Rantman’s Notebook: Did you Ever Hear the One…?

My life is a sitcom. I’m a nut magnet. Nuts are drawn to me. Max Bialystock put it best: “They all come here. They come to me. I don’t look for them. How do they find me?” I feel like that. If there’s a loon in the supermarket looking for somebody to share with, he’ll be in line behind me. The crazies on the bus will sit by me. Every time.

The one I’m going to tell you about today is a guy who crossed my path a number of years ago. A friend had asked me to drive her to the airport, she was moving to San Francisco. Being a chump, I said I would. I say “being a chump” because there were a number of good reasons not to do it, among them the fact that my car was old and tired, I had no money, and this was my best friend’s ex-girlfriend who had left him for another woman. (She had actually only gone out with him in order to get close to me; she thought I was cute. Like I say, I’m a nut magnet.) So, being a nice guy (which is to say “chump”), I drive her to the airport for her middle-of-the-night departure.

Remember I mentioned my car was old and tired? One of the problems it had was a nearly-worn-out starter motor. Turn the key, hear a soft groaning “uuhhr uuhhr uuhhr” sound, and nothing else. The immediate solution, until I could get some cash together to fix it, was to carry a spare battery in the trunk and give the car a jump when necessary, an event that was occurring with increasing frequency. So I drive the lady to the airport, carry her luggage to the terminal, bid her farewell, and go back to the car. Get out the battery and jump-start the car (while the parking toll is racking up–did I mention that she didn’t pay for my gas OR parking?), and head for home, some 45 miles away.

I’m tootling down the freeway when it finally occurs to me that I might want to look at the gas gauge. It’s tapping the bottom. The car is running on the memory of gas. It’s about one o’clock in the morning. I have a whole five dollars in my pocket. It’s also a Thursday, and I have to be at work in 8 hours. Sigh. Fortunately, there happens to be an all-night gas station about a mile or so from the next exit. “Come on, you can make it,” I say to the car. I only talk to my car in situations like this, either coaxing or cursing. I’m not one of those weirdos who names his car and then calls it by that name. Nevertheless, I’m talking to my car. It was a rather nice 1968 Mercury Cougar. When it eventually threw the timing chain a few months later (in the rain, at night, ten miles from home), I sold it for $50 to the guy who stopped to help me. I was mad at it. But I digress.

I get to the offramp (Citrus Avenue in Covina, if you must know), and about 50 yards from the street, the car gives up. It’s out of gas. Sigh. I grab my gas can (ALL men worth their salt have a gas can and a pocket knife; you’re not really a man if you don’t have a pocket knife, and it has to be a real pocket knife, not one of those 40-blade Swiss things that looks like something amputated from Edward Scissorhands) and start walking the mile or so to Al’s All-night Discount House of Gas. All right, that wasn’t really the name of the place, but it’s my story.

At the gas station, I buy a buck’s worth of gas and put the other four dollars in my pocket. The clerk has a pal loitering around. A big guy with a face like a ferret. His eyes are beady and too close together. He strolls over while I’m filling up my can.

“Run out of gas?”

This guy has a death-grip on the obvious.

“Yeah. I ran out of gas.”

“Where’s your car?”

I point toward the freeway and tell him it’s at the end of the offramp. “Need a lift?” he asks.

It’s late, I’m tired, and it’s a 20-minute walk back to the car. “Sure, if you’re going that way,” I say. He leads me to his truck, a big black pickup of the type driven by men with a need to prove their masculinity. It fits him.

The guy, whose name is David, pulls out of the station and turns north. My car is south. Okay. “Uhh, my car is that way,” I point. He turns on his CB radio. The station is pure static. He takes up the microphone and starts talking.

“Mobile-8, Base. Mobile-8, Base. Proceeding east, no north, on Citrus…” Nobody is responding.

“My car’s down that way.” I say again. I begin to suspect that David’s been drinking. He pulls into a parking lot, turns around and heads south toward my car. Maybe this will be okay after all. Meanwhile, Dave’s back on the CB, again talking to nobody.

“Mobile-8, Base. Proceeding north, no, east…SOUTH on Citrus Avenue….” Dave says to the static. No response from anything human. Okay, fine. He’s a loon. I’m used to it. We get to the freeway. I’m expecting Dave to stop near the offramp and leave me to walk down to my car. Nope. He gets on the freeway. We wind down the cloverleaf onramp, passing by my car on the adjacent offramp as we join the eastbound traffic.

“Uhh…that’s my car there.”

Dave makes an exaperated noise. I’m clearly too much trouble. He grabs the CB mike and tells the uncomprehending ether about this new development. Then he informs me that this is why he had gone north in the first place, before I made him turn around. He was going to take a surface street west, then get on the eastbound freeway, exit at Citrus and pull up behind my car. Seems like a lot of trouble to go to, since I could have easily walked down the offramp if he would have just pulled over on the street and let me out. We go to the next exit, roar west down the road alongside the freeway for a mile, get back on the eastbound freeway, and eventually get to my car. Dave describes every detail to the phantoms on the CB. Nobody ever replies. Whatever. It’s heading for 2 A.M. now. I get out of the truck, thank Dave for the ride and apologize for the trouble getting there.

I’m pouring the gas can into my car’s tank when I realize that Dave is standing beside me. His right hand is behind his back. He’s looking stern. “I need ten dollars,” he tells me.

My blood runs cold. We’re on a curve, secluded from sight. Nobody can see us unless they’re on the offramp. There’s nobody around. The only buildings around are security apartments. If I screamed my brains out, nobody would hear. I’m going to die now. Dave is about 5 inches taller than me and outweighs me by about 70 pounds. I’m a skinny little guy, and I’m about to die here. Over ten dollars. Time to do what I do best; talk fast.

“You didn’t say anything about money when you offered me a ride.”

“I need ten dollars.”

“Hell of a way to run a business.”

“It’s not a business; it’s how I make a living.” (I still don’t know what that meant.)

He’s looking really mean now. I think he might be sobering up. So I try a new approach. “I don’t have ten dollars. I have four dollars. You can have that.”

“I need forty dollars.”

“Forty? A minute ago it was ten.”

“I need forty dollars.”

“I don’t HAVE forty dollars.”

“I need ten dollars.”

“I don’t HAVE ten dollars. I don’t have forty dollars. I have four dollars.”

Damn, that right hand is STILL behind his back. I am definitely going to die. I’m going to die a stupid death. “Here. My last four dollars. Take it.”

“I’m not trying to rob you.”

This has me stunned. I just stare at him, amazed that he somehow doesn’t consider this a robbery. In the silence, we stare at each other, both trying to figure out the next move. After an eternity, or maybe it was two seconds, a small voice speaks in the back of my brain.

“You know, the address on your checking account is a P.O. box,” it says to me.

It’s true. When I had opened the account, I had been living on a friend’s sofa, and had no permanent address, so I had a P.O. box. The implications of that finally dawned on me. I was untraceable. It was worth a shot.

“Will you take a check?” I ask brightly.

Dave looks confused for a second, then he strokes his chin, thinks for a moment and finally agrees. In a whoosh, my fear is gone. If I can only keep a straight face, I’m going to live. I get out the checkbook and begin to write out the check. “Make it out to David Taylor,” he says, then spells the last name for me. I smile and write dutifully.

“Ten dollars?” I ask.

“Forty,” says Dave.

Forty it is. I tear off the check and hand it to him.

He looks at it. Strokes his chin again. There’s something he’s supposed to say next. Finally it comes to him.

“Got any I.D.?”

Good lord. It just keeps coming, doesn’t it. No matter. I haul out my wallet and show him my driver’s license. He’s satisfied. He thanks me for my business. I’m in too good a mood to care now.

So I wave goodbye to my new pal Dave, and get into my car and turn the key. “uuhhr uuhhr uuhhr” SHIT! Shit shit shit shit! It’s not going to start. JUST what I need. I get out of the car and open the trunk. My bestest special friend Dave gets out of the truck and comes over to supervise. I hook up the battery while he hovers over me telling me which cable to hook up where, as if I’ve never done it before. Helpful, this guy is.

Turn the key. The car starts up. I disconnect the spare battery and return it and the cables to the trunk, and say goodbye once more to Dave.

“Need a tow?” he asks.

Long pause.

“It’s running.”

He shrugs. “No charge.”

Thank you, no, I’ll just go now. I get in the car and drive to the gas station to put my remaining four dollars in the tank. Dave follows me back to the station. While I’m pumping the gas, Dave is sharing a bottle of Peppermint Schnapps with the attendant. As I drive away, Dave smiles and waves and calls out a goodnight to me. “G’night, Dave,” I say as I drive away.

The police station is about two miles away, and I’m there in minutes. I tell the night-shift desk clerk my story. He makes me tell it again. He goes in back for a while, then comes back and asks a few questions. Then he gets on the radio and sends a police car over to the gas station to pick up ol’ Dave. The officer has me tell the story over the radio to the men in the car.

Time passes. Finally, about 3:30 A.M., an officer comes out to talk to me. He has me go over the whole thing again, stopping me to ask questions along the way. Finally, he asks what I want to do. They’re going to keep Dave overnight for being drunk in public no matter what. I can take my check and go home, or I can stay for another hour or so and swear out a complaint, then come to a court date to testify against him.

It’s late. Morning’s coming sooner than I’d like. I decide to take the check and go. Ol’ Dave dodged a bullet. He gets a night in jail, and I get to go to bed. I also get to tell people that I got robbed and the guy took a check. That alone is worth it.

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