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Al Martinez

Shake the Cable First

May 01, 1986|AL MARTINEZ

I was driving along the Ventura Freeway in my faithful 280Z on a night as warm and sweet as honey in tea when it occurred to me that, all things considered, I was a pretty lucky man. I was in reasonably good health, my children were heterosexual, my column had cleared the censors and the IRS audit center in Glendale had burned down.

It was altogether a terrific evening, and I whistled a zany little tune as I enjoyed a rare moment of well-being. Then my lights went out.

I am not speaking metaphorically here. My headlights blinked to black, along with my dash lights, my turn lights and all the other lights that adorn my car. And then my engine failed.

Only those who have endured the horror can understand what it's like breaking down on the Ventura Freeway.

There is never a time when traffic is light on what is known locally as the Death Strip. Try it at 4 a.m. on the Sunday after the end of the world and you will find the Ventura almost as busy on Doomsday as it is during the commute hours.

I don't know why everyone is adrift in the middle of the night. They are out dealing coke or buying pizza or looking for the Swami Saraswati, who is said to be driving north toward Camarillo.

What I do know is that I was in the middle of them, lightless and powerless, as the inertia of my forward thrust faded and my speed began to drop.

I kept thinking it would be a lousy way to die and wishing I had written something more poetic as my last column and wondering how my patient wife would be able to manage our stupid dog without me.

A suburban newspaper columnist was smashed to death last night on the Ventura Freeway when his car failed in the fast lane and he was struck several times by coke-dealers, pizza-buyers and those seeking the Swami Saraswati. He is survived by his patient wife and his stupid dog. His last column could have been better.

Then the lights went on again.

I could accept this as divine intervention and fall to my knees in prayer on the shoulder of the road or I could get the hell off the freeway and find a gas station. Prudence suggested the latter.

I found a station operated by someone who could speak English and who could understand something other than how to turn on a gas pump. The attendant listened as I explained in some detail everything I knew about my problem, after which he scratched his genitals, spit on the ground, got in the car and, as they say, cranked 'er up.

"Starts good," he said, getting out again.

"Starting good," I explained, "is not the problem."

I went over it all again, and he said, "You been foolin' with the light switch?"

"Why would I be foolin' with the light switch?"

He shrugged and spit again. "Some people do."

Clearly the man was not up to dealing with power shortages in a clean, well-kept 280Z, so I moved down the street to another station, the honey-sweet night rapidly taking on the acrid nature of hemlock and hard liquor.

"Tell you what, Elmer," the mechanic said, "you come back in coupla hours and I'll have it fixed."

Under stress, I had slurred my name again and he thought it was Elmer Teenez.

"Couple hours ?" I whined.

He nodded.

"What do I do for a coupla hours?"

The car had been running and it suddenly stopped. Then, on its own, it started again.

"Well," I said, "I'll think of something."

I wandered into a cowboy bar off Sepulveda that smelled of beer and urine, but shortly wandered out again. It wasn't the beer and urine or even the large drunken cowboys that caused me to leave, but I'll be damned if I'll drink in a place that only plays "Okie From Muskogee" on the jukebox.

I drifted through the darkness into a Denny's, which you otherwise could not force me into at the point of a spear tipped in sputum, but there was no place else to go.

"Coffee," I said.

"That's all ?" the waitress demanded.

Her tone was hostile. My mood was sour.

"No," I said, "as a matter of fact, I would like some coffee, some cachat d'Entrechaux cheese, a bowl of potage a la tortue and a whole suckling pig." The manager was listening and he said, "We don't want trouble, pal."

I left, coffeeless. Back at the service station, the attendant said, "Good news, Elmer."

"You fixed it?"

"Didn't have to. Ain't broken."

"But it is !" I insisted.

I went over the problem again. A woman waiting nearby overheard.

"Shake the battery cable," she said.

I did. The car started. The cable began to smoke.

"It's a short," she said. "Next time shake the cable first."

Then she left. Who was that masked woman?

I had the cable replaced for $12 and the car has operated efficiently ever since. Furthermore, I continue in reasonably good health, my columns still clear the censors and my children remain, to the best of my knowledge, firmly heterosexual.

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