Friday, January 18, 2013

From the Archives - Nash Bridges Towed My Car!


I’ve blogged before, here and here about my dearly departed 1984 Volvo 240 GL wagon. In fact, my first (non-intro) albertnet post was on the subject of having that old car wrecked. The car I have now (a newer Volvo) is nicer and quieter, and I don’t really miss the troubles I used to have. That said, a comment my brother Bryan left about my second Volvo post gives a nice perspective:
In a way, it’s a shame that you have moved from the uncertain and exciting cowboy world of the old car to the mundane but consistent world of the reliable new car. You were so good at living that cutting edge life, where your thoughts on a road trip are consumed with whether you’ll even make it to your destination, not whether you’ll make it in time to beat the rush hour. Or contemplating what you’ll do if the latest broken thing acts up, or if your “ultimate set of tools” has everything you need to perform a roadside repair. No one really wants the kind of trial an old car can present in his life, but he sure feels good when he comes out the other end, scathed but alive.
He’s so right about that. But old cars are only the beginning. So much can go wrong in life. Here’s a tale from my archives of when I tangled with a TV crew and lost big.

(Here’s a photo so you’ll appreciate how cool a car you’re reading about.)

Nash Bridges Towed My Car - March 14, 1999

For your amusement, the sordid tale of the latest trouble I’ve had with my car.

The weekend before last, my wife and I were planning to drive to Sacramento to visit her mom and stepfather, and our car wouldn’t start. We’d used it the weekend before and it ran fine, so this was a big surprise. I called my brother Bryan, and he recommended checking the battery posts, and the cables that clamp to them, for corrosion. This had made the difference several times with his old Darts and Coronets.

He has plenty of experience in fixing cars; I don’t. I tried to disconnect the positive cable while the negative was still connected, so I kept making contact between the wrench and the car body. Huge sparks would fly out and I would curse, both as a reflex and in wonderment—like, this was real electricity I was dealing with! It had to be draining my battery to keep sparking like that, and it made me really jumpy. I found plenty of corrosion, but scraping it off didn’t help. The car still wouldn’t start.

I need a good car manual and don’t have one, and I’m remarkably poor at troubleshooting car problems. I understand the principles of the four-stroke internal combustion engine (I’d learned it in my high school physics class), but everything else is a fog to me. I was at a loss to troubleshoot further. (Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, writes, “Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.” This is certainly how I felt.)

Since we couldn’t the in-laws, they came out to our place. My mother-in-law was eager to visit Erin, and her husband was eager to fix the car. It was parked about five blocks from my apartment. By the time we hauled my stepdad’s toolbox up there, it was after dark. By the time we hauled the battery down to my apartment to plug it in to his charger, I had stopped caring about the car altogether. We were both tired, and a bit cranky, and couldn’t agree on what was meant by the position of the needle on the charger gauge.

The next morning, I called Bryan again. We discussed the gauge on the charger, and we had an interesting side discussion of Ohm’s law. I wasn’t at all sure the battery had taken, or was holding, a charge. As it turned out: neither. So my stepdad and I tried to start it using jumper cables, and failed. I found an auto supply place that offered to test the battery for me for free. We took it in and they said it was shot, which was just their luck since it meant they could sell me a new battery, which they did.

I installed the new battery and the car still did not start. At this point I decided I could do any of the number of things about the problem. The top contenders were as follows:
  • I could do nothing, try to stop thinking about the car, and hope that it would just go away; 
  • I could have the car towed to my mechanic; 
  • I could attempt to roll-start the car; 
  • I could leave the car for the time being, and consult further with somebody knowledgeable about cars. 
Option one, ignoring the car, is always tempting whenever I have any kind of car trouble, be it parking, breakdowns, driving in the Bay Area, or pigeon damage. But, this option always loses out because Erin and I have spent too much on this car to give up now. We feel the need to amortize all the money we’ve shelled out recently to fix it (new clutch, new clutch cable, tune-up, replacement of overdrive, something expensive involving the rear suspension). I try not to think about the prospect that the car’s useful life is over and things might only get worse from here. [Note: as it turned out, the car lasted us close to ten more years!]

Option two, towing it to the mechanic, was a real front-runner, but my mechanic is closed on Sundays so this decision would need to be deferred, and thus didn’t satisfy as an immediate course of action.

Option three—roll-starting it—was very attractive indeed. First of all, roll-starting a car is something I’ve always found thrilling. (I remember a cycling teammate whose VW bus never started without roll-starting. Whoever rode shotgun was in charge of pushing the vehicle until the engine caught; this process became as natural as fastening the seat-belt.) Another benefit of roll-starting the car was that it would cost no money. Furthermore, I could picture myself pushing the car, jumping in, closing the door, getting it running, and then just driving off into the sunset, never to be seen or heard from again.

Unfortunately, this third option had a major drawback: available runway. It wasn’t that I didn’t have it; on the contrary, I had too much of it. I was parked on Lombard Street. If I pointed the car west on Lombard, toward Van Ness, I would be rolling down a very steep hill—steep enough that if the engine failed to start, I wouldn’t have the power-assist on the brakes and might have trouble stopping the car. (It was probably not a huge risk, but I have a recurring nightmare that I’m trying to stop a car but no matter how hard I push on the brake pedal, it isn’t enough. Both feet, still not enough. Usually the car is rolling very slowly towards the edge of a long drop-off.) Not being able to stop would have grave consequences because I would spill out onto Van Ness, which is one of the main thoroughfares of the city.

Of course, rolling westward on Lombard was only one of four options. But, if I rolled the car to Hyde and turned right, I would be pointed uphill and would probably have the car roll backward over me, crushing me to death. If instead I went straight and rolled the car past Hyde and down the other side of Lombard, I would be on another steep grade, which also happens to be the famous Twistiest Street in the World, [ ] featured on countless postcards. If the car failed to start, negotiating the tight curves with no power steering and no power brakes would be almost impossible, and if I missed a turn I could destroy an old Victorian house, or at a minimum destroy some very expensive decorative foliage. (I happen to know the foliage is expensive because during the renovation of this landmark, the city paid guards to watch over the as-yet-unplanted plants, around the clock. One of the guards told me he caught somebody trying to steal a whole truckload at about two in the morning.)

The fourth and final runway was northbound Hyde street. This section of Hyde is one of the steepest hills in the city (and, by extension, in the entire world). If the car failed to start and I couldn’t stop it, I would build up huge amounts of speed. The street terminates in a pier down on Fisherman’s Wharf, and I would probably run over a bunch of tourists. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, but unless I hit some really fat ones, they probably wouldn’t stop the car. Likely the only object large enough to stop me would be the Balaclutha, an antique sailing ship docked at the pier. It would be a shame to ram the ship, but the alternative would be to land in the Pacific Ocean, and I know from helping write wharf safety manuals that the fines for littering petroleum products in the ocean that close to land would be enormous. (Curiously, it’s perfectly legal to dump anything at all into the ocean as long as you’re far enough from land—but I digress.)

So, I had to settle for option 4, which was to consult a knowledgeable car person. I called Bryan, and he said, “Dude, you’re bummed.” This was perfectly true, but not very helpful. I decided to call my mechanic on Monday and get the car fixed the following weekend. The good news was that the car was parked in one of those rare parking spots that has no street cleaning, has no special times during which it becomes a tow-away zone, and was a spot for which we had the correct permit. And, it was only five blocks from our apartment. In short, it was a parking spot that could have been a centerfold in “San Francisco Street Parking” magazine. I could leave the car there as long as I wanted to . . . maybe for good.

Erin volunteered to make the call to Fernando, our mechanic. I think the reason she volunteered was to prevent me from bursting a blood vessel. (According to a personality test I took in high school, I should have died of a heart attack years ago because of my high-strung, hard-driving disposition.) I was openly fuming at this point, yelling about taking the car out and shooting it, or rolling it down Hyde street by itself and then going into hiding. I couldn’t relax and enjoy life, knowing that car was an unresolved problem looming over us from up on the hill. Erin informed me that Fernando suspected a bad fuse. I resolved to investigate the fuses on the following Saturday.

Well, that Friday, as we walked home after a night out on the town, Erin remembered that we needed to visit the car to stick on the new registration sticker. I agreed, of course, although I confess I was irritated at the number of car-related administrative hassles we’d had to deal with recently—sending in registration forms, applying to renew our parking permit, renewing our insurance, and making Erin a new key after she’d lost her old one, to say nothing of my hapless repair attempts. It seemed like a lot of work just to have a car available for weekend trips—especially since the car was now incapable of doing anything useful. If it had been parked closer to home we could have used it as a storage locker, but in justifying the expense and headache, even that would have been a stretch. By the time Erin and I reached the parking spot, I was already grumbling profanely about the car’s very existence. Imagine my reaction, then, when the car was gone!

It’s our own fault, of course. We should have monitored the ongoing legality of our parking spot, in case a TV crew needed to clear that section of road to film “Nash Bridges.” Nash Bridges is a TV show starring the arguably washed-up and unarguably age-stricken Don Johnson. I’ve never seen the show, but I’ve watched them film it. It was probably a year ago; the scene I saw was filmed on Vallejo near Columbus, and consisted of Don Johnson driving by in his mustard-yellow convertible. The footage, when edited, must have lasted about five seconds, assuming it didn’t get cut altogether.

I watched for half an hour as they filmed the scene over and over again, never getting it quite right. Between takes, which was most of the time, Don Johnson looked incredibly bored, and tired, and his skin looked brittle, like if he smiled his face would crack. Perhaps creating the illusion of youth was why the simple scene took so many takes. As I watched the filming that day and pondered grand themes such as the loss of youth and the largely unacknowledged tedium of stardom, what did not occur to me was that when a TV crew needs room to set up in the street, they don’t have time to wait around. They bring the cops in and tow all those cars away. Unjust as it may seem, I am quite certain that there is a law on the books prohibiting people from unknowingly obstructing television crews. I’m sure I could write tactful letters, stage peaceful protests, circulate petitions, and even go to court to fight for my rights, and that it would all be for nothing.

My first step in reclaiming my car was to go to the police station and fill out some paperwork proving I own the car. It was here that I began circulating among hardened criminals for the first time. (Actually, I didn’t, but what a marvelous sentence, rooted in a thousand crime stories.) I did pass through the strangest medical detector I’ve ever seen. Actually, the instrument itself wasn’t unusual, but the aura surrounding it certainly was. Unlike an airport, this was a place where it seemed likely somebody might try to bring in a gun or a knife. There was a big sign posted saying something very ominous; I can’t remember the exact wording but it was something like “We take this metal detector very seriously. You must remove all traces of metal from your person, and have your bag wide open for immediate search.”

I looked at the very bored-looking guard and opened my bag up wide. She gave a dismissive snort, ignored the bag, and said, “Well, walk through!” I began emptying my pockets but she implored me not to bother. I walked through, setting off the alarm, and she didn’t bat an eye. Then, a woman behind me walked right through the detector, carrying a huge purse. She, too, set off the alarm, but just kept walking. No reaction from the guard.

I shrugged and continued on, looking for a cop. I found one, behind glass (bulletproof, I assume), and talked to him over a phone like the ones inmates use during visits from their friends and family. The cop had me process some paperwork and sent me off to another window to pay the towing and storage fees ($275). I paid, and was given some more paperwork to fill out. Then they sent me away, down Seventh Street, under the highway, to the police impound lot.

You’re not allowed behind the fence—you give the guy your paperwork, he drives the car out. I dabbled with the idea of playing dumb and blaming the cops for somehow ruining my car. With an internal sigh, I dismissed the idea. Then I told the guy, as casually as possible, that I needed him to let me back there to replace a fuse. He did, and—following Fernando’s instructions—I tried replacing fuses 3 and 6, which correspond to the fuel pump. Then I tried replacing the fuse near the battery, on a cable somewhere. I never found this fuse. Then I tried putting a jumper between fuses 3 and 6, in case there was a bad connection out of one of the fuse holders.

Connecting the jumper caused an interesting crackly hissing noise from the back of the car, which somebody knowledgeable about cars might deduce was the fuel pump finally kicking in. I believe, to this day, that the noise was actually some horrible short-circuit or something, that continued to drain my battery. (I had become very protective of the new battery.) The car still would not start. Having, I felt, nothing left to lose, I removed the jumper and tried starting the car again with no special intervention. Einstein once said, “Repeating an experiment over and over, while expecting varying results, is insanity.” He was right.

Eventually the impound lot guy, after watching my amateur repair efforts with apparent fascination—perhaps morbid fascination—silently walked away, came back with a fork-lift type vehicle, dragged my car closer to his little hut, disappeared into the hut, came back out with a jump-start box, and tried unsuccessfully to jump-start the car . He was a nice enough guy, although strangely uncommunicative. He probably considers English his first language, but throughout our protracted transaction he communicated through a simple system of grunting and non-verbal gestures such as staring off into space.

I made several trips next door to the sheriff station, which is also the main prison building in San Francisco, to call Fernando for troubleshooting advice and, eventually, to call the guy my mechanic uses for towing worthless shells of spent vehicles such as mine. I spent a lot of time in the waiting room with people waiting to visit their imprisoned loved ones. At all times there was a toddler or young child bawling. I couldn’t blame them, what with felons in the family. To pass the time I read a supposedly charming book about a college professor fixing up an old house in Tuscany. Given my surroundings, the book seemed totally unreal, a fairy tale.

Meanwhile, I had the strangest feeling of—simultaneously—alienation from, and yet kinship with, the other people waiting. After all, I wasn’t visiting a convict, but I was paying the price for my own lawlessness, and felt like a prisoner. If I gave up the fight and went home, abandoning my car, I would end up paying ongoing storage fees or eventually losing the car. And there was no end in sight. The tow-truck guy had originally promised to come get the car, but changed his mind twenty minutes later and drove to Sacramento instead. I was without a plan.

Finally, I went back to the impound lot and managed to get permission from the lot manager to try to roll-start the car right there in the lot. This permission was hard to get because the manager was barely more communicative than the first guy I dealt with. But, after a long pause as he considered my request and finally (I guess) decided to grant it, the manager communicated something non-verbally to the first guy, who set about dragging a bunch of cars around with his fork-lift to create a runway for me. Everything was now set, except there was still one tow-truck in the way. I thought I might be able to steer around it, but with no power steering and no power brakes I was loathe to try. It seemed pointless, though, to communicate my misgivings to the impound crew, because they’d obviously done what they thought was necessary. I also didn’t want to break the spell by asking for too much, like the Fisherman’s Wife. For about five minutes the situation was a deadlock, with each impound guy staring blankly off at some imagined vista, arms folded, a cold winter wind howling through the lot.

Finally I mustered some reckless courage, released the parking brake (which doesn’t really work anyway), took the car out of gear, cranked the wheel hard over, and began my maneuver. Running next to the car, holding the steering wheel with one hand and the door frame with the other, I missed the tow truck by about a foot, which the impound guys must have gauged perfectly. To my surprise, the car seemed much lighter than I’d expected. In no time I had a good bit of speed up. In fact, a totally inexplicable amount of speed. I couldn’t believe how fast the car was rolling through the lot. Finally I looked back to see four guys, grinning from ear to ear, pushing my car with all their might. Why is it that whenever a car needs to be rolled, guys materialize out of nowhere? Is there a female equivalent to this phenomenon? Ah, yes—the public restroom. But again I digress.

“Jump in!” someone yelled, and I did, just in time to slam my door before it would have smashed into a pillar I passed by. I put in the clutch, put the car in gear, then released the clutch, giving her plenty of gas. The result was a silent, but quite violent, lurch as the car instantly came to a dead stop. I half expected the guys to slam into the back of the car. It was like being clotheslined. I was heartbroken. I put the clutch back in, and the car instantly began picking up speed again. The guys were still pushing! I tried popping the clutch again. Again, that bunjee-jumping sensation. We tried once more. No dice. It was all over.

I ended up negotiating with one of the car pushers, who was the driver of the tow truck that had obstructed my path, to tow me out to Fernando’s for $70. Not cheap, but a fair bit better than what I’d paid to have the car impounded. Problem was, I didn’t have $70; I told the tow-truck driver he needed to stop at an ATM if he wanted his fee in cash. He was about as communicative as the impound guys and ignored me completely. We got to Fernando’s, and Fernando loaned me the money to pay the towing guy, and in the process achieving legendary status.

Fernando discovered that when I installed the new battery I neglected to attach a certain cable to the positive post. (It was because this cable was unattached that I hadn’t been able to find the fuse Fernando was talking about.) For future reference, you should note that an ‘84 Volvo 245 GL has three cables coming off the positive post, and only one cable (the normal one) off the negative post. I can guarantee you, flat-out, that the car will not start if one or more of these tables is disconnected. (I had encountered this cable when I installed the battery, but I knew it didn’t go to the negative post and at the time it made more sense to leave it dangling than to connect it to the positive post. As I said, I’m terrible with cars.)

Fernando shook his head and said, “Dana!” His tone meant, “You bonehead! How did you get to be such a complete idiot?! I pity you!” He also fixed a broken wire that I wish I could say was the cause of the problem, and then he charged my battery while I found a taqueria. (I hadn’t eaten all day.) I paid him back the loan with three twenties I’d forgotten I had all along, in my wallet (duh), and a ten I found in my pocket. He didn’t charge me for the repair—certainly the black comedy of my utter humiliation was more than adequate compensation for his minimal work, at least this time.

Now I’m parked on Lombard again, but down near Polk. It doesn’t look like a scenic enough intersection to film Nash Bridges on, and anyway it’s close enough to home to check daily. (That said, it’s been a week already and I just haven’t gotten around to checking it.)

1 comment:

  1. What a glorious story. I laughed, at you, mostly, I cried, almost, I ran the gamut of human emotion, just about... Those were the days, huh? What a life. Your new car makes your life so boring, but I guess that's one of the rewards for getting old.