Dashboards lights signal end of the road

March 16, 2000|By Kevin Cowherd

IF LIFE has gotten boring and you're looking for the kind of adrenalin-pumping thrill provided by, say, bungee-jumping or sky-diving, save yourself a few bucks and do what I did recently.

Have your car break down on the Capital Beltway.

In the middle lane.

During rush hour.

Believe me, you'll be so wired from this experience you won't stop vibrating for a week.

The Capital Beltway, of course, is the dreary ribbon of pock-marked macadam, bumper-to-bumper traffic and choking exhaust fumes that encircles Washington.

It was in this idyllic setting, just past the exit for the Dulles Toll Road, that my car just . . . died.

One minute, I was rolling along, singing a song -- if you consider 15 mph to be rolling.

The next minute, the car glided to a stop. And every red light on the dashboard suddenly lit up, like it was the control panel for Chernobyl.

Well. I can now report from personal experience that when one's car breaks down in the middle of a major highway -- did I mention it was rush hour? -- one tends to get a little jittery.

All around me, brakes were screeching. Horns were honking. Tires were squealing as cars cut each other off trying to change lanes and zoom around me.

Here's another thing I can now report from first-hand experience: Don't expect your fellow motorists to be in a swell mood while your car's screwing up traffic.

As they passed me, they yelled all sorts of nasty things. Like I wanted to be there! Like I woke up that morning thinking: "You know what would be kind of cool? Breaking down on the Capital Beltway about 4 in the afternoon!"

Anyway, for what seemed like an eternity, I sat there with the emergency flashers on, waving traffic around me and frantically trying to start the car.

Finally, an eerie calm seemed to descend over me like a shroud. And I thought: OK, fine, I'm going to die.

Any minute now, I'll be rear-ended by a tractor-trailer and go out in a towering fireball visible all the way to Vermont. Or else I'll be dragged from the car by an angry mob and beaten to death with Louis Vuitton briefcases.

As this revelation sunk in, I closed my eyes and waited for death to take me.

I waited for the fabled tunnel of light to appear, and the outstretched hand to beckon from the shimmering white robe, and the voice from beyond to whisper: "Come, come."

Instead what I heard was: Beep-beep. This, from all I've read, is not what you're supposed to hear right before you check out.

So I opened my eyes and looked in the rear-view mirror.

And there behind me, lights flashing, was a big orange tow truck with "Emergency Response" or "24-Hour Response" written on the side.

To tell you the truth, I'm not sure what was written on the side. I mean, I was preparing to die here, OK? I wasn't worrying about whether the tow truck was from Ed's Sunoco or whatever.

Anyway, what happened next was that the truck's loudspeaker crackled to life and the guy behind the wheel said: "Sir, I'm going to push you off to the shoulder of the road. Are you OK with that?"

Was I OK with that?! Are you kidding me? I'd have been OK with him pushing me over a cliff, at this point.

But before he could start pushing, I did something sort of foolish. I got out of the car. And I walked back to the truck to tell the guy what was wrong.

And just as I did, the congestion up ahead must have eased.

Well. I don't know if you've ever stood in the middle of the Capital Beltway with cars whizzing all around you, but it's really a unique experience.

It must be like getting all beered-up and wandering onto the track in the middle of the Charlotte 500.

Somehow, though, I made it to the tow truck without someone launching me in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial. And after I explained the problem, the guy said: "OK, crank the engine one more time."

Which I did. And this time, thank God, it roared to life. So I gave the tow truck guy the thumbs-up sign and took off, radiant in the knowledge that I had beaten a $50 towing charge.

Six miles down the Beltway, with the traffic really flying -- I think we were up to 17 mph by then -- the car died again.

This time it died in the left lane. Next to a Jersey wall. Meaning traffic again couldn't get around me.

I don't know how long I was stuck this time. Day turned into night. Another tow truck came, but just as he pulled up, the car started again.

Two hours later, I pulled into the driveway, the car wheezing like an asthmatic, trailing a cloud of blue-gray smoke.

"How was your day?" my wife asked.

"Oh," I said, "you know."

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