Linda McKenney

Linda McKenney

Shifting Gears 

Today, I will go home with either something I can’t wait to know better or a dud I’m stuck with.  This is my first, all-on-my-own automobile purchase.  I’ve chosen the Chevy dealership because my dad always drove Chevrolets.  My insides have accelerated to fifth gear, and inside my head I’m humming “See the USA in your Chevrolet.”   I try to sift down to neutral, as I enter the showroom.  At first, no one seems to realize that this woman, with three children in tow, might be in the market for a car.  Finally, a
big, burly salesman saunters over and introduces himself.  I try to return his power handshake.  I’m working on self-esteem. 

“I want to purchase a reliable used car that’s reasonably priced with good gas mileage.” 

Smiling knowingly, he stops short of patting me on the head.  “I have the perfect car for you!”   

Grateful that he doesn’t add “Little Lady,” we exit the showroom and walk along the line of cars, further and further from the building.  This can’t be a good sign.  I see cars I like and stop. He waves me along.  At the very back of the lot, we stop in front of the ugliest car that I’ve ever seen.  I know why they keep it hidden.  The humming stops because we are standing in front of a Ford.  

Please tell me this isn’t the car he thinks I should buy?

“This here Ford Fiesta is the perfect car for you.”  He begins extolling the car’s virtues.  “The Fiesta XR2i is a front wheel drive hatchback with a front placed 1.6-liter engine. It’s good on gas,important for a woman in your situation,” he adds, rolling his eyes toward my children.  “It has a manual transmission.  Do you know how to drive a stick?”

“Driving a stick is beside the point. This car has chartreuse paint and black and white hound’s tooth check upholstery.  I’d feel embarrassed every time I drove it.  It screams – she has no taste.”   

“Ma-am, I have your best interests in mind.  You don’t choose a car by color.  You should
consider other features, like gas economy and price.  This is a good car for a woman on her own, with limited means.”

How does he know I have limited means?  

 My newly acquired independent luster is disappearing like a Studebaker.  This guy doesn’t get it. While I need economy, I also want some class.   

 I refuse to let this car salesman puncture my fragile self-esteem with his large take-my-advice-if-you-know-what’s-good-for-you needle.  I summon my resolve, “No, maybe this is a good deal, but I want to find a car that I enjoy driving. I’m going to continue looking.”  

 While that salesman and his Fiesta are not the right fit for me, he plants a seed.  The concept of a small, compact car hadn’t entered my mind.  

* * * * *

When there were just two children, my father owned a sedan.  He fashioned a table-like board that fit across the hump in the back seat floor.  As I was the elder, I got to stretch out across the seat and my sister got the board.  We had pillows and blankets to snuggle in on long car rides.  I would lie on my back and watch the trees and clouds whiz by until I fell asleep.  

 Three additional children over the next several years necessitated larger vehicles.  The first station wagon we purchased was previously owned by the Red Cross.  The car had a new coat of white paint, but the big red cross on the side was never completely disguised.  This worked to our benefit for the annualHalloween parade.  Pulling down the tailgate and dressed as patients and doctors, we turned the inside of the vehicle into an ambulance.  We won first prize for the float that year.

 We five children often argued as to who would sit in the way-back seat.  Only holding two passengers, it faced where we’d been.  When stopped at a red light, we’d try to engage the passengers in the vehicle behind us.  The first one to get them to wave was the winner.

  When I was old enough to drive, we owned a “Woody,” a long, sleek station wagon with wood panels on the side.  The size of that car intimidated me and since we lived in a small town and could walk most anywhere, I decided not to get my license.

 When I turned eighteen, I decided it was time to get my license.  One the day of my driving test,my father insisted I practice.  After a couple of failed attempts at parallel parking, he began screaming at me.  I burst into tears and refused to take the test.  The experience put the brakes on my desire to get behind the wheel.

* * * * *

 When I was married with my second child, I got my license but rarely drove anywhere.  We still lived in that small town and I liked to walk.  When we moved to the suburbs, I had to get behind the wheel.  

 Our marriage traveled on cruise control, until the day it came to a complete stop.  My husband declared that he no longer loved me and wanted to leave.  But there was one roadblock.  We only had one car.  

 “I’ll stay until you buy a car.”  He didn’t want to feel any guiltier than he already did.   

“Where are we going to find money to buy another car?”   

I didn’t care how guilty he felt. 

Embarrassingly, I had to borrow $500 from my parents to make the purchase.  We started looking.
At first I took my time.  Perhaps he’d change his mind.  This was before I knew there was another woman.  Once I discovered that, I knew our marriage was a total wreck.
He found a dark green Chevy Nova and took me to see it.  With two doors and a sleek design, I thought it looked like a muscle car.  I could imagine myself in it.

My soon-to-be-gone husband deemed it in good running condition. There was a small hole in the floor on the driver’s side, but I could live with that.  The day I brought the Nova home, he drove off in the family station wagon. leaving the family behind.  

Our combative separation wreaked havoc for my children. I felt my family disintegrating, and in retrospect it almost felt like the Nova commiserated with our emotional trauma.

Much like the walls of my unhinged heart, the driver-side door started swinging open when I took a wide right turn.  I fastened a piece of rope inside to prevent that from happening.  Similar to holding the pieces of my heart together.

The hole in the floor of the car grew larger, spewing up water on a rainy day.  I worried that the whole interior was going to collapse onto the road.  Could this car protect us?  It wouldn’t give up.  In spite of the damage it held itself together.

And I began to imagine it was sending me a message.  You’re strong.  You’re a survivor.  In someways the Nova saved me, but it had served its purpose, and I was ready to move on.

* * * * *

The idea of a compact car drove me to purchase a red Plymouth Horizon, with a manual transmission.  I can’t yet drive a stick, but I tell myself it will be fun to learn.  My friend accompanies me to pick up the car.  We proceed to a large parking lot, so I can learn how to use the clutch and shift.  I’m getting the hang of it, but we’re on level ground.  I don’t realize that everything will change on a hill.

We leave for a practice run and when I have to stop at an intersection, at the top of a hill, panic sets in.   Each time I try to move forward, the car rolls backward.
 A car full of men is behind me.  They are yelling and blowing the horn.  After a few tries and some tears my friend suggests I put on the emergency brake.  She trades places with me and we move forward.  As the man-car passes us, I try not to listen to the obscenities streaming from the open windows.

 The Horizon is now our family car.  When my son’s in his senior year of high school, I decide that we need a family adventure, before our numbers are further reduced.  This is my first and last long road trip with my three children.

* * * * *

 We’d left early that winter morning, while it was still dark.  After two hours on the Thruway, the car was emitting smoke signals.  Pulling over, we discovered a crack in the radiator.  My MacGyver son shoved snow into it, attempting to cool it down, but we knew that we had a serious problem.  These were the days before cell phones, so we waited in the cold, until a state trooper came to our rescue.  He radioed for a tow truck and allowed us to ride to the repair shop in his car.  Stranded until the repairs could be completed, we found a pizza place close by for an out-of-the ordinary breakfast.  The cost of a new radiator consumed most of the money I’d saved for the trip and set us back several hours.

 Back on the highway, we continued to the hotel I’d booked for the night.  We arrived very late,and I could barely keep my eyes opened.  Not wanting to scare my children, I concealed my struggle to find my way.  But they all started screaming when I drove the wrong way on a one-way street and ran over part of the curb attempting to enter the hotel parking lot.

 The next day, I realized that the idea of me driving all the way to Florida was not reasonable.  So,we bent the law.  My daughter, who only had her driver’s permit, wasn’t supposed to drive outside of New York State.  But she took over driving, while I napped in the back seat.  I instructed her to keep within the speed limit and stay in the driving lane.  “Don’t pass any cars,” were the last words I mumbled as I dozed off.

 When I awoke, everything seemed fine.  We pulled off at the next exit to switch drivers and made it safely to Florida.  Later my daughter told me that her brother had encouraged her to exceed the speed limit and pass other cars.  I guess our guardian angel had been watching over us.

* * * * *

 When my two older children were out on their own, I purchased a  Buick Regal.  My second red car, I ignored the assumption that police pull over more red cars than any other color for speeding,  My daughter Beth and I planned our first road trip to Cape Cod.

 To prepare for our adventure, I took the Buick into the dealership for a complete inspection.  I’d wanted to be responsible and ensure that this time, we’d have an uneventful trip.

 Within minutes of arriving at our destination, my car started to buck, and I barely managed to get it off the road before it stopped dead.  That guardian angel must have come along on this trip as well, as we managed to break down with a car rental agency within walking distance.  We entered with two other people on our heels.  

 “I need to rent a car.  And I need to arrange for my car to be towed.  I don’t know what’s wrong with it.” 

 “You’re in luck.  We only have one car left.”

 Arrangements made.  I reluctantly turned around to leave, facing the people behind me.  They don’t return my smile.

 At the repair station, I learn the status of my car.  

 “It will take a week to get the parts needed to repair it.  There’s a problem with the valve gasket. All of the oil leaked out.  The engine is seized and needs to be replaced.”

 I leak a few tears, knowing I will have to return in a week to retrieve the car. My daughter and I head home.  Between the cost of the rental and repair, I had no money left for our mini vacation.

 I contacted the dealership that had checked out the car for me before we left on our trip. They took no responsibility for not finding the oil leak.  I pleaded and wrote to the owner to no avail.  Then I wrote to Buick headquarters and they stood on the side of the dealership.  I vowed never to own another Buick.  


I’m on a blind date, excited but apprehensive.  Will he be someone I want to get to know better?I’ve already dated a few duds.

 When he picks me up, I notice that he has a really nice car.  However, my limited knowledge of automobiles prevents me from realizing what make it is.
Over dinner, I’m lamenting about my Cape Cod fiasco and feelings about Buicks. 

“I hate Buicks!  I’m looking forward to the day I can trade mine in and buy anything but.” 

He pauses a second, not wanting to cause me discomfort.  

“My car is a Buick Grand National.” Awkward silence.   

Chagrined, I ask him about the car. “It’s a nice looking car.  I didn’t realize it was a Buick.”  We laugh. 

He tells me how much he loves this cool, limited edition car.  Maybe I will grow to love Buicks? 

On our second date, we go out for ice cream.  As I’m getting into the front passenger seat, holding my ice cream cone, I manage to slam it up on the ceiling.   

“I’m so sorry.” I’m embarrassed almost to tears.

He’s laughing.  “Don’t worry.  I can clean it.” I like this man.  My heart is idling.
Four months after we’re married, I’m leaving the house and back right into his beloved Grand National.  My first thought is to pack and run, but I go into the back yard to tell him what happened. 

I’m crying.  “I’m so sorry.  I backed into your car.”  

Now I’m sobbing. He hesitates for a moment and says, “It’s just a car.  It can be fixed.”     

My heart goes from zero to sixty in six seconds.