There’s a difference between insouciance and flightiness: planning. And before cell phones, a lack of contingency planning and good judgment could lead to some doozies.
Take the time during our college years that my friend Meg and I decided in the summer of ’92 to go to a Little Feat concert in a jalopy. The vehicle was a four-door tin-can my dad bought for $800 to use as an around-the-town conveyance after our trusty station wagon was destroyed in a car wash (a topic for another blog, to be sure).
When a car owner tells you, this vehicle is so lame that it can never be taken out on the highway, you should listen. At the time, ignoring that warning was an act of optimism rather than defiance and we paid dearly. After all, we just wanted to go see Little Feat.
I’m so old, I really don’t remember how we bought things like concert tickets before the internet and smart phones became ubiquitous. Maybe we got them by mail by calling a business like Ticketmaster and/or picking them up at box offices and record stores. I do remember Meg and I planning a key aspect of our adventure: picnic food. The field concert was being held at Waterloo Village in the western New Jersey hamlet of Stanhope. We decided we must go to our favorite deli in our hometown (Montclair) and get really good sandwiches for the trip. This is a quintessentially Jersey thing to do and perfectly a reasonable part of any plan in the Garden State. Ya gotta eat, right?
We headed west in the soup can on wheels, the sun gleaming and our hearts brimming with excitement. Out on Route 80, the car started to struggle going uphill and I saw that the oil temperature gauge was getting too hot. Not a problem: I simply turned on the heat and we rolled down the windows. The temperature gauge returned to a less hazardous level.
Then, we came upon the omen. A vehicle in even sadder condition was mightily struggling to climb the road. Finger-scrawled in a dirt-covered back window was another message of hope: “Little Feat or Bust.” We cheered their positive attitude and shared objective. We passed them with hearty waves and then parked within the neat rows of cars in a grass field. The party had begun.
Being in our early 20s, we immediately connected with a group of guys our age. They were silly and friendly, and very graciously offered us something illegal to enjoy. I gave pause. That pause any reasonable person should undertake when weighing insouciance or responsibility. I was a college student and didn’t want to do anything that could really have negative consequences, like being arrested in a public place for criminal activity.
Moreover, though, I was fascinated that these guys had accomplished something I had never seen before. They were using a Granny Smith apple as pot paraphernalia. It was like watching a magician perform a trick. I thought, surely, that’s not possible and waited for one of the guys to pull a playing card or coin out from behind my ear. I was handed the fruit and held it up for inspection.
Before I could discern if they had hidden a pipe or something within the apple, everyone around me instantaneously disappeared. I looked up and around to see what was happening, only to see a beautifully outfitted New Jersey state trooper standing a few yards away between parked cars. He was locked on me with wide eyes. I did the only logical thing: I took a big bite of the apple and chomped. He walked away.
When you avert disaster, by any means, the following rule should apply: go home now. But the show was just beginning! It was one of the best shows I have ever been too. I couldn’t tell you the set list now, but they played a lot of my favorites and we were belting out the words. We danced like crazy and made it up to slap our hands to the beat on the stage. It was exhilarating and perfect. Or, as Little Feat puts it, “that one clear moment.”
Then it was over, and we headed back east on the highway. Maybe it was the sheer exhaustion. Maybe it was running the heat on high to keep the oil temperature down. Maybe it’s my poor night vision. We missed our exit. I took an alternate route and then the incorrect exit there. We were heading straight into a rough neighborhood. I thought, I’ll just go around the block and go back in my intended direction on an old road that would head all the way back to Montclair. Wrong.
As I drove the soup can down a side street, a huge crowd of teen and younger boys flooded the street. I couldn’t tell if they were fighting or performing like a flash mob. As the crowd dissipated, I began to accelerate and a horrible grinding noise emanated from the engine block. I eased into a parking space, which happened to be the only open one on the block. After waiting a moment, I tried again to turn the engine, but the metal-upon-metal friction sound worsened and then the car was dead.
Remember, this was B.C. (before cellphones). We collected the coins we had and got out in search of a payphone. One of the rowhouses on the block had a cardboard sign affixed to the wrought-iron gate that led to the basement. It read, “Club Lovin’.” We didn’t know if a party host had a great sense of humor or something illicit was going on down there. A man and a woman standing outside directed us to a payphone down the street. It was broken so we kept walking.
For the younger folk, a payphone was a big metal box on the sidewalk with a receiver through which you spoke and could hear the other party you called. To dial, you pressed buttons and the phone told you how much change to deposit. I called my Mom, but she was still sleeping when she picked up. I heard her phone gently land and bounce on the bedroom carpet.
Meg called her parents. All we really needed was a tow truck, not a brigade. They wanted our precise location so they could come get us. While she assured them that we were fine and we’d be able to get a tow truck, they were concerned. Perhaps it would have been better not to give them a heads-up we’d be getting home late. (They were very protective; when we were in high school, she got grounded for six weeks for attending a blowout party at my house. I was only grounded for four weeks for that incident.)
The phone booth lacked a phone book (a ginormous publication listing all residences and businesses in a given region or town) and I was having trouble getting a 411 operator, or any operator for that matter, to summon a tow. We opted to walk in search of a phone that wasn’t on the fritz.
Arriving at the main drag, we saw a police car pulling out all the stops with evasive driving-pursuit driving maneuvers. A camera crew was in the street filming the stunt spectacle. I just thought, cool, we can just wave down this police officer and ask him to radio us a tow truck.
The cop espied us and swung around to the curb. “Ladies, you’re lost,” he said, inviting us to get in the back of the patrol car. We related how we got turned around on the way back from a concert and the car died. He was bemused. As he called for a tow, a man from the production crew asked if we were hookers and the officer laughed at him. At this point, I needed to know, who the hell is this camera crew? The officer related they were from the TV show COPS. I’m the kind of person whose luck is so bad that I break down in a neighborhood where COPS is filming and the producer asks if I am engaged in criminal behavior.
The tow truck guy arrived with great dispatch and we piled into the cab. The car was in a tight spot, but he adeptly drew it out and we were off, along our intended route on the old road that runs up through our county. It was late and quiet as we rolled along. I remembered I had cash in my bedroom so I would be able to pay the tow truck man without any issue (this was before hand-held, network-enabled credit card readers).
Suddenly, a flash of lights broke my train of thought. A police car roared past us in the opposite direction. The tow truck guy whipped his head around and said, “wow, that was a Montclair police car. He’s way out of his jurisdiction. I wonder what’s going on.” Meg and I sat in silence.
Once at my parents’ house, I ran in to grab my cash for the tow truck man and my Mom’s car keys so I could drive Meg to her parents. When we got to their house, we were laughing about the whole episode and still giggling as we went in the front door. Her brother was stunned and relieved. He related her parents were down at the police station, where they had demanded someone go rescue us.
I have no idea what the moral of this story is. I have been criticized in the past for telling a pointless story. In sum, though, always travel with a good friend when you can and have cash available. Most of all, enjoy the music.
The Sage Leopard, firstname.lastname@example.org