Just after 7 a.m. on the wind chilliest day of the winter, my aging Subaru sputtered to a start, spit out black smoke onto the white snow for a few minutes, then died. For better or worse. Till death do us part.
My wife had the new car in Missoula overseeing the birth of grandchild No. 2, so I knew I was in trouble. Thus began a long, cold Montana week of hustling every day for transportation.
I have lived without cars before. But in Monterey, California, I had a Honda 160 Dream motorcycle. In Munich, the socialist workers’ paradise, public transportation was excellent, and my employer even paid for trolley rides to work. In Denver, I was too poor to go anywhere anyway.
This was different. Four days a week this semester, I teach a morning class at Rocky Mountain College, then a class at Montana State University Billings, then another class at Rocky. It’s an easy commute by car, but a challenge without ground transportation: too far to walk in the time available, too near to fly.
Moreover, the roads were iced over, and there did not appear to be a rental car available anywhere in town. I tried Uber, but I couldn’t figure out how to download the app onto my cell phone, which is an artifact of modern technology that I fear and despise more than any device ever created by humans, including the guillotine.
The phone kept demanding I give it my Apple ID. I had no idea what that might be: golden delicious? Granny Smith? Winesap?
Even the towing company was too busy to haul my frozen car to the repair shop for all of a long day. Yet somehow I managed. I got through the whole week without canceling any of 11 class sessions (a kind colleague did proctor a previously scheduled exam), and I was never even late to class.
How did I do it? I will spare you all the gritty details, but I relied heavily on the kindness of strangers – and of neighbors. My next-door neighbor, Jaci, got me to work that first day, and I repaid her later in the week with a loaf of homemade bread made from my mom’s recipe. If you think she got the short end of that deal, then you’ve never eaten my mom’s bread.
I hold enough power to make students’ lives miserable that I am reluctant to ask them for favors, fearing that a request might sound like a demand. But a couple of students who heard of my plight offered me unsolicited rides from one campus to another.
I also got to know three cab drivers, each of whom said he loved his job, and each of whom really seemed to mean it. The first knew my neighbor, so we talked about that. The second said he spent some of his spare time writing jokes, and he offered me one, in categories ranging from clean to dirty. I opted for a clean one, then responded with a dirtier joke that I cribbed from David Sedaris.
When I got out of the cab, he told me I would have to give the cab driver credit if I used his joke. I told him he could have mine for free.
The third cab driver said he had once gotten a $300 tip for a $13.50 cab ride. Apparently, alcohol had been involved.
“Well, this isn’t that day,” I told him, and immediately regretted it. He seemed genuinely hurt that I might have suspected him of angling for a bigger tip. I didn’t suspect him, but I ought to have anticipated he would take it that way.
Then there was the complete stranger who saw me struggling to steer my wife’s very girly bicycle down an icebound street and let me store it behind her house while she gave me a ride. And the guy from Tirerama who tried to help me jump start my car and took no money at all. And my colleague at Rocky, Tim Lehman, who lives only a few blocks from me and became a reliable ride home.
Lehman is a smart history professor who won the Fact or Fiction category at the Zonta Club’s annual trivia evening on Saturday night. The winning question involved the color of hippopotamus milk (pink).
Not everything went so smoothly. The worst experience came when I finally was able to reserve a rental car and took a taxi to the airport to fetch it. But the clerk wouldn’t let me have it because I had no credit card on me.
I said that would have been helpful information to have when I made the reservation. She seemed as interested as if I had confided in her the date of the Battle of Austerlitz.
I offered a debit card. No deal. I offered to get cash from an ATM machine. She wouldn’t take cash. I offered to have my wife call in a credit card number from Missoula. No dice.
I guess I can see why rental car companies worry about just any old guy walking through an airport and driving off with one of their cars. But I have three email addresses and can be reached through four local phone numbers. I have lived in the same house for 25 years.
Am I really going to steal a car so I can drive to work? And even if I would, I already had given the company enough personal information that they could have sicced the cops on me and drained every penny out of my bank account.
I left thinking I must be the only chump in the world who didn’t know you had to have a credit card on you to rent a car. But the first two people I told about it had had similar experiences. One had to cough up a card to pick up a car that already had been fully paid for.
Those guys used to say they tried harder. Now they don’t seem to try at all.
On Friday, the sun came out. After class, I stumbled downtown over the snow piled up along the street corners to cash a check and order a hamburger. When I got home, a message on the phone said my car was repaired and ready to go. Even the Check Engine light, my glowing friend for the last two years, had gone out.
I was ready to roll. But first, I still owe a few more loaves of bread.