Stalling on the Edge

Cars swerve around me to the left where there’s only a shoulder, or to the lane on my right, which we collectively hope is clear.

                                                                                                                                                       
If someone complains about their life being routine, please let me invite them to my night where my car spontaneously died in the fast lane of the 10 freeway.

Let’s start at the beginning. I’m driving from Santa Monica to Echo Park for dinner to join a man I’m super excited about. Being eager and slightly late, I hit 90 mph on the fast lane whenever there’s an opening. It’s short-lived, of course, because somewhere ahead, some stop-and-go nonsense is emerging on every lane including mine, as indicated by myriad dots of red lights. It’s not the worst stop-and-go, because you get 30-second stretches of 40 mph. You also get a lot of time to think, like, What’s that burnt chemical smell? and Huh, my temperature gauge is past red, that’s a first. 

Oh! I suppose my car’s overheating.

No problem, let me turn on the heater all the way up, that’ll cool things down. I think I’m all savvy for knowing this and it’ll deal with the issue until I get to an exit where I can investigate.

Nope.

The car stops dead as soon as the heater goes on. In the middle of the fastest lane of a five-lane freeway.

Thanks to the traffic issue we all heretofore participated in, my car doesn’t cause an accident — it merely stopped on its own in a stop-and-go situation and just happened not to go again. I think, All is chill, the other freeway cars are inching, unthreatening, even though I’m the a-hole blocking more traffic.

But the perception of “chill” is short-lived too, because whatever caused the original stop-and-go behind me decides to resolve itself at this very moment, and somehow, my poor dead car with hazards on and me inside is not a suitable replacement to slow down traffic.

Somefuckinghow, no car sees me early enough to decelerate before they reach me. So as I call the tow company, cars swerve around me to the left where there’s only a shoulder, or to the lane on my right, which we collectively hope is clear. Even a motorcycle cop drives right past.

Is my black car blending in with the night? Are my freaking lights not flashing? It’s not like I can get out to go look.

“Ma’am, are you in a safe spot?” The roadside assistant person asks on the phone.

“Absolutely not.”

“We’ll send someone right away,” she lies. Thirty-five minutes — that’s their idea of “right away.” It’s terrifying for me not out of panic, but logic: the chance of a weekend drunk with slowed-down reflexes slamming into me from behind grows with every minute. I picture my head going through the windshield, or my nose breaking on an inflated airbag. Or my teeth smashing on the steering wheel. Plain whiplash is wince-inducing enough. Why aren’t cops around when you actually need them?

I call my date to tell him the reason I’m late. He in turn says he’s on his way. I give him the same directions I did to the tow company: eastbound on the 10, one mile west of the 110, in the middle of the fast lane, parting the sea of murderous cars.

Then the “good samaritan” happens. Some guy must’ve stopped behind me because he’s at my window on the shoulder side. He’s got something dangling on a string around his neck. At first I think it’s a badge and he’s a cop, so I’m relieved: Finally, this stress mess might calm a bit.

Turns out the “badge” is some wonky Tiger’s Eye necklace and dude’s probably late to his rave. He offers to push my car to the shoulder while I steer in neutral, and I comply.

He means well, no question, but ending up on the side like that makes my car even less visible, and the cars on the fast lane even faster. Much faster in fact, than when they had to swerve around a blockage. Good for the other cars, not good for me.

The shoulder is absurdly narrow, and I’m parked too close to the lane line. There’s no way I’m gonna escape a side-swipe indefinitely!

My car shakes each time a driver whooshes by me going 90 on the way to their own date. This shaking is not compatible with my nerves, so I get out of the car. Outside, my nerves fair no better with the thunder of metal monsters racing past, and thoughts of getting crushed by my own car should one collide with it.

Three monsoons and six psychotic breaks later, the tow truck arrives. The driver parks behind my car on the shoulder, shielding himself with our vehicles and edging toward me like he’s on a tightrope above fire.

“Thank goodness,” I say. “How do we get started?”

“I’m not risking my life, ma’am. We’re waiting for backup.” Then he indicates for me to get in the truck — from the traffic side. The highway hell show has left me slack-jawed and numb, so I’m not too quick to react. I don’t move. Maybe a sensory slow-down is a survival mechanism, an evolutionary coping technique, but I have enough wits left to feel I’m due some credit from this dude who walks the safe edge of the shoulder like he’s traversing a trial of fire, but sees fit to send me around the other side.

And just when I’m craving acknowledgment, my date’s car pulls in front of mine.

He leaps out and runs toward me, his face awash with concern, never breaking eye contact while narrowing the distance between us, the tails of his jacket flapping behind, all of it making me think I should be filming his approach in slow-motion.

Before he reaches me, record scratch:

“Sir, get back in your car!” The tow guy hollers. We’re in the middle of an active highway; we’re in no position to argue. If a cowardly tow man is the only voice of authority, so be it.

The tow man’s “backup” arrives. It’s a veritable convoy: cops cars and a second massive tow truck with towers of blinking hazard lights, dramatically perpendicular across two lanes, giving my tow man a country-wide berth to do his job without risking his life.

“Where would you like me to drop you off with your car, ma’am?” The tow man asks me as he drives his truck. I give him the address of the restaurant I was racing to in the first place. When we reach the place, he lowers my car, and after determining I have a coolant failure but the car still turns on, parks it.

He insists on waiting with me until my date shows up, redeeming himself in his tow man duties now that he’s not on the edge of a fire and brimstone cliff called an active highway.

When my date arrives, I shake my tow guy’s hand goodbye, leaving my car and its problems for the next day.

My date and I have dinner exactly as planned, gazing into each other’s eyes across the table and blinking in slow-motion.

3 comments

  1. Anthony · · Reply

    Just think, if he would have been a gentleman and came to you rather than have you drive from SM to the East Side, all this could have been avoided. Nice writing, though…

    1. So much assumption right there though — that I live in Santa Monica, that he chose the east side location, that meeting instead of going together wasn’t my idea… All false. I do appreciate you reading, however.

  2. A wild story well told. I’m reminded of a couple of similarly scary car situations. I’m glad the evening ended well.

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