The other day a ping emanated from my dashboard; a diagram of the car lit up and the pressure in each tire was displayed. Noticing tires on the lower side of acceptable pressure, my first thought attributed the gauge fluctuation to the chilly change of weather. But then I remembered my blowout: the Louisiana tire catastrophe of 2014.
I-10 runs 275 miles through Louisiana—and I have travelled every inch of it many many times. This particular trip, my Springer Spaniel was a young dog and I owned an onyx colored Mercedes E-class sedan, which appeared either metallic black or deep blue depending upon the light. I had been visiting friends and family; I did plenty of eating and drinking, and some antique and clothes shopping—I was even wearing a new shirt and shorts. A sunny and bright July afternoon, my dash temperature read 95°. Travelling west, I was en route home, to Houston.
My normally silky ride suddenly felt rocky, as if I was driving over rutty pavement. Confused, concerned, I brought the car to the side of the interstate and nervously hopped out to check the tires. Sure enough, the back-passenger side was flat—but not only flat, the tire was calamitously shredded.
No problem, I thought. The first thing my father taught me when I turned 15 and got my first car was how to change a tire. Despite Mercedes Roadside Assistance and Geico Emergency Road Service, the smartest, most prudent, and most expedient strategy was to change the tire myself and get off the highway to a safe place. So I put my metaphorical “calm hat” on and resolved to install the spare quickly and efficiently.
For some unbeknown reason, Delta Dawn, my handsome but porcine pooch, went bananas, clawing and panicking to get out of the car—you would have thought that we had spun out of control and flipped. I panicked when she tried to jump out of the door onto the highway. Automobiles and 18-wheelers whizzed by at 80 mph, which might have well been 150. Nervous for us both I yelled at her, hoping that would calm her; but it did not.
Emptying the trunk, I removed my suitcase, shopping bags, and packages with fragile glassware, and placed the items in the prickly dry weeds of the ditch between the interstate and service road. The jack and spare tire, which I had never seen, was accessed below the deck of the trunk. I checked the area for broken glass and snakes then spread a picnic blanket near the tire, over the vegetation full of burrs, as a work area on which to kneel.
I had no issues with loosening the lug nuts but the jack literally looked like a caulking gun, and I could not imagine how that diminutive apparatus would hoist a 3,825-pound car. I had never seen a jack like it. In the glove box, I found the leather-clad manual, but the directions seemed like a combination of IKEA instructions and hieroglyphics. I also noticed that the cabin of the automobile had heated to an intolerable level in a short amount of time; Delta Dawn was frothing and crying.
The car shook as vehicles flew by. With the engine now running to facilitate the air conditioner, the exhaust, in my face, had me blistering in the heat. Dizzy, I wrestled with the jack, lifting the car high enough to remove the damaged tire. Unexpectedly, as if in slow motion, the car wobbled and collapsed onto the pavement.
“Shit!” I yelled, trying to keep my cool but hoping I had not busted the axle.
Again, examining the cryptic manual I placed the jack under the carriage. I made contrived allowances, turning the lever, scraping my knuckles on the pavement, wondering how this little contraption would do the trick. But despite prayer, struggle, and ado, the car again tottered and tumbled to the asphalt.
Sweating and now terrified I examined the manual again, patiently, with cool head and renewed urgency. I did not want to total my car because of a flat. Then I realized that I might have had the jack upside down. I tried again, jack ostensibly right-side up.
My frustration grew as I worried that not only had I broken the axle but that the car might overheat; and I worried that someone would pull over, not necessarily to help but rather to rob me—a helpless dumbass in an expensive car with a freaked-out dog, Rolex and jewelry, no gun … low hanging fruit along the I-10 corridor.
With bloodied knuckles, I finally got the car elevated enough to accept the spare, not a full tire but an absurd donut size, in place. I tightened the nuts; and with a sigh of relief lowered the car.
And of all the luck, the wee spare was flat.
Covered in road grime, grease, and sweat, I loaded the ruined tire into the trunk along with my luggage and packages. I hoped that I had enough air in the donut to at least move slowly along the shoulder until the next exit.
After a few terrifying miles, I came to a ramp and just beyond the overpass found a convenience store and a tire shop. However, the tire shop was closed; I dialed the number on the door but no one answered. I tried again and again, leaving desperate messages. At the convenience store I loaded the air machine with quarters, and once the spare tire was full, asked about another place where I might find tire assistance. Thankfully the clerk had a recommendation.
On old scenic Highway 90 I found the combination tire and bait shop that I sought. As I eased into the driveway the young attendant hopped from his shady spot from the back of a truck where he was reading a book. With exotic cocoa latte skin and curly cocoa latte hair, he had piercing gold-green eyes and a wiry frame. He was a kid; this must have been his high school summer job.
With Delta Dawn on leash I showed the young man the spare and we opened the trunk, removing the blanket full of sticker-burrs to reveal the tire.
He hoisted it out. “I can’t fix this!”
Of course I did not expect him to repair it. Wiping my brow with a handkerchief I asked, “Can’t you just duct tape it enough to get me back on the road?”
He looked at me like I was crazy. “Ummm, no sir.”
“I’m joking,” I clarified as he sighed with relief.
He went to the back of the barn/workshop to rummage through bins of tires and I took Delta Dawn to the adjoining field and let her go. She pranced out into the golden dry pasture. It crossed my mind that she might encounter a snake or a varmint, but I was frankly too weary to accompany her. She pooped, and drooling and panting, immediately fastened back to the shade of the workshop. When we returned, the young attendant stood grinning, proud of a dirty, cob-webbed Michelin.
“This is the only one that might fit,” he announced.
I was relieved and optimistic. So while he got busy washing the tire I tied Delta Dawn to a pole and went inside to find the men’s room.
The shop was windowless but air conditioned, florescent lighting on the ceiling, spacious and clean with a cement floor and fridge-freezers for bait; pictures of locals holding catfish were stapled to the plywood walls. I helped myself to a Diet Coke which I found on a refrigerator shelf between the meal worms and chicken hearts. A kindly woman sat behind the check-out counter and several old men sat around tables sipping coffee and playing dominos. Their games and conversation halted.
“Bonjour,” she said.
“Oh, tu parle francais?”
“Oui, un petit peu.”
“Est-ce que le garçon obtient votre pneu fixe?”
I stammered and shrugged, trying to interpret the words in my head.
She smiled, asking, “Is he getting you fixed up, babe?”
“I hope so.”
Working near the garage door in the light of the sun, the little mulatto guy was hard at work, very cute, very dedicated, sweating, trying to wrestle the remnants of the mangled Pirelli off the rim, almost upside down, his shorts askew and body contorted like a pretzel with a hammer.
“Is it going to work?”
He grunted and grinned with fresh white teeth, “I haven’t gotten that far, sir.”
As he toiled, I tended to my complaining canine. Searching for something to hold water, I recalled a crystal object that I purchased. I found the package in the trunk and unwrapped layers of paper shrouding a cut-crystal punchbowl. I wiped the slobber from Delta Dawn’s snout and paraded her through the shop. Again, old men’s conversation stopped as I filled the ostentatious vessel with water and put it on the floor. Parched, she drank and sloppily drank, sending water sloshing across the floor. I must have looked like the most ridiculous city fag they had ever seen.
One of the old timers spoke up, “Ce chien chasse-t-il?”
A second interjected, “He asked if that dog hunts.”
A third man added, “Mais, ce chien est trop gros.”
And all the guys chuckled.
In the sweltering and dimly lit garage, I sat patiently reading a novel with Delta Dawn moaning at my feet until the young mechanic finished. It seemed like an hour; I had lost track of time.
I got the air conditioner going, put Delta Dawn in the backseat, and went inside to pay. “Don’t forget the Diet Coke,” I told the lady as she tallied the damage. The total came to about $45; and as I got into the car, relieved and pleased, I handed the young worker $20.
“What’s this for?”
“It’s for you.”
“No sir,” he protested vehemently, “I can’t.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I gratefully replied. “Buy yourself a Coke.”
He smiled and pocketed his Jackson.
On the phone with my father, he urged me not to drive on a tire I bought at a bait shop. “Get to my house and we’ll get you a proper tire in the morning.”
I thought about it but I had to get back to work. I drove at a reasonable speed along Highway 90, just to make sure the new tire would not fly off and that the ride would not vibrate, and worried about the axle. All was smooth; confident and relaxed, I found my way back to the interstate and made it home. Delta Dawn slept and when we pulled into our driveway, she seemed relieved. So was I. The following week I bought four new Yokohama tires. As for my new ivory shorts, the dry cleaner frayed the weave trying to eradicate the stains—it was worth a shot.
In this day and age, it is difficult to find a full-service station; but I carry a tire gauge in my center console. After my recent dashboard warning I pulled over and tended my tires. Since that harrowing roadside experience, I take no chances. An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure, though routine maintenance did not prevent the blowout. I have not examined the tools included with this new automobile, and hope I do not have occasion to need them. But I expect that Mercedes-Benz has come to their senses and provided a significantly improved jack. And I hope to never experience another event like that blowout: the Louisiana tire catastrophe of 2014.