Big Country Little Car Tour II, Day 2: Akron OH to Milwaukee WI (sort of)
In retrospect, I can say with confidence that most of this is my fault — starting with yesterday's playlist tweet, sent just after I'd listened to Junior Brown's "Broke Down South of Dallas." That was the first jinx.
The second jinx: Campbell's odometer flipped to 22,000 miles between Chicago and Milwaukee. "Good job, Cam!" I said out loud. "Lucky!" That was also out loud. I had observed not long before that — out loud, using words, making sounds — that we'd made decent time on the day, and I'd probably have time to do a little work and grab a snack before heading to the Brewers game and meeting up with Reader Gretchen. And we had; things slowed down a bit on the Ryan Expressway, but I got to take in the skyline, and the sign that said "Welcome To Chicago Rahm Emanuel Mayor."
Then one of the seagull-sized bugs that had been splartching onto the windshield all day splatted onto the passenger side in the shape of a pear, but I just ignored that and went to the hotel in Brown Deer, and that's where it all started to go wrong.
See, that hotel didn't have a room for me, because of a flood the previous night; the clerk gave me a bunch of points for my trouble and sent me down the road to the Radisson. Having just camped out in a meh Radisson the night before, I didn't like the sound of that, and I stomped out to the car and flung my shit back in and flopped into the driver's seat, well I never this, what kind of amateur outfit that, watermelon rhubarb dudgeon, I'M JUST GOING TO SIGNAL LEFT OUT OF THIS PARKING LOT LIKE I'M ALVIN AILEY.
"What was — you all right there, Cam?"
"[all warning lights on dash]"
"Whoa whoa whoa, Cam. Cam?" I eased into the parking lot across the street and peered at the dash. Campbell's dashboard thermometer, which moments ago had read a more-or-less correct 77, now spiked up to 110. So, like any reasonable person, I grabbed my phone and wallet, turned the car off, and ran away from it.
A minute later, when she hadn't exploded: "Okay, Cam. Let's just turn you back on and caaaaaalm it down."
"[all warning lights still on, temp still crazy high, now won't shift out of park]"
I checked the manual. This is what this light means, this is what that sound means…nothing under "fugue state" or "WTF." I checked the steering-wheel housing; the bottom panel looked like I'd knocked it loose during my huffy left-turn signal. I wedged it on tighter and tried again. All lights, no shift.
I knew even then that this boded ill, because Smarts sometimes get a wild hair about a minor computer-sensor thing, and then will just lock the shit down Crystal-Palace-in-WarGames-style for your safety, which is nice…except only a certified Smart technician with proprietary tools can reset it, which is fucking annoying. A gas jockey out in Jersey didn't tighten her gas cap enough one time; fast forward to me riding in a tow truck. So I had a feeling Campbell had sensed a breach in the something or other and then shut down the dickalator until the frambus whatever, but maybe, maybe I could get a guy at a local dealership on the phone to help me fix it remotely.
After an eternity with the Smart roadside-assistance phone menu, I reached a real person, who gave me the number of an authorized technician in Milwaukee…except when I phoned the guy, he said that thanks to the change in corporate ownership, Mercedes took all the tech in-house and decertified his station, and he couldn't fix it because they have proprietary diagnostics and tools, and Mercedes took his back. Still, he spent a good 15 minutes looking up phone numbers and commiserating with me, so if you ever break down in Milwaukee, find my man Eric at Penske (?). He's good people.
Then I called Madison Mercedes and got Dain on the phone. Dain agreed that it sounded like a computer-cluster problem — probably caused by the cruise-control installation last week, which, argh, but I will say that the cruise control has been killing it all the way from Brooklyn with no problems — and I should probably bring her in. To Madison. 90 miles away, a factoid I didn't apprehend until it was too late. Oh, and he doesn't have any actual Smart tech appointments available until August 8, so…there's that. But he'll try to fit me in, and here's the number of a Sheraton.
Sheraton: no rooms, call the Hilton. Hilton: no rooms, call Clarion Suites. Called Smart RA back, sat through the menu and the "William Tell Overture" hold music (…right?) again, ordered a tow. Hey, guess who only got a two-year roadside warranty? This brother. So it's $239, we'll text you the ETA when we have it. This was at 5:02 local time.
First text: Kool Breeze Towing (awesome) due to your location at 5:30. Great. Quickly called Clarion and snagged a room.
Second text: Always Towing (for…that time of the month?) due to your location at 7:01.
I ran into a restaurant nearby and said, hi, I broke down, could I please use your ladies'? The maitre d', dry as a bone: "Lupe, get her a plastic bag. …Just kidding, go ahead."
That only killed about 10 minutes; I spent the rest of the time texting, getting mad at missing the Brewers game, and chilling on Campbell's back gate, reading a book. It got chilly, so I dug out a sweatshirt. I drank water. I made a to-do list.
7:15, no Always. 7:30, no Always. I called Smart RA back, seething, and when a luckless lad named Brian finally came live on the line, I all-capsed at him about how it's getting dark and would someone MIND?! Moments later, enter Always, and the driver, whose name I never got but who looked like Bunk Moreland, so I'll call him Bunk. I confirmed with Bunk that he knew he had to drag me and the busted Skittle to Madison; I apologized for this. As it turns out, Bunk has five kids under the age of six, including two-year-old twins, so if it's possible to faze him, it will take more than a Smart and a sunset drive.
We talked a little about the crazy shit he sees working a tow truck at night, and then it got loud in the cab on the freeway, so we sat and waited the miles out. Wisconsin is a beautiful spot at twilight, big fat hills, constellations of lightning bugs twinkling on the shoulder. I got to look and think things instead of focusing on the road; one of the things I thought about is that the PDQ market or bakery or whatever it is needs to articulate the letters better in its signage, because I kept thinking the signs said "POO." Another thing I thought is how well this went for a breakdown. It happened in a parking lot. My phone had a charge. It wasn't pouring rain or blistering hot. I'd thought to pack a granola bar, and I have an "extra water" rule for the car for just this circumstance. Bunk suggested stopping for refreshments just when I was feeling thirsty. As car trouble goes, I thought, this wasn't that much trouble at all.
That was probably the third jinx.
Arriving at the dealership after closing, Bunk wedged Campbell in between two Audis while I located the drop box. I wrote Dain a note and tied it cleverly to the keychain, and then, exhausted, excited to go lie down, I dropped the key through the slot. Did I have anything but my messenger bag out of the car? No, I did not. Had I left it unlocked? No, I had not. Could I Rube Goldberg a plastic bag and a Sharpie cap into a device by which to hook the key back out of the slot and get my shit? No, I could not. Can Smart RA unlock the car remotely? No. No, they sure cannot.
I had my wallet, some water, and could see my hotel from the car lot. I told myself that some people have genuine problems, abandoned the break-in plan, and started walking to the Clarion Suites, which I do not recommend doing unless you really like Frogger, and when I arrived, I turned off the phone (charger: in the car), changed into a towel (pajamas ditto), chewed some gum (toothbrush ditto), and ordered a 6:30 wake-up call so I could hike back to the dealership and ransom my stuff.
That wake-up call did not come thanks to a power outage in the middle of the night, so at 7:10 I was charging through the lobby, sunburned left arm, bedhead, smelling of sweat and Combo crumbs. You know those women on Intervention who, you find out they're hooking and you're like, "…Her? But…that is egg on her sweatshirt, no?" This is what I looked like. Down front, a cab was waiting on a guy named Ned. I showed the guy forty bucks and told him I needed him to drive me to the dealership, wait for me to load in, and drive me back here, at which time I would make it right with this Ned person if need be.
Dain was all, "Hey, crazy, forget something?", and then reminded me not to take the key with me when I left, which: heh, and: seriously. Hucked everything into the cab, back out again 90 seconds later, upstairs and into the room, ran back downstairs for the first real meal I'd had in 36 hours, and here you see me, full of buffet grits, looking out on the kind of convention space Tyra Banks would commandeer for a grand entrance on ANTM. "Comrade Brezhnev urges you to park."
It's kind of rainy out and I have some work to catch up on, but mostly I need to stay close in case Dain has some (good) news for me. Thanks so much to everyone who checked in; stay tuned.
Tags: Big Country Little Car Tour Campbell Colonel take us to DefCam 1 in Soviet Russia car break you Junior Brown the fuck? The Wire