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Because You Just Never Know

Pole Position

I grew up playing those video games — Intellivision, Nintendo, Colecovision, and the Ataris 26-, 52-, and (gasp!) 7800 — many that required the steering wheel accessory, like “Pole Position” or “Spy Hunter.” So I was pretty good at avoiding real obstacles on an imaginary road. My mother would tell me how it was a complete waste of my time, detrimental to my overall development. She was right, until. . .

I moved to Los Angeles out of college. My time there did not begin well.  I bought a used Audi GT before making the journey and it had a horrible habit of shutting off at the most inopportune moments, such as while driving.

Every mechanic I brought it to in Boston said, “We don’t know why it’s doing this, but a new fuel pump relay should fix it.” And I got a new fuel pump relay. . . and another. . . and a third.

Other than that, the car was fine, until. . .

During my third week in Los Angeles, the brakes began to squeak. It’s that warning mechanism brakes have that tell you if you don’t replace the brake pads soon, your car will most likely send you hurtling off a cliff at the most inopportune moments, such as while driving. And no one, especially me, wanted that.

Well, I was new in town and unfamiliar with any place to bring it (and there was no Yelp! back then), though I had been to the mall once and remembered passing a Midas Brake Specialists shop next to it. These people not only knew brakes, they were specialists! It said so in the sign. So I had my answer.

Even as a young adult, I’d already had the oil changed several times before, so I knew what to expect — you bring your car in, they take care of the oil, you bring it home. Easy peasy. I figured brakes were the same. That was a big leap of faith.

At that time, I had no job, so I could block off an entire day, though I didn’t expect it to take quite so long. I got there at 8 a.m. and I waited. . .  and waited. . . and waited.

Just after 4 o’clock, the “technician,” a Native American guy with a long, braided pony-tail who stood about five-feet zero, informed me the work was completed and offered to test drive my vehicle with me to see what a great job he’d done.

I thought, “Wow! that’s super service.  Usually, they just fix it and give it to you,” as he took his position in the passenger seat. (I realize he was probably as curious as I was to see if he had done the job right.)

We pulled out of the carport and continued down the side street. Three rights around the block, that’s all. I applied the brakes at the first stop sign. (Have you ever pushed the pedal down to the floorboard? No, of course, you haven’t. The pedal is not supposed to go that far.)

“Uh, it’s a little loose.”

“Oh, that is because they are new brakes,” he says sheepishly in an effort to hide his idiocy.  And what did I know? I’d only been driving a couple of years and never had the privilege of owning “new brakes.”

I took the right, another right, and a third right to bring me back to the front.  The same situation as I pushed down all the way, but the car stopped, so I paid the fee and hopped in to head home.

It was now 4:30 and the shop was closing for the day. I was very tired from my day watching bad daytime talk shows and telenovelas on tv in the waiting room anyway and wanted to do some writing, so I wasn’t thinking, “Take it back and fix it. I’ll wait.”

Onto the main drag, I turned just as rush hour was getting thicker.  A red light stopped me up ahead.  I pushed my pedal down to the floorboard to activate the “new brakes” and the car stopped as it had previously.

With my foot still on the brake, my car started to roll forward a little. Then the light turned green and the car in front of me took off. I accelerated briefly, then it dawned on me, “Did I take my foot off the brake causing it to roll forward or. . . did the car just start to roll by itself?”

Letting the pace car in front of me get some distance, I decided to test the brakes.  Yep, I was right.  I hate when I’m right.  Especially when it’s about MY DRIVING WITHOUT BRAKES!!!

Okay, stay calm.  How bad could it be?  It’s an Audi. Worst case scenario, I cause a huge pile-up at an intersection; at least my car will hold up well. (Actually, the worst case scenario has me running over several bystanders, a lady with a baby carriage, and slamming into a fire hydrant spraying water everywhere causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.)

Remarkably, I am less scared than angry.  A few thoughts go through my head, including one that has me intentionally causing as much damage as possible so I could sue Midas for every nickel and then forcing the entire staff to work on my estate. But that seemed like a lot of work. I didn’t want to go through all that, as I needed to find a day job.

And then it entered my head — I’d been here before. . . virtually. The hours I spent playing “Pole Position” was a practical application that prepared me for this.  Ha! Mom, I was right! Of course, then my mother’s favorite phrase came into my head — “You could be right, dead right.” Damn you, Mom! Get out of my head. Now is not the time!

Nevertheless, this would be my greatest challenge, my real life Pole Position. If I made it home, I’d have a story to tell. If not, and. . . well, there was always that lawsuit. No one could tell the exact moment I realized the brakes failed, right?

Oh, sure, I could have turned around and gone back to Midas, but where’s the fun in that? (Plus, turning around was not going to be easy.)

Okay, I had to think. Remember my training! I quickly went over the landscape in my head.  It was one right turn (which I could do because this was Los Angeles whose “right on red” law is its greatest cultural contribution), then five lights, across two main roads, and one left turn, which would be the trickiest part.

It was Mission: Impossible. Should I fail, any knowledge would be disavowed. But seriously, in the event I had to abort, I could always gently guide the car into some place that wouldn’t get me nor anyone else injured. . . theoretically.

Back to the road in front of me — I figured since I couldn’t stop, I would have to drive real slow and speed up just enough to keep my momentum.  That way, I would never have to slam on the brakes.  I just had to pray for green lights.

Amazingly, I made them all, including the busiest street at the top of the hill. (The hill was great because it stopped all my momentum.)

Now my mind wandered ahead to the left turn.  What if on-coming traffic was too steady and I couldn’t make it?  I figured out plans B and C just in case.  (Plan B was that I would try the next left hand turn onto another side street, and Plan C was I would soil my pants.) I worried that I had run out of luck.

But huzzah, like the Red Sea underneath the hand of Moses, the southbound traffic parted just enough allowing me the perfect opportunity to make the turn!

Giving it a little gas to crawl onto the driveway, which leveled downward slightly, I yanked up on the emergency brake as I lightly tapped the back of the carport.  Luckily my roommate wasn’t home, otherwise his car would’ve been my wall.  And there it was.  I made it home alive! A real life video game, with potential real life consequences.

Oh, and the next day, I had the car towed back to Midas at their expense, rented a car at their expense, and had them put WORKING brakes in the car at their expense. A lawsuit might have eliminated the need for a job, however, but I let them off the hook as no harm, no foul.

So when you see your kids spending hours in front of the television playing video games – yes, they may be on the freeway to obesity, but they are inevitably setting themselves up with survival skills.

Oh, and never go to Midas.