the trouble started after my fourth mojito. or rather, it started the next morning, as I merged shakily onto the Henry Hudson Parkway in New York City, already late for the modern poetry class I was scheduled to teach at one of New Jersey's fine state universities. As I attempted to navigate my way through rush-hour traffic, the exhaust system of my old brown Mazda sedan seemed to suddenly explode. There was a crashing bang, and then something large, something metal, fell to the asphalt beneath the car and began to drag. I glanced up at the rearview mirror and noticed a merry shower of sparks dancing on the road behind me, nicely complementing the bright fall foliage in Riverside Park. As the car roared and coughed, I coasted to the narrow shoulder, traffic swerving around me, horns blaring, middle fingers waving.
This was going to be a problem. I am not mechanically in-
dined. Nor am I "handy," or "improvisational?' or "clever?' I can barely navigate my way through a toll booth. I'm a hopeless, disorganized dweeb with a large record collection, bad posture, and a taste for books about disastrous polar exploration and the horrors of trench warfare in World War I.
So I sat in my broken car and imagined where this turn in my morning might lead. Poverty? Unemployment? Being abducted and eaten by death cultists? Anything seemed possible. I was still dressed in the blue and white seersucker suit I'd worn to the party the night before. The pants were stained with mojito and cigarette ash, and the jacket was rumpled from lying in a jumbled heap on someone else's bed, with me in it.
I tried to focus my thoughts. What would my father do? He was an engineer. He knew about cars, and could even identify specific parts, such as the "valves," the "oil pan?' even the pleasantly eccentric sounding "crank case." If only I had paid attention at all those Saturday "let's learn about the wonders of the four-stroke engine" bonding sessions when I was a teenager. But I hadn't. The truth is that my father's logical, facts-based world bored and antagonized me. If he had been telling me how Link Wray got that dirty fuzz tone guitar effect in his seminal 1958 instrumental classic, "Rumble," I would have listened. But this was an area of interest that we didn't share, so now, stranded on a dirty stretch of road, I had no idea what my father would do, although whatever it was would have probably involved using some of the many tools he always kept in his trunk.
My "tool kit" was comprised of a single, bent, wire hanger that my friend Harry* had left in my car after a party in Brooklyn. I didn't even have a functioning cell phone on me— I'd spilled coffee on mine a week earlier and hadn't gotten around to ordering a new one.
I needed a more appropriate role model. Someone used to making do with less. Someone like . . . MacGyver. Well, thanks to Harry, I had a wire hanger, and that was a start.
I'd driven enough junked-out cars in my thirty years to know that when the exhaust system drops, you either a) tie it to the frame of the car with whatever's available, such as a tube sock or a shoelace, and head for the nearest mechanic, b) walk away after destroying the vehicle so that no one can trace it to you (something I've found especially easy to do in places like Australia, where no one particularly cares when they see someone pushing a car off a cliff), or c) call AAA.
My AAA membership, purchased in flusher times, had long ago lapsed. (Not that I had a phone to call them with anyway.) And, unfortunately for me, New York City is nothing like the rugged coastline south of Perth.
The Henry Hudson Parkway runs along the Hudson River up the west side of Manhattan, past Riverside Park, toward the George Washington Bridge and the Bronx. It's an old, narrow highway, and cars often travel at speeds in excess of five thousand miles an hour. As I got out and began to take stock of my situation, I discovered something disturbing. A lot of trash gets blown into the gutters of the Henry Hudson—and now I was part of it. Food wrappers, socks, one gold stiletto, sand,
*Names of partners in crime have been changed to protect their privacy.
grit, cigarette butts, and . . . great God, is that a human scalp? No, just an old wool hat wrapped in seaweed.
I peeked under the car and, sure enough, the exhaust pipe had broken off from the rear of the muffler, and now was bent and deeply wedged above the axle, with one ragged end resting on the asphalt. The vehicle would still run, albeit with the throaty, chugging roar of a Formula One race car. But I would need to ride with all the windows down to avoid death from carbon monoxide poisoning. And with the pipe dragging like that, I was afraid the sparks would set something on fire. Something like the gas tank. The only thing to do was tie it up—or cut it loose.
After pawing around under the maroon faux-velvet seats, I came up with a rusty pair of pliers, jumper cables, sixty-seven cents, several books of matches, a Perry Como mix tape that had belonged to the car's previous owner, and my trusty wire hanger. I could wrap the hanger around the busted pipe, using the pliers, then somehow fasten it to the frame. Or maybe I could wrap the jumper cables around the pipe and tie it up that way. Better than using my sock. I looked at my watch. I was now quite late for the class I was supposed to teach, and all indications were that I was going to miss my next class, too. My students would be thrilled. I might be fired. Whatever fix I was going to come up with, it needed to be quick.
That's when I saw the Guatemalans. They were headed straight for me. And I could tell, mostly by their guttural shouting and angry, demonstrative hand gestures, that they were pissed.
There were five of them. They wore hard hats and work clothes—clothes that fit this hazardous, traffic-blasted land scape in a way that made my vintage seersucker seem even more fey and ridiculous than it had the night before. Before going out last night, I should have stuffed a change of clothes into my messenger bag. Of course, you never think of these things when you're heading out for the evening. You never think, Hey, I bet I'll end up having a few rum drinks tonight and making a pass at an old friend, and miracle of miracles, get semi-lucky, and end up sort offooling around with her on her parquet kitchen floor while the German-language version of David Bowie's "Heroes" plays on repeat on the CD player.
Well, sometimes you think of those things. But I'd been in a hurry. And now the no-nonsense Guatemalans were getting closer. Why were these people yelling at me? I was the one who should be yelling. My car is broken! I'm late for my class on T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland!
Luckily, I studied Spanish in New Jersey public schools for eight years. So I was quickly able to deduce what the Guatemalans were so hot about. They wanted me to move my car because I was parked in a folk-song zone. ConstruciOn. That's the word for "song," right?
"I can't move my car," I tried to explain. "It's broken, like my Spanish."
But they kept yelling. Then I had a brilliant thought. These were working guys. I bet they had tools. I made a cutting motion with my hands. Do you have wire cutters, like for cutting bike locks, or chain-link fences? They seemed confused. I looked down at the hand motions I was making: bringing my closed hands together and apart, together and apart, simulating the motions of using a large pair of wire cutters. I saw that it made me look like one of those toy monkeys, the kind that bangs a pair of tiny cymbals together as it sputters around the floor. Giving up, I pointed weakly under the car. "Por favor," I said. "Look beneath the auto."
One of them took a look. "I cut!" he yelled. "I cut!"
He hustled over to a pickup truck parked fifty feet away and came back with what appeared to be some sort of flamethrower: a metal wand, bent at the tip, attached by a hose to a large cylindrical tank. Once he got close, I recognized it as something I'd seen in art class back in college, during the sculpture section. It was an acetylene torch. Who knew it had an actual practical use? He rolled under the car, and in ten seconds he'd lit the torch with a mighty whoof, cut through the pipe, and yanked it loose. He got up and dusted himself off, then tossed the pipe into the trash-filled gutter. "Now go!" he yelled.
I got in. I started the car, which immediately roared to life. So this is what cars sound like with their muzzles off I thought: giant roaring hell dogs. I could already smell the exhaust fumes. If I kept all the windows down and reduced the frequency of my breathing, I might just make it as far as Teaneck.
I rolled down the driver's-side window and held out some money to pay the Guatemalan for his trouble, but he wouldn't accept it. He pitied me, I think. An overgrown child, far from home, dressed for an ice-cream social. At least I'd had the presence of mind to remember that age-old lesson: Never jerry-rig something if you can cut it loose and abandon it forever along the Henry Hudson Parkway.
Stewart Engesser is a television and advertising writer, and the creator of Mysteries of Science Explained, a vidcast available at mysteriesofscience.com.
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