Monday, December 15, 2008

It's A Wonderful Life



My 92 Corolla broke down rather spectacularly last week. I was on I-5, crawling home in heavy traffic, when the front end of my car began to resemble a dry ice fog at a KISS concert. The temperature gauge climbed into the red. I was in trouble. My inner Boston driver kicked in as I fought my way, lane by lane, to the right. I could feel the life drain from the car. "It's been 189,000 miles," she said. "What do you want from me?" We made it to the breakdown lane just after the on ramp a half mile before the 85th street exit. Ten seconds later, all the gauge lights came on and she quietly died.

"Fuck!" I explained.

I called Triple-A, raised the hood, and slowly waved a road flare like it was a sparkler that wanted to be a roman candle. It would be an hour or so, they said. The flare exhausted, I climbed down into the culvert to pee, smoked a few cigarettes, closed the hood, and tried the engine. Miraculous resurrection, by way of St. Jude. After four pitchers of water provided by the gentle smiling African immigrant giants at the Aurora AM/PM, I made it home.

Still in denial, I thought a coolant flush might do the trick. For years, I'd denied the men at Jiffy Lube this simple pleasure. Perhaps, I thought, they'd been right all along.

"We have good news and bad news," they said.

What's the good news?

"We're not charging you for your coolant treatment."

My spirits sank. What's the bad news?

"You can guess. There's a giant hole in your radiator." Subtle rivulets of green water poured from the top seam, wasted like the seed of Onan into the plastic-laced pit below.

Can I drive?

His face reflected the sudden knowledge he was dealing with a moron.

"I wouldn't," he said. "Not far anyway."

Various experiments revealed I had five miles or so before the needle neared the red and the terrible smell commenced.

One doesn't do without a car when one has twin five year-olds. Their little legs are poorly suited for long distances, and buses don't come equipped with car seats. So my work today was clear. Cancel my morning and early afternoon meetings, find a rental car near my mechanic, get downtown to work, make a crucial 3:30 meeting near U-Village, and get back to Shoreline for a 5:00 conference with my kid's kindergarten teacher. All very doable.

Just as I was leaving, staff called to say I was wanted on The Conversation at 1 and that the heat wasn't working at Real Change. I gave staff a number to call for HVAC repair, and called the KUOW producer to say I'd fit it in, but would have to do so from my shitty Verizon celphone, perhaps from the Enterprise lobby. She dubiously agreed.

I didn't tell her that the Verizon signal frequently drops. Everybody knows that.

The operation was timed like a dimestore watch. It would be fine. As I left home, my friend couldn't get her passenger door to close. We stood on an icy patch, bouncing the door back and forth, futzing with the mechanism while trying not to fall, laughing at this latest insult from The Universe. After five or six minutes of this, I blew graphite into the frozen latch from the nearly depleted tube I found in my glove box. Click. It worked. Fuck you, Universe.

We slowly worked our way across the ice of north Aurora, watching the engine gauge go from frozen to warm to hot. Ten blocks before Enterprise, we were close to redlining. The aroma of broiling antifreeze filled the air.

"Baby," I said, "We're going to Starbucks."

My Corolla gratefully rested in the cold while we went inside to nurse our respective burnt bean addictions. I politely asked the barista if they wouldn't mind turning down their annoying Christmas music while I did a phone interview at 1:05. They graciously obliged. At 12:57, the 2008 Starbuck's Christmas CD fell silent as a ron yon virgin.

Three minutes later, my cel rang. I'd be live on KUOW in a few moments with Ross Reynolds to open The Conversation. I did that thing I do under these circumstances, which is to retreat into that special place where the entire universe collapses into a triad of me, the interviewer, and my talking points. Ten minutes went by in a Blink.

I was packing up when the store manager came over to say hi, and told me about how much she likes the Real Change vendor they let work their drive through. He, too, worships the burnt bean and the symbol of the mermaid. We are legion. A filled Food Lifeline donations bin sat inside their front door. There are good people in this world, I thought. They help balance out those of us who are shits.

My car sprinted the next ten blocks without breaking a sweat. I was placed in a new KIA. "I've always wanted to drive a KIA," I smirked. They smirked back, and said that KIA actually stands for Korean Imitation Automobile. We discussed how this knowledge affected our feelings of brand loyalty. A woman who was far too smart and funny to stay in such a crappy job for long followed me the twenty blocks down Aurora to my mechanic. My needle rested happily in the middle. There was no smell. We accomplished the transfer.

I drove my virtual Korean rental car, feeling invincible. I made it downtown, to U-Village, out to Shoreline, and back to Edmonds. I felt like Lance Armstrong after the Tour de France, but before the steroids scandal.

I was standing in the dark, nearly empty parking lot of my kids' school when my cel rang. It was Rosette from Real Change, asking if I could be in at 8:30 to meet the HVAC people. "You must have worked your magic on KUOW," he said. Why? "People have been coming in all day with boxes of stuff for the survival gear give-away, saying they heard you on the radio." I smiled and felt a little like James Stewart when he discovered all wasn't lost. Everytime a bell rings, she said, an angel gets his wings.

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