Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Get on the Stick

When I learned how to drive a stick shift, I became a woman. Or rather, I stopped thinking of myself as girlish and started thinking of myself as womanly. Those of you who drive a stick know exactly what I mean.

For starters, you know how good it feels to debunk the old myth that women don't drive stick, that standard transmissions are the province of hairy-chested men in red sports cars. Truth be told, it's a silly myth anyway. The split over automatic and manual transmissions isn't so much a male/female thing as it is an American thing.

This year, only 10% of U.S. cars will be manufactured with standard transmissions. By contrast, most cars sold Europe today have standard transmissions. (Chalk it up to Europe's astronomical gas prices--standards are more fuel-efficient than automatics).

Of course, once upon a time, standard transmissions reigned in the U.S. as well. In 1950, virtually all automobiles were manually controlled. Automatic transmissions were a product of technology during World War II, but it wasn't until 1955 that automatic transmissions became an option. (Oddly enough, in sales jargon, automatic transmissions are still considered an "option," even though 90% of buyers choose automatics.)

Debunking gender myths is fine and good, but standard transmissions offer something even more important: Control. My introduction to the joys of stick came when my husband and I were shopping for our first new car. Sure, we'd had other cars, but this was different. No hand-me-downs like our red 1975 Chevy Impala, a gas-guzzling behemoth bigger than Yemen, or our 1974 Olds '98, a Percy Milquetoast of a car nicknamed "the Goose" for the ear-splitting honk it emitted whenever we turned a corner.

Worst of all was our Trojan horse — a pale yellow Plymouth Horizon Spider Miser, named for its anorexic fuel appetite and a spider decal that covered the entire hood. (How's that for an option?) In a completely misguided gesture of generosity, my in-laws had made the $1000 down payment on this mutant without consulting us first, leaving us with $250 monthly payments we couldn't even afford.

I hated that car and it hated me back. The door locks would freeze in the slightest chill, forcing me to climb through the hatchback in my office parking lot. And once it tried to ruin my reputation, if not my career, by coughing up a pair of panties in the front passenger seat, a la Pet Sematary, when I was assigned to drive a political dignitary to an appointment. (They weren't even nice panties.)

We were overdue for a change of image. This was during the mid-1980s recession, height of the Japanese import invasion, and my ever-practical husband thought a Honda Accord was the way to go. In a serendipitous twist of fate, we ended up going to see a used Honda at a Saab dealership.

While my husband talked loans and interest rates with a rather languid, suspiciously blonde salesman, I saw it. Love at first sight. A 1985 black Saab 900 Turbo SPG with a sleek, curvy hard-body and saddle-brown leather seats. It was, in a word, me. Or rather, the me I wanted to be, the me I decided to be right then and there.

In a single prescient moment, I did a most unladylike thing. I interrupted.

"That's the one," I said. "I want that car."

The salesman turned and really looked at me for the first time.

"It's a beautiful car," he said, with an ever-so-slight smile, "but it has a standard transmission. Can you drive a stick?"

His voice was measured, a tone usually reserved for people wearing braces on their heads. It was my cue for a girlish giggle or a lapse into self-deprecation. Instead I peeled my gaze from the Black Swede and slowly focused on the salesman as if I were dimly aware of his presence and mildly surprised he could speak. It was a trick I knew from working in politics, where people make careers out of dissing each other in subtle and untraceable ways.

"No," I said flatly. "But for that car, I will learn."

Of course, this was easier said than done. Like changing a typewriter ribbon, driving a stick is one of those skills that's fallen victim to the technological age--among men and women. But my motivation was literally a driving force: I had to learn how to operate a stick shift in order to drive the Saab to work.

The task of teaching me fell to my husband. Unfortunately, he gets motion sickness just watching a tot dance the Hokey Pokey. But he stuck with me as I lurched and surged my beautiful car through unfamiliar neighborhoods, killing the engine, popping the clutch, grinding the gears, and breaking into a flop-sweat whenever anyone pulled up behind me at a stop sign. All the while, my husband's head whipped around like John Travolta's on the mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy. At one point, he got so nauseous, he jumped out of the car and lay on a stranger's front lawn in an attempt to anchor himself in a world spinning wildly out of control.

For my part, I'd never known what a full-body workout driving a car could be--finding the balance between the clutch and the brake and the accelerator (three pedals, but only two feet), not to mention the simultaneous upper body demands of handling the steering wheel and the stick. Saabs tend to have sticky shifts, something I learned to enjoy later--the feel of muscling the car into gear--but early on, I felt like a groping adolescent manhandling the car to get to third base, er, gear.

Even today, standard transmissions are standard on most Saab models. Now Saab is a division of GM, having been spun off from its Swedish parent, a manufacturer of aircraft. In a nod to its aviation beginnings, the ignition is on the floor by the gearshift, making that twist of the key feel like you're powering up heavy machinery. Saabs park in reverse, start in neutral, and have five gears. The first is a mere howdy-do. Turbo kicks in with second, picks up power with third, finds its level with fourth, and hits cruising altitude with fifth.

Once I got the hang of it, I was hooked. I learned to listen and feel the vibrations of the engine, sensing its readiness for a higher or lower gear. While I drove, I thought about the obvious metaphors--how important it is to sense the changes in the undercurrents of your life and shift accordingly--up to avoid collision, down on rough terrain. As I gained confidence with the stick, I mused on subjects like Chinese foot-binding, wondering if that barbaric practice was really much different than the silly way women--myself included--sometimes hobble themselves with can't and shouldn't. And I thought about my grandmother, a twentieth-century anachronism who died in 1991. She was 90 years old, and she never learned how to drive, leaving herself completely dependent on others--a picture of self-effacing girlishness to the bitter end.

I know you're waiting for the Freudian references, and you won't get them from me. Okay, maybe one. Freud asked, "What do women really want?" I think women want control over their own destinies. We want to know that in the B-movie of life, if Swamp Thing is chasing us and we have to save a school bus full of orphans, we won't faint, or worse, sit there saying "But I can't drive a stick!" Girls want someone to save them. But a woman--a real woman, the kind that waits for no Steven Seagal--would grind the clutch, pop the bus into reverse, flatten Swamp Thing, and move it on up to cruising speed, aiming for open road, resting her right hand lightly on the smooth knob of the stick.

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