When I backed out of the parking space, I could tell there was something wrong with the car. More than the fact that it was ten years old and had nearly 150,000 miles on it. Japanese cars have been in the news lately for unintended acceleration, but mine seemed to have an entirely too purposeful sluggishness as I edged it into reverse.
Slowly moving through the parking lot, the clump-clump-clump told me that I had a flat tire. So did the guy waiting for my parking space, who began pointing his finger at my right front wheel and mouthing through his windshield that either I had a ”flat tire” or a “cat fire”. That wasn’t the kind of help I was going to need.
I’ve changed a number (three) of flat tires in my time and always managed to get it done correctly if not promptly. Like everything else about cars, it seems like it used to be a lot simpler than it’s now become. There was a standard jack, a bumper, a full-size spare and only minimal amounts of strength required to loosen the lugnuts. You rolled up your sleeves, applied yourself while also trying to avoid being sideswiped by passing traffic, and usually survived long enough to end up with a new tire on your car.
Or maybe I’m the one who’s become simpler. Modern design is supposed to make equipment and processes progressively easier, yet with automobiles, everything instead has become harder. Nowadays, you practically have to return the vehicle to the dealer and get professional assistance to open your glove compartment and pull out an aspirin. The jack no longer looks like a jack but instead like a small tool you might’ve used in high school geometry class to measure angles. The handle has evolved from a crowbar to something akin to a bendy straw. The tire looks like it would fit better on Barbie’s Mini B pink Corvette convertible.
Regardless, I had to figure out pretty quickly how I was going to avoid being stranded all night in front of a GameStop video game store. It was already getting pretty dark, and my understanding was that around 9 o’clock there would be a hoard of tattooed, studded skateboarders descending on the area, all too eager to use my stooped back as a ramp.
I found another parking place with no surrounding cars and limped into it. I stepped out to survey the damage and contemplate what I was going to do. I’m proud to say that an extra $35 paid once a year has garnered me status as a premium AAA card holder, so one serious option was going to be whipping out my cell and calling for free roadside assistance, as well as financial planning, a zero-percent-interest credit card and a lovely faux-leather mileage journal for only $5.99 shipping if I couldn’t resist the upsell I was going to receive. Or I could fumble around in the dusk only to end up with a pesky crush injury.
The last time I used the service was about eight years ago, and I remember to this day being belittled by the tow truck driver who responded to the call. In his opinion, if it was above me to be down in the gravel doing physical labor, then I didn’t qualify for the title of Southern Man. And I would agree, I don’t qualify. I’m not “ept,” as my wife puts it. Instead, I am inept in the use of most major tools, and shouldn’t be counted on for anything more handy than buttoning my own shirt. Still, I didn’t think it was the proper place of a hired servant to be pointing this out to me.
I called the AAA number and navigated through a number of voice mail options to finally get the call center worker who would record my request and dispatch the help I needed. She paraded me through a litany of questions, some of which actually pertained to the situation I found myself in. I can see why she’d need to know my member number, the type of service I needed and my physical location on the planet, although what my middle initial had to do with a flat tire still escapes me.
A long pause followed each of my responses to her questions. She sounded like she was probably new to the job and still following a checklist on how to key my answers into the various fields she found on her computer screen. After about ten minutes of this, she seemed to be wrapping up the interview with a request for the phone number I could be reach at.
“Three-six-seven, six-eight-two-eight,” I enunciated carefully.
“Eight-eight-two-eight,” she confirmed.
“No, six-eight-two-eight,” I said.
“Six-six-two-eight,” she responded.
“No, three-six-seven, six-eight-two-eight,” I answered slowly. “Or maybe the tow truck driver could just yell my middle initial out the window and I could send up a flare in response,” I thought of adding.
She read back all the information she had recorded about me to confirm my request, then told me it would be about sixty minutes before help would arrive.
“Yes, all that sounds right, but did you say sixty minutes?” I asked
“We try to tell you the maximum amount of time it will take,” she said. “It’s usually faster than that.”
I ended the call and turned to the back seat to get the crossword puzzle I was undoubtedly going to need to occupy myself. But it was only a few minutes later that the phone rang and “Gary” was reporting in that he was only five minutes away and would arrive soon to help me. I could watch for his yellow truck with the word “Interstate” written on the side.
Gary was the model of expertise after he backed into the space next to mine. It was reassuring to be in the presence to someone who had dedicated his life to helping his fellow man get out of ditches. He moaned good-naturedly that he’d just been nodding off to sleep when the emergency call came to him, as he’d been up since five that morning. I commiserated that I’d been up since four myself, and what fun it was to find myself going to bed in the evenings before my son did. He didn’t have any kids, and was barely able to find time for a girlfriend. Okay, enough chit-chat – let’s get this Honda back in working mode.
He wheeled a professional jack into position (I think they call it a “john”) and quickly hoisted my car off the ground. A compressed-air-powered drill made quick work of the bolts it would’ve taken me about a half hour to wrestle off. The flat was removed and the baby tire was put into its place. Four more whirrs of the drill and the wheel was secure. He checked the air pressure of the new tire and topped it off with yet another hose off the back of his truck. Now, came my part: signing a piece of paper, and explaining why I couldn’t change a tire by myself.
“Sorry to make you come out tonight, but I couldn’t find all my tools in the trunk,” I shrugged. “I was in a bit of a hurry and figured a pro could do it faster than I could. Plus, I hurt my back a few days ago and was afraid to strain it too much.”
I thought of adding that I was allergic to rubber, my left hand was missing a pinky, I was legally blind, and that I was expecting a call from Dale Earnhardt Jr. looking for advice on how to break out of his NASCAR racing slump, so I had to remain upright. But then I remembered what I heard Barbara Walters saying on “The View” just that morning: “Only give one good excuse. If you give more than one, it sounds more like you’re lying.”
As Gary gathered up his equipment and I climbed into my finally-functioning car, I realized it had now become official: I was not a Real Man at all.