August 05, 2007
Learning to Drive

It’s time to learn how to drive.

Sound of a scratching record… the film rewinds

OK, let me start this again. It’s time to learn how to drive… a STANDARD.

Repeat the sound…

No wait… let’s start again. Learning how to drive a standard, on a 37 year old Italian sports car, is quite an experience. An Alfa.

Repeat the sound once again…

Alfa? Yep, an Alfa. As in, Alfa Romeo. A nice one at that. Not the little shit tumblers you see puttering down the road. As in, well, every other goddamned car on the highway. You see, there’s a reason we’re all called Alfisti. All those other sad, little puttering cars… but I’m getting off track.

“What do you mean I have to learn how to drive that car? I hate driving that car! I don’t fit in it. I’m too short!”

Then he says, “I need the Cruiser for Gimpy Grandma days. You’re working more Saturdays now, and that’s a perfect time for me to do a GG day. She can’t get in and out of the Spider, so YOU are going to learn how to drive THIS car. And LIKE it!”

“FINE!” So there we were. Ten years of being the glamorous, envied Sophia Loren passenger in the exotic Italian sports car down the drain. No more. I would have to tame this tiny white beastie, make it mine. But not easily.

YOUR FIRST LESSON, SHOULD YOU CHOOSE TO ACCEPT IT: leave Olivia with Gimpy Gramma (giving her a lesson in “be careful what you wish for,” that being, “I really want to spend more time with my granddaughter.”) Go downstairs, and have a seat. *Grumbling the entire way down the elevator and walking up to the White Car of Axel Grease Doom (I never got the grease smell out of those Christmas toys I hid in there last year.)*

Let’s roll back just for a moment. It’s 100 degrees, there’s NO wind, 70% humidity, and there is NO AIRCONDITIONING in this car! The inside of the car is all black. Vinyl even. With the sun shining merrily onto the seat cushions.

What do cars with black interiors that are sitting in the sun do? They become mini E-Z-bake ovens! Whee!


Him: “Yeah, it can be a little hot in the sun.”

Me: “I notice your seat had a towel over it!”

“Well, that’s where the sun was when I parked!”


“OK! Turn the car on!”

Did I tell you that this key is a TINY key? It’s like one of those silly keys you get for suitcase luggage. CHUH CHUH CHUH bluh..

“No, you didn’t turn it right. Try it again.”


“Noo…here let me show you.” See how this is going so far? Damn tiny keys.

“Ok. This is what you do! You give it a ¼ inch of throttle--”


[Finally I get to do the lizard blink. – Scott]

“What the hell is a throttle? There are 3 freaking pedals here!”

“… it’s the far right one.”

Ok, far right one.

“You do this dance you see…”

This is where my eyes begin to glaze over, not out boredom, but out of fear. Fear that I am going to have to THINK about working the car and driving, not just merrily jumping in and hitting a key and going wherever I want.

The start is an adrenaline-humming blur. Do you know what happens if I break this goddamned thing? Neither do I! But this particular one was built nearly forty goddamned years ago! All those times I laughed at the term, “unobtanium?” Yeah, not so funny when you’re behind the wheel of an entire vehicle made of the stuff. With no idea how to make it move.

But suddenly there I was, at the end of the drive, traffic unthinkingly going back and forth in the hammerblow heat.

“…you ease the gas on and the clutch off at the same time…”

“Uh…there’s a car coming.”

*Sigh* “Ellen, it’s called ‘traffic’.”

“Yeah, but there’s a car coming. What do I do?”

“You put the car into gear and you drive off…?”

“Do I have to?”



“Can I wave this car by first? I’m scared. What if this car doesn’t work?”


So I make my first left turn into a small side residential road and managed to get the car into second, then I hit my first obstacle. The construction sign guys!


“What do I dowhatdoIdoWHADOIDO?!?”

Yeah ok, I’ll be honest, I f’d up that gear real quick and smiled and did the hand thingy at the sign guys letting them know I am a noob. *GRAUNCH* *GRIND* *JUMP JUMP* “Hiiya! Howyadoin?”

My first stop sign. A car behind me HONKS for taking too long to put the car into first.

No biggie, I’m learning. I’m 17 all over again. Well, not 17. More like 21, when I got my license. SHUT UP! I know it’s lame! But there I was…learning to drive all over again.

Scott has me putter up and down and round and round the streets in the sweltering weather for about two laps. Say, fifteen minutes. I’m doing pretty good until he says the fated words…

“Let’s talk hills!”


“Hills are their own thing…” (My head starts to spin. Is it the heat or is it because this is really hard? Who the hell makes a car with no power steering? It’s like the wheel’s stuck in oatmeal or something.) “…and that’s how it works.”

He continued, “You ready to try going up a hill on a start!? Imagine a car 6 inches behind you, and this car will roll back…” *and there will be this tiny ting noise, and then this giant mushroom cloud that covers the city, and I’m sitting on the smoking ground with a steering wheel in my hand and all you can say is, ‘they just don’t make those parts anymore’* “…and you have to get it into gear first so you don’t roll into them.”


And then I… well, I sorta snapped.

“GODAMMIT!!! I can barely drive this thing! No more advanced stuff! I just want to drive away from the stop sign! Ok? Just. The. Sign.”

Him: *Blink* *Blink* “Ok, we’ll practice some more.”

So around we went. Don’t forget this. Always remember that. Yadda yadda yadda. He became a kind of buzz on the edge of my consciousness. A cute, vaguely useful buzz, but a buzz nonetheless. “JESUS!!! The floor is *hot!*”

Him: “Yeah. The exhaust goes underneath your floorpan. There’s an asbestos heat shield—“

“Oh great, now I’m gonna get cancer!”

“No no… that’s only if you breathe the dust. At any rate, it could be worse. The Spider I learned on didn’t have the shield, got lost somewhere. I walked around with melted shoe heels for I don’t know—“

Ok… clutch in, gear up, brake on, off the gas. I need a third foot. Off the brake, slowly unspool the clutch, put the gas in, *WHUMP* *JERK* *ZUMMM* And away we go. Hey, this isn’t too bad! I think I can get this…

And this is the point where the heat, humidity, and my heel smoldering, well, they sorta got to me.

I messed up.

I had that whole, “clutch out, gear out, brake on, gas off” thing down pat. I even managed “gear in,” but then it slid back a bit. The three pedals all danced around each other. I placed both my feet to the floor and the damned engine roared to life for no reason I could think of. I let out the clutch and the whole thing lurched forward with this tire-squealing **BANG!!** The gear shift seemed to dial away out of reach, like some weird movie effect, and there I was holding this giant round thing that was just the most retarded handle I’ve ever seen. I reached out, across what must’ve been thirty feet. It was actually more like six inches. I grabbed hard.

And I pulled the stick shift knob clean off the shifter. *POINK!*



*Both party’s eyes bulged with surprise and terror at the same time*

Ok…step back. Did I mention we are at a near standstill?

I think I “white knuckeled” that gear shift a bit too much.

This is where we both looked at each other. The car was slowly coasting down a simple residential street, me with flop sweat far worse than I’d ever had on stage before a performance. It ticked over gently, waiting for the ‘tard behind the wheel to get untangled and start to drive.

We both started to crack up.

“You didn’t put this thing on right!” Here I am looking at this very nicely handmade gear shift knob in my hands, and then looking at the actual gear shift lever (chrome molly steel… it has this notch on it as if it needs to have something pushed down on it) and then at Scott to see if I killed his ‘real girlfriend’.

Him, with cheerful, giggly enthusiasm: “HOLY SHIT! How the hell did you do that? I’ve been driving these cars for 20 years, and I never… and you pull the gear knob clean off!”

“You didn’t put it on right!”

But it went back on easy enough, and around we went again.

Third to fourth gear? Gold!

From a start? OmigodomigodomigodherecomesacarnonopleasejustgojustgoWHY IS THERE NO POWER STEERING?!?!

But it actually is fun. Maybe even a lot of fun. I’ll get used to it, eventually, and take it into work. At the end, even though I was still intimidated by it, and covered in sweat… well, it wasn’t my (dearly departed) Milano, but I was driving an Alfa again.

As we pulled into the parking lot, Him: “Ok, now, to shut it dow—“

No problem. Around the corner, pull into the parking… why’s it jumping arou-- *whump* *whump* *jerk* *gasp* *die*

The car went silent, except for the electric fuel pump whirring merrily away. Him, slowly: “You put in the clutch, pull it out of gear, turn it off, then put it back in gear so it doesn’t roll away.”

“I thought you just parked it. You know, put the gear shift into park?”




Him: “Ok. Next week then?”

“Yuppers. Next week.”

Posted by Ellen at August 05, 2007 07:08 AM

eMail this entry!

1 - what kind of car runs the exhaust right under the driver's floorpan?!?
2 - “…you ease the gas on and the throttle off at the same time…” Does the Alfa have a different set-up? A separate gas and throttle thing that's just not on other autos?

Posted by: ron on August 6, 2007 08:29 AM

Ah, the joys of editing at 11 pm on a Sunday after a ... *ahem* ... few glasses of wine. Fixed now. So there!

Posted by: scott on August 6, 2007 09:07 PM

I'm just here to help. That's all.

Luckily, mine wasn't a few glasses of wine. It was 4 shots of SoCo, 2 of Amaretto, 2 of Sloe Gin, along with OJ. Same basic effect, no hangovers.

Posted by: ron on August 7, 2007 08:00 AM

I'm 45 and I still haven't driven a "straight-shift". No reason to learn, but I'd like to anyway.

Posted by: Mark on August 7, 2007 07:58 PM

I missed a lot of really good stuff while my #1 computer is sitting in storage in Ar.

Posted by: Pat J. on March 10, 2008 02:57 PM
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