It’s frightening to me how many of my stories start with “I ran out of gas.” You’d think I would learn. But no. I ride the ragged edge of disaster. Which explains why Terri doesn’t want me to have a motorcycle. But I digress.
Come, children, let me tell you of the days before phone cards, before cell phones or pagers. Well, there were pagers, but only doctors and really important people had them. It was 1985, late spring. I was working the graveyard shift at a company that printed those ads that get inserted into your local newspaper. I spent my nights pasting headlines into full-page circulars for K-Mart and the Pep Boys; the sort of work that ought to be done in the middle of the night, frankly. The company was a huge national outfit, with offices in about a dozen cities doing just what we did. Our plant was run by a snotnose kid who had just got his MBA and still thought the stuff in his textbooks somehow resembled the real world. He read that employees could work up to 50% overtime with no significant loss of quality for up to six weeks at a time, and decided that this made more sense than hiring enough people to do the work. For those not up on their math, that’s a 60-hour week; either five 12-hour or six 10-hour days. Now, understand that I was living about 30 miles away, about a 40-minute drive each way.
Every day, I got out of bed at about 6 pm, ate dinner and drove to work, arriving about 8:00 pm, and then pasted up the ads until 8 am. One night, as I was getting ready to go to work, I realized that I was going to need to get gas for my car tonight, and I had no cash. My then-fiance, Terri, handed me her ATM card and I headed off to make the world safe for junk mail. At lunch time (2 am) I ran over to the bank to grab some cash. I shove the card into the slot. It spits the card back out and shuts down. Wonderful.
In these long-ago days, there were only two gas stations that would accept ATM cards, Mobil and Arco. Neither one had a location nearby that was open 24 hours, so I went back to work, resigned to having to worry about it later. Finally 8 am arrives and I hit the road in my lime green 1975 VW Rabbit. I decide to stop at a station closer to home, but that involves driving through a stretch of rural area. nothing but horse property for about 10 miles or so. Right square in the middle of this, the Rabbit sputters and dies. I coast off the freeway and down the off-ramp, find a place to park, grab the gas can and start walking.
A very battered old LTD pulls up beside me, and the driver speaks. “Y’all got a long-ass walk ahead of you if you’re goin’ to that Mobil station.” I nod. The driver then offers to give me a ride if I’ll buy him some gas.
Sigh. It is a long walk, about three miles. It’s already 8:30 and I have to be back at work tonight. Fine. Good. Swell. I get into the back seat. Most of the seat is filled to roof-level with laundry.
The driver makes introductions. He’s Mickey, the guy in the front passenger seat is Chuck, and Somewhere in the heap of laundry is Pee-Wee. Chuck tells Pee-Wee to wake up and give him that malt liquor. Terrific. I’m in a UPN sitcom.
As we drive to the gas station, Mickey explains that they are on their way to Pomona (about 50 miles away, past my office) but they’re having trouble with the car. It’s a transmission problem; it’s losing fluid. Can I buy them some transmission fluid along with the gas? Yeah, sure, whatever. We get to the station, pick out the tranny fluid and tell the guy we want the gas. I hand him the ATM card. He runs it through the machine and announces that the card is blank.
Mickey and Chuck are not at all happy about this, but they’re still being nice. Pee-Wee is still asleep. They also have no intention of going away until they get the gas money I promised them. I suggest going over to the nearest branch of the bank and trying the ATM.
We drive to the bank. Mickey walks up to the ATM with me. Chuck sits in the car drinking. Pee-Wee sleeps. As we approach the ATM, Mickey decides to up the ante. “You know, the problem with the transmission is the modulator. The modulator gone bad and that why it losing fluid. Now, a modulator only cost about 12 dollar. You buy me a new modulator, and my transmission will be just fine. How about it?”
Yeah, sure, fine, whatever. I just want some sleep. I step up to the ATM. I put the card in. It comes back out. Put it in. It comes out again. Put it in again. The ATM shuts down. With my card in it. I stand there hating modern technology. I look at the front door. The bank opens at 10. The drive-up window opens at 9:30. It’s 9 now. Mickey’s willing to wait.
While we wait, Mickey starts telling me some of his views on life. Turns out to be mostly stuff he learned in prison. He shows me the pulsating scar on his chest from where a fellow inmate stabbed him in the heart. Mickey’s monologue:
“Man, the police in this town just hassle you. They’re all crooked. That’s why we need martial law. You wanna do something about the crime problem, the president needs to declare martial law. You think a guy’s gonna snatch some lady’s purse if there’s a soldier on the corner with a rifle gonna shoot his ass? Nixon could have done it, but he didn’t. He could have used Viet Nam as an excuse. But he did open China to trade, and that’s why he was a good president even though he was a crook. But we ain’t got good jobs no more, ’cause all the jobs going overseas. Hey, you want to know how to make a million bucks? It’s easy. You know they still make Volkwagens in Mexico, right? What you do is you open up a import business, importing engines into the U.S… and then you put a pound of cocaine into about every hundredth engine. They ain’t gonna check all of them. See, you just gotta know how the system works. When I was in prison, the warden called me MISTER E_____. He respected me, because I was smart. I studied in prison. It’s like that Reverend Ike. He wouldn’t have gone to prison if he’d been smart. [NOTE: Reverend Ike was a pioneer TV evangelist.] See, all he had to do was not use the post office, and they couldn’t have touched him. He could have had people send their money in by UPS or a courier service, and they couldn’t get him for mail fraud. It ain’t MAIL fraud if it ain’t mail. But that’s what you do.”
Mickey went on like that for a while, until finally the drive-up window opened. I walked over and got in line behind a car. After the driver finished his business, I stepped up to the window and explained my problem. The teller was really irritated that I would be in the drive-through without a car. She told me that I would have to wait until the bank opened and go inside, and people aren’t supposed to walk through the drive-through. Sorry. Sheesh!
We resume our positions on the front steps of the bank, and Mickey continues with his tales. I notice that the 7-11 store across the street has a payphone. Huzzah! I’m saved! Except I have no cash. (This was in the days before calling-card technology; no coin, no call.) Then I remember that Terri’s company has an 800 number. I can call her for free, and she can come and rescue me. I tell Mickey I’m going to make a call. I trot across to the phone, pick up the receiver, and begin to dial the number. Damn damn damn. The “8” button is broken. So’s the “O” button. Push the button, nothing happens. Argh.
I go back to the bank. Mickey’s still waiting. He tells me more of his experiences in prison. I can’t remember what he was sent up for, but I think it was something to do with assaulting his wife’s boyfriend. Might have been murder or something. He says he got life, but was able to get it reduced because he studied law in prison and got it reduced. I have no idea how much to believe, and don’t much want to think about it. Mickey goes on to tell me about his brother, the quarterback for a pro team… Denver, I think it was.
Mercifully, the bank opens at last. I go in and tell the teller (that’s why they’re called tellers; you tell them stuff) about my adventures with the ATM. She ambles off to the back, and returns a while later with my card in hand. She runs it through her card-reader and announces that the card has been erased. She can handle the transaction for me without the card, if my name is on the account. Of course it isn’t. I ask if I can cash a check here. She tells me no, not unless it’s drawn on this bank. Swell. Terrific. Thanks very much.
I’m running out of ideas, and Mickey is running up the tab. Chuck’s on his second big bottle of malt liquor. Pee-Wee slumbers on. There’s really no way out of this. My bank is a small regional one located near my office; there’s no branch anywhere near us, and they don’t have ATM cards yet. I’m on my own with three ex-convicts that I have promised money to. Plus it’s now bed-time for me. Which reminds me that I have a friend who also works the night shift, and he lives just a few miles away. I suggest to Mickey that we can go to my apartment and I can call somebody from there. I don’t want to bring these people home, but what else am I going to do?
We get to the apartment, I go into the kitchen and grab the phone. I call Terri’s office. She’s in a meeting and won’t be out until noon. I leave a message.
Chuck wants some ice for his malt liquor; it’s gotten warm. Pee-Wee is asleep on the sofa, and Mickey is flipping through our cassette tapes for something to listen to. Eddie Murphy’s “Raw” wins out. Within seconds, Murphy is yelling from our stereo system at maximum volume. Mickey is talking over it, telling me how cool I am, that I’m an okay guy, not like most white folks. I smile weakly and tell him that I just think people are people, some are good, some aren’t, and you take them as they are.
I go back to the phone to try and get some help here. I call my friend Wally. He’s home. Huzzah again. I might live. “Hey Wally,” I begin, “I ran out of gas on the way home, and I got a ride from three large ex-convicts, and I need to give them some money, but I don’t have any cash, can you come help me out?”
“I’d like to help you, but my father-in-law is here; we’re putting up a swing-set for the kid. Let me know how it turns out.”
I won’t have to; you’ll read about it in the newspaper, I’m sure. Thanks, Wally.
So we wait. Mickey sees Terri’s textbooks on the coffee table. “I had this book!” he says, pointing to the business law book, “I used this book in prison. I got a A.A. in Law.” He launches into another lengthy monologue, even scarier than the first one. I’m watching the clock now, wondering how long it will be before they kill me and rob the house. Eddie Murphy has given way to Joan Armatrading on the stereo. At least they like our taste in music.
After a couple of eternities, the phone rings at last. It’s my love, and she’s out of her meeting. I briefly explain the adventures of the last four hours, and she tells me she’ll be right home. Thank you God.
When Mickey hears that a lady is coming, he decides he needs to clean up for her. He goes out to the car and picks some clothes out of the mountain in the back seat, then disappears into the bathroom.
One of the bits that always cracked me up on Saturday Night Live was Tim Meadows’ “Ladies’ Man.” The reason I found it so funny is that in that costume, Meadows looked exactly like Mickey, with the polyester pants and shiny orlon shirt. So now the Disco King is standing in my living room, waiting to meet my fiance.
She arrives, with money in hand. She gives Mickey $40 for gas and a modulator. He thanks her, and tells her how nice we are. He offers to come over and help her study for her business law class.
“Thanks, but I’m dropping that class.”
“Maybe I could just come over and hang out with you guys.”
“Don’t know yet. Wow, look at the time. We need to go get Jim’s car and I need to get back to work. Thanks so much for helping him to get home.” She escorts them to the door, says goodbye to them, and sends them on their way. I make a mental note not to cross her. She’s even more formidable than I had thought.
We go retrieve my car, gas it up, and stop for some lunch. She has to go run some errands for the office before she goes back to work, so we go our separate ways. I go home and to bed. It’s now past 1 pm. I need to be up in 5 hours. I’m asleep before I hit the pillow.
I’m awakened by the phone. It’s almost 2. It’s someone from Terri’s office. They are very worried, wondering if they should call the police. When she left, she said something to a co-worker about where she was going, and the office gossip circuit has mutated her explanation into “Jim’s being held hostage by some escaped convicts at our home.” I tell her the whole story and she starts to laugh. I hang up and go back to sleep.
When Terri comes home, she tells me that by the time she got back to work, the story had spread throughout the building. Everyone wants to know if Mickey, Chuck and Pee-Wee are coming to the wedding, if we’re going to hang out with them, if they are my new special friends.
I hope they don’t read this.