Death of a Salesman’s Car

by

12/29/2001

Remsen St & Court Streets, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights

The city issued the “gridlock alert” days as far back as November and Mayor Giuliani encouraged all of us to utilize mass transit. At the same time, he gave cryptic warnings of “zero tolerance” for all motor vehicle violations… So it’s December 21, the last full weekday before Christmas Eve, as well as one of the aforementioned gridlock alert days. Nevertheless, I have to see all my customers, give them their Christmas gift, try and beg them to place their orders before the fourth quarter is over. There’s too much to do, too many people to see—I don’t have any choice but to drive myself into the city. I’m counting on the holiday traffic being a lot lighter than previous years, with people maybe scared about coming into the city after September 11th. However, it doesn’t take long for me to realize that even though there may not be as many tourists this year, there’s a hell of a lot of people from Westchester, Connecticut and New Jersey who have come into the city to answer the mayor’s call to do their holiday shopping in New York City as part of their patriotic duty.

In spite of it all, I’ve already seen all my customers in Manhattan by midday, and I have just finished calling on one of my customers in Crown Heights by two o’clock. Now I head over to Brooklyn Heights to see Jerry, another of my customers. Jerry is on Remsen Street near the courthouse. His ordering patterns are unpredictable, so it doesn’t matter whether I spend a lot or a little time with him. I just need to stop in and remind him that I don’t get paid unless the orders come in on time. He has always listened to my laments, and he always says he’ll try his best. “You won’t let me down this time, will you?” I always say to him. He always promises me in earnest that he won’t, but he always does. Still, this year I’m optimistic.

The municipal garage in which I normally park my car is full, so I drive around looking for a possible spot on the street. I eventually make a right turn onto Remsen Street, a narrow, one-way street where there isn’t enough room for even the smallest cars to get through if you should try and double-park. I can’t find a spot anywhere, and I’m wondering what to do, whether it’s even worth it. Then I suddenly see that a loading zone is open. There’s a sign that clearly says the zone is for truck deliveries only; no stopping or standing for all others. I tell myself that I can get inside, see Jerry, and be back in my car within five minutes. So I pull over to the loading zone, put the car’s hazards on and run inside.

I make good on my word; in fact, I’m out of there in less than five minutes. I can see my car sitting undisturbed: no tickets, no boot, just the hazards flashing with a calm rhythm. I hop in my car, pull out of the loading zone, and go about fifty feet before having to stop and wait in traffic for the light down the street to turn green.

No sooner does traffic start to move again, when my car starts rattling and making a noise that sounds like a thousand jackhammers going at once. That my car, I wonder. When I smell something and see black smoke billowing out from under the hood, I have the answer to my question. I rush to turn the ignition and shutdown the car. I pop the hood, and then I rush out of the car.

In spite of the fact that my automotive knowledge goes only so far as knowing how to change the oil, I am still hopeful that this is a problem I can fix. I check the oil. It looks okay. I can hear the sounds of horns blaring. I poke aimlessly at a few rubber wires. And then I’m out of ideas as to what the problem can be. I slam the hood shut. A line of cars is forming behind me, but I can’t see where it ends. I can hear horns in the distance and look to see if there’s any place I can push my car over to, a spot where there could possibly be some more room so that traffic can get by. There is none. Even if one side of my car is so close that it’s touching a car parked on the side of the street, it still isn’t going to be enough room for anyone to get through—certainly not the truck idling directly behind my car.

There are two guys sitting in the truck. The driver has been blaring the truck’s horn at me. I walk over to the driver’s side of his truck, look up at him, and signal for him to roll down his window. He just looks at me with a blank expression. When he finally takes his hand off the horn, I shout up to him, “My car broke down.” He just looks at me lifelessly; there are no signs of anger or frustration not even an iota of annoyance in his eyes–there is just this cold, indifferent kind of stare, as though he’s lost in a daydream of sorts and not aware of me standing here. I look at his companion, and he, too, shows no signs of life, as his eyes remain fixed straight ahead.

I start to walk back to my car, when the truck driver starts blasting his horn at me again. I shut my eyes for a second, take a deep breath, and then I look back at the driver and mutter a few choice obscenities his way. I get into the car, and look around for the number of my company’s fleet service to call a tow truck.

I have to wait about five minutes before I hear a human voice come through the phone. “This is Kevin,” the voice says with a thick, Texas drawl. I tell Kevin the name of the company I work for and then I give the vehicle number to him. I explain my situation, give my exact location. “Remsen Street in Brooklyn,” I say. Then to be even more specific, I add, “Brooklyn Heights.” Kevin tells me to hold.

I’m on hold for about five minutes when a cop on a bicycle comes peddling over. I get out of the car and, before he can tell me to move, I explain that the car just broke down on me. He’s incredibly sympathetic. He looks around and shakes his head, saying, “I can’t even think of a place you can push this over to. You really picked a bad day to break down.” The officer asks if I need a number for a tow truck, and I tell him I’m waiting for one of the fleet operators to get back to me after they call a truck. He tells me if I decide to get a coffee or something while I’m waiting for the tow truck, there’s a Starbucks around the corner, but I should make sure to put a note on the rear and front windows of the car that says: “Car Broke Down”. That way, he explains, if another cop comes he’s less likely to give me a ticket. I thank the officer, and then he pedals off. The truck driver starts in on his horn again.

It feels like it’s taken forever, but Kevin finally comes back on the line. He apologizes for putting me on hold. I tell him it’s all right, hoping he has good news for me—I’m hoping to hear: there’s a tow truck in the area, should be there within five minutes.

Instead I get: “You said you’re in Brooklyn, right?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Y’all have any cities up near Brooklyn?”

I don’t say anything for a second or two; I just look at all the traffic lined up behind me, the truck driver whose hand is incredibly steadfast upon the horn. “Um…New York City,” I finally say.

Kevin puts me on hold again. This time he comes back within a couple of minutes. He tells me they sent for a tow truck, and it should be there in forty-five to fifty minutes. I ask if that’s the earliest. Kevin says it is. I thank him. He gives me the number for the tow service in case they don’t show up. “Don’t say that,” I say.

After I’m off the phone, I stand out in the middle of the street for a few seconds. I can’t wait forty- five minutes. Someone will kill me if I don’t get the car out of the way. I can’t say I would blame them, either. I decide I’ll take a chance and push my car down the street. I’m thinking of pushing the nose out a bit toward the crosswalk, which, if my calculations are correct, may enable enough space for the truck and the cars to get through.

I walk back over to the truck driver. He gives me that same blank look. I yell to him that I’m going to try to push the car down the street. I’m waiting for him to tell his friend to get out and give me a hand. I get nothing. “Okay,” I say.

I lean my body against the open door, putting all my weight into it, and begin pushing the car down the street. People are walking by, giving me “look at the moron” stares, but no one offers assistance. The car starts moving enough on its own so that I can hop in and steer it to the end of the street. I press on the brakes just short of the crosswalk and get back out, pushing the car up toward the crosswalk some more, just enough to make a little more space for the truck to get through; the pedestrians have to make a bit of beeline around the fender when crossing, but it’s not that bad. Still, I do get more than a few dirty looks.

At this point, the passenger in the truck hops out and starts directing his friend forward. I stand just in front of my car, watching. There’s maybe about a quarter of an inch—if that—between the side of the truck and my side door mirror, but the truck manages to make it through. As the passenger runs back into the truck, I give the driver a “thumbs up” just to show there are no hard feelings, as if to say the worst is over, nice work.

But the driver just rolls down the window, giving me the same, dead expression. Then he sticks his head out his window and spits out a throaty, thick, glob of phlegm at me. I watch it as it’s happening; I watch it as it sails through the air. Maybe it’s the sheer unexpectedness of it all, the brief instant when part of your brain is saying, this can’t be happening, and the other part is saying, hell yes it is! Either way, I’m just standing there like an idiot. By the time I fully comprehend what’s happening, it’s already too late.

A direct hit; right on my jacket, just below my neck. The driver sticks his head back inside the truck, rolls up his window, and then he drives off, the long line of cars following close behind.

I look in my car for a tissue, but there’s none to be found. I have to make do with a piece of paper, which doesn’t do a very good job in removing the phlegm, but rather smears it deeper into the wool. Nothing left to do now but wait for the tow truck. I bide my time and stare at the bright, yellow, fluorescent glob on my jacket. Looks to me like somebody’s battling a cold.

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