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.
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!"
Farrell remained calm as he gave me directions, sending me ever further into traffic. At one point I found myself in the left-turn lane in downtown Silver Spring, Md., when the light changed. This time the car didn't stall, and I was so excited by this accomplishment that I drove forward into oncoming traffic. Farrell dove across me and turned the wheel just in time. I wanted to ask him if he'd ever been in an accident with a student, but forming the words seemed tantamount to calling down the evil eye.
I kept following his directions, and before I knew it I was on an unfamiliar expressway, Old Columbia Pike. Semis were whizzing by and my stomach felt as if I'd just swallowed a vial of Helicobacter pylori. At one point, while attempting to get into fifth gear, I accidentally shifted the car into neutral. Another time, trying to go from second to third, I mistakenly put the car in first and it did a cartoonlike shimmy. But the only time Farrell lost his sang-froid was when he told me to make the light on a left turn off the highway. I choked and stopped on yellow. The woman behind us screeched to a halt, inches from my Student Driver sign, and started honking and gesticulating. Farrell waved pleasantly to her and explained to me that he had seen that she had been about to rear-end us and asked if I would please do what he said.
We were now worrisomely far from my house, but he said we were picking up his next student, who would drive us back. We pulled up at a high-school parking lot, and the student, with a ponytail and braces, climbed into the front seat while I got into the back. Her name was Vanessa and she was 16.
"She doesn't have any fears," Farrell informed me as Vanessa smiled confidently. For that I envied her, though it didn't make me want to drive with her. Vanessa pulled onto the street and Farrell gave her a running stream of suggestions, "Look far ahead." "Slow down." "Merge. Merge. Merge!" Then Farrell told her to take a right; it turned out Vanessa did have fears.
"But Mr. Farrell, that's the ramp to the Beltway!" she cried.
"Yes. Take a right," he replied.
"Not the Beltway, Mr. Farrell, please not the Beltway!" she said as she made weeping sounds. To most of the country the Beltway is the place inside of which rapacious lobbyists rob and pillage. To me it is a 64-mile asphalt loop of dread. As Vanessa took her first on-ramp onto the Beltway, I thought there was a strong possibility I would be squashed in this tin can with a 16-year old at the wheel. I also thought, "Hooray, I'm not driving!" and happily closed my eyes. She gained confidence as we sped along and, taking the exit nearest my house, and with only a few bouncy shudders of the car, deposited me at my front door.
When my husband and I went to Italy on our honeymoon, he had to do all the driving because we could only rent a stick shift. I was hoping that I could learn to drive one, so I could relieve him if we went back on a second honeymoon. But neither Italian-American relations, our marriage, nor we would survive my driving a stick shift on the autostrada.
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