Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Flat Tire


The frogs in the pond between Ikea and the outer loop of the Beltway are singing. The streetlights tower above us as the cars whiz by loudly, until there’s a pause in traffic. Then you can hear my footsteps and the frogs.

The shoulder is loaded with fascinating stuff--a belt, a credit card, a wrench, pieces of tire, stuff left on purpose or inadvertently by all those people who had some reason to be walking along the side of the beltway at night.

I am walking back to my car. It’s blinking, with a flat, somewhere up ahead, past an overhanging bridge where the shoulder narrows to a foot, and just beyond the spur for highway 95, whose two lanes I will again sprint across. This, unfortunately, is where the AARP will send a car repairman to meet me.

It’s 12:20 a.m. At 10:00 p.m., when I had heard the grating noise, I parked and walked back up the ramp and into the first business I saw, a Holiday Inn, for a phone. No pay phones, but a sense of public duty got the concierge to offer me his. I called my dad, and asked him to call AARP (the policy is in his name).

“Can they meet me at the Holiday Inn and we can go to my car together?”

“No. She says it’s against policy rules.”

“What? So I have to cross the beltway again? It’s dangerous.”

“I know. I asked twice, she says absolutely not. Just be careful.”

The cars are whizzing at my back as I make my way up the shoulder. It’s not as scary as on the way there, when I had gasped every time a car seemed to lock me in its headlights, head towards me murderously, and veer off course at the last minute. I chided myself for thinking these silly things. I also tried not to look back.

At the bridge, an eighteen-wheeler seems nearly to clip me and I scramble up onto the embankment. Maybe I’m not being silly. If so, why is AARP, an organization that purports to aid stranded car-owners, permitting me to be in this roadside peril?

My thoughts travel unavoidably to Africa. The time I biked through a village that had saved a water bottle I had left for trash months before. The reliable supply of unofficial mechanics who fixed my bike with pieces of rubber they found on the road. A world where you felt like, penniless and unknown, you could show up anywhere and find strangers to help you, and that they in turn would expect the same thing of you, showing up or your doorstep with a broken bike or a missing water bottle.

At the same time, I remember my revulsion at Blanche Dubois’ famous line from Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire: “I always rely on the kindnesses of strangers.” How awful to feel so assured of help from strangers that you excuse yourself from taking necessary precautions. I felt slighted the other day when it rained and I walked 50 yards from gym to parking lot beside a fellow student with an umbrella who didn’t share it. “How absurd to have the power to help and not use it,” I thought at the time. And now walking along the shoulder to my car, “how absurd to expect others to help you!” Had Africa made me needy? If I had been able to fix my own tire, wouldn’t I have been able to avoid this beltway promenade, not to mention ire towards AARP’s hypocritical policy?

The answer, of course, is somewhere in the middle. If fear of relying on others prevents you from taking risks, you are missing out on lots of safe adventures and the opportunity to discover the truly genuine kindness of most strangers. Alternately, if you are constantly making forays into the world without taking precautions, you are taking advantage of them, asking to be disappointed, and exposing yourself to needless danger.

I arrive at my car. The repairman is waiting, his blinking yellow lights trained on my car’s bumper. I open the trunk, he pulls out the donut, hands me the flashlight to illuminate his work, and begins.

A police car pulls up. “Was that you running up the road?” he asks. I nod. “You in trouble?” I look at my watch. It’s almost one a.m. I wanted to say, “I was at ten,” but I thank him for asking.

He parks and walks over, pointing a flashlight at the wheel I am already illuminating.

“This isn’t the kind of stretch where, you know, people get out and help you,” he says.

3 Comments:

Blogger Monster said...

Would make a nice editorial.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Yonatan said...

I would have stopped to help you (but that might actually scare some people)!

I was just stuck in a river in a car in Costa Rica at 10pm. Several people drove by on motorcycles got out and stuck their feet in the water with the driver. they went and got a guy with a tractor for us. My friend from NYC traveling with me marveled and almost cried, I think, at the kindness. I did not. Should I not take the kindness of strangers for granted? Should I not expect a Deus-Ex-Machina when one is needed? why shouldn't I when I've learned that one always shows up. maybe not in the way you expect... but your ass is usually saved somehow.

I would like to live in a world like this one in Africa or CR. Fuck NYC and its pathetic, self centered, fear of strangers.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Dana and Guy Semmes said...

Didn't you mean triple A, AAA, the American Automobile Association, and not AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons? I love to imagine a tire changing service manned only by old codgers.

3:13 PM  

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