Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Day 353: Driving School Dropout

My driving skills are, at best, questionable.

I don't think I'm that bad, and when it comes to road trips with my girlfriends, I'm usually one of the drivers (though that may have something to do with the size of my vehicle and not my skills). But my parents' insurance agent Jerry (who has a nice house on the lake because of me), my former boss Lucia (who couldn't hire me at Country Music Television at first because I had so many tickets), and a plethora of small town police officers in Georgia and South Carolina would definitely tell you otherwise. I like to get wherever I'm going in a hurry, and as a teenager was quite distracted behind the wheel. I've definitely improved over the years (accident free since 2003!), but my less than stellar driving record has been the source of many uncomfortable conversations with my parents over the years.

I'm learning that in life, when it comes to learning new things, mastering the easier version of an activity before moving on to the more challenging one is usually the best way to go. For the 15 years that I've been driving, I've managed to prove that I'm definitely not an expert on automatic transmission. Moving onto a manual transmission might not be the best plan.

But who said I did anything according to natural order? On Day 353, I attempted to knock one of the top 3 items off my Project 29 to 30 list and learn how to drive a stick shift. Because why wouldn't I put everyone's lives and vehicles in danger as the thing I've never done before?

My very good friend Justin offered himself and his Jetta for this challenge, a move I'm sure he's still regretting all these months later. I hate to blow the surprise, but this innocent little driving lesson did not go well.

Perhaps I should've put Justin in touch with my ex-boyfriend Mark, who also tried to teach me how to drive a stick shift once. The lesson (which hardly lasted an hour), ended with both of us screaming at each other and almost breaking up. I was frustrated for many reasons, mostly because I could not get it, but also because Mark taught via the Art Teacher Molly method and instead of explaining to me what to do, he simply gave me a lot of, "justs."

"Just ease off the clutch while applying the gas."

"Just put it in neutral."

"Just apply pressure to the clutch, while shifting into second. You'll know when to shift because you'll just feel it."

To me, it all sounded like, "Just do these things that you've never done before in your life but are terribly easy for me." Uh, what? Thanks for nothing.

In Mark's defense, he wasn't a bad teacher, I was just frustrated that I couldn't do any of the easy things that he was telling me to do. Plus teaching someone how to drive period is challenging, especially if you've been doing it yourself for a long time. Trying to break down something that feels like second nature, is not easy.

I have to hand it to Justin (and to Mark) for even wanting to try. Had I known it was going to turn out the way it did, I wouldn't have even asked. But I honestly thought a little more maturity, several more years driving experience, and a heightened level of patience and I'd be ready.

Justin and I met after work in an open parking lot next to our building for the lesson. Learning in the dark wasn't an ideal scenario, but it was all we had. Luckily the lot was partially lit and wide open, a perfect place to learn how to drive.

Justin threw out some preliminary instructions, gave me a pep talk and then we traded seats. There was nothing left to do but drive.

Since I understood the basics of what to do, and had attempted them before, I wasn't completely clueless. In my head, the instructions made perfect sense. The trouble with me, in driving a manual transmission, is the mind-body connection. Making my feet and hands do what my mind is telling them to is most difficult.

The first few trips up and back in the parking lot were rough, no question about it. Justin gave step-by-step instructions on what I was supposed to be doing, but I was nervous, and unsure of myself. I stalled a few times and jerked the car around. We had some good laughs.

As a teacher, Justin was pretty good; very laid back and very detailed with his suggestions. But there is only so much that he can tell me before I'd just have to feel it on my own. And that, he said, just takes time, something we didn't really have on our side. But the more times I did it, I started to notice, without him telling me, when it was time to switch gears; and soon I started doing it on my own.

Back and forth we went in the parking lot, switching gears and getting faster. I was actually driving a stick shift. I wasn't confident at all, but I was doing it.

There was some frustration, on both of our parts, that though the parking lot was big, it wasn't quite big enough to ever get going very fast. And I really wanted to get to fourth gear.

And apparently the only way to get there, was to take it outside the confines of this parking lot. I call it, "Justin's Bad Idea."

Famous last words: "I don't know if I do . . .I'm scared."

I was really scared. It was dark and late. I was doing alright in the parking lot, but out on the street, I had other drivers and other people to contend with, and that just sounded like a recipe for disaster. But how could I claim to have learned how to drive a stick shift if all I did was take some laps around a parking lot?

Obviously I silenced all parts of my brain that said taking it to the streets would be a bad idea. Not until I got out onto the road did I realize how much I didn't know.

Like, where I was going to take us . . .or how to come to a pleasant stop at a stoplight and successfully make a left turn . . .or how to turn off the windshield wipers.

That left turn was disastrous in many ways, most of all because it led us directly into one of the scariest neighborhoods in Atlanta that I have ever seen. I knew as we started to approach the area that I should probably turn around, but how could I? I was just learning how to drive this car forward, there was no way I was attempting a U-Turn. Instead, I drove us to a red light right in between two rundown convenient stores where dozens of people had gathered, on a Wednesday night, to smoke cigarettes, drink liquor wrapped in brown paper bags, and deal what I can only imagine was crack cocaine. If I wanted to make a movie that had a scene with a scary ghetto neighborhood, this is exactly what it would look like. Justin and I were nervously chattering to each other under our breath, both willing the light to change to green, but feeling like we were sitting there for an eternity. Just when I thought I couldn't be any more anxious than I already was, a handful of people who had been standing on the sidewalk, had walked into the street and to our car to ask us if we had any money or cigarettes.

Justin cracked the window and told them that we didn't, and they fortunately accepted our answer and walked away, not before staring us both up and down in a sinister way. I kept looking straight ahead, still praying for the light to change and then added another prayer that I wouldn't stall in the middle of the intersection, prolonging this terrifying moment of my life.

We made it through the ghetto without stalling and immediately decided we needed to get back to the side of town that we knew and were more comfortable with. And somehow in the midst of my nervous energy, I was actually driving a stick shift through Atlanta. I guess it's true what they say about adrenaline -- it can make a person do crazy things.

It wasn't pretty, and I was never confident in my abilities, but I was doing it. And a handful of times, after a million questions and instructions from Justin, I actually pulled off some pretty smooth transitions.

Just when I thought it would never happen, I found fourth gear.

With all of the stalling and mishaps during our lesson, I was well aware what the car would do when I did something wrong. But as we made our way back to the parking lot we started in, the Jetta, presumably fed up with the torture I'd put it through, started to make a clicking noise. The thermostat in the car was spiking into the red, indicating that the car was overheating.

I whined to Justin, "I don't know what's happening here;" I wasn't quite sure if what the car was doing was normal, and I was just driving it incorrectly, or if something was wrong. Without driving it, Justin couldn't really tell either. Right at that time, I noticed a police car with his flashing was approaching. I had to assume he was coming for me, and was obviously relieved when he kept going. The whole experience was too much, though, and I immediately pulled over and made Justin take us the rest of the way in.

We picked up my car and I followed Justin home to make sure the Jetta didn't completely die. Like I had done with the stoplight in the ghetto, I prayed that the car was just acting temperamental due to the stress that I'd put it under in the last couple of hours. Give it a night of rest, I thought, and the car will be fine.

The car was not fine the next day. The clicking noise was still there and it was still running hot. Justin dropped it off at a mechanic near our office and we waited patiently for the news.

Actually Justin waited patiently. I was a bundle of nervous energy, unable to eat or think about anything but the wrecked Jetta and the amount of damage I caused during our lesson. I emailed Justin every hour to find out if he'd heard anything. When he checked in on the mechanic and got an idea of what the damage might be, I immediately started Googling it to see how much it would cost and how long it would take to fix.

When the estimate finally came in, the final damage was $1200 for a broken water pump and timing belt. Justin generously only asked me for half of the amount, since he said he was in on the adventure just as much as I was. I don't think he fully comprehended how terrible I could be. I know I didn't.

Destroying a friend's car while he was doing me a favor was bar none the worst part of this experience. Justin was without wheels for roughly a week, and no amount of rides or money I offered him would ever make me feel at ease about it. Even months later, I still feel sick about the whole thing.

Having my dreams of ever learning how to drive a stick shift (I mean, who is going to want to teach me now?) dashed and therefore ruining my chances of ever winning the Amazing Race was just the shitty icing on the already shitty cake.

Justin owed me no more favors, but after the car was fixed, and I had paid him for the repairs, I came to him in a fit of desperation and asked him for one.

"Will you please not bring this in front of my dad?"

He laughed. "Sure," he said. "I won't mention it."

And just like that, it was like I was 16 again. Driving, and acting, like an idiot.


  1. Whew! I am so glad I checked back in on your blog...I know this was not a cheap adventure for you (or your buddy), but ohmigosh, I got a good priceless belly laugh out of this one, Gallman. My favorite part was when you turned on the wipers while making your left turn into the ghetto. :) Love ya!

  2. When I have a bad day I will come back, read this entry and watch all my troubles go away.