaphlumph. Repeat. Kaphlumph.
And there I sat in the middle of the road, stalled only minutes after my initial and triumphant exit from my driveway. I began to roll backwards. It was at this point that I felt beads of sweat dripping down my lower back, which only happens after I’ve been in the sauna for 2 minutes, or when I sense the potential of death in the nearby future. A large grapefruit formed in the back of my throat. Cars were starting to slowly pass me. I rolled down my window and weakly waved the forward hoping my skinny wrist and tightly knuckled hand didn’t reveal my truth as an inexpert car woosy. This was not the eco-grooviness I was hoping for.
What kind of a nut case buys a car not only without seeing it, but knowing she is without the skill to drive it? The grapefruit was evolving into a small cantaloupe. I hopped out of the car and stood by it mouthing “I’m sorry!” to the oncoming cars, signaling them to pass me. Finally, one young fellow stopped (perhaps noticing my trembling lower lip) and offered to at least get me out of the road and onto more leveled ground. I readily accepted and minutes later, with the car still purring, I was back in the driver’s seat having gotten the thumbs up from this kind stranger for my eco-wheels. As I was mustering up my confidence to try again, it dawned on me: I’m in Seattle. There are hills on every other block. I felt a sense of doom as a cavernous hole formed in my stomach and I could imagine audience members watching the movie of my life screaming “Don’t do it! Get OUT of the car!”
First gear and I’m inching my way back onto the avenue. Second gear, I make a right turn. Third gear, ok, slow down, this is a residential neighborhood. It feels like the car is trying to drive itself. Fast forward through ten worrisome minutes. It’s dark. I’m on a steep one way street that I’ve turned onto by mistake. I’m rolling backwards and am not in control of my vehicle by any DMV standards. Those beads of sweat I wrote of earlier have made their way down to my butt crack forming a small pool. Fantastic. The fruit cup in the back of my throat had become a sizeable watermelon. Brake. Suddenly, it is not just the car debacle. It is everything. I don’t like my job. I’m single. I’m not as close with my brother as I want to be. I can’t stop grinding my teeth at night. I’m messy. I have no health care. My friends are different since they had kids, I worry about my Dad. I’ll never find that hand knit sweater from my grandma that I left on the bus. Injustice prevails in the world. It is as if my car headlights were suddenly spotlighting my life and all its foibles and I capitulate. The blubbering begins, deep and throaty, and I muster up enough tears to wipe clean the dashboard of my old Buick. The sobbing weakens my grip on the clutch and I can feel the car rolling backwards once again. This time, it’s the emergency brake I yank up. No more chances. I pull out my cell phone (yes, the recycled one) and call Andy, who is my friend most likely to be awake and whom I hope can calmly guide me through how to drive down a hill in reverse in the glow of a weak lamppost halfway up the block. He answers and my voice chokes.
“Andy, I’m in my Golf and rolling backwards down a fucking hill on the corner of 45th and 2nd Ave in Wallingford”.
He talks me down. Literally. Inch by inch I make my way backwards down the street in neutral, which, it turns out, IS my friend. I make it home, mascara stained cheeks and all and hobble inside my house to shower my soaked backside and relive the entire episode as I sleep.
The next day, I call Avis and rent a 4 wheel drive Subaru for the 5 hour trip to Oregon – best decision ever – considering the four foot high snow bank I had to back out of to start my trip home.
Eventually I learned to drive the Golf and came to feel that the stick shift was kind of like having my own penis that I could knock around whenever I wanted to.
The excursion towards a greener life continues. Next stop: solar panel roof. This time, I’m buying local.
First draft originally written in 2008. Revised and Edited in 2012
First draft originally written in 2008. Revised and Edited in 2012