This past weekend Allison and I flew to Chicago to pick up a car I bought on Craigslist. It’s a ’73 BMW 2002, and it’s a fantastic little car. I love 2002s. But that’s not what I want to talk about.
We arrived in Chicago around 11 a.m. on Friday morning. Matt picked us up in his Mini and drove us back to his place. We talked about the weather, the 2002, Minis, moving to big cities, and the joys of childhood snow days. Our time with Matt was short-lived, but he was extremely kind. Allison was worried about buying one-way tickets, purchasing a car sight-unseen on Craigslist, and being picked up from the airport by a stranger. But, as she said, “He was wearing TOMS. So, I knew everything was going to be okay.”
We left Chicago after stopping for a pie at Giordano’s, per Jonathan Bowden’s suggestion. I’ve never met Jonathan, but it was nice of him to suggest places to eat while visiting Chicago. The pie was delicious.
Allison’s sister and brother-in-law are the innkeepers at a small bed and breakfast in Marion, Indiana. We stayed with them for two nights. We tinkered with the car, snuggled with Juniper (their brown-coated Boston Terrier), ate good food, and played Catan. Our stay was much too short; we love them dearly.
Sunday morning we began our journey home. The snowy roads caused for mixtures of enjoyment (fish-tailing is fun), anxiety (fish-tailing at fifty miles-per-hour is not fun), and slow progress (two-lane, fifty-mile-per-hour, snow-covered roads take too much time to traverse).
The little Beamer isn’t car-show-worthy. There are things I can’t wait to change about it. I’m a tinkerer at heart. It’s the programmer in me. Two things I’d like to upgrade soon are the exhaust and the suspension. The car appears to have been lowered, and we could feel every bump in the road. The exhaust, however, had never been upgraded. It’s old. It’s rusty. And is—now—being held onto the car with coat hangers.
West Virginia’s Turnpike is… well… “shitty” would be putting it nicely. The entirety of the toll road consisted of kah-chunk-kah-chunk-kah-chunk, interspersed with a few did-we-lose-the-muffler? thunks. I won’t sugar-coat it; it was awful. Twenty miles north of Beckley is when camel’s back was finally broken. I heard a horrible metal-on-asphalt sound and saw the trail of sparks flying from underneath the car in my rearview mirror. I pulled over as quickly as I could. Thankfully a rest area was nearby.
I didn’t bring any tools with me on the trip. Who knows what the TSA would do if I lugged a case of tools onto a plane. I didn’t want to find out. So, I opened the trunk at the rest area, scratched my head in that motion-picture-defining way, and began to dig through the nuts and bolts scattered about. I found a rubber tow strap with an s-hook. I dismembered the tow strap and laid down in the parking lot against the tail of the car, s-hook in hand. I surveyed the damage. It wasn’t too bad, and I was able to rig the muffler to its clamp with the s-hook. I hopped back in the car, delighted with my own ingenuity. Allison’s tone was normal but her face said otherwise. We set out again, but a new sound joined us as we got up to speed on the highway. It was the rat-a-tat-tat of a drive shaft hitting a muffler. I drove on for a bit hoping it would pass as the drive shaft bent the muffler. I was wrong.
Frustrated and running out of options, I stopped at the next exit. There was a gas station, and inside my best hope laid in a fly swatters’s twisted metal handle. I stared at the fly swatter for a few minutes trying to envision it walking with me to the car and hugging the muffler as if in a Pixar film. Finally, from behind the counter I heard, “Can I help you, sweetie?” The cashier probably wondered what was so fascinating about a fly swatter. I explained my situation to her, and she had an alternative. A friend of hers, someone who lived nearby, was in the station, and she suggested I explain my predicament to him as he was a mechanic.
Finally, a glimmer of hope.
We never exchanged names. I told him my problem. We both got on the ground to look at the dangling muffler, as if staring would help. He hopped up, ran to his truck, rummaged in the tool chest, then asked his wife to run home and get some hangers. He used pliers to bend and snip the hangers as if he’d done it a hundred times. The sling he fashioned fit my muffler like a charm, and I thanked him more times than I can count. He handed me two more hangers, a pair of pliers, and a box of hand wipes for the rode. I told him he didn’t have to, but he insisted and I accepted. I offered him a drink and a pack of smokes, but he declined. The, he followed me twenty miles down the highway to make sure it was going to hold. He knew as well as I West Virginia’s roads would be the best stress test.
Those hangers held my muffler in place the rest of the way home.
I don’t know his name. I doubt I ever will. We live in a world where the internet affords easy bitching-and-moaning. We complain when a web site isn’t what we expect, when a site redesigns and it’s not to our liking, about the ninety-nine cents we have to pay for an app we don’t need from a phone that costs four hundred dollars. We’re a spoiled bunch. This stranger sacrificed his time and knowledge to help another human being. Sure, it was a few hangers, some pliers, some hand wipes, and a few minutes, but it was not his problem. He only wanted to help me get home. It’s an encounter I’ll never forget and a lesson I’ve taken to heart.