Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The day the car broke down (and no one stopped to help)

My middle son’s car broke down today on the way to our mechanic’s. I knew it needed help and that is why I was on my way to have it serviced in the first place. I just didn’t think it was so imminent.

(He’ll be taking his road test at the end of the month and I’m trying to get the car all fixed up for him. We bought it at the end of the summer after he’d been working full time and had the money to pay half, and he’s been learning to drive on it for the past four months, with me logging the time on a chart that we keep in the glove box.)

Fortunately, my oldest son was en route ahead of me in his own car, since I would have needed a ride back home anyway. He had already arrived at the mechanic's shop when I called him to let him know that all power had cut out and the engine died and I had to coast into a neighborhood, making a left turn without any hand signals (right in front of a car that was waiting to pull out onto the main road), because I could not open the window, and even if I could, I needed both hands on the wheel because it took a lot of my strength to turn the vehicle without any power steering. I had tried calling AAA first (numerous times) but got a fast busy.

While I was breathlessly explaining all of this to my son, a driver signaled to turn into the neighborhood. I pointed at the exit, since I was blocking the entrance.

“Just hand the phone to the <Mechanic's name>, please.”

"The car broke down and D@xx AAA isn’t answering! Even when I try navigating through the member services number! Who do you think I should call?"

Our mechanic suggested, "You can request an AAA tow online. They’re really busy this time of year, especially with the cold."

(It was minus something that morning. I had driven both of my sons who had school to their bus stops. It’s possible the temperature had warmed all the way up to zero by early afternoon, but still, I was standing out there in the cold.)

"I had one customer that had to wait eight hours for a tow," he continued.

"I can’t wait eight hours. I am on the side of the road, in a neighborhood, blocking the entrance…” I waved another car towards the exit. “I need to call someone…"

"You’ll have to pay."

"That’s okay."

Meanwhile, my son had circled back so I could sit with him in his heated car.

Mechanic gave me the names of two towing companies but warned me again that it could be a wait.

"Okay, thanks a lot." I glanced over at a car heading towards the exit. The driver did not make eye contact.

My son checked his social media. I emailed my manager to let her know that I wasn’t going to make the 2:00 p.m. call, tried AAA a few more times, and then watched as more cars drove in and out of the neighborhood. No one stopped.

To my son, “I'm not going to be able to wait. Let’s go to the police station.”

"Will they tow us?"

"No, but maybe they’ll encourage a tow truck to come faster if they make the call."

The police dispatcher asked me to write down details about the car (make, model, license plate, where it is and so on). I didn’t know the license plate number and I was scribbling because my hands were so cold, so he had me stand there while he radioed a cruiser to be sure we got all the details right (not that there were any other cars broken down in the entrance to that neighborhood, but I imagine he has to write it all up in a report so might as well get the story straight.) Then he said I could go back and wait with the vehicle for the officer.

My son and I sat there and I watched a few more cars come and go. I gave up waving people into the exit. I imagined they could figure it out. The officer came almost right away. We talked about pushing the vehicle up far enough that the residents of the neighborhood would not have to keep using the exit side of the street to enter. (How inconvenient for them, right?) I forget how it came to pass that we’d just call the tow company already.

Later on, when the tow truck driver came, we couldn’t get the vehicle in neutral to get it up on the flatbed anyway (he had to drag it), so pushing it out of the way wouldn’t have worked, especially given there was a slight incline. This just validated my decision to have called him to begin with, even though the policeman also reminded me that I would have to pay.

"That’s okay,” I said. “I need to get this taken care of. It’s just going up the street and around the corner.” (Literally, it’s like a mile, maybe a mile and a half but certainly no more.)

He had the dispatcher call and then he told me to go wait in the car with my son. He would wait behind us in the cruiser.

We sat there for what seemed like a long time because I was trying not to think about the fact that I had to go to the bathroom, but in reality, it was probably only 15 minutes.

When the tow truck driver came, I got out of my son’s car. “I know you!” He was my former neighbor and lived only a few houses down from our mechanic, which was right next door to my old house.

We spent the entire time he was hooking up the car talking about the old neighborhood, the supermarket that was closing and why, the name of the store that used to be there, one of our other neighbors who had passed away, our dogs, and on and on.

My son and I followed the tow truck to our mechanic's shop and I bolted inside to use the restroom. Then I ran into someone I knew and had another pleasant conversation about the house down the street that was finally getting rehabbed and a few other tidbits of small-town smalltalk.

The whole ordeal only took one hour, door-to-door. However, with my positive interactions with my son, the police, the tow truck driver, our mechanic, and the friend I ran into, it wasn’t that much of an ordeal, as far as ordeals go (not at all like the oil truck I saw on its side in a ditch on the way to and from the gym that evening).

It wasn’t until my son and I were on our way home that I thought about the fact that not one person going in and out of the neighborhood stopped to ask me if I was okay when I was standing outside in the freezing cold alone outside of a vehicle blocking the road. I was, indeed, okay, but it's still nice to be asked!

What is wrong with people? I wondered.

And I said aloud, “What a bunch of f-ing a-holes, not even stopping to see if I needed help!”

“Mom, chill!” my son laughed.

“Well, hon," I huffed. "I don’t want you to think that if you ever come across someone whose car broke down on the side of the road that you shouldn’t at least roll down your window to ask if there’s anything you can do!”

When our mechanic called to discuss the repairs to the vehicle (new alternator, new battery, and a couple of other things I want to take care of while it’s in the shop), I mentioned this to him.

He said, “I’m not surprised. Everything comes down to time and money. Everyone has so much less personal time these days…it might take 20 minutes out of their day to help someone and then their day will be ‘ruined.’ ” (Our mechanic is a sage.)

We lamented about how things were in the 70’s and 80’s, when you could hitchhike/pick up hitchhikers, and agreed it just wasn’t something you could do today.

I remember one time driving home from Maine with my friend in her parents’ station wagon when the car broke down. A guy stopped to help and changed a tire for us. Somehow we let her parents know (this was before cell phones) and they told us to make sure we got the guy’s name and address so they could send him a thank-you gift. My friend’s family owned a corner store and they likely sent the guy a fruit basket or meat platter.

I got an email back from AAA the day after my web inquiry instructing me how to submit my towing invoice for reimbursement. Everything is going to work out okay.

But people, think about it. If you’re too busy to stop and help someone when their car broke down in your own neighborhood, you are far too busy. Or you’re just a self-centered a$$hole. You decide.

But no one will see it

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