Getting my driver’s license was one of the best days of my life. I remember that first day of freedom, cruising around the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles with my best friend. My ride was my mother’s gigantic, white Buick LeSabre with an automatic transmission, which, with its bench seats, could easily accommodate 7 people. We played the radio really loud, rolled down the windows, smoked cigarettes and just drove, savoring the ability to go anywhere, even if it was only the 5 miles down Ventura Boulevard from Sherman Oaks to Tarzana.
Then, one summer evening, my father brought me home a car of my own. Knowing my father, he had most likely gotten the car in trade for something…who knows what. He was funny that way.
It was a 1976 Mercury Capri II, with a manual transmission.
I had never driven a stick shift.
My father, not a patient man, took me to the top of a parking structure to teach me how to drive my new, hated car. Besides the fact that I was annoyed that he had brought me home a car I hadn’t chosen with a bumper sticker that said “Poland,” I couldn’t believe he didn’t get me an automatic transmission. I sulked. I sighed.
We sat there, side by side in the Capri, an ugly, solid, big car painted silver blue. It was mine, for better or worse.
“You’ve gotta go easy on the clutch,” he told me.
What did that mean? I promptly stalled out. All I could see was the edge of the parking structure and me sending us flying over it in my attempt to shift to third gear.
“I can’t do this!” I yelled, after one attempt. I got my patience from my father.
“Damn it, Sharon, you can do it! Try again!” he yelled.
Perhaps my father was not the right person to teach me – or anyone – how to drive a stick shift.
“Shift to second!” he yelled.
After a few dozen more attempts I did start to get the hang of it – the slow, cautious letting out of the clutch and pressing down on the gas, the winding up of the gears that signaled it was time to shift.
Oh, how I hated that car at first. I was afraid I’d stall out in the middle of an intersection (I did), afraid of any type of uphill road (the rollback while shifting was horrifying). This car didn’t fit my 16-year-old delusional, indulgent image of what I should be driving, which was the white Datsun 260Z that my father drove. Now that was a car for a teenage girl in LA in the 70’s.
I spent a lot of time in my Capri. There were long makeout sessions with boys I dated. There were countless hours spent sitting and talking with friends. That car became my sanctuary, and I would drive it all over Los Angeles, back before there were too many cars and getting on the freeway meant stop and go traffic at any time of the day. I would drive for hours, up and down the 405. I’d go north past Burbank Blvd., Victory Blvd., Sherman Way, Roscoe Blvd. Deeper into the valley I’d go. Or maybe I’d go the other way, south to Mulholland, then Sunset, then Wilshire, then Santa Monica, heading for Beverly Hills. I loved being in that car, my cassette player blasting Rod Stewart or Supertramp. Anything was possible with a car of my own.
I drove that car for 7 years, through high school and college, through a nasty collision when I let a cute fraternity boy drive it one night when he was clearly in no shape to do so. I drove it through oil leaks, a useless air conditioner, multiple overheating episodes, peeling paint. I covered the Poland sticker with a San Diego State University one when I started college.
Then one day after college when I was working and living in Los Angeles, my Capri simply died. I felt the power and energy seep out of it as it seemed to give in to some internal time clock that was saying “it’s over, girlfriend.”
I called my father. “My car is dead,” I said. “Can you come to get me?”
“God damn it, that car is such a pain in the ass,” he said. But he came and got me.
And just like how he brought it home for me 7 years earlier, out of the blue, an unwanted but ultimately beloved car, my father somehow made it disappear. For all I know, it’s still sitting on a corner of La Brea Avenue, waiting for me to come back and, once again, fix the transmission.