The time my car broke down and I made the mistake of calling the cops Dec 2, 2011
In one of my highschool English classes, we were assigned an Oral Presentation. This was before I realized that it can be fun to speak in front of people. The assignment was to tell a story about yourself, fictional or factual, and the class would vote on whether they thought it had really happened. I told a story about hiking through the woods, finding a fishing pole by a stream, and catching my first fish with it right then. No one believed it, but it was true.
I drive a black '89 Volkswagen Golf with black metallic-flaming-Celtic-cross seat covers and a missing interior roof. You'd probably get the wrong idea about me just looking at it; like many things in my life, the car and the seat covers came into my possession through a combination of happenstance and gifting. Once I was sitting in traffic downtown and the guy in front of me called back, "Are you running a stripped interior?" I shrugged and said, "It's just missing."
On the way to school, there's one stretch of road where my cell phone is unable to communicate with any tower. I've tried to imagine what sort of mountain/valley geometry must be at work, but it's difficult to have that sort of topological clarity with all the trees around here. So one cold winter night (when it hadn't yet snowed, but if you put a cup of water on the ground, it would have frozen) I was on my way home. I entered the dead zone and my car promptly sputtered and died. Pull over, hazard lights, turn the key, nothing. Shit.
Did I mention this was the second time my car had broken down on that particular stretch of road, in less than a month? I don't want to give you the impression that my car is unreliable---it's fine for long periods of time, but when it fails, it does so with Grand Style. The last time I was coming the other way, not five hundred feet up the road, when my brakes blew out going through a stop light. (It was green.) It was during the day, then, but still cold, and luckily there was a little park with a lot to pull into, and a guy was there in his pickup truck with his dog. Drive to the park to walk your dog. He let me borrow his cell phone but he looked pretty skeptical.
So I'm sitting in my dead car, coming back from a late night in the laser lab, with a dead cell phone. There was a drainage ditch instead of a shoulder, so I left the hazards on when I got out. One way the road was dark and forested, but ahead was the grassy lawn and streetlights of the police station. I figured that was surely the best place to seek a phone. I should have just gone to one of the dim houses and woken the elderly occupants, asking politely to use their phone. It wasn't too far to the station, but by the time I got there I was shivering. I had a coat, hat, scarf, and gloves, but I hadn't expected to be on a prolonged midnight jaunt. The lights were off inside and the door was locked. However, around the back was an odd black emergency phone. Jackpot! It connected me to some kind of dispatcher. They wouldn't give me an outside line, and said they'd send a car over. Okay, I said, not having the muscle control or awareness to argue.
A shivering ten minutes later, the police car pulled around. I probably looked like a catburglar, decked in black with my scarf pulled up over my mouth. The cop, a young guy (probably not much older than I), greeted me warily and asked for my ID. I gleefully provided it. He said he could drive me down to my car, but he'd have to pat me down to allow me in his car. I said sure, I have no problem with that. "Do you have anything on you I should know about?" Uh, my leatherman I guess. "That's coming with me, then." Oh, I'll just walk. (I thought he was confiscating it.) "Are you sure? It's cold out here." I'll get it back? "Oh yeah! I just can't let you carry it in the car." Oh, okay, no problem then, I said as I handed it over. He patted me down, and my keys confounded him. They are in an old-fashioned leather key-wrap. "They're just keys?" He didn't ask to see them, though. I got in the back of the car.
It was a single-person space surrounded by a clear shell that could probably withstand bullets. He apologized for his caution, saying that they see some crazy people. "Oh, I understand; I've seen Cops." He laughed and drove the short distance. When he got out he handed me my multitool with a friendly smile, and I thanked him. He put flares behind my car and called a tow truck. Apparently when the cops are involved, you have to use whatever towing company they call. He lent me a phone to call for a ride home. I tried to imagine who had used this phone, staring at the garish Verizon wallpaper and trying to remember their girlfriend or their mother or their lawyer's number. He said he was going back to file a report and told me to stay with my car. I asked if I could go with him, there being no heat in my dead black Vagen. "I need you to stay with your car until the tow truck comes." So I got in and rubbed my hands together.
That's it, unless you count going back up to the police station, being on the phone with my mechanic (a family member), and the arrival of another cop (a family friend whose relationship to me is more complicated than is worth explaining). He laughed when I told him the first one had patted me down. He let me in his car with a reassuring lack of formality, and drove us back down to my car. I won't say he drove like a maniac, but his K-turn was... emphatic. We tried using the police car to push mine into starting (he had a special bumper on the front), or else just up onto the shoulder, but it was no use. The tow truck came and everything worked out pretty well, all things considered.