Tow to Tow

I had to run a shopping errand on Sunday and when I was in the parking lot ready to leave, a woman unloading a shopping basket between vehicles asked me, “Is this your car?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied. I’m quite sure the thought crossed her mind that I suffered from dementia. I looked at the Nevada license plate to confirm I was at the right vehicle. “It’s a rental,” I explained. But the button on the key fob in my hands wouldn’t unlock the doors, so I still wasn’t sure I had the right car. After all, people from Nevada drive to California all the time and I hadn’t memorized the license plate number.

Because her basket was on the driver’s side and I was, therefore, on the passenger side, I thought I’d try the key in the door. But I couldn’t find a slot for it. As soon as she was through unloading the basket (perhaps my seemingly queer behavior hastened her in this duty), I moved to the driver’s side and found a slot for the key, which in fact unlocked the door.

My second rental car in a week, this particular vehicle was a Mitsubishi Mirage — if only it were (a mirage, that is). Being generic silver is far from the Mirage’s only fault. I’m 5 feet 7 inches-ish and feel as though I need a booster seat to see above the steering wheel. The rear window is little more than a slit. The only thing I like about the car is that I got it with a full tank of gas, though I had to get out the “owner’s” manual to determine what comprised the fuel indicator.

My “saga” begins on July 5, as I was driving back to San Diego from Independence Day weekend in Palm Springs. I had left my desert house at 11:15 a.m. in hopes of missing the heaviest of the holiday traffic (those milking every last minute of a long weekend). I was about 25 miles out of town, on Interstate 10, when my car began losing power. With the gas pedal all the way to the floor, I could attain no more than 45 mph.

Fortunately, there was a truck-weighing station just ahead, so I exited, got my Chevy Tracker onto a safely-out-of-the-way patch of concrete and called AAA.

I love AAA. The tow-truck driver who rescued me jumped out of his cab with a bottle of cold water in his outstretched. The AAA label on it said, “Thank you.” How nice is that? He invited me to partake of the air conditioning in the cab of his truck while he loaded my baby onto the trailer. As we chatted on the way to my Palm Springs mechanic, I found out he had been in church when he got the call to pick me up. He told me that when he had taken his son to July 4th fireworks, he had a pager in his pocket as well. I think I would have felt even guiltier had I pulled him away from fireworks with his little boy than church, which he probably goes to every Sunday.

The mechanic shop is closed on weekends, so I couldn’t get a diagnosis until Monday. Alas, it was not good, and it was posed to me that my baby might need a new engine. Unfortunately, engines for 1998 Chevy Trackers are no longer made, and the closest one was in Idaho. Darren, who owns the shop, told me he had other calls out and would have more info for me the next day. In any event, the prospects were that my baby would be in the shop for a week.

On Monday as the clock approached 1 p.m., I was at Palm Springs International Airport. As much as I would like to report that I went there to catch a plane to Tahiti, where I could sit on a beach sipping a mai tai in a coconut shell under the shade of a swaying palm and forget my troubles, I was there to rent a car.

My temporary mode of transportation was a Chevy Spark in a really nice purple-tinged blue. I rather liked the car for five days. I probably would have liked it for the planned seven days; but on Saturday morning when I went out with a plan for the day, the Spark wouldn’t (spark, that is). It didn’t even try — no apparent attempt of the engine to turn over. The only sign of life was a lit icon that didn’t look like anything identifiable. I reached into the glove compartment for the “owner’s” manual, which indicated the car, based on the lit icon, may have an emissions control problem. As far as I could tell, the car was fine when I parked it on Friday evening. What “emissions control problem” could it have developed under a carport in the still of the night?

I called the car-rental company — an effort that, as usual, required a great deal of patience because of an automated phone menu (the bane of technology! — They almost always begin, “Please listen carefully, as our menu options may have changed.” Seriously, what makes people think we memorize their menu options? And why say “may have” changed? Either you changed them or you didn’t. And if you did change them, how long ago was that: five years ago?)

Additionally, every time you call this car-rental company, you have to give them the contract number AND your license plate number AND your date of birth. One can only imagine what difficulties might ensue if one of those pieces of information did not match the others. (Are you also envisioning a helicopter hovering overhead with a TSA agent on a loudspeaker ordering me to come out with my hands up?)

Ultimately (though it may not seem like it, I really am giving the abridged version of this story), I was told a replacement car would be delivered in a half-hour. A little more than an hour later, I called back (contract number, license plate number, date of birth) and was, again ultimately, told that there was some sort of hang-up with traffic around the San Diego airport that was delaying delivery; it was likely to be another hour or so.

A couple hours later, I decided to go ahead and make my “famous” granola bars that I planned to take my trusted Palm Springs mechanic (if you ever listened to NPR’s Car Talk, you’ll understand why this is important). Just as I got the baking dish in the oven, I got a call from the car-rental company that their contract driver was just outside my apartment building (never mind that they were supposed to call me when they were 20 minutes out).

The tow-truck driver unloaded the Mitsubishi Mirage and, while I was inside it trying to figure out how to adjust the seat position, got into the Chevy Spark. He opened the hood and got the engine to turn over. “What did you do?” I asked. He didn’t speak fluent English, but he indicated the battery was kaput. “The battery light did not come on,” I informed him, “only the icon that said it was an emissions control problem.” He indicated that the battery was a not-to-be-resurrected goner. 

By the time he towed away the Spark, I could not go out until my granola bars were done baking; and by then, it was beyond the point in time when my planned itinerary for the day was feasible. So I left the car in the carport until Sunday, when I drove it to the parking lot where a woman pulled her shopping basket next to it and, when she saw me asked, “Is this your car?”