Stranded on the Beltway on a steamy afternoon


THE familiar TGIF becomes GFIF (God forbid it's Friday) if your car chooses late Friday afternoon to break down on an expressway -- when sensible tow truck operators are --ing off for well-earned R&R; after toiling through a week of oppressive heat.

It was 4:45 on a steamy Friday afternoon. I was in the middle of bumper-to-bumper congestion on the Beltway, but I wasn't too anxious. There was still plenty of time to get home to dinner.

Growing impatience was soothed by radio chatter and cooled by blessed air conditioning.

Suddenly both went dead, along with the engine, as cars ahead began at last to move and cars behind began to honk.

I turned the key in the ignition, then frantically pumped the accelerator. Nothing but grinding up front and honking behind. I turned on the hazard lights, got out and raised the fierce-hot hood as cars and trucks swerved around my car. Stuck in the middle lane, it was a small island in a raging torrent of traffic.

After minutes that seemed like eternity, a county police car pulled up behind mine, its lights flashing. The courteous officer got out, investigated, called my wife at my request to explain my delay, pushed my car to the side and called in the information from my membership card to the AAA, which promised to send a tow truck promptly. It was quarter to five when I began to watch for it.

Before leaving me to my vigil, the officer cautioned me to stay with the car and then uttered what turned out to be the understatement of the year: "It'll probably take a half-hour or so."

The relentless sun made the car a steam box, even with the car windows down. I tried writing some notes, but every passing truck rocked the car with a fiery blast.

So I just sat there, mopping sweat and watching every approaching vehicle through the rear-view mirror in hope that it would be the tow truck.

One did pull up, about 6 o'clock, but it was an enterprising independent tower who gave me his card and a sales pitch. I declined because his shop was too far away. About 6:30, another approached. Sensing my exasperation with AAA's non-appearance, he fed me inflammatory tales of motorists' stranded for hours, gave me his card and checked under the hood without result. He noted the sweat rolling off me and even used his truck to push my car forward to a shady spot.

I recalled a story a neighbor had told me of a rogue operator with a phony address on his business card. He obligingly drove my stranded neighbor home and towed away her car -- which vanished forever.

Other scenarios began to take shape in my fevered head, after a motorcycle cop stopped and inquired if any county police officer had investigated and reported my situation. When I said yes, he tied a red placard on my car door handle to let other officers know they could pass me by.

After 2 1/2 hours, I wanted to call back AAA. Why didn't someone with a car phone stop to offer help? (I hadn't installed one because I usually parked on an empty lot near my office and worried that the phone would entice thieves to break in and rip it off.)

Why didn't anyone stop? I thought of all the times I had passed motorists in trouble, just as these thousands were whizzing past me, out of fear of involvement, entrapment, litigation or violence.

I became aware that I was a sitting duck, isolated, vulnerable, separated by bushes from a populated area where lurked unknown dangers.

Apprehension grew as the sun began to set. I thought I saw someone peering at me through the underbrush, possibly waiting for it to get darker. Then he would slip up to the car, reach through the lowered window, open the door and slide in beside me.

The deepening shadows concealed a phantasmagoria of drug-crazed killers, with me as the victim of every unspeakable crime I had read about or watched on television.

Who would hear my calls for help, with traffic rushing past at 55 mph? What police officer would come to the rescue, misled by the red placard into thinking that I did not desperately need help? What if the killer, having disposed of me and found my address and keys in my pockets, broke into my home and murdered my wife?

What if he did not come out of the bushes but out of a car -- a car whose headlights I saw approaching from behind -- coming closer and closer in the dark. It was quietly stopping.

In my side-view mirror, a shadowy figure was approaching.

It was the AAA man, arriving 3 hours and 15 minutes after my call for help. Knowing that, he must have thought I was being sarcastic when I blurted out how glad I was to see him.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore businessman.

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