We had an interesting experience last week. I had stopped by the local Indian store to pick some Rotis (Indian flatbread) and when I returned, the van would not start. After trying to start the van a few times, I called my friend who graciously gave us a ride home.
Nikhil was puzzled. He was puzzled to find himself transported home while his favorite van was left behind. The next morning, as soon as he woke up, he walked over to the living room to peer out the driveway. Not finding the van, he pointed outside, said something in his own tongue and we continued getting him ready for his school. On his way to his school van, he looked around expectantly in the garage and not finding his van, walked rather dejectedly to his school van. Later that morning, I had the van towed to the mechanic. The starter had to be replaced.
No van when Nikhil returned from school. During his lunch, he kept saying “go out minivan” repeatedly on his iPad. My wife kept reassuring him that we would pick the van in the evening. When Nikhil eventually saw the van in the parking lot of the service station, he was overjoyed. He bounded in his seat and if allowed, he would have probably hugged and kissed the van. I’m sure he slept at peace that night.
This incident reminded me of another mechanical breakdown several years ago. My parents were visiting us in 1997. We lived in South Florida then and one Sunday, we drove down to Sawgrass Mills Mall in Sunrise, Florida. After spending the entire day at the mall, we headed out to the parking lot. I had some trouble starting the car. I walked over to a payphone and called AAA asking them if they could help us out with the car. They said it would take some time to dispatch a tow truck and that we would have to take a cab home. There were four of us and these were days prior to smartphones, Uber and Lyft. I did not even own a cell phone.
I tried starting the car again, it came to life and rather foolishly, I started driving home. I took the Turnpike since I had noticed Call phones along the way. Expectedly, the car died along the way. I had been driving slowly on the outermost lane and I pulled over to the shoulder. It was dark by then and I decided to head over to the Call phone. It took me longer than I expected. When I would speed on the Turnpike, the Call phones seem to just whiz by frequently but now that I was jogging along the freeway at night, there were no Call phones to be seen.
After what seemed to be an eternity, I finally made it to one. I had always assumed I could talk to someone. Instead, I was confronted with 3 or 4 buttons. I remember one for a medical emergency, one for mechanical breakdown, and one for the police. I pressed the mechanical breakdown expecting to hear a voice. I just heard a buzz and nothing. I pressed it a few times frantically and then started jogging back.
Being stranded on the side of a highway at night with one’s family is scary enough. Adding to the drama was that Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer was on the loose. If you don’t remember him, he was the one who killed Gianni Versace in July 1997. My parents had just arrived in the country and my dad was completely consumed by the reporting on TV. Each day after I returned from work, he filled me in on the details of the latest investigation. It was his first exposure to cable reporting.
Andrew Cunanan had disappeared after the killing and the police had put out warnings informing people that he was likely to carjack vehicles or take people as hostages. It was unlikely that he would be out looking for stranded motorists on the freeway but it had preyed on my dad’s mind as we were driving back. I hurried back to find my family safe but my dad looked distinctly uncomfortable. He had to take a leak! He had heard that fines were steep and did not want to risk anything in the second week of his stay in the US. I reassured him that under the circumstances it was fine and he relieved himself at the edge of the stretch of grass off to the side of the highway. If a cop did show up miraculously, it would only help us.
Fortunately, the tow truck arrived within twenty minutes. The driver was exceedingly polite. He said he could accommodate two people with him in the cab but the other two would have to take a taxi. After discussing the matter. he agreed that it was difficult to summon a taxi late on a Sunday night and that too on a stretch of highway between two exits. He offered to let my parents sit in the car while he winched it onto the flatbed. “This is not permitted and I could get into trouble,” he said.
And so, my dad sat in the driver’s seat and my mom in the passenger seat with their seatbelts on while the driver attached the cables and winched the car onto the flatbed. He then raised the bed. My dad looked bemused and seemed to wonder what to do with his hands and instinctively placed them on the steering wheel. My wife and I clambered into the cab and we rode back home.
When we reached the parking lot of our apartment complex, the driver unloaded the car and my parents stepped out with beaming faces. I shook the driver’s hand and thanked him profusely. I reached into my wallet and handed over the cash I had on me, $40. He looked surprised but thanked me as he left.
The next morning, I had the car towed to the dealership where they replaced the alternator. My parents could not stop talking about their experiences. They were impressed with the efficiency and professionalism of the tow truck driver. They were also appreciative of his assistance. We traveled a fair bit on that trip and their standout moment was the “Maid of the Mist” boat ride at Niagara Falls. But coming close second was the ride on the back of a tow truck. Many of their friends had visited the former, but the latter was a unique experience, not mentioned or available on any of the tourist guides!
The featured picture is of me with my trusted Toyota Corolla in the mid-1990s. The picture was taken in NJ by my friend Vinith who graciously dug it up and sent me a copy today. The car was still going strong when I retired it after driving it for 21 years!