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The Steering Wheel Of Fortune

By Tom ďcruise control freakĒ Waters
June 1, 2002

Automotively, this last summer was the worst summer I have ever had. That anybody in my family has had, for that matter. Where to begin? As for the rest of my family, their misfortunes sound cartoonish and surreal; certainly nothing that could happen to an average motorist! My little brother rear-ended an eighty year old woman and her nurseís aid on the way to work. What are the odds of that one? My mom (the god-fearing member of the family) was holding her weekly prayer meeting at the house when one of the blue-haired ladies who holds court for these shin-digs backed her minivan into my momís car, which in turn went sailing in the garage and slammed into my dadís Ď77 powder blue Chevelle. He would sooner see his first born childís arm sheared off before allowing any harm to befall that car. And then thereís me. Between June and August, we all got really familiar with mechanics, insurance companies, and on occasion, the long arm of the law. Welcome to my nightmare.

In the first blush of summer, I went to my friend Daveís bachelor party. Theyíd taken out a private suite at the baseball park for drinks and debauchery. When I got there at three, the party was already well under way. Card games, old men smoking cigars and laughing about the stock market, and frat boys slapping each other on the back, funneling beers into each otherís mouths. We consumed about three kegs of beers, two trays of roast beef, five pizzas (with the works), pizza fingers, chicken wings, nachos, chips, dip, and enough cigars and cigarettes to re-pave the parking lot to the stadium. I canít stand baseball games because theyíre boring, but nobody was watching the game anyways. By eight oíclock, after the game was over and last call was announced, we made a mass exodus to the brewery down the street where a row of pool tables and an infinite tab were waiting. The sight of us all was preposterous. Thirty to forty burly grown men stumbling down the street together with novelty-sized baseball bats howling, singing, and swearing like sailors.

At the bar, Iíd swindled my old boss out of forty dollars in a few fast games of eight ball. The groom was holding the bar up as best as he could while everybody in the establishment was doing shots with him. A few hours elapsed. By about ten, I was exhausted from the dayís events, and decided to take a quite rest on one of the benches. It seemed like a good idea at the time. While I was napping, the best man took a picture of me snoozing, half on and half off of the bench, gut hanging out of my shirt, and hair sticking every which way but down. By about midnight, I woke up, refreshed, and decided to go home before causing any more harm to my internal organs.

It was a long drive home. Iím not very good with directions downtown, there was a food festival going on, and when I get lost, I usually drive obstinately until I find a street that I recognize. Did I mention that Iíd been driving on a donut for three weeks prior to this bachelor party? No? Well I had been. This isnít really a good idea, in case you didnít know. Thanks to the wonderful roadwork thatís going on indefinitely throughout my fair city, the donut blew. Then it wrapped around the back of my car axle. I rode half of the way home on the rim of the axle, spitting sparks and bumping up and down in the car like I was on the teacups at Disney World. A logical man would have called a tow truck. I am not a logical man. I just wanted to get home. It had been a long day, andI figured I was more than half way there anyways.

When I was ten minutes from home, I got stopped by a police car. He was a nice guy, and he asked me to go across the street to call a tow truck. I followed his advice. After watching him drive away, I set out for home again. Barely two minutes away from my house I got stopped AGAIN! Clearly, my luck had run out. I got a ticket for going 55 in a 35 with a flat tire. The cop was so nice to me that he let me gather my things and chauffeured me home. Cost of bachelor party ticket? $50. Cost of total repairs to the car? $350. The expense of a really good anecdote? Priceless. I lucked out with the town court, and ended up with a traffic school appointment, but thatís down the road.

In late July, I went to a birthday party at a friendís. Iíve had to tell this story about forty times, so Iíll give you the nutshell version. It was a great time; we had steamed clams near a bonfire and all of my old comrades were in attendance. Upon leaving the party, I decided to go downtown, for reasons Iíd rather not disclose. But on the way back, I noticed a flat tire. Rather than go back onto the thruway, I took a side road to investigate the matter. Having just watched someone change my tire a week or two before that, I figured I was ready for the hands-on experience. And after ten minutes of prying, swearing, and exerting myself (in the rain, mind you), I couldnít get the goddamned jack off of that stupid holy trinity of tire changing that they put in my Dodge. Itís some sort of tire jack/tire/crowbar combo thatís about as relenting as a Chinese finger trap. At two in the morning, I gave up and walked to a phone to call a tow truck. In one of the worst neighborhoods in downtown Buffalo. I hadnít been there before, and I certainly wonít be going back anytime soon.

After calling a truck, I walked the block or so back to the car. Or where it was when I left it. The Dodge wasnít there. The Dodge wasnít there! I wigged out, then tried to make sense of it. Perhaps by some spatial fluke, it was transported to the Dark Ages ala ďArmy Of Darkness.Ē No, that wasnít it, the car was stolen. Somebody had taken my car. And yes, the keys were in the car. Iím an idiot, no disputing that, and I have no common sense to speak of. I looked around the block. There were a whole bunch of unsavory characters out and about past the witching hour, and they all looked capable of folding my vehicle into their back pocket and walking past me on the sidewalk without so much as a sideways glance. Upset and befuddled, I walked around for a while, chain smoking cigarettes and wondering how far this thief couldíve gotten on a flat tire. Far enough would be the appropriate punch line.I was the only well-bathed white male with all of my original teeth walking around this section of town at four in the morning. Everyone else was either on crack, strolling around with a 40 in a paper bag, or drumming up other business propositions that I didnít even want to know about. I had no idea what the hell I was going to do. I remembered calling my dad in the fifth grade after my bike had been stolen from the mall in the bushes next to Woolworths. After telling him that it wasnít locked, he said ďGood!Ē and that was basically the end of the conversation.

At one point, near dawn, I considered taking all of my money out of a cash machine and leaving town. That wouldnít solve anything though, other than having to deal with my parents. I did a lot of thinking that afternoon by the waterfront, and smoked more cigarettes. My car had been stolen. Something had to be done. I was going to have to go home eventually. I called the police to report the theft, and they stopped for about three minutes on the way to another matter, laughed at me when I couldnít tell them what my dadís birth date was (he was the legal owner of the car), and then drove off after giving me the station address where I could file a report. Super. I called my dad finally, and he came to pick me up. Driving over to the station was an exercise in silence and defeat. I hadnít slept in over twenty-four hours. And somehow, it was my fault.

After a week, the police called to report that the car was recovered. When we got to the impound the following Monday, I was sucker-punched at the sight of my baby. The mini-disc had been taken, it was caked with mud, and the entire front column had been savagely ripped out. All the paperwork that was in the glove compartment was dumped on the floor. And there were gnats flying around inside the car. It smelled like an animal had lived and breathed and attacked the inside of it. Ironically, the only thing of value that hadnít been taken was a book that I had in the back seat. I guess phonics hadnít reached this section of the Ďhood. I was pissed off, disgusted, and violated. The cops told us that the car was Ďdrivableí, and we couldnít even turn the engine over. It was towed to an auto shop where, after three weeks of Allstate Insurance investigators passing the buck, it was deemed completely totaled. And then the fun really began.

At the end of August, I took my vacation down at our summer home. My family was kind enough to buy me a new car. It was used, but in very good shape, and it a smooth ride. Ď93 Buick, I believe. A real boat of a car, and whisper quiet on the roads. I was happy with it. Throughout the summer I was clinically depressed for the first time in my life. I have manic depression; this is nothing that I hide. But Iím generally on the manic end of the diagnosis. After going back to a job that I couldnít stand, going through a lot of emotional difficulties with various females, I was in a tail spin. Iíd been partying like a rock star, not really caring where I ended up the next day, or if I made it to the next day at all. None of these events that took place helped to buoy my spirits, either. Iím not blaming my behavior on anything other than myself, just giving you some decent background here. Setting you up for the fall, as it were.

Perhaps I was waiting for the fall. For the other shoe to drop, and hard, at that. About two weeks after getting my new car, I hung out with the boys after work. We spent the beginning of the night next door at a tavern, and then we went to a pub. I sang Irish folk songs with two old men who had acoustic guitars and a similar love for the sad ballads of Bob Dylan. We took pictures, and traded jokes. It was a nice night. Then I went by myself to my favorite strip club, where I had far too much to drink. After leaving the club at two or three in the morning, a fence got in my way. Funny how those fences just sneak up on you, isnít it? In my state, I didnít think much of it. The thing rolled over the hood of the car and I just kept driving. It didnít seem to phase me or the car, so why worry about it?

†After stopping at an all night greasy spoon, I noticed that the front headlight was hanging off of car by a wire. Hmph, thatís peculiar. On the way home, I got stopped. My luck had clearly run out. This was the end of the line. In a town where the police werenít really known for their wonderful demeanor. I took the test on the side of the road, and failed. They cuffed me and led me to the back of their car. I went without complaint. There was no getting out of this one. I spent the night at the station in lock-up listening to these bastards giving me a hard time. They treated me like a criminal, and I guess, for that night, I was. I got finger-printed; they took a mug shot, and I every time I tried to sleep on the cold, hard bench of the cell they had me in theyíd holler over for something. I was ashamed of myself, and this was what the cold granite of rock bottom felt like. Iíd screwed up, but good.

By morning, I called in a favor and a friend picked me up. I picked the car up from the towing company the next day, and tried to figure out what I was going to do. I called a lawyer. Enter Keith Perla, Attorney at Law! He was a smoothie, and apparently, I was just under my limit for the breathalyzer. When we met outside the courthouse, I was surprised by his rather small frame. He was a slight, balding man with fierce blue eyes and a smart gray suit who was three sentences ahead of whatever I said. The whole ordeal cost me my entire nest egg (about $1500), but he got me off with no points, no fines, and a trip to a DWI Impact panel a month later. I promised to buy him dinner sometime, and we still keep in touch. Before the panel, I had to go to traffic school, though. For the bachelor party fiasco. Almost forgot about that one, didnít you?

I went to driving school as a kid, but this was a whole other ball of worms. Try and imagine detention for the adult demographic. Detention that lasts for four straight hours. I got off to a good start by entering the one way entrance the wrong way. There were two classes going on in the same building, and all of the really good looking women were in the other classroom. The A-M classroom. Dumb alphabetical luck! I was herded in with junk men, suburban princesses, foreign cab drivers, college boys with white baseball hats, some Wise Guy, and a man who strangely resembled Kris Kristofferson. A real Rogueís Gallery. The school was conveniently located 20 feet away from the thruway. Throughout the course, we got to hear the scolding whisper of twilight traffic reminding us that we fucked up.

The instructor had a perfect hair helmet, the kind that football coaches and problem drinking weathermen keep for their entire lives. He was rambunctious, and spoke like some fired-up 3am motivational speaker on tv. We all filed in and paid the fee for the class in front, and someone paid with a roll of quarters! With only three girls in the room, I wondered if the old ax is indeed true about 18-24 year old males: Weíve got lead feet, and we know where to find trouble. I just couldnít believe that Iíd gone seven years (after getting my license at 17) with no tickets, fines, or convictions of any kind. Either we all have a finite amount of luck that runs out, or our cruel deeds go punished if we keep at them diligently enough. The punishment for a speeding ticket is terrible films. Not the cool ones with blood and carnage either. I would have stayed on for another hour if they had those ones.

Movies with sub-rate production values and b-list actors from the Ď60s. Legions of leisure suits, mutton chops, porn star mustaches, Super Tramp feathered hair-doníts and disco ball afros. And they were interlaced with these attention deficit friendly mini seminars sporting the corniest anagrams Iíve ever encountered. A.lways for S.ignals and H.ail the O.fficer or L.ane worker at E.xits. And so forth. There was a certain brainwashing quality to the short films, what with repetition and all. Along with a revival of the Crash Test Dummies, those two guys from the 1980ís public safety commercials. After two hours of these films, I was ready to drive my car up the flight of steps and into the TV/VCR. Then we moved on to the 15 minute feature length presentation, ďRoad Rage: When Tammy Needlebaum Attacks!Ē followed by the short edutainment clip, ďRespect the Car! Tame The Foot!Ē I donít even believe in road rage, personally. Itís just another retarded politically correct term for something thatís been around since cars were invented. Itís not a diagnosis, and itís not an epidemic.

Regardless, the film had a very Jedi-like theme throughout: ďDonít let anger cloud the issue, Luke. Count to ten and then reload your weapon. Crack the guy in front of you over the head with a Louisville slugger or not; there is no try.Ē The examples the instructor gave were outlandishly funny. Scalpings, Tommy Gun shoot outs, babies being shot-putted at other cars in motion, etc. After the film, we had to tear through some work sheets. One of them was an anatomical diagram with the effects of x amount of drinks on the human body. The one arrow actually said ďMouth-Alcohol is DrunkĒ. Epiphanic, is what that is. Then we were subjected to a Ďpop quizí with Ďdifficultí multiple choice questions: Is it best to a)flip someone off when they do something stupid in traffic, b)mutter obscenities with pitch-perfect enunciation, c)shake your head in disgust, d)perform a small ventriloquist act in which you sodomize a dummy that resembles his wife with a large turkey baster filled with napalm, or e)all of the above? About a month and a half after the driver safety course, I had to attend the Drunk Driver Impact Panel.

The panel was painfully effective. After an hour of listening to stories that youíll hopefully never have to hear, I walked out feeling worse than all of my parental scoldings and principal office summits put together. I was moved that the judge for the courthouse stayed on at the end of the day to listen, and that he took a personal interest in drunk driving. That meant something to me. A lot of people say that all judges are evil, or that all cops are a-holes, but that simply isnít true. Thereís good and bad wherever you go. Sometimes the bad outweighs the good, but sometimes a few dozen years of seeing the same damage puts a little cynicism in your stride, too. Finally, I understood the other side of the court room.

†Throughout all of these mishaps, Iíd been working on getting a claim for my stolen car. Allstate Insurance should change their names to Asshole Resurgence. At the time of writing this, itís been four months and we still havenít received a check for the value of the stolen car. From August to October, I gave a phone interview, twenty page notarized statements, personal statements, and an interview under oath. Why would anyone try and total their car, or get their car stolen, when youíll never regain the original cost, let alone the sentimental value? How does that make sense? Scores of people drive around without insurance. Many more get into accidents and donít report them, or settle it without bringing the agents into it to avoid the hassle. We did everything by the book and weíre still suffering for it. Justice isnít blind, Sheís just an accountant for an insurance company. After paying for just such an eventuality over the years, we canít get reimbursed. Why should I be made to feel guilty for having my car stolen? I may have to get my hot shot lawyer involved, and then itís going to get ugly. And not for me, either. Heís very good, talks very fast, and he always wins. Weíll see what happens.

A friend of mine (a full-fledged Buddhist), had a theory about bad luck. He said that the Eastern belief concerning luck is that the bad variety lasts for a year. Not that it travels in threes (that would be comforting), or that your luck runs out and never gets replenished; just one solid year of getting your karmic ass handed to you. Either Iím paying for things that Iíve done in a past life (if you buy that sort of thing), the stupidity I indulged in over the summer, or making a down payment on a year or two of good luck. That would be nice. By Confuciusí watch, Iíve got about six months of this left. And Iíll be damned if Iíll tempt the fates anymore. Best just to drive sober with my fingers crossed, and count the months. It feels like Iíve suffered enough, but, being raised Catholic, I always expect suffering. Some of my misfortunes were just plain bad luck, some could be chalked up to stupidity, and the rest of it was downright tragic. Luck is too ambiguous; Iíd like to think that you make your own consequences, and that you have to deal with them no matter what. A new calendar year is right around the corner. Iíll keep a horse-shoe in my glove compartment just in case.



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