The large sign on the back of my white Chevy Cavalier read, "Student Driver." I discovered that, perversely, this was as alluring as a shiny set of whips and chains to the many sadomasochists on the road. Drivers loved to get right behind my bumper as if we were in a funeral cortege then honk maniacally when I stalled—which I did an average of four times per intersection.
Yes, I know how to drive. I've been driving for 30 years, and I have an impeccable driving record. This is not because I'm a good driver, but because I'm such a lousy driver that I try to drive as little as possible. I would rather read a book titled The Collected Letters of Harriet Miers than merge onto a highway. But what I don't know how to do is drive a stick shift, so I went out on the road with my instructor, Bill Barnes, to learn. And it turned out that this was my first Human Guinea Pig in which dying, not just humiliating myself, was a possibility.
Mastering a stick shift has joined the list of disappearing milestones that once marked every young person's march to adulthood, like learning the foxtrot, or getting your first set of monogrammed handkerchiefs. Even if you want to learn to drive a stick shift these days, it's not easy to do. I called about a dozen local driving schools and only two offered courses on manual transmission. Why should they? About 90 percent of vehicles sold in the United States are automatics.
At our first meeting, Barnes placed me behind the wheel and offered this cheery introduction: "Last year a driving instructor and two students were killed. Don't think the risk factor is zero." Then he assured me that in only a few hours I would not only master manual transmission, I would find driving it fun.
Barnes quickly introduced me to the manual transmission: how to use the clutch, the third pedal that's to the left of the brake; and how to move the stick shift. He sat in the passenger seat, which was equipped with its own set of brake pedals and a rearview mirror. He had me press down my left foot on the clutch pedal, then he told me to put my right foot on the brake. I did.
"That's the gas," he said.
We sat there while I tried to reacquaint myself with the brake and memorize the hand and foot maneuvers I now had to do. It was starting to remind me of piano lessons, tennis instruction, horseback riding—all the activities at which I had failed because they required that body parts move in coordination. Barnes said I needed to stop thinking and start driving, so he told me to get going. The car lurched and stalled. I had let the clutch up too fast with my left foot and was too timid on the gas with my right. I started again and managed to get moving.
My neighborhood is a spaghetti bowl of twisting streets and hills, and as I ascended the first one, a 25 percent incline, I became worried about rolling backward and stalled.
"What if I'm entering the Beltway and I stall?" I asked Barnes as I started grinding gears.
"You're dead," he replied. At least a theme was emerging.