Shaking a Stick: Gene Weingarten Teaches a Friend How to Drive a Stick Shift

Below the Beltway
(Eric Shansby)
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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, June 21, 2009

When my older brother was 18, my parents refused to get him a car because they felt he was not yet responsible enough. Instantly proving them correct, he secretly bought a car from a guy on the street. After ascertaining from a quick inspection that it had four tires and a steering wheel, and thus was perfect, my brother forked over cash and became the owner of a 10-year-old 1953 Dodge. The seller handed him the keys and drove away. So my brother proudly sat in his very first car, looked down and wondered why the heck there were two brake pedals.

Thus did my brother learn to drive a stick shift. He did it alone, driving home, trying not to call attention to himself and his unauthorized, uninsured vehicle, while hopping and squealing through the streets like a castrato jack rabbit.

This is not the ideal way to learn to drive a stick shift. The ideal way to learn to drive a stick shift, as we will see, is to be taught by me.

I am not a mere casual proponent of the use of stick shifts; to me, the near extinction of the manual transmission is a national disgrace, one of several signs of Americans' growing fecklessness and lassitude. Other signs include the broadening of our national buttocks and the truncation of our national attention spans to the point that my son seems perfectly content to drive for 20 minutes with his radio on scan.

Right about now you are thinking: "Wait a minute -- I happen to drive a car with an automatic transmission, and I'm not feckless, lazy or big-butted!" Well, neither is my friend Molly Strzelecki. In addition to having four consecutive consonants at the start of her name -- something even Zbigniew Brzezinski never accomplished -- Molly, 30, is also a hardworking, competent, pleasantly proportioned editor, even though, like you, she drives a pathetic, candy-arsed weeniemobile.

But unlike you, Molly knows there is something missing in her life; I learned this recently when she plaintively confessed to all her online friends that she yearned to drive a stick. The woman was tired of being . . . shiftless.

Within days, Molly and I were sitting in my car in a big, empty parking lot behind a supermarket. When I informed her that, to justify this column, she would need to be driving in traffic within one hour, Molly informed me that she was "scared enough to yarf," a term with which I was unfamiliar, but which the Urban Dictionary defines as "to not only throw up, but to do it with a terrible yelling sound."

Fortunately, Molly seemed reassured by my car; cosmetically, puke would not be a problem. It's 18 years old, and, morphologically, it resembles a Milk Dud. Dings and dents have rendered it a blob. It has been reupholstered with old T-shirts, and its threadbare, crud-rubbled carpeting resembles the floor of a movie theater after a kids' matinee.

The lesson began with an epistemological exam: Why did Molly want to learn this skill? "Because it's cool," she said, a good answer that she immediately ruined: "Also, for emergencies, like if a friend is having a baby and the only car around is a stick shift. I'd rather learn how to drive it than how to deliver a baby."

I informed Molly that this answer was unacceptably trivial, that she wanted to learn for the same reason her ancestors left Poland: for a chance at a better, richer life; that she wanted to learn because it is embarrassing that Americans' driving infantilism is the laughingstock of people in other countries, including countries with guano-based economies. I told her she wanted to learn so she could earn the slavish adoration of hot, rich, powerful men.

Okay, I didn't actually say that last thing, but I'll bet she knew it anyway.

I am not going to tell you my teaching method, because if the newspaper industry continues down the toilet and "reporter" becomes untenable, "driving instructor" is not entirely out of the question. But I will say that after 29 minutes, Molly was in traffic.

Yes, she twice jack-rabbited, and once accidentally downshifted into first at 25 mph, producing the sort of whiplash usually associated with brick walls and crash-test dummies. But by minute 40, The Strz was a stick chick and pretty pumped about it.

Later, I asked her if she's going to buy a new car, and she said no, that she'd just paid off the weeniemobile and prudent economics required her to keep it. I wisely let this pass and went on to other subjects. And pretty soon Molly was -- purely hypothetically, she emphasized -- discussing the merits of "a sleek, black, brand-spankin'-new Audi A3 six-speed with overdrive."

Gene Weingarten can be reached at Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon.

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