Stick Shift on the Column

How about these ingredients for a memorable, combustible and hilarious Driver’s Ed Moment:

In my late adolescent glory as number 3 son, I sat behind the wheel of Pops’ old blue pickup truck.

Sitting in the shotgun seat, Pops sipped from a half pint of Smirnoff Vodka tucked into a brown paper bag.

Our mission on one spring day in DC’s Chocolate City glory days:

Me learning to drive his beloved truck with the manual transmission, which meant HIM teaching me to smoothly work the clutch while finding the right gear using the stick shift on the steering wheel column.

I had to learn from a dude with the bedside manner of a former bootlegger, the pedagogy of a junior high school dropout, the voice tone of Fred Sanford’s diabetic older brother, and the patience of that New York hustler on Stevie’s Living for the City.

It’s the carburetor!

I swear that’s what Pops always said, whenever one of the lemons I drove conked out. And usually, the lemons were cars he hipped me to, after I moved on from my first car, the 1962 Chevy Impala that he and Moms gave me, as long as I paid for insurance, gas and repairs.

Take that 71 Plymouth Fury I bought for $700 cash. That bomb died as soon as we drove off the parking lot. Ironically, I’d turned down the opportunity to purchase a yellow Honda Civic station wagon, which I’d probably still be driving 22 years into the 21st Century!

On GP, Pops was definitely more skilled with cars than I was. I changed the oil ONCE on my Impala and I could change a flat tire, but that was the extent of my skills as a mechanic. I wish my cousin Peyton had been my automotive consigliere. Peyton was an automotive magician! Every time we visited extended fam in Powhatan, I’d see Peyton smiling – like a happy, playful child – tinkering with engines that were in one state of breakdown or rebuild!

So every time I miss the gear, and my clutch work has the truck bucking like a bronco, Pops sips from his brown bag and cusses me out. His through line: You go to college. Figure it out.

I shout back at his onery ass: How the hell am I supposed to work the stick shift when you only showed me ONE TIME!

Actually, finally, I shout: You are worst driver’s ed teacher I’ve ever had!

But suddenly, angrily, seamlessly – in one explosive moment – I shift the gears in perfect synch with the clutch and press the accelerator. I feel the timing necessary to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission. It was a lasting aha, because for years I only bought cars with stick shifts.

There you go! He raised his brown bag in salute.

You got it.

Too pissed for words, I drove the truck home, shifting gears like a pro the whole way.

Happy 99th birthday Pops! You caught me smiling again.

BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “… When I was coming of age in the ‘70s, when freedom became part of my vocabulary, part of the vocabulary of my generation, I defined freedom as a refusal, a resistance, to the ‘system.’ No actions that paid money to multinational corporations or paid fealty to customs, which didn’t give a shit about me or my health. No actions that left me vulnerable to the humble, whether it came from an accident, because I was getting high, or from the violence of folks paid off or corrupted by their addictions. I still believe in outward refusal and resistance, and I don’t think I can find happiness by disengaging from living in the world and being of the world. But now I know that I can only claim true happiness, I can only find steady serenity on my pursuit of happiness, when I feel the exquisite sensuality, the inherent intimacy, of my unorchestrated inner briar patch of emotional power and potential and unique beauty that, frankly, has been, at worst, beaten out of us, and, at best, tainted as taboo for Black men.…”

4 thoughts on “Stick Shift on the Column”

  1. Ha ha ha!!
    This is a scene from a hilarious sitcom. Where can we catch it streaming?

    Actually, they couldn’t film as much details and humor as this narrative.

  2. That was one a those ‘way back machine’ moments being blessed with parental driver’s Ed lessons!
    They weren’t the best teachers but they got the job done, right?!
    Brought a smile to my face thinking about my step father’s lessons, dangerous in my ragged manual trans V dub, but He got the job!
    Thanks PJH


Leave a Comment