Wilting in the Garden State


INSTEAD of doing the same old thing for the holidays, I had the unique experience of having my car break down on a major interstate in New Jersey two days before New Year's Eve.

Our story unfolds on a busy stretch of highway in the northern part of the Garden State. My 9-year-old and I were cruising along in the Subaru -- "cruising" being a relative term in a four-cylinder import with all the pickup of a Shetland pony.

Suddenly I heard a soft pop. With that, the car lost all power. This became painfully apparent when we noticed that not only were other cars whizzing past us, but so was an elderly woman in a walker.

As I nosed the car to the shoulder of the interstate, the sky seemed to darken perceptibly and I had a vision.

In this vision, I was in a small, dingy garage talking to a nervous man in grease-stained overalls. The man's name was Earl. He stood next to a Miss Penzoil 1974 calendar, elbowing me in the ribs and winking and crying out: "How 'bout the head gaskets on this lil' lady, huh?!"

Now Earl was sliding a bill toward me and his words were coming in a muffled roar: " . . . she jes' seized up. Anyway, with parts and labor, the whole thing comes to $3,100. We take cash, Visa or MasterCard."

Thankfully, the vision soon passed. Once we were off the highway, I popped the hood to take a look. This, of course, was a complete waste of time. Unless a piston came screaming through the windshield, I wouldn't notice anything amiss.

Luckily, a very nice state trooper stopped to offer assistance. This being New Jersey, he was probably on his way to his fifth or sixth murder site of the morning. Nevertheless, he was kind enough to call a tow truck and chat for a few minutes.

"Baltimore's a nice city," he said before speeding off. Left unspoken (perhaps for the child's sake) was the addendum: " . . . not that you'll ever see it again."

The tow truck arrived 40 minutes later. Painted on the door was an inscription that chilled me to the bone: "Earl's Road Service: 24-Hour Towing."

"We're doomed," I said to my son. "There is no hope. Run, save yourself."

Strangely enough, the tow truck operator turned out to be a nice young man who showed no signs of the larcenous habits of so many of his colleagues -- at least for the first 10 seconds.

"Cost you $40 to tow it off the highway," he said. "Then it's two bucks a mile 'til we get it to the repair shop."

I said: "Where's the repair shop -- New Hampshire?"

"Cash, Visa or MasterCard?" he asked.

"Why don't you just use a gun and a ski mask like everyone else?" I said.

The repair shop turned out to be a small, dingy garage off the interstate that looked eeriely familiar. So did Earl, a nervous man in grease-stained overalls. A yellowed Miss Penzoil calendar hung on the wall over his desk.

I explained that we were from out of town, on the way to visit relatives. Without the car, my son and I would be forced to take a hotel room for the night. Then there was the matter of my malaria, which needed constant medical attention as well as adequate supplies of quinine, and my duties at the orphanage and . . .

Earl seemed visibly moved at our plight, at one point actually looking up from his bucket of fried chicken.

"Can't get to your car today," he said. 'Maybe tomorrow. Call me at 10."

The next morning at 10, a man named Louie answered the phone at Earl's Road Service. He had good news and bad news.

The good news was that the problem was a timing belt -- not that big a job. The bad news was that we should get used to room service, since the car wouldn't be fixed for another day.

"Earl said it might be fixed today," I noted helpfully.

"Earl's crazier'n hell!" Louie snorted.

"Did I mention my malaria?" I said. "The chills are bad today."

"Call back at 10 tomorrow," said Louie.

"Nice talking to you," I said.

All that day we sat in the hotel room, staring out at the empty swimming pool and listening to the maids argue in Spanish. When I called back the next day, the news was slightly more heartening.

"Car might be done today; might not," said Louie. "Call me back at 3."

"Regards to the wife and kids," I said.

Thankfully, the car was finished at 4. The bill came to "only" $265. I was so elated that for a moment I thought about rounding up Earl and Louie and the boys and taking them all out for a few drinks.

Somehow, though, I resisted the urge.

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