I leaned against the wall of the gray and Formica rental office, waiting as the guy behind the counter gave his spiel – for the zillion and eleventh time from the sound of his voice. ‘Here are your estimated charges based on how many miles you say you expect to drive the truck…’ The man across from him stared at the paper contract, his mind seemingly on other things. Nearby a young woman described her apartment with muted excitement, presumably to her dad, rosy-cheeked and prematurely white-haired. Mr. Sunshine droned on. ‘…if no one's here park the truck along the fence and drop the keys in the drop box…’
I’d initially tried to reserve a truck for September 1st, but there were none available, anywhere in the area, unless I wanted the twenty-six-foot Behemoth. I pictured myself driving over the George Washington Bridge and along the narrowed lanes of the construction I knew was going on. I gave myself pretty solid odds that I’d end up sideswiping someone right into a concrete barrier so I passed, opting to wait an extra day for my fourteen-foot Elf.
‘…Here’s your contract number, here’s the toll-free number to call in case your truck breaks down…’ A second man appeared behind the counter and began talking with a customer in Spanish, and I wondered: out of all the people renting all those trucks this weekend, what were the chances of anyone in that tiny U-Haul rental office having their truck break down that day – and what a crapshoot it was, getting a good or bad truck depending on whether you showed up at the rental office at 9:03 or 9:05; on which set of keys your guy behind the counter happened to grab on his way out to the lot; or on whether the young woman decided she wanted the truck with the picture of the sea turtle instead of the UFO. If someone that day was going to end up using that toll-free roadside assistance number, who would it be?
I had plans to make a detour on my way to Lawn-Guyland, into Manhattan to pick up a Lightning McQueen bed I saw posted on craigslist. (I’d already bought one, and if I didn’t get another one my younger son was going to flip himself out.) Barreling down Route 80 I handed my phone to my nephew – relatives can make for good company and cheap labor – and told him to dial the number I’d written on a used and torn envelope so I could tell them I wasn’t coming. I got their voice mail, which was something of a relief; I told them I wanted the thing, now I was blowing them off because I didn’t feel like trying to navigate Manhattan in an Elf.
If I had, I would be forever hating Lightning McQueen and craigslist and U-Haul (and not in that order).
Our truck started shuddering while we were still on the LIE. (That’s the Long Island Expressway for you out-of-towners.) We made it to the slower commercial environs of Route 110, but we weren’t halfway to Huntington before we stalled out for the first time – luckily in an area with a big fat empty shoulder. In the next forty-five minutes we stalled out four more times. The twin silver linings were that there was a place to pull over out of traffic every single time, and every single time after a few minutes of me praying like a hypocrite and my nephew twittering the fun to his followers, were able to get our elf started again. (My nephew is such a good guy he likely offset the bad karma I tend to bring upon myself.) And I’d gun it and roar back into the flow of traffic, thinking without reason (or previous success) that more rpm’s would keep us from stalling again.
I think my nephew was a little disappointed we made it to the house, either because he was out of good tweet material or because his keen intuition told him his uncle was about to work him into the ground. I broke him in easy, asking him only to carry the huge bottle of sake I’d brought home from Japan into the kitchen while I put that toll-free number to use.
‘Let me see what I can do about getting a mechanic out there,’ the U-Haul girl said. And a van or a pickup so we can get home, okay,I told her. Because I’m not taking that thing back onto Pulaski Avenue let alone the LIE. ‘Sure, absolutely.’
It occurs to me now that, as with the next U-Haul girl, she may not have even been anywhere near New York and might not have known what ‘LIE’ even meant. She did, however, exhibit proficiency with the term ‘lie’.
When you break down in an epicenter of fun like the highway, you can count on waiting half your remaining life (assuming you don’t get swept immediately to heaven by one of the tractor trailers roaring by your side view mirror) for a tow truck to show up. I expected no better on a weekend when every single one of U-Haul’s trucks were on the road (mine couldn’t be the only one to break down, could it?), so my nephew and I took our time unloading the bulky pieces of the plastic playsets my boys barely used (though my mom said she wouldn’t be playing on them much either and I should haul them out of her backyard).
Barely ten minutes had passed when the girl called back to tell me a tow truck was already on the way. ‘And oh by the way when he gets there he’s going to want to take the truck for a quick drive to see if he can diagnose the problem and he’s not going to wait for you to get the truck unloaded nor will he be responsible for whatever falls and breaks back there while he’s bucking and lurching up and down Sixth Street.’
I guess I should give her credit for that bit of honesty.
Okay, nephew of mine, time to earn your pizza.
In thirty minutes we’d emptied the truck (I used to work for a moving company so the sucker was packed pretty damn tight). Only one single (and heavy) desk remained. We were discussing how to lift and carry it without breaking it or ourselves when the tow truck showed up. ‘Oh, take your time unloading,’ he says. ‘I’m going to poke around under the hood for a bit.’ My nephew and I, both dripping with sweat, now had to get everything we’d scattered across the lawn and all over the big front porch into the house before the neighbors could start forming their opinions about the new guy on the block. (Being from Jersey I figured I was already behind the eight ball of social perceptions.)
As the living room filled with boxes the truck was pronounced dead at the scene. Oddly, the tow truck guy was told to just leave it sitting there in the driveway. ‘Until they can get it towed it away, maybe Tuesday,’ he said, in a way that told me he didn’t understand it either.
The afternoon wore on, boxes and bags and bouncy balls slowly finding their way to their appropriate places in the house as I talked in intermittent spurts with Niah, my second U-Haul rep of the afternoon, who was trying to get the vehicle situation resolved from her support desk in Phoenix. Eventually another tow truck showed up to haul the (suddenly ironically-named) U-Haul away. It was 5:05 when Niah called to tell me that all the rental centers in the area closed at 5:00 so there was no way to get a vehicle to me so my nephew and I could get home. ‘Just take a cab back to…wherever. You can get reimbursed for it later.’ A cab…home…to New Jersey…two hours away.
‘That’s what they said,’ she said. They, I figured, were the voices in her head.
Fortunately East Northport has bred infinitely more helpful people. Greg, who lives in the cottage behind my house, also happens to be the manager of the pizza place down the street. ‘Welcome to the neighborhood,’ he said, hooking my nephew and me up with a large pie. Then while we scarfed it down he scoured his smartphone for info on train times into the city and then out into Jersey, to get us at least somewhere in the vicinity of the U-Haul place where my van was (presumably still) sitting. Then Lynne, my new neighbor across the street (we’d met and spoke earlier that afternoon, tow trucks are good conversation starters) offered to give us a ride to Huntington Station, a couple of stops west of Northport, where there might actually be trains running on Sunday evenings.
My nephew fell asleep on the way to Penn Station. I worked the kid hard, though the five slices of pizza he ate probably helped induce his coma. Plus his phone was dead and he couldn’t tweet anymore, and what else to do when you’re unplugged but totally disconnect. In New York we had to book it to make the next train heading for Morristown; I texted my sister to tell her that her son was probably going to make it home that night after all.
At Morristown we split a cab with a guy going to work somewhere between the station and my van. ‘Twelve dollars,’ the cabbie said as he pulled up to a big, brightly-lit office building bearing no indication as to what went on inside. Our cab-sharing friend handed him a ten and said ‘Well I’m splitting with these guys and you went the long way anyway, so here.’ And he trotted his very descript attitude off to his non-descript office.
At the end of our leg of the trip I tipped the driver an extra five bucks. What the heck, U-Haul’s paying. And in a normal-sized vehicle with a fuel pump that worked, I drove my nephew home.
Two days later I get a call from the guy who rented me the malfunctioning elf.
‘Sir, your truck was due back at 9am yesterday, where is it?...’