April 26, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Actually we were just trying to get home – my husband, my ten-year-old son, and our six pound dog. But a block from a family picnic, seventy miles from home, our transmission took a (insert expletive here). After we debated the options which included staying over, borrowing a car, coaxing ours home, or just calling AAA, we decided (at my recommendation) to call for a tow.
In no time at all, Jim showed. Jim’s a nice guy. Jim’s such a nice guy he shared a little known fact about our AAA extended membership with us. Even though we pay extra to have our car towed for up to 100 miles, the tow truck driver is required to lend a ride to the primary and secondary subscribers only, with every additional passenger required to pay a dollar a mile for their ride. But Jim said if we ‘took care’ of him, he’d let that charge go. I was suspicious.
So when Jim stopped for gas, I called AAA and checked on his story. Seems he’s right. Betcha didn’t know that about your AAA membership.

So off to Philly we went. We were cruising on 476 and were just below the Lansdale exit when we heard a shot. My heart stopped! Things that sound like gunshot are never good, and this was bad – it was a flat, actually two flats. That’s enough to render a tow truck worthless. At ten o’clock at night our tow called for a tow.

I would have never thought we were the only ones who didn’t know they were closing down the blue route – all four lanes – from midnight to six am Sunday night. But from the curtness of the state trooper who informed us of that, it felt like we were. So he told us two things: we had to move these disabled vehicles down below the next bridge (which was scheduled to be taken down), and if the tow for our tow didn’t make it to us before they closed the exit just north, we’d have to sleep where we sat.

Upon hearing that news I chuckled because I have this problem: I’m too logical. My mind switches back and forth checking synapses until logic applies much like an old-time phone switchboard. But I couldn’t make sense of his statement so my mind halted much like a frozen computer and I did what any sane-minded person about to go crazy would do – I broke out in laughter.

Let me get this straight. We’re supposed to move our ‘disabled’ vehicles that are stranded on the side of the interstate at ten o’clock at night because… they could be moved?

Yup, he says.


So my husband coaxed our car along, transmission screaming, and the tow driver ground two aluminum rims into scrap for about a quarter mile until we were below the designated bridge. But wait, that wasn’t right either. Another trooper came along and informed us that we hadn’t gone far enough. The ‘right’ bridge was the one below that, and real problem was, this road was closed. Period. We had to get out of there now.

I sang, “With what shall we do that, dear Liza, dear Liza…”

Well, Jim told the trooper our plight: the tow for our tow didn’t show, and at that point whatever goodness existed in that trooper’s heart managed to squeak by his scowl and his growl and say, “Well I can take you up to meet him but that’s all.”

Hey, it beats staying on the side of the road for the night. But here’s where the mystery lies. You can’t ride any non-motorized vehicle or hike, walk, run, or pitch a tent on the side of an interstate legally, but you can sleep there when directed by a state trooper who has enough room in his car and enough time on his hands to get you someplace safer. The plot thickens.
So off we go, acting grateful for the bit of help we’re getting from someone who’s vowed to serve and protect. Actually, I’m just throwing that out. Maybe that’s what it says only on the sides of police cruisers on NYPD Blue. (Stop whining, Cindy.)

So he took us to meet our tow on the Lansdale exit ramp where we were unloaded and stood while the two tow drivers debated how to fit five people and one small dog on a bench seat designed for three. After a few minutes of coming to no conclusions, the disgruntled trooper directed us back in his car and drove us to the Lansdale toll plaza just across the interstate (followed by the tow for our tow and the two drivers). There, again, we were dropped without any further direction. How funny that law abiding citizens who experienced misfortune along the interstate couldn’t get some help from the law, but if I’d have punched him in the jaw, we’d have wound up in a much safer place to stay. That guy’s a (insert expletive here).

Now Jim’s a concerned guy, and he shared his impression of the driver of the tow for his tow. “The guy’s a ‘punk’.” We soon agree. We could all just pile in the truck and at least get somewhere safe until AAA found us a third tow, but no, the ‘punk’ won’t hear of it. It’s not safe. It’s a liability. He’d rather sit by an interstate toll gate at eleven o’clock at night with a man, his wife, a small child, a dog, and Jim, and smoke cigarettes and wait for AAA to act. Again, I erupt into laughter.

AAA was working as hard as they could. They let us know that the local police would pick us up and drop us at a local motel where we’d at least be safe until a towing company just up the street could get to us – they just had to finish clearing an accident. But the problem remained – we had five people. My family alone was three and with the tow truck driver, we had one more than could legally fit in a standard cab truck, and there were no crew cabs available. On top of that we were told the local police said, “That ain’t our jurisdiction.” How’s that for a kick in the (expletive).

Finally AAA said the local tow truck would soon arrive to pick up two members of my family, then the second tow (driven by the ‘punk’) and the first tow driver could take the remaining member. Then we’d all drive to Philadelphia like one big happy family. Does that sound ridiculous to you? Again, laughter ensued.

So I called AAA and implored them to come up with a better plan. There’s always global warming and the price of fuel to consider, but I was astounded at the resources being used to get a family of three safely back home. There had to be another option. They’d consider my plea.
One o’clock in the morning. We were still waiting. Out of desperation (and exhaustion, I’m sure) Jim finally asked if we would mind all packing into one truck and just going for it, but again, ‘punk’ won’t hear of it. He was only halfway through his pack of smokes. Then my child had to pee. I told him to walk a few hundred yards up the road and douse the rim of that cruiser sitting there with the lights flashing. My husband told him I was kidding. I wasn’t.

Again we waited. Finally Jim’s phone rang, this time with a perkier tone. The AAA dispatcher had explained our situation to tow driver three, and that guy was so concerned he offered to use his own personal truck, a crew cab diesel, to drive my family home - if AAA would allow it. They would. He said he’d be by.

I heard the choir sing, “Halleluiah! Halleluiah!” Sweet! But he had yet to show. At this point in the performance, we’ve learned not to hold our breath. (Jeopardy music plays here). Suddenly, ta-da! A crew cab diesel drove toward us, swung a u-ey around the concrete barriers, and screeched to a stop right in front of us like a mirage. Could it be? Yes! The nicest guy jumped out, shook everyone’s hands, apologized for the inconvenience, then helped us into an immaculately maintained cab complete with pillows and blankets to ease our frustration. Then he drove us… h-h-home. I almost couldn’t say it. I don’t think hewas dispatched from AAA. It had to be a higher power.

So just a hair past three am, we turned the key in our door. At nine am Jim showed up with our car and we put this whole experience behind us. The last thing Jim said when he turned to leave was, “Go back to bed.” That’s mighty nice for a guy who’d gotten exactly two hours of sleep.
So here’s another thing you probably didn’t know about AAA. They’re not authorized to tow any cars that break down on 476 – the state has contracts with local vendors. Jim told us we’re lucky we didn’t try to hobble our car home because if we’d have broken down there, a trooper would have called for a local tow that would cost us $160, and that tow would only take us to the end of the nearest exit ramp. Once we got there we were welcome to call anyone we wanted to finish the rest of our tow. Jim also told us our state legislators responsibly set up that mess. What a nice guy.

I also didn’t realize Pennsylvania State troopers weren’t vowed to serve and protect. They’re only there to get you the hell out of their way. The most interesting thing is, as we stood at the toll gate for three solid hours, two state patrol cars sat not 200 hundred yards away – the entire time - but never offered another ounce of assistance. How’s that for (insert quip about taxpayer dollars here). Last but not least, I’m lame. I have a sore ankle from a bad sprain and I got to exacerbate that with standing on it all night. And it’s not like no one noticed. I’m blatantly lame – I limp badly. How’s that for a good (expletive).

So, that’s my story. I was going to put it all behind me but some people feel strongly someone should know how trooper’s treat people they don’t think know anyone. I'll consider that. Meanwhile, I wonder if either of the patrolmen had families. Surely they wouldn’t abandon people on the side of the road when the faces of one of their children could paste across the child left standing there. Surely, I think, they would never... But again, I’m probably being too logical. I’d be better off sitting on the side of the road laughing like a fool. Hey, I should’ve tried that last night. Maybe that would’ve earned me a safe place to stay.

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