Friday, February 27, 2009

My Father's Voice

I still hear my father’s voice from time to time. He passed away in April of 1995, so it’s been quite a while since I really heard his voice, if you don’t count the cassette tape of him talking to his banjo instructor that my mother found a few years after his death. We listened to that when she found it, but that’s not the same. Especially since we could only listen once…not because we were overcome with sadness after hearing his voice – no, it was because his inability to actually play the banjo (the last of many instruments he tried and failed to learn) was such an assault to the ear that we felt bad laughing at him when he wasn’t there to defend himself.

But in spite of the years gone by, I can still remember the sound of his voice. I clearly remember his laugh. I remember the way he cleared his throat. And even though it’s been over 35 years since I heard him say it, I still remember what “Because I said so, that’s why!” sounds like. But when I say I still hear my father’s voice, these are not the things I mean. I mean I hear all the life lessons that he spent 36 years planting in my head. “Change your oil every 3000 miles and your car will last 15 years or more.” And “Don’t worry about a dandelion in your lawn…life is too short to be mad at a flower!” And my least favorite: “Oh yes you WILL need algebra someday!” And don’t I just find myself using stupid algebra more than I care to admit. So when I say I hear his voice, it is more that I find myself benefiting from his lessons of long ago. And were it not for one of those lessons, my car may have been totaled.

I was on my way to visit an old and dear friend in Weehawkin, NJ from my home in Brooklyn. The best way to get there is to go through Manhattan. Always fun at rush hour (which should be renamed “rush morning” and “rush evening” since each lasts 3 hours, but that’s for another time). I was stopped at a light, and I was the first car. The light turned green and I proceeded through the intersection. Okay now, at this point in the story I should set up some visuals for you…first, at the time I owned a mini van. These are not cool, racy vehicles that inspire speed. No. These are the station wagon for the turn of the century. Secondly, if you’ve ever driven in Manhattan during rush hour (and I would imagine the same holds true for many cities), then you know that pedestrians truly believe that they are made of steel and can therefore either walk right in front of your moving vehicle, or they think it is okay to move ten feet out into the crosswalk so that after your car passes by they can make a mad “I am made of steel” dash for the other side of the street in the 14 feet that separates your moving car from the also-moving car behind you. I cannot confirm it, but I would bet money that no pedestrian who behaves this way has ever driven a car in New York City. Anyway, between my less-than-racy car and the annoying coffee cup-clutching, office-bound pedestrians, there was no way I was doing more than 15 MPH when I reached the other side of the intersection. But, New York being New York, there was one of the city’s famous “mound of unnecessary asphalt” followed by an un-filled pothole (perhaps the mound of asphalt was intended for the hole…who knows?), followed by a steel plate that had one corner that was raised up about 3 inches. And I was this hazards next conquest.

Of course, it wasn’t until after I’d had my little mishap that I discovered all the complexities of the hazard described above. There was no way I could see all that as I approached it. I was too busy looking at the man on my right and the woman on my left who were each vying to be the person who gets closest to my car without actually touching it, and it wasn’t until I was right on top of the asphalt mound that I noticed the gouge marks on the pavement beyond it. Do you know what I mean by gouge marks? It’s the way the street gets ripped up by all the vehicles that encounter something like an asphalt mound or a sink hole (because the streets of New York City are NOT built on bedrock, but on century-old pipes stretched across deep crevasses to hell) and then the front end of the car slams! into the pavement and leaves a big gouge. When you see them you instantly brake and hold your breath, hoping against hope that you don’t hit too hard. Or, if time permits, you try to steer around it like NASCAR drivers do when the car in front of them spins out of control. But I was already on top of my asphalt mound, and since the people on my right and left were so close they were leaving breath marks on my windows, steering around wasn’t an option. So it went like this: Slam! Up! Down! Gouge! Snap! Oh…that was bad.

I heard the clank of metal as something rolled away from my car, and the man on my right, (whose Starbucks venti extra-foam-who-knows-what-but-it-costs-a-fortune-coffee-something was miraculously still in his hand in spite of being a millimeter from my side-view mirror) said “Whoa...oh…uh oh…” Oh shit. When pedestrians feel compelled to comment on a driver’s plight, you know it’s bad because pedestrians dislike cars and their drivers as much as drivers dislike pedestrians. Uh oh is right.

I braked and looked down at my dashboard and saw that the little oil light was on. I'd never seen that light on in that car before, and I’d had it since 1998. I remember thinking the light looked a lot like a tiny Aladdin’s lamp. But before that thought had the time to take hold and distract me with thoughts of ancient Arabia, I heard my father’s voice in my head: “If your oil light ever comes on, pull over right away and shut the car off before the engine seizes.” I saw a fire hydrant (which in New York City is usually the only part of any street devoid of a parked car, and even that’s not always true), so I pulled over.

I immediately shut the car off, got out, and looked underneath only to see the oil literally gushing from the place where the oil is usually neatly contained. It took all of 13 seconds for the entire contents of my oil pan to vomit itself on to the street. Somehow I knew this wasn’t good. I called my roadside assistance people, who amazingly showed up 15 minutes later. The tow truck guy looked at my predicament and shook his head in that superior ‘man’ way. I hate that. He walked all around the vehicle, shaking his head and tsk tsk tsk-ing his tongue against his teeth like my grandmother did when she disapproved of something, and then this superior man tow truck driver proceeded to grill me about what happened in the moments after plowing up roadway with my front end (and I was grilled again later by the mechanic where the car was towed): “Did you run the car after you ripped the oil pan off?” and “Are you sure you didn’t try to start the car after you opened the oil pan like a soda can?” and “If you tried to run the engine after it disgorged its oil all over the street in a messy environmental hazard, then your engine is toast…are you sure you didn’t do that?” I guess they didn’t believe that someone who could be so careless as to punch a 6 inch hole through a thick metal cover and the oil pan it protects would have the presence of mind to shut the car off and not try to re-start it. I repeatedly told them no, I had shut the car off right away. I then explained that my father said to me “Pull over and shut it off” and when they said “Lucky for you your father was in the car with you,” I didn’t bother trying to tell them otherwise. Neither seemed the type to get it.

As for the asphalt mound oil pan destroyer, apparently I was the latest in a long line of oil pan gougers. As my car was being hooked to the tow truck, I was standing there worrying over what to do about all the oil on the street when a shop owner came out with a bag of stuff that looked like cat litter, but was named “Oil Be Gone” or something like that. As he scattered the oil-absorbing stuff over my big black puddle, I thanked him and apologized for the mess. His reply? He said “Oh, don’t worry about it. The city gives me bag after bag of this stuff because someone rips up their oil pan at least once a week on that intersection. They’ve spent more money giving me these bags than it would take to fix it. But that’s New York for ya!” Then he went back in his shop. Gotta love New York City.

And my father…well, I still hear his voice and his lessons. Recently I heard him say “If you pick up a nail in your tire, get it fixed right away before it does more damage,” but I ignored that advice, and now I am on my way to get a new tire because the nail I have been driving around with for a month has punctured the tire in three new places and caused irreparable damage. I really need to listen more closely to my father…

Copyright (c) 2005 Leslie R Becker

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