My mission is to climb the hill, but the Bookmobile dies half a block from the home of the original owner. To be fair: I killed it. I’m tilted backward on a slope, foot on the brake. I’ve been told this is the worst possible situation when driving a stick. I can only assume this is true, since I don’t really know how to drive stick.
I remove my foot from the brake and the vehicle lurches backward – 15,000 pounds of books and steel. I’m back on the brake. Leg shaking. I’m trying to avoid destroying this legendary vehicle. I’m also remembering what my letter says, waiting for me at home. I contemplate the term “learning curve.”
I turn the key, rev the engine, and slide backward. I stomp the gas, release the clutch, and the engine dies. Rolling back, faster — I’m back on the brake. Literally, standing on the brake.
One hand on the wheel, I slip my phone out of my pocket and call the original owner.
“I’m a little stuck here.”
“I know. I can still see you from my house.”
In the side mirror, Ezra waves. He walks uphill. He’s breathing hard, looking up at me.
“Use the emergency brake,” he says.
“I’m trying,” I say. The handle jiggles in its housing.
“Oh,” he says. “Okay. Stand on the brake. Don’t move until I say so. Then, I’m going to need you to jump.”
“Passenger seat.” He leaves out where you belong, but I still hear it. Ezra lifts himself into the doorway and puts his foot beside mine. We’re splitting the small brake pedal between us. “One. Two. Go!”
I leap out of the driver’s seat and crash into the passenger seat. Ezra takes my place and grabs the wheel. We breathe for a moment. He turns the key, guns the engine and the Bookmobile lurches to life. He makes it work, engine roaring up to the stop sign where the vehicle idles like:
See? Not that hard, kid.
“I suppose I should give you a driving lesson,” Ezra says.
So we tool around the neighborhoods together. I get the hang of things – my turning radius training and stick-shift practice have paid off a little. The only truly embarrassing spectacle happens in front of my entire neighborhood, when everyone I know with kids has come out to see the Bookmobile. They don’t leave and go inside like they should. They stand on the sidewalk, waiting to see me off.
“There Jeff goes! Wave everyone!”
Starts – dies.
“Everyone wave again!”
Starts. Lurches. Convulses. DukadukdukaKA-CHUNK.
Finally, we make the corner and turn out of view. Now it’s time for Ezra to go home. There are two ways – one way is up a nice, back and forth switchback on the elegantly-named Story Road. The other is called Chambers Hill. As in torture Chambers. Or the Chamber pot you may need when you’re about to piss yourself trying to drive stick shift up this false-summited, sadistically-graded motherplucker of a hill.
“You want to go up Chambers,” Ezra says, staring at me.
The stop light green and we’re climbing. Ezra gives orders: Gas! Stop! C’mon! Don’t kill it!
“What gear should I be in?!” I say. “What gear!”
“Figure it out!” he shouts back.
Another stop sign. We’re titled back. All that steel and paper. You come to realize books are made of wood, and you’re driving a glorified logging truck with a tricky braking system.
In with the clutch and I hammer the accelerator. Revving, roaring, and I’ve finally learned something. The Bookmobile climbs and glides and the power is there and Ezra is nodding. We’re going up and up an finally the hill smooths out.
We stop and my leg is jittering, hopping up and down by itself.
“Had to do Chambers Hill, didn’t you?” He shakes his head.
I backed in the Bookmobile without damaging people or property, then rode the ’93 Buick back down the hill and opened my letter.
And this adventure is just beginning.
I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.
Here’s my first recorded outing with the bookmobile.
I knew the Bookmobile was a manual transmission when I bought it. I knew it was 15,000 pounds of books and steel, parked on a giant hill. The thought of climbing behind the wheel scared the hell out of me. The vehicle was older than me, the brakes had just been readjusted, and things could go badly.
I’m accustomed to making mistakes in writing. I’ve written dozens of the sappiest, shitty endings imaginable. Hundreds of wasted pages. Offensively flat characters, racial stereotypes, and sex scenes that would embarrass any literate person.
But when you mess up a scene, your computer doesn’t go DADUNK-DUNK-CACHUNK! It does not alert every other writer in the neighborhood that you’ve just written a terrible sex scene. Aborting a bad plot line doesn’t leave skid marks. No one dies as a result of a poorly-written cliffhanger.
Failing at driving is very obvious to everyone. It’s loud and jerky and produces smoke and sometimes fire and casualties.
But I wanted to learn. And, ultimately, there is only one way to learn. Whether you want to write a novel or drive the damn Bookmobile, you just have to get in, start the engine, and relentlessly fail your way across the finish line.
And I DID IT. I SURVIVED.
It was ugly. Embarrassing and and messy and scary as hell and most of all — a huge THRILL. Strange to think something as mechanical and straightforward as driving would make me break out in a cold sweat and stop breathing and flood my bloodstream with buckets of adrenaline, but it did.
It was a good personal reminder that the best thing I can do as a writer is fail repeatedly, lead the most interesting life possible, and pay attention. Even so, this one was tough. I needed help to get it done, and that’s why I needed this letter:
More to follow on the letter. For now, enjoy the video. I, for one, am glad to be alive.
“I just bought a bookmobile.”
That’s what I told the teller at Oregon Community Credit Union, right after making the transaction.
“Bookmobile?” she asked. “What’s that?”
I explained: A giant bus. A celebration of the printed word. Books on wheels. A vehicle designed to create spontaneous and inspiring interactions with actual, live, hold-in-your-hands materials.
“Oh,” she said. “So kind of a like a food cart. With books.”
Or that. I just bought a food cart with books.
I plan to take this food cart with books as far as its 1968 engine will let me. Even approaching 50 years old, the bookmobile checks out. Engine, 95% compression. Only 50,000 miles under her belt. A history of serving rural communities across Oregon, and all the good karma of having given away thousands of free copies riding on an International Harvester frame.
So what EXACTLY will I do? The bank teller asked me this. So does my wife.
There are plans. There is a vision. First, a few problems:
- I don’t know how to drive stick.
- This vehicle is a manual transmission.
- The stick is the size of my leg.
- The vehicle weighs 15,000 pounds.
- The vehicle is currently parked at the top of the twistiest, bendyest, most inhumane hill in Eugene, Oregon which taunts me with the approach of winter and questionably fluctuating brake-fluid levels.
Short-term plan: I want to drive this vehicle and not die in a fiery, 451-degree crash.
Long-term plan: I want to showcase the power of print by sharing books which have changed people’s lives. Actual copies. Dog-eared pages. I want people to hold a book and get something a screen can’t give – a smell, and look and feel, a book which has physically passed from one hand to another. The knowledge that this stack of paper and ink permanently changed someone’s life. I want the space to feel like a sanctuary. I want it to wake people up, and I want the experience to be fleeting. The circus that comes to town for one day. The Hurry! Gotta See! The Get it while it’s hot!
So, yeah. Kind of like a food cart, with books.
I’ll need to have the big top rolling by the time Wildman is released. And I’m hopeful, even as the cruel hill haunts my dreams.
That hill and I. There’s going to be showdown. If I survive, I’ll tell you about it.