I am on my way to a gig in New York City when the driver’s side rear tire blows out, sending me hurtling with the hazards blinking into the breakdown lane, just before exit 11 on the New Jersey Turnpike, near the Hess building, where the Turnpike meets the Garden State Parkway. There is a deep gash in the sidewall. It is early March, about 6:00 PM on a Thursday, cold, dark, and REALLY busy in the northbound mixed traffic lane. I scuttle to the back of the car, and get the spare, the jack, and the pry bar out of the trunk.
Remember when cars used to come with a REAL jack? It was three solid pieces of metal: a base plate, a rectangular pole about a yard long with notches on the side, and a pry bar to make it go up and down. It was, I remember, the kind of thing you could use standing up like a dignified human being. What happened to those things? It’s as if sometime around 1980, some CEO got the big idea to make jacks as small and difficult to use as possible. "Hey, I've got a great idea! Let's make the jack so that the user has to roll around on the tarmac trying to get it into position. Then we'll make it so you can only use it if you're hunched over with your ass sticking out in the air like a target for a Mack truck to plough into." “Excellent idea, JP, and it’ll do wonders for the “new pants” industry too...”
WOOSH WOOSH WOOSH. That's the sound of 18-wheelers speeding by me trying to jack up this car, hunched over like a mushroom. My ass is indeed sticking out into traffic. The trucks whiz by so closely that it feels like I'm getting sucked out into the highway. I can actually feel the air get shoved aside by these behemoths, as I’m rolling around on my back trying to get this damn jack into place.
After about twenty minutes of bending and cursing, the car is jacked up and I am struggling to remove the lug nuts. Ever change a flat? You have to take the lugs off in a certain order; otherwise one or more will get stuck. My father, who has a degree in physics, would be happy to explain why this is so. I cannot, but suffice it to say, this is exactly what happened: one stubborn lug just refused to budge. So, hunched over like a chimp, gravel driving itself into my knee, the bolts go back on, I jack the thing back down and start over. This time, all 5 bolts come off, including one that simply BREAKS off with a sudden snap. Well, that's just fucking great, I mutter.
Luckily, I am near the exit where the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway meet, and across the median separating the two highways, I can see payphones near the tollbooths. So I start trudging through the median to the phones. First, I have to jump over a moat of sorts, filled with shit-colored water, and then make my way across a no-man's land of beer bottles and trash to the phones. There are potholes 6 inches deep hidden in the grass, and I almost twist my ankle 3 or 4 times. I jump over another drainage ditch on the other side, and run down the parkway to the phones.
I get on the phone with AAA, and they tell me "We're not allowed to tow from the Turnpike, it's a weird Jersey law. Get towed to a local road, and then we can help you," and they transfer me to a dispatcher from the NJ Turnpike Authority. "Wait right at the payphone," the dispatcher says. "We'll have a truck there ASAP." "Sure thing," I say. And I proceed to wait. And wait. And wait. During this interlude, I call my old man; it's his car after all. After hearing the story thus far, he assures me that it's OK to drive on 4 lug bolts. It's now about 7:30.
Finally, I see the tow truck pull up: on the highway, next to my car, across the median. "Shit," I mutter, "He must have misunderstood the dispatcher," and I take off running up the Parkway, leaping the shit-filled ditch, across the no man's land, over the other shit-filled ditch... and get there just as the guy's pulling away. What's that movie that ends with the protagonist helplessly watches everything go up in smoke around him and yells "Nooooooooooooooooooooo"? That's what I was doing, waving my arms as the truck drove off into the night.
WOOSH! WOOSH! WOOSH! I've decided to make the best of a bad situation, and I’m trying to change the flat again. I am back to being hunched over. My knees and back are aching; I feel like an old man, where's my sweat-stained back brace and pack of unflitered Pall Malls? Again, I'm maybe 10 feet away from those tractor trailers, and convinced I'm going to die. The car is jacked up for the third time this evening, the bolts are off, and now... the wheel won't budge. The damn thing refuses to come off! I'm kicking the tire, pulling on it, and it is stuck fast. I’m also scared to kick too hard because I might end up falling backwards into oncoming traffic. WHOOSH!
See the monkey man run, what a funny monkey! Watch him jump back over the drainage ditch, make his way across the median filled with broken glass and sharp rusty metal and treacherous ankle-twisting holes, jump the second drainage ditch filled with shitty dirt water and dial the dispatcher again. Now it's about 9:00 PM.
"Yeah, we sent that truck! Where the hell were you?" the guy on the other end barks. "You don't understand," I say, "I was waiting here and he pulled up at my car! I thought there was a mix-up, so I ran over as fast as I could and he was driving aw---" As the words came out of my mouth, I looked up and saw the tow truck was back by my car, AGAIN. "Fuck! He's there now. TELL HIM NOT TO LEAVE, TELL HIM NOT TO LEAVE, I'M RUNNIN’ OVER THERE NOW," I yell, as I drop the phone, and start running up the Parkway, wind in my hair like Heathcliff on the moors. Heathcliff of the polluted plains of Perth Amboy, vaulting the ditch, dashing through the field of trash and holes, back over the other ditch, booking down the Turnpike, WOOOSH WOOSH WOOSH go the 18-wheelers, I get to the car, gasping for air. "I'm I'm I'm suh... suh.. sorry you had to [cough wheeze] come out a [cough] second time."
The tow guy is a dumpy old man with bifocals and a smoke permanently lodged in the corner of his mouth. He looks at me with a scowl that he's probably worn since he got home from Korea and grunts, "I went to that phone booth. Youse wasn't there." He had a deep South Jersey accent. Ay wenna det foon boot. Yuz wudden dere. I try to explain the mix-up with the dispatcher and he grunts (it soon becomes apparent the man speaks only in grunts) "Yeah well, I'm not the one paying twice..." So we get the car hoisted up onto the tow truck and head off to Perth Amboy. $67.00 for the tow, I can deal with this. On the way to the garage, Grumbles the Towman kind of gets the idea that I'm just a normal schlub, and doesn't charge me twice. He may be grumbly, but he's alright. He knows I'm pretty well fucked.
At the tow yard, I call AAA for tire service. Turns out that even though my parents have AAA, and I'm using their car, if i want roadside assistance, I have to become a AAA member. To the tune of $65.00. The commercial rate for roadside is even more expensive, so now even though I don't own a car, even though I drive maybe twice a month, I am now a AAA member. While I'm waiting for their roadside assistance team to show up, I have my first meal since noon. It’s a shitty piece of pizza that costs too much and is served to me by a morbidly obese man with hair as greasy as his skin who perspires plentifully. "Dallah twenny-five" he snarls at me. As I raise the slab to my lips, I notice the dirty grey pizza flour all over his shirt and hands.
At about 10:30, the AAA guy who shows up is about 6'5", and has the craziest bowl cut I have ever seen. How crazy? I shit you not, the space between his hairline and the top of his ears is about 2 inches. He looks like Kramer from Seinfeld, if Kramer was a refugee from Mayberry. Nice guy, with a thicker New Jersey accent than the tow operator. I don’t think I ever got his name. Every other word out of his mouth is "fuck" or a variation therof.
"Yeah so what the fuck's wrong with your fuckin' car?" Yih, sew woth th’ fawk’s wrong with yer fawking cor? "Oh yeah, the fucking tire, huh, fuck that's a fucking bitch. Yeah those fuckin' bolts get all fuckin' hot and then they just snap right the fuck off. Aww yeah, the fuckin' hub'll fuckin' rust right the fuck onto the fuckin' wheel, that's why you couldn't get it the fuck off. Here, I'll get it," and the guy basically does a flying karate kick at the tire. Ka-ping! The wheel pops right off. Spare gets put on, and the guy leads me to a less used highway so I won't get creamed puttering along with this little donut spare. (Along with the good jacks, that same CEO back in 1980 decided it would be best to get rid of full-size spares as well. That man needs to be shot.)
I got home at about 12:30, and immediately began drinking beers. Called up my job, told them I'd be late in the morning. Went to bed. So no, there's no moral to this story that I can think about. When it rains it pours I guess? I'm just glad the shit didn't hit the fan when I was in the Lincoln tunnel.