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LIFE ON WHEELS

Going the Extra Mile for Stranded Friends

June 29, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

When my phone rang at 10 p.m. last Thursday, I was surprised to hear the voice of a friend who hadn't called in quite awhile. We aren't as close as we once were--you know how those things go--but we still run into each other frequently.

After a minute or two of small talk, he got to the point. "I was wondering if you could do me a teeny-tiny favor," he said.

Now, in my experience, the actual size of a favor tends to be in inverse proportion to the adjective used in requesting it. When people ask for a "big" favor, for example, they usually just want to bum a match or something.

At least he wasn't asking for an "itsy-bitsy" favor, which generally translates into something along the lines of "Would you mind taking over my car payments until Christmas?"

"What favor?" I asked apprehensively.

Just as apprehensively, he spilled the story. "My car just died on the 55. Well, it's not actually on the 55; I managed to make it to the exit ramp. But I think the clutch just went out.

"I don't know if there are any buses that come by here, or if they would even be running this late, but. . . ."

"You know there aren't any buses down there this time of night," I interrupted. "Just tell me where you are and I'll come get you."

I have since spoken to friends who were astounded that I reacted that way. "Why didn't you just tell him to call the auto club?" they say. "Couldn't he just go rent a car? Call a cab?"

"I'd do the same for any of my friends," I tell them. "Wouldn't you?" Until that moment, it hadn't occurred to me that they might not.

Not coincidentally, these are people from Back East, a land where everything is not a minimum 30-minute drive from everything else, a world equipped with buses and trains and even sidewalks for those who have no choice but to hoof it.

But here in Orange County, an inoperative car is a bona fide emergency. I learned that shortly after I arrived here more than five years ago, when my engine blew up one morning in a delayed reaction to its first--and last--trip across the desert.

I was more than an hour late for work and terrified that I'd be in big trouble with the boss. But when I told her what happened, she was amazed I'd even made it in at all.

"Any word on your car?" my co-workers would ask, day after day. "Are you OK? Do you need anything?" My friends networked to make sure I got to the bank, the day-care center, the grocery store, not to mention the appointments I had to keep during the working day. Sometimes they passed me off like a baton in a relay race. With a repair bill that had already burst through the $1,000 barrier, they knew I couldn't even think about renting a car.

Back East I probably wouldn't even have mentioned my car trouble, and if I had, it would promptly have been forgotten. After all, it was only an inconvenience, nothing crippling.

With that in mind, off to the rescue I drove.

The area my friend had directed me to was so dark and deserted that I never would have found him if he hadn't been blinking his dead car's headlights over and over. As we loaded his things into my car, he alternated between thanking me and apologizing. I'd never seen him look so helpless. I felt terrible, and I knew he felt worse.

He was due at work somewhere in Los Angeles early the next morning, too early for any car rental agency to be open. "I don't know what I'm going to do about work," he said. "I'll just have to call and tell them I can't make it."

My back-Eastie friends were even more shocked when they heard what I said next.

"Take my car," I said.

My wheel-less friend was shocked, too.

"I can't do that!" he said.

"No, really," I said. "I wasn't planning on going anywhere in the morning." I did have some errands to run, but nothing that couldn't wait a few hours.

"I'd like to think you'd do the same for me," I said.

Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to plan ahead, so the car was not only an embarrassing mess but nearly out of gas by the time I handed him the keys. He didn't complain.

I must confess that I didn't sleep so well that night, even though I had complete faith in my friend's driving abilities and trustworthiness. But somehow, just knowing that I had no wheels made me uneasy. Now that I was suddenly, albeit voluntarily, without transportation, I realized what a comfort it was the rest of the time, knowing that I could just jump in the car and go.

The next morning when I went out to get the newspaper, I felt kind of weird walking across the empty space in my driveway. Back inside, I looked at the clock. It was 7:30. He'd promised to call by 10 a.m. and let me know what was happening.

By 10:30 the phone was still silent, and I was getting antsy. I was into some serious pacing by the time it finally rang shortly after noon.

He was still at work; couldn't get away for another hour at least. He'd had his car towed to a shop near where it was stranded, a place that promised "Same Day Service" in its phone book ad.

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