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1999: Downshift

In 1999, I moved into my first post-college apartment, way out in the farthest reaches of Bensonhurst. It was a mere 15-minute walk from Coney Island, a walk I would take many late nights on my way home from the city and somehow avoid murder. Circa 1999, the neighborhood had barely changed since Saturday Night Fever days. When I jogged around the neighborhood, I was an exotic specimen, because people in Bensonhurst did not jog. Old ladies stared at me like I was a wild animal and rotten teens would joke-jog next to me or fake-lunge in my direction, hoping I would flinch.

I was jogging because my then-girlfriend jogged. She was a resolutely positive person who thought the best of everybody and wanted to be a youth pastor. I’d extricated myself from Religion In General and wasn’t too keen on Jesus Stuff, but she was a believer in the welcoming many paths/one truth approach, which made her okay with my no path at all approach. It occurred to me that the whole religion/no-religion clash could doom our whole thing, but I told myself it wouldn’t. We had similar senses of humor, similar politics, and similar backgrounds of childhood hardship. This, I thought, would suffice for the dissimilarities.

Bensonhurst was not very far, geographically, from her place in Sunset Park. It was certainly a lot closer than my mom’s house upstate, which is where I’d festered for my first few post-college months. But there was no way to get between the two neighborhoods that didn’t take an hour, and my commute to the city was 90 minutes on a good day.

I soon got hung up on the notion of owning a car, thinking this would make my life easier. I could go back and forth between Bensonhurst and Sunset Park without a sherpa. I could visit my mom and grandparents upstate. I would no longer be bound by the limits of the MTA. I believed in public transportation but I no longer wanted to believe in it all the time.

At work, I mentioned in passing the idea of buying a car. This caused my boss to mention in passing that she was looking to get rid of a 1990 Volkswagen Passat. This pushed my nostalgia buttons. In my memory, everyone in my family had owned a Volkswagen at some point. That was our family car. In truth, it was more like three people in my family, one of whom was my car-destroying dad and his horrible brown Rabbit with the busted horn. Still, the idea was too powerful to shake. I convinced myself that now it was time for me to carry on this tradition and own a VW of my own.

One minor issue: This Passat was a manual, and I had never driven a stick shift. But my boss offered to give me lessons and if I was comfortable behind the wheel, the Passat was mine for practically nothing. I took Metro North to meet her where she lived, a small town in Connecticut so quaintly New Englandish that every house appeared to be made of cobblestones, Indian corn, and homemade jam. Though it was June, the whole place seemed caught in permanent state of gentle early autumn, leaves about to turn.

I was given a quick primer on stick shift driving in the park-and-ride lot, then hit the local roads, where I was virtually the only car to be seen. My biggest issue first time out was shifting from first to second, because the stick would get hung up between gears. Everything beyond that seemed easy, however, and I was sure I could meet this challenge.

My boss was set to go on vacation at the end of the following week. She agreed to drive the car down to the city next Friday, park it in a garage, and hand me the keys. The car was boxy and red. It was no-frills by the standards of the day but, by virtue of having air conditioning, it was the fanciest car anyone in my immediate family had owned to this point. Her name would be Magdalena, a stout German frau’s name.

I picked up the car at a garage in the West 40s, near 11th Avenue. I changed the plates in the parking spot, drawing a few hard stares from the parking attendants, and then managed to start up Magdalena and drive her up the garage exit ramp without incident.

My successes ended there. I soon discovered it was one thing to drive a stick shift for the first time in Opening Credits Of Newhart, CT. It was another thing entirely to drive stick shift for the first time near the gaping maw of the Lincoln Tunnel approach during a summer Friday night rush hour.

I nudged my way out of the garage and into bumper-to-bumper traffic. I’m sure my boss gave me the pointer that if you’re cruising to a stop you should slide into neutral to keep from stalling out. I’m also sure I forgot this, because I promptly stalled out. I restarted Magdalena but couldn’t get the car into first because I kept forgetting to engage the clutch. Four fumbling tries later, I got the car moving for five seconds before daring to upshift to second, and missed. I slid the stick shift into fourth by mistake and stalled out again.

A small army of cars honking and yelling behind me erased an entire afternoon of manual driving instruction. When do I step on the clutch? What is neutral? Do you hear that buzzing sound? My every attempt to get the car into second gear failed, so I decided I would keep it in first. I wouldn’t be going that fast in Friday night rush hour traffic anyway, right? Except I had no idea how slow and loud first was. I would step on the gas and hear the engine roaring like a jet and watch the RPM dial get dangerously close to the red zone, and then look at the speedometer and see I was barely breaking 10 mph.

And while monitoring my instrument panel, I was honk-screamed at by the phalanx of sweaty, frustrated commuters stuck behind me for going at a snail’s pace. It was a humid evening, the air a wet blanket, and I was sweating like crazy. I didn’t dare turn on the air conditioner, though, because I’d heard that it was bad to run the AC in stop-and-go traffic. I have no idea where I heard this. Probably from my parents, neither of whom ever owned a car with AC.

My girlfriend was sitting beside me in the passenger seat, doing her best to calm me down. It was in her nature to assume people who acted like jerks weren’t jerks per se. They were simply frustrated people reacting badly to things they didn’t understand. Say, for instance, people honking at me for driving parade float speed down 11th Avenue at 6pm on a Friday night. She told me to ignore the honking. They don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t know what you’re going through. My reaction was to yell MAYBE THEY SHOULD. MAYBE THEY SHOULD KNOW WHAT THIS IS LIKE. You don’t mean that, she said, because she disliked wishing pain on others, even in moments of stress, even when I perceived someone as a horrible person who deserved pain. She meant, You shouldn’t mean that.

Somewhere in the 30s, she—former owner of a manual car—offered to take the wheel. I am aggressively unmanly and was as okay with this fact back then as I am now, yet still felt letting her drive in my place would be a crushing humiliation, an admission of defeat. But I also felt like every honking horn was another dagger hovering at my throat, and I also wanted to get back to Brooklyn before the end of the millennium. So I acquiesced. My girlfriend piloted Magdalena back to Sunset Park with little trouble. I haven’t driven in so long, this is kinda fun! she said as we inched our way to Brooklyn. She suggested trying to drive the car to my place the next afternoon. A Saturday. Surely traffic would be much better then.

This counsel did not take into account the fact of a warm, sunny day in Brooklyn that would bring lots of vehicles into the streets and lots of pedestrians darting from between parked cars. This was the first time I noticed, from the perspective of a driver, the curious stalking patterns of the Brooklyn Pedestrian. The Brooklyn Pedestrian will emerge mid-block without looking, then turn to see you advancing, lock eyes with you, and telepathically communicate, Fuck you, I dare you to hit me. They needed fear nothing from me, though, because the second I saw a pedestrian hit the pavement I would slam on the brakes while forgetting to shift into neutral, stalling out yet again.

I did not cede the wheel on this trip, knowing I had to tough out the experience to have any hope of making use of this car. I once again tried the tactic of staying in first as much as humanly possible, which was only slightly more successful the second time around. On McDonald Avenue, chugging under the F train, I got passed on the outside service lane by a central casting mook who squeezed his pickup truck between the parked cars and the girders holding up the train tracks. It was an impressive move, made more impressive when he rolled down his window and yelled PICK UP THE PACE, GRAMMA as he zipped past me.

Pioneers traversed the Oregon Trail in less time than it took me to get to my block in Bensonhurst. Once I did, I realized that one thing I hadn’t practiced in this car yet was parallel parking. I’d barely even tried to put it in reverse. I found a spot on my block and hovered near it, working up the nerve. Taking a deep breath, I popped the car into reverse, pushing the gearshift down and up like it was a childproof cap. I knew that if I didn’t give enough gas, the car would stall again, and if I gave it too much, it would crash into the Rav-4 behind me.

I slowly took my foot off the clutch and gave it gas at the same time, and I actually managed to back into the space with room to spare. Plenty of room, in fact. I was a good foot from the curb, and the nose of the car was tilted outwards. When I tried to get back into first to straighten the car out, it stalled.

It was as ugly a parking job as has ever been executed on the New York City streets. It stretched the definition of “parked” into a legal gray zone. But when my girlfriend asked me if I would fix it, I said no, this is it for today. This is my ceiling right now.

Then, a car that had been waiting impatiently for me to park squeezed past me and yelled FINALLY as he went. I got out of the car screamed after him with the bravery of someone who knew he wouldn’t be heard. WHERE YOU HEADED YOU’RE IN SUCH A FUCKIN HURRY? I yelled as the car sped off. ARE YOU SO SPECIAL? ARE YOU SO IMPORTANT?

My girlfriend was horrified. She found it baffling that I would take the rudeness of strangers so personally. I didn’t know how I was supposed to not take it personally. These people didn’t see me as a person. What was more personal than that? I hated the blind, idiot rage that drove so much of the world, but I understood it since I exhibited to much of it myself. She seemed to think it was something you could ignore into non-existence.

I looked at Magdalena. I would get better at driving her, mostly by jumping into the deep end that was Brooklyn driving, but I already knew I’d made a huge mistake. I had no idea of the pain she was going to bring me over the next two years, but I already knew she was something I’d have to worry about. I, who needed no prompting to worry about things, had just purchased a large box that I had to fill with gasoline and leave in the street for entire days in the hope that no one would touch her. I would lay awake at night remembering tales of horror from relatives who’d owned cars in the outer boroughs in decades past (I came back and the door was missin…) and wonder what crimes were being committed against her at the moment. If that failed, I’d lay awake wondering how to pay her insurance.

She was something I’d shoehorned into my life. I’d fallen in love with the idea of having her before considering if it made any sense to have her in the first place. Now there she was, too far from the curb, half out in the traffic, waiting to be moved, and no one’s but mine.