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Thursday, November 16, 2006


First of all, holiday shopping time is here! To that end . . . if you are thinking about giving one of my books for the holidays, I’ll be happy to personalize it for you. Yes, the MJ Signing Workshop is about to open. All you have to do is follow the instructions in the link above, and I’ll send a signed card you can put in the book(s). Cost? Nothing. The Signing Workshop Elves (me) do not accept cash when delivering holiday cheer. Now you’re not just giving a book—you’re giving a personalized book! Yowza!

But let’s talk about cars.

I haven’t owned a car since I moved to New York City. Sometimes I explain this to people outside of New York, and they look at me as if I’ve said something really crazy, like, “I live in a giant mushroom!” or “I travel by goat, exclusively.”

Owning a car in NYC is like carrying around a huge barrel of pickles all day—you can do it, but really, it’s just annoying and unnecessary. There’s nowhere to park it. You don’t really want to drive around in the city. And there are plenty of other ways to get around. New York is the only place you can get away without having a car without seeming like a freak of the first order, which is unfortunate, as our environment is suffering terribly and we could use a few less of them.

Anyway, though I am not a car person, I do like to drive. I used to have cars, too. Here is a brief history of my car ownership:


Throughout high school and college I was obsessed with the idea of owning a car. It didn’t matter to me what car—any car was fine. But I was always spending my money on frivolous things like tuition, so I remained carless until my college graduation day. On that day, my parents presented me with an antique Cutlass Sierra. Yes, it was big, grey, square, and ugly . . . but it was mine.

I don’t know where they got Der Stormbreaker from. In retrospect, I imagine it was owned by a gun nut, or someone who liked to drive around supermarkets very slowly while screaming out the window about the government. Maybe this was because driving around in Der Stormbreaker was like cruising around in a mobile library or a modified missile silo. It was a very tough car, good for a deeply paranoid person who felt like they needed a lot of protection from the outside world.

Der Stormbreaker had some issues. For example, the music system, which consisted of a tape player that thought its function was to eat tapes, and a radio that changed station and increased in volume whenever I turned left. This caused me to replan a lot of my trips so that I could make as many right hand turns as possible. But Der Stormbreaker’s biggest flaw was the fact that whenever there was rain or snow, the brakes stopped working correctly. I was guaranteed a fishtail whenever there was any kind of moisture in the air. My father didn’t believe me when I explained all the times I had found myself spinning and landing in the other lane, facing the opposite direction.

“Okay,” I said one rainy day. “If you don’t believe me, take it out yourself.”

I wasn’t trying to kill my father. The point simply had to be made. He returned a half an hour later and simply said, “You need a new car.”

Der Stormbreaker wasn’t even worth selling. Eight months after I got it, we traded it to some guy for a new driveway. I pooled all of my resources and went out to purchase car #2.


I had saved enough money to put a down payment on a brand new car. I bought a brand spanking new Toyota. Yuki was blue-green, hence the name. She had a lovely new car smell. When I turned on the radio, it stayed on the same station, no matter which way I turned. She stopped in the rain. She was both cute and gas-efficient.

“And safe!” they said at the dealership.

A year almost to the day after I drove her off the lot, I was driving in downtown Philadelphia along a road I knew well. Unfortunately, the woman next to me didn’t, and she turned out of her lane and directly into me and Yuki at a fairly high rate of speed, slamming us so hard that she sent the two of us about fifty feet across a (miraculously empty) major intersection. Yuki was hit so hard that all her airbags deployed and I never got to see our crash at all. She took blow after blow. I could hear bits of her smashing away. She handled it like a Powerpuff Girl, adorable and invincible. Our progress was only stopped when we took out three parked cars and a parking meter.

Yuki was dead, but she had died protecting me.


After Yuki’s murder, I was given a check from the insurance company. I had been a car owner for less than two years, but headed out to buy my third, and to date, final car. I decided to get the first decent used car I saw at the dealership, the same dealership that had just sold me Yuki. They looked upon me as a very good customer.

“I have just the car for you,” the salesman said. And he walked me over to a low-slung red car. I didn’t think of myself as the sporty car type, and my family had a phobia of red cars because they owned three of them before I was born, and they all met weird and untimely ends, usually while parked.

I bought her anyway.

Scarlet was seven years old when I bought her, which is why I could afford her. Also, her previous owners had been heavy smokers, so she had odor issues that took several weeks to sort out. She went fast. Very fast. To make Der Stormbreaker move, you practically had to stand up on the gas pedal. Yuki required a fairly normal amount of pressure. That same amount of pressure made Scarlet go 95 miles an hour.

I drove Scarlet up to New York on the day I moved, and on her very first night there, she got a hundred dollar parking ticket and a 8 by 11 inch neon sticker on the window that said: THIS CAR HAS PREVENTED THE STREET FROM BEING CLEANED. This sticker was impossible to remove, and it stayed on the window like a scarlet letter until Scarlet was sold two weeks later.

And that was that. Jump to the present day, where my car story continues.

There is a car here at the London Office. It’s Oscar Gingersnort’s. It’s a silver sportscar. A really sexy silver sportscar. It’s also really small. I have many nicknames for the car, including: the clown car, the postage stamp special, and Eine Kleine Carmusik. When Oscar picks me up at the airport, it takes about ten minutes of unpacking and stuffing to get both me and my suitcase into it. And that’s provided I bring the little suitcase. It sits wedged between my ribcage and the dashboard and slowly squeezes the life out of my body with every turn. And English roads are all turns, even the straight ones. They love turns. They invented the roundabout just so they could make more of them.

“If I got another car,” he said, as we drove to the London Office from the airport a week or so ago, “I would probably get one with a back seat.”

“If you got another car,” I said, “you could park this car inside of that one.”

Oscar’s dapper little car has a stick shift, which I never learned to drive. I expressed my desire to learn. I backed up this claim by going out and buying a copy of the Highway Code, which is a book you can get here that explains everything you need to know to pass a UK driver’s test. I opened it to find 800 TEST QUESTIONS. The UK driver’s exam is WAY harder than anything I had to do in Pennsylvania. I spent a day leaning things like how to go around roundabouts, what dual carriageways are, and what UK street signs mean.

Without question, my favorite of the UK street signs. Can you guess what it means? Does it really even matter?

Having mastered the necessary material, we went out on Sunday night to a deserted supermarket parking lot, in the dark, in the rain, where I prepared to learn how to drive left-handed stick. I was amazed that Oscar was letting me use his baby for training.

I listened to him explain the ridiculous number of steps involved in making a manual car go anywhere—clutching, shifting, unclutching while accelerating, gear-shifting, engine-listening, something about “revs,” something about stalling the engine.

“I’m going to destroy your car,” I said. “Are you really sure you want to do this?”

“It’ll be fine,” he said, showing that same spooky lack of concern that he exhibited when we were at the Parade of Arsonists the other week.

But I was nervous. All this talk of revving and stalling scared me. I finally got up the courage to reach for the key when, out of the dead silence, there was a loud VROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM all around us. In the next second, six cars . . . all little Volkswageny things in the same exact make, but an assortment of different colors, came streaming into the parking lot. They started doing fast spin-out turns at the top of the lane.

“We should go,” Oscar said, showing his very first sign of concern.

The little car parade then came right for us and started circling the area where we were parked. Circling us! Like they were in some kind of car musical. They revved their engines and skid around.

“Oh,” Oscar said, “people like to come and . . . skid. We should go. Now.”

We hastily changed places as the little multicolored cars whipped around us. Oscar had to do some tricky driving just to get us out of the parking lot.

“You mean they just drive around the supermarket on Sunday night?”

“Pretty much.”

We were suddenly in the middle of a scene from The Italian Job.

As we left, I noticed police cars peeking out from strategic locations all along the way home. Apparently, this driving around supermarkets really fast on Sunday night was a really well-known thing. People were getting pulled over.

So my lessons were derailed for the moment. But you can get I’m going to get back to them, if only to drive somewhere to see that sign.


Anonymous Liz said...

That is hilarious. Not the driving lessons, but the Brit's loving their turns and that road sign. (Which should be printed on t-shirts--it's just that funny) I can only hope to find as good a car as Yuki, my family seems doomed to Der Stormbreakers as first cars.

1:54 AM  
Anonymous ''Jordan''--that annoying question girl! said...

HAHAHAHA. love the pic from the Italian Job. classic. I want the red mini from that picture! I come from a long line of Car People,so god only knows what I'll end up with......you really wound up in the middle of a bunch of british Drifters in the supermarket???? strange. stranger yet......he let you use a sports car witout any real proof you coud drive. LOVE THE STREET SIGN.

1:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing you forgot to say about our street signs is that they are placed in such a way that you have both the time to see them AND actually act on them. The one time I drove in the states (Boston area) I missed turning after turning because by the time you've seen the sign you've passed the turnoff. And unlike the UK it can be miles and miles before you get another and even then there's no guarantee you can actually get back on the road to come back!
In your defense this was a long time ago - things may have changed.

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Keris said...

Yes, Simon! We found that in Canada too. On a 6 lane highway (can't remember if that's what they call them there, but you get the picture) with about 30 seconds warning for the turnoff. We just sailed past it. The air was blue.

As for learning gears - when I was having driving lessons (of which I had many, many, many) I could never believe it when I had to change gear. It was always when I was already doing something tricky. 'Slow down, signal, look right, change gear.' 'Change gear? Now? But I'm BUSY!' Probably why I failed my test the first two times.

9:28 PM  
Anonymous Cat said...

Yes, Liz. That street sign should be put on a t-shirt. Hey! I might make one!


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