Jump Starts I Have Known

February 02, 1992|By PATRICK McGUIRE | PATRICK McGUIRE,Patrick McGuire is a writer for The Sun Magazine.

I looked in the trunk the other day to see if my jumper cables were still there. I was relieved to see them tucked up next to the little doughnut that masquerades as a spare tire (just the thing if my wheelbarrow goes flat -- if I had a wheelbarrow).

It seems like everybody these days is talking about jumper cables in connection with resparking the stalled Buick of the nation's economy. In fact, while the president, in his state of the metaphor speech this week, didn't exactly say it in so many words, he hinted broadly that the only way to save Macy's and GM and the yacht trade is for us everyday folk to go to our trunks and get out our cables and jump-start the economy back to life.

Well, I'm ready, but just a little concerned. The last time I used my cables was in a darkened parking lot outside the library when a fellow asked me for help getting his car started. I was awfully proud to say that I surely did have cables. In these confusing times when men are sometimes unsure of their masculinity because of all kinds of changing attitudes among the sexes, owning a pair of jumper cables is a pretty easy way to boost your confidence. And this fellow in the parking lot, he took my cables gratefully -- it was a male bonding kind of thing, I'm sure -- just like he knew what he was doing.

Because all guys are supposed to not only have cables, but know how to use them. Or at least know that the first thing you do when your car won't start is to say "Well, Poop!" and then ask the first stranger you see if they have jumper cables. Life is full of little tests like this and it's nice to be able to get a passing grade every now and then.

However, regarding those cables, I must admit I didn't know how to use them. I'd bought them because they were on sale and because I'd seen one too many re-runs of MASH and was feeling an overdose of Alan Alda. Anyway, the guy at the library took them and he did all the connecting, whistling as he did it, which impressed me, although if I'd thought about it I might have asked him why he didn't have cables of his own. Because as soon as he made the final connection, his car exploded.

Well, exploded is a little harsh. Let's just say there was a loud crack and lots of bluish sparks and a couple of scared book borrowers muttering harsh exclamations of surprise and a parking lot suddenly filled with upended library books. And those cards you're not supposed to remove from the little pockets? I'm afraid they were quite removed.

You know, it's hard, in the dark, to read the little warning label that comes with your jumper cables, the part where it says you should only connect a positive to a positive and a negative to a negative and so forth. But I'm telling you right now, it's a good idea.

And so I was glad to hear the president suggest the other night that we should all keep caution as a friend. The world, he said, is still a dangerous place and he sounded like a man who may just have hooked up a wrong cable or two in his day.

But then he talked about how we all needed to heat up the economy and I had another flashback. There was that time I tried to heat up some leftover baked beans in the microwave. If you think about it, the analogy is apt. The economy right now is about as dynamic and appealing as a mound of cold beans. Not knowing beans about the culinary art, I nevertheless put this dish in the old nuke machine and went out to get the mail. When I came back, the beans were permanently embedded in the roof of the microwave. And the mail? Nothing but bills.

But there was the president, telling me the other night that I hTC deserved a hunk of the glory, and all I could do was keep seeing those sparks outside the library. And I wondered, is this country in such desperate straits that it really wants guys like me putting beans in the national microwave or hooking things up in the dark that might just explode? Call me a Gloomy Gus, but I don't think so.

You see, I've learned the hard way that it's crucial, in asking for help, to ask the right person. And I'm thinking that encouraging people to raid their IRAs to pay for their appendectomies is a little like connecting a positive to a negative.

Speaking as an emerging new-age male of the endangered middle class species, I'm wondering why someone in Washington didn't think of just calling Triple-A.

That's what we finally did that night at the library. Turns out this other guy and I were both members of the auto club, but we were each too embarrassed to call them and have another guy come out and use his jumper cables to get things going again. But that's what we did. The guy from the service station was nice about it, he didn't snicker or anything -- though, of course, we didn't tell him about the explosion. It would have spoiled our hunk of the glory.

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