Automobiles can be a terrible burden, especially when they’re nearly 15 years old and drive about as well as a bent turd.
One day, while at my radio station work-place, Sunny 93.3 in Tupelo, Mississippi, my particular nearly 15 year old, bent turd-driving car developed something of a runny nose. Beneath my 1985 Blue Chevy Caprice Classic was an enormous lake of anti-freeze being caused by a leaking radiator. One of our station’s ad-sales guys, Laf George, suggested I take it in to a mechanic to have it looked at and said that I should pray that it was simply a leaky hose or I’d be paying out the nose to have it removed and properly welded. I, of course, balked at this idea. My vacation was coming up in a couple of weeks and I was planning to drive around various parts of Mississippi, Missouri and North Carolina in the company of my girlfriend, Ashley, who was flying in from her home in North Carolina. My parents had even offered to loan me their new Merc for the journey, so breaking down on vacation in my car was not a big concern. The last thing I needed was a big nasty repair-bill putting financial strain on my vacation fund.
Another reason to avoid the garage was that that I have an innate distrust of auto-mechanics simply because I’m convinced that they can smell my automotive naiveté and begin preparing to sodomize my wallet at the mere sight of me. However, the trouble with automotive dumbasses like myself is that we very often refuse to admit that we’re dumbasses except under the most dire of circumstances. This, along with the fact that Auto-Zone offers a wide selection of radiator stop-leak products, is what led me to believe that I would somehow be able to fix my radiator my own bad self.
After one application of STP Stop-Leak, my leak did not completely stop. However, it was at least slowed to the point that it was not creating a massive day-glow yellow/green puddle beneath my car, only a little one. This led me to falsely believe there was hope. Of course, the following morning the leak returned in full prompting me to purchase more stop-leak.
And so began my daily ritual. Every day I would find an anti-freeze puddle, go to Autozone and buy new and increasingly more expensive brands of stop-leak and pour them in—ignoring the printed warnings on the containers that if the leak were to persist I should seek professional mechanical assistance. I would drive the car home, where it would proceed to lightly drip and increase the size of the big stain in my favorite parking space. Then, during my 7:15 a.m. leak-check the next day, I would witness the full evidence of the stop-leak’s failure.
My morning-show co-host, Cathy Williams, suggested a more philosophical approach to auto-mechanics in which I should speak nicely to the car and send positive feelings toward it instead of swearing mercilessly and shaking my fist at it.
“The earth would be a much nicer place if we were all a little more positive,” she said.
I, being a generally negative soul that early in the morning, declined her advice and continued throwing radiator products at my problem.
So passed two weeks.
During this period a new neighbor moved into my building, specifically into the apartment directly beneath mine, where Ashley used to live. Now I never actually saw this new neighbor, but I knew they were there for two reasons: They owned a beat-up brownish compact kind of car, which they insisted on parking in my favorite space, and because of the near constant hammering which went on in their apartment for two days. I had no idea what was going on down there but I imagined that they owned a lot of pictures and were absorbed with hanging them. Still, there was an awful lot of hammering and I was grateful that they limited their decoration to hours when I wasn’t trying to sleep.
A week before my vacation was to begin I decided it was time to get serious. I went back to Auto Zone and bought a miraculous product called J.B. Weld. For those of you unfamiliar with “the weld,” it’s an adhesive that comes in two separate tubes that, when mixed together in equal parts, forms a dark gray substance that hardens into a final form that is not unlike steel. Stuff could hold an engine block together, or so I have been told. Over that weekend I drained all the nasty gray fluid from my radiator and put it in a big blue plastic Rubbermade tub. Then I J.B. Welded the snot out of that radiator. It actually took a couple of days to get all the leaks welded over, so my blue tub of anti-freeze got pretty full as I continued to drain and refill the radiator. My plan was to eventually take the tub of gray anti-freeze to a service station and see if they could dispose of it in an environmentally sound fashion, but I wasn’t going to worry about it for a while. I left it sitting in front of my car, parked in my favorite parking space by the side-walk, well away from the trees where the incontinent birds like to nest.
On Wednesday I was scheduled to drive to the Memphis Airport to pick up Ashley following her 2:19 p.m. arrival. My car behaved itself all morning. Not a leak to be seen. I was so happy with it that I began telling it positive and reassuring things, like Cathy had suggested. As I did this, a nagging voice in the back of my head told me to borrow the cell phone from the Sunny 93 van. I thought, Yeah, that would be a good idea, and completely failed to go get it. Instead, so as not to alarm the car with my lack of faith, I decided to fill a couple of empty 2 liter Diet Coke bottles with water and discretely hide them in the trunk when I thought the car wasn’t paying attention.
I left the station at 1 p.m., confident that with my driving skills I could get to Memphis right on time to greet Ashley at the gate. Still, there was a nagging feeling at the back of my head pointing out that this was Mississippi in the summer, complete with 98 degree temperatures not counting the heat index, whatever that is. This nagging voice told me to go rent a car just to be safe. I pushed the feeling aside and drove on, confident because I once rode across the Mojave Desert as a passenger in a 1976 Chevy Nova Concourse with a questionable radiator and no air-conditioning, in July. Surely, oh surely, I could survive the trip to Memphis in “the Bent Turd.”
Twenty minutes into my northern trek along Highway 78, the car’s temperature light came on to alert me to impending problems. I was instantly alarmed and angry at the same time, for my car’s earlier good behavior had been nothing but a clever ruse. I pulled over and popped the hood. The whole engine was hissing with heat and there was the very noticeable stench of burning oil. I didn’t dare open the radiator cap, for fear it would rocket up on a column of steam and, (forgive me), put a cap in my ass. The reserve coolant tank was completely full. The radiator itself was leaking, but in tiny hissing leaks that sprayed from the J.B. Welded holes. What ever could the problem be? I decided to get back in the car and try and make it to New Albany where hopefully there would be a service station that would know what to do. It didn’t matter that I had no idea how far away New Albany was, I didn’t see that I had much choice in the matter since I had a deadline to keep.
The car started but didn’t sound too good and wasn’t moving well either. I made it a quarter of a mile, cursing and praying in a nearly indistinguishable stream the whole way, before the car began to decelerate on its own. The engine stopped completely, just as I pulled over to the side of the road, and it refused to start again despite my anguished pleas. At that moment, I then did what most automotive dumbasses do when faced with this situation—I popped the hood and stared blankly at the engine for ten minutes. It’s as if I was expecting the Broken Engine Fairy to drop out of the sky, install a fresh engine and leave me a quarter. Didn’t happen. It finally occurred to me that action was called for, so I began doing everything that I knew how to do with the engine in the hope that one of those things would somehow fix it. This pretty much amounted to checking the oil, so not much was accomplished. Again I found myself staring at the engine, the stench of hopelessness mixing with the burning oil smoke around me. I paused, humbled myself as best I could, given the circumstances, and began to pray: “Dear Lord, I have no idea how to fix this car. Please send someone who knows what they’re doing.” I paused and looked around, hoping to see Mr. Goodwrench himself, or at least a Pep Boy, pulling up in an air-conditioned Winnebago. Didn’t happen.
Panic gripped me. Here I was, helpless, stranded on the side of Highway 78, miles from civilization, staring at the irreparable engine of the Bent Turd, no cell-phone to call for rescue, the Mississippi heat seeping into my underwear and an important engagement at the airport looming very much out of my reach. This was as close to utter desperation as I’d ever come. And it seemed to me that the last time I was even close to desperation, the Bent Turd had also been involved.
A few minutes later my mind partially returned and I began to weigh my options. I could either continue staring into the engine until it miraculously fixed itself—not a likely prospect given its history—or I could try to climb my way out of the pile of feces that had fallen on me and go find help. Memphis was about 90 miles to the north, so I started running in that direction with my thumb out hitchhiker style.
A quarter mile from the car, I realized that running was probably a bad idea in 98 degree weather while wearing dress pants and Sunday shoes. I slowed to a walk and immediately realized that it would have also been a good idea to have taken some of the water I’d bottled earlier. Great! Now I’d probably die out here too.
By the time a trucker took pity on me and picked me up, the “New Albany Next Four Exits” sign was within view. I didn’t catch the trucker’s name, for I was too busy heaving cool truck-cab air in and out of my lungs to notice much. I gave him the short version of the above story (“Radiator… over-heated…. girl-friend…. at airport…. Doomed…. Need phone…”) and he agreed that fate did seem to have shat upon me. Turns out he was on a haul to Memphis, but I decided that I really didn’t want to go there just yet. I needed to let Ashley know what was going on as soon as possible. Plus, in the grand scheme of things, New Albany, MS, is a much safer place to be stranded at a pay-phone than Memphis.
The pay-phone I chose to be stranded at was in front of City B.P., in south New Albany. City B.P. was run by a middle-aged lady named Sharon, who explained to each new customer who walked through the door that she had been up since the butt-crack of dawn, but her relief worker had called in sick so she was now stuck at the B.P. until her son could get there. Yeah, join the club, I thought. Beneath her tired, grouchy exterior, though, she seemed nice enough. I purchased liquid refreshment from her and hoofed it back outside to the pay-phone by the street. There was no phone book, of course, so I had to use my MCI calling card to call the radio station and ask our receptionist to look up the number for East Main Service Center in her phone book. I then used the card to phone East Main and arrange a tow truck to come and rescue my car at some point before sunset. That was easy enough, considering that my brain was no longer functioning properly. I was pretty impressed that I had managed to pull it off.
My next plan was a simple one: Call the Memphis Airport, put in a page to Ashley (whose plane had surely arrived by this point), and see if she could rent a car to come rescue me.
After struggling with a couple of irritable MCI operators and then a fairly well-balanced Tennessee information operator, I finally got the number for the Memphis Airport. A very nice Memphis Airport lady answered and was more than happy to give me the Delta Airlines paging desk number. I hung up and called it. The line was busy. I called again. Busy. And it remained busy for the next five minutes. Keep in mind that each of these calling card calls takes an average of 40 seconds to complete due to the near infinite string of numbers one has to press, in proper order, during the course of dialing. And if you screw it up, one of the irritable MCI operators comes on the line, supposedly to help you, asks you what number you’re trying to call, then after you give it to her she rudely tells you to use your calling card and hangs up before you can explain that this is exactly what you were trying to do before she interrupted.
On my next try the line began to ring. And ring… and ring… and ring with no answer. I tried calling again and it was busy. For the next few minutes the line fluctuated from being very busy to ringing unanswered for all eternity. I cursed and took another 40 seconds to dial again. This time, after a dozen rings, someone finally picked up on the other end of the Delta Paging Desk line.
“Mphisarprt,” a man’s voice said.
“Yes, I’m trying to reach the Delta paging desk,” I said, grateful to have finally gotten through. “I need to page a passenger who came in on flight 1592 at 2:19.”
There was a brief silence.
“Hld on,” the man said, and put me on hold. Dinky Muzak played in my ear for five minutes as I waited, the sun beating upon me, the sweat pouring off me, the phone numbers I’d just written on my hand fading fast. It felt much hotter than 98 degrees. My “dress up to meet your girlfriend at the airport” clothes were rapidly soaking through. I didn’t care. I downed another swig of now luke-warm liquid refreshment, hung up and called the Delta Paging Desk line again.
It was, of course, busy.
I then began a string of curses that, if Cathy’s universal positive attitude theory was correct, should have melted the phone into a plastic puddle and done something to the Delta paging people akin to the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I dialed again, this time calling the nice Memphis Airport lady, the only phone person who had actually been helpful thus far. She was still very nice and sympathized with my situation but explained she only had the one number for the Delta Paging desk and repeated it to me to confirm that I’d copied it correctly. She did have the number for the Delta baggage claim area, though, so I copied that one down and called it. Someone picked up.
“Baggage. Ron speaking.”
“Ron! I’m desperately trying to page someone who just came in on a flight.”
“Oh, you need to call the Delta Paging Desk,” Ron said.
“I’ve been trying to do that for 40 minutes, Ron. I got a guy who doesn’t seem to speak any English who put me on hold forever!”
“Doesn’t speak English?”
“None that I can understand.”
“I’ll transfer you.”
“No! Wait! Don’t do that! It’ll either be busy or just ring forever.”
“Well, I’ll stay on the line and make sure someone picks up, okay?”
“Uhhh… Okay, I guess.” I didn’t like the sound of it, but what choice did I have? Ron transferred me, I heard a few rings in the ear-piece and then someone picked up.
“Mphisarprt,” a man’s voice said. It was the Expatriate Elbonian from before.
“Yes, I’m trying to reach the Delta Paging Desk. Please. I just called a few minutes ago to page someone and you put me on hold….”
There was some background noise for a moment as the phone was lowered from the man’s ear followed by a very audible *Click* as he hung up.
“Hello? Hello? Ron? ANYONE?” No one answered. The bastard had hung up on me! I seized the phone, cursing wildly, and began dialing my string of calling card numbers, having to stop and restart twice because I kept angrily mis-dialing. Finally it began to ring.
“Baggage. Ron speaking.”
“Ron! I just called and you transferred me to the paging desk.”
“The dude up there hung up on me!”
“He hung up on you?”
“Yes! He hung up on me!” I paused and tried to calm down. This was the only man who could help me at this point so I shouldn’t piss him off. “Please! My girlfriend just flew in on Delta flight 1592, I was supposed to pick her up but had car trouble and I’m stranded at a pay-phone in New Albany and I need to get a page to her and let her know and the Delta Desk just rings and rings and rings and the asshole hung up on me.”
“Are you at a pay-phone?” Ron said.
I nearly broke down in a crying rage, but somehow managed to croak, “Yes.”
“What’s your girlfriend’s name?”
“Ashley. Ashley Holloway.”
I heard Ron type on a keyboard for a bit. “Yeah. She was booked on that flight so she should be here. I’m gonna go upstairs and page her. You wanna wait on the line?”
“Yes. Please. That would be great!”
Ron was gone for a couple of minutes. Distantly I heard his voice over a loud speaker paging Ashley. A couple of minutes later he came back and picked up the phone.
“I don’t see anyone up there.”
“Please! I know she’s there! I have to speak to…”
“Excuse me,” Ron interrupted. I didn’t realize immediately that he was talking to someone else. “Excuse me, but are you Ms. Holloway?”
Like a stray member of some heavenly choir, I heard Ashley’s voice say, “Yes.”
I’d done it! I’d finally reached her! Everything would be all right now! My eyes were tearing up as she took the phone from Ron and said, hello.
“Oh, my God! I finally got through to you! I can’t believe I finally got through to you!” I blubbered, nearly collapsing from joy and relief. I tried to explain what happened but it was all coming out sounding suspiciously like the ravings of a desperate and deranged soul. Ashley was calm about the whole thing, interrupted my ravings and said she’d rent a car and would come rescue me. She even knew exactly where I was, since Blue Mountain College (her alma mater) is a bit further North on the very road where I was standing. I really didn’t want to hang up the phone, having fought for so long just to get this particular connection, but Ashley assured me that she wouldn’t be able to come and rescue me until I did hang up. Seeing the logic in this, I hung up and returned to the air-conditioned interior of the B.P. where Sharon, the grouchy manager, allowed me to wait and even gave me a discount on some tea. Like kindred spirits, we shared the tales of our rough days with one another.
“Just called in sick!” she would occasionally say.
“Didn’t speak any English!” I would similarly vent.
Good to her word, an hour and a half later, Ashley arrived and rescued me and we spent the next couple of days driving around in a really nice rental car until mine was repaired.
As it turns out, my car had overheated because the radiator had blown its seams. Furthermore, the heat had melted the catalytic converter. It has since been theorized that the catalytic converter was not in the best of shape to begin with and it was causing stress on the exhaust system, which caused stress on the radiator, which caused it to leak in the first place. Nothing a new radiator and a section of pipe welded in place of the melted catalytic converter couldn’t fix, though.
The following Monday night, after returning from dinner, we found that my new downstairs neighbor had thoughtlessly parked his brown compact heap in my favorite parking space by the sidewalk.
I told Ashley, “What gives? Can’t that guy see that my big-ass tub of anti-freeze is practically in that parking space? Has he no respect for obvious markers of ownership?” But even as I was bemoaning the loss of my favorite parking space, I was making the mental note to one day get off my ass and get rid of the old anti-freeze. Since I’d already made about 20 such mental notes to myself, I rather doubted that I’d ever get around to it.
Around midnight, we were awakened by the sound of someone knocking on a door. At first I thought it was someone knocking on my door, but it was actually someone knocking on the new neighbor’s door, downstairs. And the flashing blue and red lights outside called our attention to the two Lee County Sheriff’s cars parked in the yard. About that time, the knocks below became quite insistent and were shortly followed by the sound of bodies heaving themselves against the door. It broke pretty easily. After this we couldn’t really tell what was going on. There was no actual screaming but raised voices were occasionally heard. What was very curious, though, was the return of the hammering sound. We began to put the pieces together and theorize that dude downstairs was involved in drug trafficking and had pulled up the floorboards to hide his stash then hammered them back into place. The police seemed to be pulling them up again. We really don’t know what happened for sure, but there was an awful lot of hammering for ten minutes or so and someone was taken out and put in the back of one of the cars. Eventually a third car showed up and then left with one of the other cars and, evidently, my neighbor. Within an hour or so the remaining car departed, leaving only my neighbor’s brown, compact, piece of crap, parked in my parking space, and the Bent Turd, which was not.
The next day, the police must have come and towed my new neighbor’s car away for it was no longer in my parking space. Also absent was my big blue plastic tub of anti-freeze.