Toxalot-the vanity plate of the dark green Buick LeSabre in front of me on Centre Avenue. There is some fellowship with the owners of the make and model and color of a car I once owned. This one was my mother’s last car that she transferred to me when she could no longer safely drive. It could push through snow and ice and any weather of Western Pennsylvania. It was roomy and steadfast but it lacked the excitement of a flashy car. It felt like an old lady car and deserved that respect. Cary took it to Lancaster, and its last days before rehab served as a home with all her worldly possessions, clothes mostly. It returned eventually to end up with a crunched passenger-side door. The last known owner was the garage door installer who thought the LeSabre a gem even with that damaged door.
I never see my beginner cars on the road now. My first was the goldish-colored Plymouth Valiant with a three-speed on the column that was traded when the transmission failed. I learned to drive a manual transmission on a light green Studebaker Lark that we started on a hill because the starter was bad. I’ve never come across that Lark or the Valiant in my travels. I suppose they are all scrapped and turned into something new. In Arizona we bought a white Fiat Strada, manual transmission. There were two choices when we went to buy that used car. The other was a two-seater Fiat, a Spider. I see yellow in my memory. That is the one I think we both wanted, but impractical for my stepchildren’s visit. So we went with that Strada that came home to Pennsylvania but didn’t last long. Driving a stick is exciting as if I have a special skill that not everyone shares. I can shift and pretend to be more than just the automatic driver. That skill doesn’t always stay with you. ‘Use it or lose it.’ I recall my mother’s jerking shifts after years of driving automatics. I got to practice my skill again on Jacob’s Mitsubishi Mirage. I accused him of buying a manual because his wife couldn’t drive a stick.
A couple of weeks ago I felt that fellowship again when I followed an Opera Red TDI Volkswagen Passat. I wanted to honk in recognition. It was not that the car was old but that it was that same color of red that disappointed me when it finally arrived and it was a TDI. Mine has only been gone a few months but it has joined that list of once owned. I think that my red Honda Fit may never join that list. I think I could see a thousand identical ones and not feel fellowship with those owners.
If you live in Pittsburgh you’ll see the grey or silver Volvo Ubers with the whirligig on the roof, self-driving cars. Is that our destiny to own the self-driving car and lose driving skills? What will 16-year-olds have to look forward to then? They won’t even have to wait that long to operate a car. In fact, I think my almost three-year-old grandson could probably operate that car himself. Heck, even my younger grandson knows how my phone operates. But that self-driving car will probably be safer without humans disobeying speed limits or turning on yellow that was actually red. Or crossing paths with someone like me who is going the wrong way on that one-way street. Or missing the car that was in my blind spot and startled me with its angry honk. But should we trust that computerized system that sometimes fails us and crashes? Would that self-driving car have missed the jay-walking pedestrian on Negley (jay-walking is something I also do) as I did? I missed her by inches or maybe it was a foot. It’s hard to tell how close sitting behind the steering wheel. We looked at each other with neither anger or fear but that look that said, “Where did you come from?”
I like the obstacle course of Pittsburgh with the jay-walking pedestrians. I don’t mind, well maybe a little, the students crossing in front of me on city streets around the colleges. Or the jogger that doesn’t want to stop for the walk sign. It is as if the pedestrian has a special shield protecting them from my metal tank. And when I am a pedestrian I also have that shield. I don’t mind the UPS or FedEx truck blocking my lane of traffic while I patiently wait for all those behind me racing out around. I don’t mind the bikers beside me or sometimes in front taking their right in the lane of traffic. I don’t mind those small blinking lights in the dark of night. I don’t mind them pushing ahead in the snow and ice like my Buick LeSabre. They are steadfast like the mailman. I do mind them not having any lights in the dark of night wearing dark clothes. How can they expect me to see them? Yet I have managed to see them so far. I don’t mind that parking along Penn Avenue from Fifth Avenue to Braddock during the day is a no-no yet becomes OK at night in front of the Evergreen Cafe and on Sundays at St. Paul Baptist Church.
I don’t mind any of that. I feel that I am developing a skill, city driver, albeit a small city. It is not the same skill as the dirt and gravel country road or eyes scanning the sides of my country road for the leaping deer. Country driving is watching out for humans and animals, but city driving focuses on the human in cars, in buses, in trucks, on bicycles, on foot. I know that this city driving skill will not just transfer to Chicago or Washington DC or New York City or even a smaller city more like Pittsburgh. Each city comes with its own plan, its map of city streets and highways. It is not just driving but knowing where you are going that takes away fear.