16 September 2013

Changing a Tire the Frustrating Way

     In the middle of April, it rained for two weeks straight. I was teaching a remedial English class at a campus thirty miles away and was required to give a standardized, three-part exam one week early. I dropped my fiancé off at home in a downpour and was right on schedule. I only had ten minutes of leeway in my commute, but I had never been late to class, even in the middle of Michigan’s unreliable winter.
     I was on the phone with my friend J. when I hit a microwave-sized pothole. For a few milliseconds, it sounded and felt like Thor was trying to golf my car out of the rough with Mjölnir.
     “Holy fuck!” I shouted into the phone. It was warranted. With the wipers on full and the road completely deluged with a half inch of water, I would have needed a sixth-sense for detecting shoddy patch jobs, which, in Michigan, would have been indistinguishable from the regular sense of detecting road.
     “What… was that?” J. asked.
     “I just hit an enormous pothole. I think I heard the undercarriage scrape,” I said, hunch-cowering in my car for no apparent reason except the instantaneous surprise-terror of believing the car was going to flip forward and continue down the road with its roof scraping and sparking along the asphalt like in every action movie ever.
     It was hard enough to focus on driving in the weather, and I was trying to listen for any weird noises on top of the enormous, pelting raindrops slapping the glass and the continuous TV-static sound of the car plowing water and almost hydroplaning; I didn’t comprehend a word J. said after the pothole.
     Two blocks later, the deep unease of uncertainty was diminishing, and I was merging on to the highway.
     “Well, I think everything is okay,” I said into the phone, inviting the gods to smite me.
     Bling bling bling bling bling – the car began making one of its regular protestations about servicing the air bag, low fuel, low traction, unicorns poking holes in the exhaust, etc.
     The tire pressure message scrolled across the dash.
     Then, the womp womp womp of a flat tire became louder than the rain, so I pulled over to the side of the highway.
     “Scratch that, I have a flat tire.”
     “That sucks man,” said J. in his classic, empathetic, matter-of-fact way.
     “I’m gonna let you go. I need to make a few calls,” I said.
     “Okay, let me know if you need anything,” he said, even though he was two and a half hours away.
     “Thanks. I’ll see you later.”
     For a brief moment, I just stared at the undulating sheets of water streaming down the windshield. I literally couldn’t see out of any of the windows because there was so much water coming down.
     For a brief moment, I didn’t have a clue what to do. I had to be at school to give an exam in 30 minutes. I didn’t know anyone who could pick me up or lend me a car in that short of a timeframe. I contemplated calling a taxi. I contemplated calling a tow truck. I contemplated walking into oncoming traffic to just have it all be done and over with.
     I’m not sure exactly how long I sat there in stupefied inaction. It felt like ten or fifteen minutes of dealing with agonizing existential angst, but it was probably only about a minute. They tell you to stop and weigh your options before making decisions in a survival situation; I’d like to call my vacillation that, but it was probably just me being a complete sissy.
     I first called my fiancé. No answer.
     I then called my direct supervisor at school. No answer.
     I then called my parents. No answer.
     I then looked in my phone because I knew I programmed the security phone numbers for the school into my contacts in case of an emergency. Turns out, I only programmed the main campus’, not the satellite campus’ security number.
     “Shit!” I said it out loud to myself. What followed was more staring at the window because I couldn’t see out of it. And, after calling everyone who might be able to make some sort of decision about something, it felt like there was absolutely nothing I could do.
     Maybe it’ll let up, I thought, despite all evidence to the contrary.
     Then, my fiancé called back.
     “Hey honey, what’s up?” she asked. I could tell she was worried but being optimistic.
     “Well, the car has a flat tire, and I’m not really sure what to do about it right now. I might have my parents come pick me up and take me to work since I’m only a couple miles away from our tire place right now. By the time they get here, I could get the tire changed and then just borrow one of their cars,” I riffed.
     “That’s terrible, handsome. I hate that car.”
     “Me too. Is there any way you can look up the phone number for campus security for me? I thought I had it in my phone, but I don’t. I can at least have them open the door for my students,” I riffed some more.
     “Sure, just give me a second,” she said.
     She took about ten seconds to find it since I left the laptop at home for her and she was already online. I wrote the number on a napkin from the glove box with my grading pen that I always have in my pocket.
     “Awesome. Thanks. I’ll call you back and let you know what’s going on,” I said.
     “Okay. Good luck. That really sucks.”
     “I know.”
     “Love you!”
     “Love you. I’ll call you in a bit.”
     I called security. I had talked to the security guy a few times over the course of the semester, and I always tried to wave hello and goodbye if I saw him on my way in or out.
     “Hello, this is Dave VandeWaa. I teach tonight in room 213, but I have a flat tire. Is there any way you can let my students in and perhaps just remind them that they have their exam tonight and that they should review and work on their exam materials until I get there? I believe I’ll be able to make it to class; I just might be a bit late,” I riffed.
     “Well,” he slowly chewed, “I can let them in, but I can’t make any guarantees that they’ll stay,” he drawled. I think it was supposed to be a joke, but it seemed a bit like an insult to me.
     “Okay, that would be great. I’m not worried about them. They’re a good group of students.” Looking back, that was probably the one thing I was most sure of – my students cared about my class and wouldn’t run off. Granted, they needed to take their exam, so I guess there’s no way to really be sure they wouldn’t have bolted as soon as they found out I was going to be late.
     “Thank you so much. I’ll call you and let you know if anything changes,” I concluded.
     “You’re welcome.” If words were ambulatory, his words would have moseyed out of his mouth.
     I tried calling my parents one more time. At this point, an ad hoc plan had coalesced in my mind and I liked it. I would, regrettably, have to change the tire no matter what. I had resigned myself to that. I figured that while I was changing the tire, my parents, who are always incredibly willing to bail me out regardless of the inconvenience to them, would drive out and pick me up. It so happened that I was meeting them briefly before class that night to exchange a few things like laundry, cans, wine bottles, etc. So they were already on their way in my direction. They could at least drop me off at school, and we could figure out a car sharing situation after that. This was a plan. This was a plan that was acceptable. This was a plan that would waste the least amount of time. Plans are shit.
     “Hey Dave,” my dad answered.
     “Hey Dad. My car just got a flat tire. I’m on the highway. I’m thinking I’ll change the tire and then drive over to the tire place nearby. Could you come pick me up there and then take me to class to teach? Also, I will need to borrow a car to get home.
     “Where are you?” he asked, confused.
     “I’m on the highway. My tire is flat. Can you come pick me up at the tire place?”
     “Oh, I’m sorry Dave. Yeah, we can do that. This weather is really something.”
     We’re going to talk about this right now?
     “Yeah, I’m not looking forward to this,” I said as I stared at the rain coming down even harder than it already was.
     “Well, you can do it. Go get ‘em tiger!” my dad said, and it wasn’t sarcasm or silliness. He truly believed that I could handle this situation entirely even though I don’t remember him ever teaching me how to change a tire or remember him ever seeing me interact with a tire in any way. This somehow inspired me.
     Yeah, I can do this.
     “Thanks dad,” I said. I’ll see you soon.
     “Okay. Good luck!”
     I sat staring at the sheets of rain on the windshield yet again. Then, I got a text from my dad.
     “Can you take the car to the place near the school?”
     I called him back.
     “What’s that now?” I started.
     “Well, I can run in and tell your students what’s going on for you, and you can just drive out here. Then mom and I can get a car and drop it off for you while you’re teaching.”
     I couldn’t see any real benefit to this plan, but I went along with it. There was a tickling intuition in the back of my mind that driving long distances on a spare tire was not a good idea, so I asked one quick question of my dad: “I can drive that far on a spare tire?”
     “Oh, heck yeah. They’re indestructible. Just don’t go over fifty miles per hour,” he said with such confidence I didn’t even bother to ask any follow up questions. I have since learned that, of course, spare tires are not indestructible and are not meant to be driven more than a distance of about fifty miles.
     “Okay. Great. I’ll see you at school then.”
     “All right. Good luck!”
     Now I was committed. I opened my door and walked out into the icy downpour. Of course, a huge drop immediately landed right in the collar of my shirt on the back side of my neck and threw me into convulsions of frozen discomfort. That at least inured me to the miserable conditions straight away. It was like cannonballing into a cold lake instead of tiptoeing into the water inch by excruciating inch.
     At least I’m wearing a lot of layers, I observed to myself as I looked down at my feet, which had water coursing over them from the road. And I have waterproof shoes on. Almost all of my shoes are waterproof. It’s a thing I have about shoes.
     I walked around the front of the car to see the damage. The tire was definitely flat, and I was a little disappointed in myself that it took me almost fifteen minutes of angst and planning to verify that fact. The muddy slough alongside the road was seeping well over the rim, and the car was unsettlingly low to the ground. The water on the road was quite literally up to my ankles.
     I popped the trunk. The second I looked inside, I realized that I had made a tactical error several weeks earlier that was going to make this tire change a lot more frustrating than it needed to be: I had taken my really nice socket wrench set, the one I purchased expressly for keeping in the trunk of the car for just such emergencies, out and used it in the apartment. A vivid image of that wrench set in its black case sitting on my shelf on top of my toolbox flashed in front of me. I had naught but the car manufacturer’s materials to assist me, and based on the number of problems that car has had, I was not expecting great things.
     This is not to say I hadn’t ever taken the spare out of the car or used the materials that were provided. In fact, I had removed a tire from the car using the “jack” and “wrench” provided about six months earlier. It took me ten times longer than it should have, and I ended up throwing the “wrench” across the garage in a rage. The so-called wrench was a small, hollow, hexagonal piece of iron loosely attached to a thin, telescoping piece of more iron that was supposed to be the handle; said handle had “rounded” edges but was primarily in the shape of a knife blade. It was not an ideal tool. Some might argue that it isn’t a tool at all since a tool is an object designed to carry out a particular function in as efficient a manner as possible, which this device did not accomplish the day I had to actually rely on it.
     So, in the downpour, I pulled the wrench and jack out. The jack, mind you, looks about as strong as a toothpick tower I built in seventh grade and relies on a tiny nut rotating around a remarkably thin screw to raise and lower a load. Putting the jack under the car was the first struggle.
     Since the tire was flat and the rim was partially sunk in mud, there was very little clearance to get the jack under the vehicle. Also, there was the mud. I guess technically it was more of a sandy loam, but the rest of the loam had washed away and just the gritty, sharp sand was left, completely saturated with water. I positioned the jack under the frame, getting my hands soaked and sandy in the process, and, thankfully, I had pulled over just the right amount that the bottom of the jack did, in fact, have solid asphalt underneath it. This was purely coincidental and had nothing to do with any kind of skill or foresight.
     Next, I had to raise the jack using the wrench. Since the hexagonal piece of thick iron meant to grab (is there a technical word for this?) the bolts could rotate 360 degrees in the handle, I was hoping I would be able to use it aligned parallel with the handle to raise the car quickly. This would have allowed me to avoid taking it completely off the nut every time I was going to raise the jack a few millimeters. Nope. The car was too heavy and the jack’s mechanical advantage too low to be even remotely convenient. After seven minutes of turning the nut 180 degrees to raise the car a micrometer, taking the wrench off the nut, and replacing the wrench on the nut to repeat the process again, the tire was finally off the ground and looked as if it was high enough to accommodate the spare.
     Realizing it probably would have been a better idea to loosen the tire’s nuts before precariously perching the car up on the sketchy jack, I was too cold, soaked, and frustrated to care.
     “Grrraaaarrrggghhhh,” I strained as I reefed on the first nut. It loosened fairly easily.
     Well, that wasn’t so bad.
     I positioned the wrench on the next nut and pulled: “Comeonyousonofabitch,” I grunted through clenched teeth, but there was no movement.
     I then decided to utilize the telescoping feature on the wrench’s handle. I pushed the metal pin in and wiggle-pulled the even thinner and pathetic-looking three inches of handle out to gain what I estimated would provide me with about two or three additional Newtons of force. At its maximum length, the handle was still about a half a foot shorter than the one included in the set I had bought that was sitting on my shelf at home. Of course, the set at home was also made of solid stainless steel and had a round, ergonomic handle that was about three times as thick as the hollow, knife-blade shaped, quarter inch thick piece of junk in front of me.
     I reattached the wrench and yanked. The stupid wrench flew off the nut and I jammed my hand on the wheel well. You see, the handle portion of the wrench could rotate 360 degrees around the socket portion of the wrench, which meant that unless it was positioned perfectly perpendicular to the hexagonal socket, the handle would move towards or away from the tire as you pulled on it, and, of course, the angle would completely change as the nut loosened, so any momentum you might have gained while loosening the nut would be lost when you had to readjust the handle and start all over, hoping that the handle was perfectly perpendicular yet again.
     I shook it off, repositioned everything, and pulled. “Youvegottobekiddingme,” I gritted; the nut finally popped loose.
     I got everything set up on the next nut and reefed some more. Once again, the wrench flew off the nut and I scraped the back of my hand on a jagged, plastic edge of the wheel well. It started bleeding.
     Nice. It’ll probably get infected. Does car insurance cover medical in the case of changing a tire?
     As I set everything back up, I noticed the socket had gotten a little warped and was a little loose, so I turned it around and used the other side of the hexagonal piece of rotating iron.
     I pulled again and the nut came loose.
     Just two more.
     I got ready for the next nut and yanked. “Thisisgettingsofakingold,” I groaned as I pulled. As soon as the nut started moving, the wrench popped off and I scraped my hand on the tire rim.
     “Are you kidding me!” I yelled as I threw the wrench at the flat tire. Now my other hand was also bleeding.
     At this point, I took a second to compose myself. I couldn’t see anything out of my glasses, which were covered in huge droplets of rain and were starting to fog over. My dress pants were sticking to my legs because the fabric, which is actually stain-proof and water-repellant, was completely soaked through. My jacket was an entirely new color because it was so wet, and one arm had a three-inch wide strip of tiny, sharp pebbles embedded in it from the cuff of the sleeve to the middle of my upper arm; I acquired this garment embellishment after I slipped and almost fell while jacking up the car. The only positive thing in my life at that moment was the fact that the flat tire was on the passenger side of the car because if it had been on the driver’s side, the body of the car would not have been in the way to stop the walls of water that other cars were blasting at me with fire-hose intensity every time they sped by at seventy miles an hour.
     At that exact moment, my phone rang. I fumbled around in my pocket and extracted it. In the briefest of moments it took me to turn the phone face-up to see who it was, the screen got enough water on it to make it unreadable. I slid my finger across the bottom toward the green smudge to answer the call.
     “Hello?” I yelled to counter the cars driving by and the rain pelting the car hood. It must have sounded like a bullhorn on the other end.
     “Hey Dave, it’s D.,” my supervisor that I had called about fifteen minutes earlier said.
     “Oh, hello.”
     “What’s up?”
     “Well, my tire blew out on my way to class tonight. I called security and had them open my classroom, and, luckily, I was meeting my parents down there before class tonight, so my dad, who is a teacher, is covering my class until I get there. I’m in the middle of changing my tire right now.”
     “In this weather?”
     “Wow, that sucks. I’m sorry. You should just cancel class.”
     “Well, I have to give their exam tonight, so I’m just going to change the tire and head out there. I should only be a bit late. They had some material to work on that I gave them last week anyway.”
     “Wow. Well, uh, thanks for going the extra mile here.”
     Actually, I’m not going any miles right now.
     “Okay. Thanks. I’m going to get back to it.”
     “All right. Let me know if you need anything. I’m just a call away.”
     “Okay. Thanks. See ya.”
     I hung up and put the phone back in my soaking wet pocket. Loosening the fourth nut the rest of the way was fairly simple, and then I got everything ready for the last one and pulled with what I imagined was at least the force of Dwayne Johnson’s left bicep. “Youstupidpieceof-” the nut came loose.
     At this point, I was shaking with rage, famishment, over-exertion, and/or caffeine-overstimulation. I hadn’t eaten all day and had drunk a little more than a pot of coffee because, well, Mondays and Wednesdays were two-pot days since I taught all morning, graded and prepped all afternoon, and then taught all night on those days. My freezing cold, shaking, bleeding fingers could barely grasp the nuts as I unscrewed them, but I got them all off and pulled the tire off the car. It was basically shaped like a triangle because the rubber had become completely flat; it maintained its angular shape because the rubber was so cold. I opened the trunk and literally threw the tire inside. I slammed the trunk closed and walked back over to put the spare on.
     Putting the spare on was a straightforward and simple process. I hand-screwed the nuts on to keep the tire in place and tightened the nuts as best I could, leaning my entire weight on the wrench after they were as tight as I could get them. I checked the side of the spare tire to see if there were any warnings or advisements, but it just said “Convenience Spare” over and over again in a frustrating loop.
     Lowering the jack took the same ridiculous technique and amount of time as before, but it was extremely gratifying to throw the jack and wrench clattering back into the trunk with a final, satisfying thunk as the trunk slammed.
     I got in the car and cleaned my glasses off using the underside of my tie, which was just about the only item of clothing I was wearing that was dry since it was under my coat and sweater. I turned the car on, blasted the heat, and started driving. Once I hit fifty-five miles an hour, I set the cruise so I wouldn’t speed. I left the emergency flashers on the whole way. The spare handled surprisingly well in the rain, and I pulled into the parking lot at school at 6:43 PM. I grabbed my backpack, briefcase, and thermos of coffee out of the car and headed inside at a walking pace since I was already soaked, bloody, and cold. I waved and smiled to the security officer as I passed the window to his office.
     When I got to my class, my dad had already left and my students, all of them present, looked at me with a mixture of wide eyes and smirks.
     “Go ahead and pull out your tutoring assignments from last week,” I said as I set my things down in the front of the room. “I’m going to go clean myself up and then we’ll go over those when I get back.” I walked to the bathroom.
     I laughed when I looked into the mirror. I had spackles of sand on my face. My hair looked like I had just gotten out of a swimming pool. My clothes were limp and droopy. My sleeve looked like someone had bedazzled it with gravel. My glasses had a fresh batch of droplets all over them just from walking in from the parking lot.
     I grabbed a paper towel and wiped the grit and water off my face. I shook my hair to get some of the water out of it and parted it to the side so it at least looked slightly normal. I brushed off my jacket and took it off. I dried my glasses with another paper towel. That’s when I got a good look at my hands: they were blackened with grease smudges and had dried blood streaks all over them. I soaped them up and washed them. The water in the sink turned black, but they came surprisingly clean.
     Class went smoothly after that. The students had plenty of time for their exam. I even cracked a few jokes over the course of the night about tires, truancy, and how sad it was that they had to take a standardized multiple choice exam over writing skills.
     When I was leaving school, I walked by the security office to thank the security guard, S., for his help.
     “Well, I’m glad you called,” he said, slowly, “because I’m not actually allowed to do anything for students unless the instructor of the class gives me direct permission.”
     Classic bureaucracy.
     After that, I met my parents at a tire place near the school. What I can only assume was a drug deal was going on in the unusually dark parking lot when I arrived; pulling in scared away the two shady cars that weren’t my parents’. I exchanged the laundry and other sundry items with my folks in the rain. There was some hemming and hawing about where to hide the car keys since there was no drop slot. My dad ended up lifting one of the bay doors enough to chuck them far enough into the maintenance area that it would require a uniquely determined and crafty drug dealer to fish them out and steal my car that was missing a tire. We said goodbye quickly in the rain, my parents leant me one of their cars, and I finally made it home a little before midnight.
     As I attempted to fall asleep, I reflected on the insanity that had been the last six hours of my life. The sheer ridiculousness of compounded bad luck struck me as being deliciously appropriate to my life experience so far – it’s a case study in Murphy’s law – but we don’t usually remember the times that things go smoothly because, well, that’s generally how we envision things going and how they usually go. What struck me most was that I actually survived the ordeal with relatively minimal damage and weirdness. What started out as a popped tire in a torrential downpour that was going to cause a class full of students to miss their exam, a pay cut for me not showing up, and a repair bill that I couldn’t afford in the first place ended up being nothing but a 45-minute delay that cost me a grand total of sixteen dollars (I paid for the full-replacement insurance – my friends call it “sucker insurance – when I bought the tires, so the new one was free; I again decided to pay for the insurance on the new tire).
     I had also proven, or perhaps just learned, something valuable about myself. With tools that rest on the line separating adequate from inadequate, I had actually changed a tire in an emergency. Sure, I had had a theoretical knowledge of emergency tire changing, but something about accomplishing what many people probably couldn’t felt good. It felt like I had passed some sort of secret test measuring my competence at dealing with shit.
     Granted, I couldn’t have escaped everything as smoothly alone. Yeah, I changed the tire by myself, had prepared my students well enough that they didn’t have anything significant to worry about, and arranged things with security ahead of time. But I wouldn’t have had a car to get home. I wouldn’t have had someone I trusted to babysit my students. I wouldn’t have had a way to find the phone number I needed to get my students into a room. I wouldn’t have had that little boost of confidence I needed to actually get started. And I wouldn’t have had a group of people who experienced my dilemma to laugh with now that the ordeal is over.
     Something very small made a lot of really big problems happen that day – it turns out it was a nail in the tire that caused it to rupture, not the epic pothole – but a matrix of small assistances performed by people I cared about and who cared about me made sure everything worked out all right. The whole experience was a Rube Goldberg device of tiny, independent processes that ended up showing me I could count on my family, my friends, and myself to make it through yet another one of the idiotic twists and turns of day-to-day living.

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