I learned to drive in a car longer than a big city block. A Pontiac Star Chief - an automobile of such preposterous size that it enabled the driver to appear both ridiculous and courageous simultaneously. My father was my driving instructor and I can still see him, crouched like a wet cat in the passenger seat, wide-eyed and unblinking, ready to spring into action at the first indication that I might slam on the accelerator and head straight for the nearest cliff. Of course, there were no cliffs around the shopping center parking lot where he held our Sunday afternoon lessons. Just asphalt as far as the eye could see, this being in the day when shops closed on Sundays, you see. (Where DO kids learn to drive these days?) I can’t really blame him for approaching this rolling schoolroom with trepidation, as I would imagine the sight of one’s child behind the wheel for the first time would have to chill the blood a bit. He was stalwart, however, and from him I learned to yield to the right at stop signs, to turn into a skid should I ever be unfortunate enough to be in the middle of one, and to never.... and I mean never... pick up a hitchhiker.
But even with Daddy’s devoted teaching, I still failed my first driving test. Oh, I did fine on the driving part. It was in the area of parking where I ran into a spot of trouble. Well, you just try and parallel park the QE2 and see how well you do. Personally, I consider it not a feat, but a miracle, that I managed to pass second time out. But pass I did, receiving a plasticine driver’s license emblazoned with my photograph, wide-eyed and unblinking, in the upper left hand corner.
Along with that long-coveted driving license came the good news that the old Pontiac Star Chief, leaf green and long as the Nile, was now to belong to me and, in an instant, my dream of zipping along city streets with the cool grace of a Charlie’s Angel was rudely replaced with a now more realistic mental picture of Angela Lansbury attempting to steer that big four-poster in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. But the prospect of vehicular independence trumped any vanity I might have possessed at sixteen, so I held my head high, grabbed hold of that hula-hoop sized steering wheel, rolled down those plate glass windows, and hit the road.
No doubt as a result of that first over-elongated auto, I have driven tiny cars ever since. Zippy and close to the road, these are the cars I most love to drive. I am not at home in a SUV. I consider the Hummer to be manufactured chiefly for those wishing to compensate for unhappy childhoods or unsatisfactory appendages. Peugeots, Renaults, Bristol Blenheims. These are the cars that I try to rent whenever I’m across the pond, but it is difficult to find their like back here in the states.
Recently my tiny car, old but beloved, was put in the hospital for a faulty transmission, necessitating a visit to the rental car counter. Just as the salesmen was about to hand over the keys to a rather humdrum Chevrolet, he suddenly cocked his head and fixed me with a questioning stare.
“You know”, he said,
“I think I’ve got something that would suit your personality a bit better.
Come with me.”
He grabbed up another set of keys and we proceeded to the parking lot where I soon found myself standing in front of the car of my dreams - just in, with only 64 miles on the odometer. Tiny and zippy, to be sure, but oh, it was so much more. I could see in an instant, this was not mere transportation.
This was a ticket to another time - a passport to an age of Hermes scarves and white sunglasses.
Canfora sandals, limoncellos, and Nat King Cole.
This was the brand-new Fiat 500.
I kept that rental car for a couple of weeks, the longest test drive ever. I drove it at night and in the rain. On the fast expressway and twisty rural roads. It was comfortable for two furry dogs as well as for a six foot one Songwriter and his two acoustic guitars. I hated to turn it back in when my car was all well.
Reader, I bought one.
Life is short and I could not resist.
Parallel parking is now a breeze!
And I think my driving instructor would love it.
Edward certainly does.