Total Pageviews

Sunday, August 28, 2011

All Roads

When I was growing up my parents took an automotive lap around Northern Europe. They owned at various times two Volvos, a robin’s egg blue Volkswagen Beetle and “Christine,” an ill-intentioned Audi Fox that failed to start on the morning my mother was scheduled to take the bar exam.
Far more beguiling was the 1974 Porsche 914 they bought new. With its “distinctive” styling, rainbow of Peter Max colors and minimal creature comforts, the car was the ultimate malaise-era cheap thrill. Sitting on one suitcase with another on my lap because both trunks were full, I watched my mother shift confidently up through the gears as we roared off through the mossy hills to meet my father for a summer vacation on the Oregon coast. I coveted the chance to drive the Porsche and counted the days until I could start Driver’s Ed.
Sensibly, my parents sold the 914 in favor of a Toyota Corolla as soon as I turned fifteen.
My dad taught me to drive by taking me to a local school parking lot on weekends. Since the trusty Toyota had a manual transmission, the education process dragged on longer than it otherwise might have:
“OK, try first gear now.” Screech, cough, die.
“Try it again.” Shudder, puff of smoke, die.
“One more time.” Whirr, chug, rough idle.
This sequence was repeated at the rate of one gear per week until I was ready to “solo” by driving on the freeway. As I clutched the steering wheel, my knees jammed up nearly to the dashboard due to my insistance on pushing the seat all the way forward, we lurched out of the merge lane directly in front of a big rig. Roaring away in descending wail of horn, the truck left me an opening to start working my way to the fast lane. I shoved the accellerator down, then depressed the clutch and shifted. Into reverse. With the shriek of a cornered mountain lion the Toyota lost airspeed as another truck loomed. I frantically shifted again and eventually found fifth gear, causing the tiny car to shoot forward, narrowly missing the vehicle in front of me.
Throughout this ordeal my dad remained eerily quiet. He stared fixedly into the distance, betraying his dismay only by reflexively pushing down on a non-existent brake pedal.
Years later I compensated for being robbed of the chance to drive the 914 by buying a car that all that and less. Although mid-engined like the Porsche, my 1985 Toyota MR-2’s angular styling could have been conceived by Grace Jones' hairdresser. Only the thinnest tissue of sheet metal separated my posterior from the pavement whizzing by inches below. The engine, with roughly the horsepower of a Cuisinart, barely kept me from winding up squashed like a bug on the grille of a Panamanian-flagged Ford Exterminator. And the “suspension,” if I may call it that, transmitted every change in the chemical composition of the asphalt directly to the steering wheel.
But I adored the car and developed a zeal for driving that has persisted to this day. Whether I was going down the block for a quart of milk or a quart of STP I was never bored. Freeway driving had the excitement of running with the bulls in Pamplona without the expense of an airline ticket or the indignity of wearing white pajamas and a beret.
Plus there was the thrill of taking the MR-2 to Jiffy Lube. Inevitably, just as I was getting to “How to Burn Fat While Making a Triple-Chocolate Layer Cake He’ll Love” in a five-year-old issue of Cosmopolitan, the adolescent attendant would poke his head through the waiting room door to ask sheepishly where the engine might be found.
Meanwhile, being insufficiently entertained with life as an attorney in Portland, my mother got a job in Italy. My dad retired, and for eleven glorious years I got to travel regularly to the land of car makers whose names end in vowels.
My mother issued a strict edict that I was not to drive when I visited, but when she was at work my dad would surreptitiosly hand me the keys to the Alfa Romeo and whisper “Let’s go have lunch in the country today.” At midday when my mother was safely ensconced in the office and most of our neighborhood in suburban Rome was devoid of traffic, the clatter of dishes and the noise of a televised soccer game echoed from a hundred siesta-ing nearby apartments. Dad and I would get the Milano out of the garage and head for the Alban Hills a few miles outside the city. I had no trouble navigating the quiet streets, but the autostrada was something else. “Whatever you do,” said Dad, “stay out of the fast lane.” But inevitably there'd be a tiny microcar doing forty miles an hour in the right lane, and I'd succumb to temptation. Look in the rear-view mirror. Nothing behind me for miles. Stomp on the accellerator. The Alfa, being mercifully devoid of antipollution gear,would spring forward like a scalded cat. Alas, the instant I crossed the line an enormous BMW or Mercedes loomed on my bumper, flashing its lights angrily.
Once we left the freeway things quieted down considerably. We wound along dusty roads, dodging tomato trucks and climbing into pine-covered hills. The heat and noise of the city gradually disappeared. An hour or so later we were sitting in a cafe in an ancient stone town devoid of famous monuments or tourists, drinking white wine and eating spaghetti alla vongole, solving all the world’s problems while the cicadas buzzed in the cypresses and dogs slept in the silent square.
My parents are back in the Northwest now and driving is considerably tamer. But my dad still brakes for me.

No comments:

Post a Comment