With a week to go before the short film starts shooting, pre-production proper commences tomorrow, and I’m already quite freaked out by the pre-pre-production I’ve been fumbling through these past couple of weeks. And it’s official: my choking dreams started last night, and I expect them to continue until the beast that is production is faced down and danced with.

In the meantime, I’m ducking out of my a New Zealand scriptwriter sharing duties this week with a piece I tried to tease some magazine writing gigs with. Enjoy. Or avoid.

Car Shopping with Vern

My friend Vern1 spent a year dreading – if not downright avoiding – having to drive his 1991 Bluebird import. Each six-monthly warrant of fitness seemed to dredge up more and more expensive repairs, not to mention the coolant leak that always disappeared before a visit to the mechanic. He braced himself for some car shopping, and I2 offered to provide (limited) technical advice and moral support.

Criteria was drawn up. Vern is one of Auckland’s handful of hardy and faithful public transport users, so his new car would be driven mostly in the city and surrounds, with maybe the odd spot of highway cruising. He’s a big guy so a hatchback was out of the question – it had to be a sedan, though a coupe might be considered, with an engine size of between 1.6- and 2.0-litres.

Despite having driven an automatic for the past decade, he was keen to return to a manual transmission. He’d learnt to drive in a manual once upon a time – “‘S like riding a bike, innit?” he asked me. I nodded, about to qualify my answer when some bright shiny thing caught his attention and our conversation moved on.

The hunt began on the internet. Websites were bookmarked. Favourite searches were saved. Picture-laden webpages were printed.

Vern had two-and-a-half weeks of holiday. He wanted to have a new car within the first week so he could spend the rest of his break cruisin’. And so, armed with print-outs of candidates and the ability to pay cash, we hit the car yards.

At the first yard, he was cornered and double-teamed by the salesman and his ‘manager’. “Vern – look at me,” the pompadoured John Rowles-lookalike drawled. “What would it take to get you behind the wheel of that magnificent ’96 Peugeot 206?”

Vern pinched his nose. “It’s a bit out of my price range -.”

“How much have you got to spend, Vern?”

Vern blabbed before I could stop him.

The ‘manager’ – whom I’d spotted washing cars out front – pursed his lips and furrowed his brow majestically. “For you, Vern, I can cut my commission to the bone.” He scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it to Vern. “The Pug’ll be all yours for this much.” When Vern started nodding in serious consideration of the offer, I snatched it out of his hand and saw the figure.

I faked a prior appointment and dragged him away. I’d have preferred to have flicked a fire alarm (too far away) or physically attacked the salesmen (the Goddess would’ve made me feel Very Bad), but it was the best I could think up at the time.

Vern’s a sensitive soul. I always try to keep that in mind. Once we were out of earshot of the yard, I turned to him: “Are you out of your freaking mind?”

“I was only thinking it over.”

“You were nodding.”

“I was?”

Oh yes, he was. I also told him not to give the salespeople any ammunition – like how much money he had to spend, and launched into how, like in “Sin City”, used car salesmen are like hitmen – you could do anything you like to them and not feel guilty. He nodded, chastened, and we moved on.

After a couple of other yards, he test drove a 2001 Mazda Familia that had the engine sounding like it was in the backseat, and a 1999 Citroen coupe that impressed him (“This drives like a dream!” Vern enthused as his compressed bulk gingerly worked the controls).

A 2003 New Zealand-new Nissan Pulsar greeted us at another yard and we set about going for a test-drive. Vern got behind the wheel and froze at the sight of the manual gear knob.

“Could you drive?” he asked sheepishly. “It’s been a while and,” he glanced at the sales office, “I don’t want to bunny-hop out of here.” I stifled a groan as I got out of the car and stomped towards the office.

Much as Vern would’ve liked to have bought a car – sometimes it felt like ‘any car’, as well – on that first day, I had to counsel caution.

It took three days and almost a dozen test-drives – three of them manuals I had to drive myself – before Vern decided on a 2001 Hyundai Elantra manual. Despite coaching on being coy about how much he thought his Bluebird would be worth as a trade-in, he virtually gifted it as a favour to the salesman.

“So you like the Hyundai, eh Vern?” beamed the salesman.

“Excuse us just a minute,” I smiled through gritted teeth.

Vern started babbling about how it was his car and his money but I cut him off: “It’s a manual.”

“I know.”

Besides a brief toe-curling episode in an empty car park, he had not driven it. “Just because I said it drove well, doesn’t mean that I’m the arbiter of test-drives.”

“I know.”

This was too easy. “You are not – I repeat not – gonna put this on me if you change your mind about this car.”

“I won’t.”

I made him say it back to me. I wished I had a tape recorder.

Vern arranged for an independent on-yard vehicle test while we lunched at a local greasy spoon. The report came back positive. And Vern bought himself a new car.

As I drove the Elantra off the lot, Vern said, “I don’t know how I’m gonna be with a manual.”

“What d’you mean? You said it’d be like riding a bike.”

“Well, yeah. It’s just that… I haven’t driven a manual in over twenty years.”

Twenty years?” The Hyundai’s acoustic absorbence left a lot to be desired.

“And I’d only driven for a couple of months before I wrote my car off.” He looked at me. “You wouldn’t mind helping me re-learn how to drive a manual, would you?”


1 – Not his real name.

2 – A royal ‘I’: my love and apologies to The Goddess who was actively involved in the process but was written out in this dramatisation.

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