I was driving sixty miles an hour on Southbound 101 when the car abruptly died. It was my nightmare fantasy come true. My heretofore trusty ’98 Jeep just stopped. The radio went off, all the gauges slid to zero and I realized that I was coasting to a halt in a busy freeway lane. I tried to restart the car. I had no lights, no nothing. I couldn’t even put on the emergency blinkers.
I was terrified. Vehicles were hurtling towards me at sixty and seventy miles per hour and they had no clue that I was dead in the right lane. All it would take would be one dreamy driver to plow into me and I would be both cause and outcome of a multi-car possibly fatal accident. Should I get out and run for it? Should I wait here? I didn’t know. It seemed more honorable to stay with the car, to go down with the ship.
A Highway Patrol car materialized behind me, its lights flashing. I was pleased, for the first time in my life, to see Law Enforcement flashing its lights at me. The officer walked briskly to my front window. He gestured to me to roll down the window.
Problem is, I can’t roll down the window. The Jeep’s driver’s side window doesn’t work. I had to pop open the door to hear the man’s voice. Embarassing? And maybe illegal?
“Put it in Neutral, sir. I’m going to push you to the shoulder.”
Thank god thank god the gear shift works. It works kind of funny, like there’s only one gear. The lever slides up and down without stopping. Oh god I hope this Jeep is not stuck in gear. The CHP officer squares off behind me and bumps my fender with his big front pusher bar. The car moves! Oh!
There’s another CHP car about two hundred yards upstream from us, slowing traffic by weaving across the freeway. I get to the shoulder and the officer appears again. He shouts at the closed widow. He thinks I’m a moron. “Have you got Triple A, sir?”
“I do. I do. I do.” I feel like I’m getting married. “I do I do”, I stutter, my nerves shattered, my forehead bathed in perspiration.
“Call ’em right now. What’s wrong with your vehicle, sir?”
“I don’t know, it’s been running fine and then, suddenly, whammo! Dead. D-
“If this vehicle is still here in two hours it will be impounded. Do NOT exit the vehicle unless supervised by your tow driver. Stay in your vehicle! You’re lucky I don’t write you a ticket for reckless driving. I’m feeling benevolent today. Today’s my lecture day. If this was tomorrow I’d write you up for twenty different violations.” I’m listening to this through the open crack of my driver’s side door and the opened rear window, and all the other open windows except the one next to me that doesn’t open any more. I’m praying the policeman doesn’t notice the passenger side front mirror, because it’s taped on with duct tape and is not glass but a piece of reflective plastic whose images are distorted beyond recognition at any speed.
I call Triple A and wait for the tow truck. I get texts every few minutes relaying the progress of my rescuer. “Recovery Vehicle has departed current location at.etc. etc……ETA 45 min.” When the tow truck arrives it conveys me to Bowens Automotive Repair, a garage that I picked at random off the internet. The mechanic does his tests and I absorb the diagnosis: My alternator is shot. The car needs a new alternator. Price tag: Five Hundred Dollars.
I have no choice. I call my partner to pick me up and drive me home in the other car.
The Other Car. The ’96 White Chevy Blazer. It was once a luxury car. Leather seats. Key fob operated remote lock/unlock. We haven’t driven it in four years because it doesn’t start. I would presume its got a dead battery but I swapped another battery into the car and it still didn’t start. So, maybe a blown starter motor? Bad solenoid, frayed ground wire, failure to make contact somewhere within the fiendish complexities of its electrical jungle.
The Jeep has always been our go-to car. I haven’t had the money to repair the Blazer. But now I must buy a new battery. If there’s something else wrong with the Blazer I’m wasting my money but I follow this handy rule: If the car doesn’t start, and the battery doesn’t charge, replace the battery. Maybe the swapped battery was dead, too.
The moment of battery replacement is fraught with tension. Will it, won’t it…start? I connect the new battery, turn the key in the ignition and….hallelujah! It starts right away. Oh, what a relief.
I drive the Blazer to work the next day. We’ve been using the Blazer as a storage bin. Its rear is filled with linens, dishes, books, tools, all kinds of stuff loaded up to the line of sight in the rear view mirror. If we put any more stuff in there, I won’t be able to see what’s behind me.
I drive to work. I work. I prepare to drive home.
The driver’s side tire is flat.
Shit! Where’s the spare? Is it underneath all that storage?
No. It’s under the chassis, riding beneath the rear wheels. The problem is that the tools for jacking and removing lug nuts is underneath the dishes, the linens, the books.
And there’s a trick to getting the spare to come free, a trick that I don’t know. I’ve been using a sledge hammer to whack at the wing nut that constrains the spare. I whack it and the nut turns but it’s not un-threading. It’s not coming free.
I begin to unload the stored goods in the cargo compartment. Maybe there’s a special tool, something to help me understand the spare tire conundrum.
A motorist rolls up beside me in the parking lot. He’s driving a Blazer.
“Are you stumped by the spare tire riddle?” he asks.
“Totally stumped.” I admit, raising my shoulders. The back of my t-shirt and pants are black with asphalt and tar. I don’t know this, yet. I can’t see it.
The Good Samaritan emerges, opens his rear hatch and pulls a variety of jack stuff from a compartment.
“If you take this to a pro tire shop they won’t know what to do either. It’s the great Blazer Spare Tire Riddle.” It turns out there’s a hidden slot next to the license plate. When my new friend inserts a blade-style tool into the magic slot it turns a cog and the spare tire DESCENDS on a cable until it hits the ground and I slip it off the wing nut. There is no thread. There is just this clever but now-obscure arrangement.
Flat tire off; spare tire on. Drive to the tire place. Spend $120 to replace the spare. Okay, the car runs. As I drive, I see the one thing THAT I MOST DO NOT WANT TO SEE. The dreaded SERVICE ENGINE SOON light comes on.
I hate those lights! Hate em! They utterly destroy my peace of mind. They are the manifestation of worry on the Material Plane. As we all know, The Material Plane is dominated by concerns for automotive hygiene. If you don’t got transpo, you don’t got shit.
I try driving the Jeep. I’m too scared by the friggin’ SERVICE ENGINE SOON light on the Blazer.
The Jeep takes me to work the following day. I detour through Novato and prepare to drive to Petaluma. I’m going “the back way” because north-bound 101 is a parking lot. It’s always a parking lot from 3 to 7 P.M. five days a week. What is this insane life we live? Why do we spend four hours a day sitting in automobiles?
I’m heading for South Novato Boulevard when a giant cloud of steam erupts from under the hood. GIANT CLOUD OF STEAM! NOT GOOD. NOT GOOD.
I pull into the parking lot of the last shopping center before I embark on twenty miles of rural winding roads. I buy a jug of coolant and I fill the Jeep’s reservoir with the gooey green stuff. I wait twenty minutes and I attempt the drive home. The Jeep runs, somewhat jerkily, and I spend the next forty minutes of back-road driving in a state of profound alarm.
I make it. I’m home.
I know a little bit about cars. That kind of volcanic eruption of steam can indicate a water pump has gone bad, or the thermostat has failed, or the radiator is toast. Or all of the above.
My neighbor, Mike, knows about cars. “I’ll change your thermostat,” he says cheerfully. Mike is attending AA meetings and has just got his thirty day chip. That’s not an issue for me. It just adds to the air of tension: Mike struggling to stay away from drink. His wife has quit smoking and is on Day 27. My neighbors are deeper in poverty than we are. No wonder Mike eagerly volunteers to change my thermostat. Mike is all over the place helping people.
I purchase a thermostat. Mike replaces the old one in about ninety minutes. He doesn’t want to charge me. I give him fifty dollars. The new thermostat works, the Jeep stays cool.
I didn’t want to mention this before but it just happens that the Blazer’s registration is due in a week and I know, for a fact, that SERVICE ENGINE SOON means that it will not pass the smog check.
Nonetheless, I feel safer driving the Blazer and I take it to work the next day.
As I’m coming home on North Petaluma Boulevard I hear a sound like a very large and joltingly loud motorcycle cruising up on my driver’s side. Wow! That’s loud! I look to my left and I see no motorcycle. There’s no traffic at all. But the Blazer is crunching and flubbling. It sounds like a propellor blade being demolished by a potato masher. The Blazer is behaving as if it has the hiccups. No question: another tire is flat.
I get over on the shoulder to inspect the damage. Holy Shit! The tire is literally shredded, it’s nothing but four inch strips of rubber hanging from a punctured black matrix of nameless stuff.
Call Triple A. Second time in three days. An hour later the big yellow truck pulls up. A toothless rail-thin old guy gets out, grinning happily, and tells me that my tires are sun-damaged. They’ve been sitting for too long and the heat has soaked the oils out of the rubber. They’re all about to blow at any second. I need to instruct the tow truck man how to get the tricky spare out from under the Blazer. Once the tire is changed I drive straight to the tire place and get four more new tires. That is, after I’ve cued the guys at American Tire Co. about the Great Blazer Spare Tire Riddle.
There are days when nothing goes right. When to touch a machine is to wreck it. Or when one makes an error due to a lapse of attention that causes a ten foot fall off someone’s deck into a bed of blackberry bushes. I’m having one of those days. I put on the coffee. It’s a stove-top espresso maker. I wait for the boil, wait and wait. I smell something burning. Uh oh! I take a pot holder and lift the coffee maker. Oh man! Oh man oh man! I forgot to put water in the bottom part of the Vigano stove top coffee maker. Now the rubber gasket has melted and scorched the threads and the coffee maker is a casualty of Morning Mind Mush. In spite of the damage, my partner is greatly reassured. My error is comforting to her. She thinks she’s “losing it”. Now she knows she’s not the only one who’s “losing it”.
I must locate a smog shop, a Star Certified Service Center, one of those in cahoots with the smog-fighting money-sucking bureaucracy of the DMV. I pay for the smog test. The Blazer fails. How much, I ask, will it cost to fix it so that it passes the rigorous standards of our state’s air-quality guardians?
The Blazer needs a tune-up, a forward oxygen sensor, a rearward oxygen sensor and a catalytic converter.”That would be about nine hundred and fifty dollars,” answers the mechanic, whose name, Kelvin, is stitched onto his dark blue jump suit. Kelvin’s wife/receptionist is named Tran. They’re Vietnamese.
How many times have I said “shit” or “fuck” in the last three days?
“Kelvin,” I ask, “is there some kind of discount for the poor and the elderly?” I have been poor my whole life. The ‘elderly’ part occurred while I wasn’t watching, about three years ago, when my left hip began to feel as if a strong man was applying pressure to it with a vice grip.
There is, in fact, a program for the poor and the elderly to pay $500 towards smog repair. I get the papers downloaded and send in the application. A week later the grant arrives. Five hundred of that nine hundred fifty dollars will be paid for. Hell yeah!
The smog repair takes two days. I wait eagerly for Kelvin’s call. At last the phone rings. “You passed your smog test,” says Kelvin. I’m so happy! I’m thrilled.
I had needed a victory, any victory, a small victory, whatever, I’ll take it.
“But there is a problem, I’m afraid,” says Kelvin, and my heart takes up residence at the ends of my toes. I can feel my pulse down there, bumpity bump, pulsing up through my toenails.
“A…uh…problem?” Fuck! Shit!
“I think your water pump is about gone.”
“You think, you THINK. Is it gone or isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. There was a pool of coolant under your car when I came in this morning.”
How much does he want to repair the water pump? Well, you see, one should also replace the thermostat when one replaces the water pump.
Four hundred seventy eight dollars.
Stop everything! HOLD THE PRESSES!
I’m not stupid. I check online and a water pump plus a thermostat costs about sixty bucks. My neighbor, my pal my buddy Mike will do any automotive task for fifty dollars, gladly. The work boosts his self esteem and it keeps him out of his RV and away from his jonesing wife.
The Material World is a challenging place. Our current model, this 21st century science fiction hip-hop deodorant-peddling appearance-worshiping stage set is peculiarly complex, is like a cross-word puzzle without a solution. No one wins in the Material World. All endings are bad endings. If I’m lucky I will die quickly and without indignity. If I’m lucky. Meanwhile, as I wait for the denouement of my life, I must endure and meet the challenges thrust into my face by the invisible spirits of Destiny.
Is the cup half full, partially full, partially empty, or totally empty? The Highway Patrol Cop did not write me up. The guy in the Blazer showed up as if dropped from Heaven. I got a five hundred dollar grant from the DMV. The battery in the Blazer started the car. The Jeep still runs.
The cup is the cup. Whatever’s in it is what I’ve got. I may as well accept that fact. It’s all those things, partially full, partially empty. Life is blessed and sublime and life can be unspeakably vile.
While I’m at it, I should check my credit rating. I might want to purchase a recent model used car.