City Paper is not for tourists
First off, let me say: I know how to drive. Not only that, I love to drive. Give me a great sound system, a full tank of gas, preferably six or eight cylinders, and I could just go forever…or at least until my back starts to hurt, I get hungry, or the little empty symbol pings on. That said, my driving is limited to the two pedal variety, otherwise known as automatic.
Yet, I’ve always wanted to learn how to drive stick shift. A driving fan should be ready for all types of vehicular experiences—even if she worries she will never be able to afford a car ever again with these gas prices.
Anyway, this summer, I’m going for the gold: I will learn to drive my family’s 1996 pollen-coated, red Ford Contour. I may even do periodic updates on my progress—like our old feature “Drivers Ed“—if there is in fact real progress, or I feel it is the most pressing thing I have to share. (This post has some fun facts at the end, so you might actually learn something besides what I did Monday night.)
So round one: Let’s just talk about the act of relearning to drive, which is a deeply amusing experience for a few reasons:
(1) It’s hard, and you feel incompetent.
Remember when you first started driving and nearly sideswiped that shiny BMW parked on the side of the road? Or your parents warned you to not hit children—-Dad:”You see those kids right? Those kids want to live past the next five minutes, so don’t hit them”—-at least half a block away? Or, in the case of my friend Sarah, you meant to brake quickly and instead pressed sharply on the gas, accelerating into a wall (She was fine. So was her mom)? Well, standard is a whole new ball game.
(2) Your inner 16-year-old reemerges.
This sensation is augmented if you actually learn to drive in a high school parking lot, as I did. You’re there. And so are other people. They watch as you fail to execute what seems like a very easy motion: shifting into first, gently raising the clutch as you simultaneously press on the gas. Bam, bam, bam. WHAT!?! Why is the car jerking crazily, when you seemingly have done everything required? There must be something wrong with this old piece of shit car.
Are those little girls, circling on bikes nearby, laughing at you? What about that crowd of kids, probably upper class men, leaving the school after some late night rehearsal or club meeting? They most likely think you’re a loser too.
(3) Again, there’s a childish sense of accomplishment when you improve.
After two sessions, I think I’m ready for the open road. Preferably this open road will be very wide, with no parked vehicles, or hard buffers. A country open road, with soft, soft grass, would be ideal. Also, if you can operate stick shift, you enter in an elite class of skilled drivers, who also happen to be earth-savers!
Only 35 percent of drivers know how to operate a standard transmission car, according to American Automobile Association spokesperson John Townsend, who pulled together some stats for me about manual v. automatic cars. Fueleconomy.gov, a website for the Department of Energy, has compiled a list of the most energy efficient cars available in 2008. About half are manual. (Past lists included a greater tilt towards manual.) Despite this fact, fewer than nine percent of the new vehicles sold in the United States today have standard transmission, writes Townsend, and that number is expected to drop to six percent by the year 2012.