I got the car started again and began staggering around the streets. I was slowly starting to get the feel of things, and even shifted from first to second gear, when I realized I had driven us irrevocably (because I hadn't learned how to use "reverse") onto a major thoroughfare, East/West Highway. I stopped at the light and cars started lining up behind me. When the light turned green I was so agitated by my responsibility to the drivers in back of me that my mind stalled along with the car. The light cycled back to red as the other drivers palmed their horns.
"Don't be concerned by others around you; it breaks your concentration," said Barnes, as he flipped my rearview mirror out of my line of sight. He was right that I couldn't stand having other drivers around me. I realized over the course of three two-hour lessons that the only way I could learn to drive a stick shift was if I were the sole survivor of an avian flu pandemic.
Although Barnes tried to remain calm, by our second lesson he was increasingly taking over the pedals as I consistently stalled at every intersection. I also had seen Bullitt too many times and had a tendency to yank the gears around, often missing the mark, like the time I was trying to shift into third but ended up taking us with a screech into fifth. Barnes seemed to lose it the time I was halfway across an intersection with an SUV heading my way, when I neglected to press hard enough on the gas and the car stopped dead.
We arrived back at my house shortly afterward. Two lessons were enough for both of us. As we parted, he encouraged me to continue to develop my skills by asking a "friend" with a manual transmission to go out driving with me. I hoped that once I made this new friend, after we went for a few drives, she would ask if I minded housesitting at her villa on the Amalfi coast.
Although I still couldn't drive a stick shift, I did learn something important: I discovered that the source of America's obesity epidemic wasn't portion size, or lack of exercise, or the decline in smoking. It was the invention of the automatic transmission. Here I was, the typical, atrophied American, barely able to press the clutch without my slack muscles begging for relief. Automatic transmissions became widely available in the 1940s. Over the decades, as Americans have increasingly embraced them, they've increasingly increased. Since you need both hands to drive a stick shift, there's no way you can also be sucking down Slurpees and shoving in Big Macs. It's because of automatic transmissions that we're becoming blob people who will soon have to be hoisted into our behemoth vehicles.
Compare us with Europeans, who still generally have firm left legs and discernable waists. About 85 percent of cars sold in Europe have manual transmission. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that European weights are creeping up in tandem with upward sales of automatics. (Idea for a best seller: French Stick-Shift Drivers Don't Get Fat.)
I had to give the manual transmission one more shot, so I called the other place that offered instruction, the Arrive Alive Driving School. I hoped I would not cause them to change their name to the Arrive Alive—With One Exception—Driving School. This time my instructor, Trevor Farrell, appeared at my house in a Nissan GXE Sentra with an extra-scary sign on the back: "Student Driver/ Stick Shift." Farrell, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, was charming and serene as he gave me the lecture on the pedals and stick shift in his soothing island accent.
Off we went, stalling and lurching. Learning to drive was bringing out the misanthrope in me. At one point, while I was restarting the car, behind me an elderly woman in a Lexus began honking.
"So sorry, you old bat, am I making you late for your polyp removal?" I wanted to scream.
We took a turn that brought me to a major intersection. The light turned green, and again I was too fast off the clutch and too slow on the gas and stalled out. It only took me three more tries before I was able to jack-rabbit across the intersection, much to the amusement of a couple of pubescent boys on the sidewalk who laughed at the spectacle.
"Laugh, you pimple-pussed pishers. I can't wait to watch your first driving lesson!"