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My Turn: Get your motor runnin’

An ordinary woman, fast approaching her 70th birthday, needs to rent a car. She is a sensible sort, preferring safety to style, the familiar to the new. She’d rent a tank if available, something to assure the invincibility of her precious cargo, in the event of, well you know, road lunatics.

What happens next comes as a surprise. Her approach is arrested, struck by a sight that rivets her attention — a lipstick red Mini Cooper. She stares longingly, maybe even salivates a tad. At that very moment, she takes leave of her senses, casts all caution aside, she wants “It.”

“I’ll rent the Mini,” she announces the moment she enters the agency, before even uttering a courteous good morning. The young man, taking brusque manner in stride, replies, “We can set you up.” Hopping with anticipation, she rushes through the paper work, signs forms without reading the fine print and asks not a single question about cost. “Let’s go,” she urges.”

Finally, he ushers her out to her ride. He checks for fender marks and mileage. She checks the white trim, the red shine and the perfect retro interior. The dashboard dials look like something out of Julia Child’s kitchen, round and eye-popping. The bucket seat is calling for her backside.

But first the key. “It’s different,” he instructs. He produces something that bears no resemblance to a key at all, more like an Oreo cookie. What’s wrong with keys that look like keys, she wonders? With a simple insertion, without turn or twist, it engages the motor and starts into its own sweet hum.

“Ready?” he asks, moving out of the driver’s seat, gesturing for her to sit. But sitting is a long way to ground level and she’s in free fall. She plops with an ungraceful landing that jangles the nervous system. And when she looks up from below, she’s staring through, not over, the steering wheel. Maybe she should ask for a pillow or the Manhattan telephone directory. But, for now the focus is to on the Oreo key. Convinced she can start and stop the car, her guide wishes her well and heads back into the office.

Finally she is alone with her car, free to stroke its panels and caress its dials. Then, she leans back, revs up the engine, and shifts into reverse. Nothing. Nothing at all. The shift won’t budge. She rubs its silver emblem, jiggles, presses and mutters. Still nothing. “Help,” she calls. “Help me.” When helps doesn’t appear, she hefts herself out of the seat, trying to muster the physics of up instead of down, out instead of in, hoping that no one else in the universe is witness, pointing their camera in her direction, and she will not appear in some agency video laugh-athon.

At last, the secret shift handshake is revealed and now she’s really, really ready.

Of course, there’s still the matter of turn signals, windows, AC and radio, and all the miserable circuits of hidden technology. Nothing is where it should be. The radio lives on the steering wheel, the window levers, well she can’t find them until later a friend points to the icon. It’s in a place she never would have thought to look and the icon, even if she squints, resembles no window she’s ever met. So much to learn.

But never mind. The car accelerates and tools down the highway like a dream. Soon she’s singing out loud (the radio not mastered) no one to hear (the windows not yet mastered) and enjoying every minute. At the end of the day, she will deliver back her Mini, a little bit sad and a little bit glad. She’s ready to return to her bruised, and known CR-V, to open and shut its windows with ease, fill its tank and operate the limited gadgets. Surely, she’s a bit smarter now, a new window icon neuron embedded in her brain. But next time — and alas, given the vintage and condition of her car, there will be a next time — she’ll probably skip the sports car model. But you just never know, granny’s not done yet!

Ruth Charney lives in Greenfield.

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