When I was eighteen, I could already drive a stick shift. Definitely. I had to learn to drive on a stick because that was the car my mom had. It was drive a stick or don’t drive. But I had never driven a European car– we had a Corolla.
So at eighteen, I sat alone in a yellow Volkswagen and tried to figure out how the hell to make it go backward. There was an “R” on the lever there, but it wouldn’t go “R,” and although I suspected I could throw it in neutral, roll back into the street and peel out, it seemed unwise to rely on solely the forward gears for a journey of any distance.
That day I was planning to go to the beach, about an hour or two of driving from my uncle’s apartment complex. Instead, after a good half hour of frustration, I returned inside and watched another one of the videotapes he happened to own. “St. Elmo’s Fire,” perhaps, or “Days of Wine and Roses” or “Born on the Fourth of July.” There were a lot of downers.
It was hard for me to believe that my uncle was letting me drive his car, especially since this was New Jersey. I was not from New Jersey. I didn’t know where I was going. Clearly he didn’t understand how clueless I was.
I was about to begin college, in two weeks. My uncle and aunt were putting me up on the east coast between my mom’s departure and the beginning of school. (School started earlier for my sisters back home.) I hadn’t absorbed the reality of leaving high school. After waiting desperately for it to end, it was over so suddenly.
When he got home from work, my uncle showed me how to shove the stick down and over to get it into neutral. Then again he unfolded a Garden State map on his shiny dining room table, and showed me the route. He refolded it neatly, like the engineer he was. Why did he think that I could handle this? I could never have refolded that map.
The next morning I made the trip from New Brunswick to Ocean Grove. Right before Ocean Grove, on the New Jersey coast, you have Asbury Park. I had been warned that parts of Asbury Park were unsavory, and I managed to get a little turned around in a neighborhood where men were standing along the sidewalks looking like they didn’t have much to do except watch you get lost and frown. But I calmly kept going, and just around the corner, Ocean Grove seemed about as safe as Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
In fact, Ocean Grove is similar to a PBS show. It was founded by Methodists. They have a lot of huge old Victorian houses with porches and awnings, and three blocks of a main street. They have lunch spots, an ice cream parlor, and a few gift shops with handmade signs. I ate my peanut butter and jelly on the beach. Read. Walked down the main street for a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone. Went back to the sand and napped.
From a pay phone, I called my uncle and aunt to tell them I would be late, which gave me a strange feeling. I was just calling to be polite, not to ask permission or anything. I could have the car. I could go. They didn’t care when I returned. Maybe I had graduated from high school, maybe I had gotten into college and put together the tuition, but why did my uncle think I could be trusted with a European car and the east coast? It scared me, a little. Because he seemed like a pretty smart guy.
Aside: I just looked up the town to check my memories of it. Ocean Grove was founded as a dry town, and continues to be, oddly situated as it is on the party-time Jersey shore. It also was the site of some big fight about whether or not a gay couple could hold a civil union ceremony on city/church property, which is totally lame– I love gay people getting married, or not getting married, or whatever they want to do. Anyway, don’t ever go there, because I don’t want to see you while I’m trying to take a nap.