“Play the ‘old-person’ card,” I whisper to him as he rings up AAA. “The stuck-at-night-in-a-dark-abandoned-place-between-two-parking-lots card.” All true. All more dramatic-sounding than it is. Barry had recently been stuck with a flat tire for hours as AAA told him conflicting, inaccurate stories about the estimated time of help arriving.
The dispatcher demonstrates due concern, as Barry and I use his speakerphone to tag-team our dottering elder routine. We are too effective. “Shall I send the police to check up on you?” she asks to our horror. “No, no,” we answer hurriedly in habitual 60s paranoia, “we’re fine. Just fine.”
We get out of the car and stand on the sidewalk and barely stretch our legs when a giant flat-bed tow truck starts backing towards the trunk of Barry’s Camry. Out of the driver’s side lumbers Rick, easily topping 350 confident pounds. Out of the passenger side Jose dismounts, just a sliver of a lad at about 250+ pounds. They hook up a chain and start to drag the car up onto the tilted flatbed, but the car does not want to move. He is scraping it upwards a few inches by force, but its resistance is total.
“It’s the transmission,” Rick posits. “Shot.”
He messes around with its innards, but the thing isn’t moving. He looks under the car. “It’s the axle,” he says, “probably broken.” He gets down on the ground with no little agility, showing off the crack between his butt cheeks, and has Jose shine a flashlight, but he can’t really see what the problem is.
Again he tries dragging the car up and I have a bad feeling that he is working against the transmission in a potentially harmful way. “I think the car is in gear,” I say, knowing little about cars but being pretty convinced by what I’m seeing.
“Lady…” Rick mumbles, with the only sign of impatience he will show tonight.
“Let the man do his job,” Barry says.
To his credit, Rick looks under the hood, discovers that the shifter cable is severed, and hand-switches the car into neutral. It was in gear. Once he switches it to neutral manually, they load the Camry without a problem.
“Do you need a ride?” Jose asks.
“Yes, we told AAA we need to go back to Needham with the car.”
The two men look at each other. The cab is only built for three. But they are game. I climb way up the metal ladder and sit next to Rick, Barry follows, and poor Jose squeezes his generous physicality into the little space left on the passenger side. I am not a tiny being, but I feel like Barry and I are two thin slices of pastrami in a very hefty roll.
It could have been uncomfortable or worse, especially as none of us can use the seat belts. It could have been weird. Instead, it is cozy and fun. And the fun is only beginning. Rick has been doing this work since he was 14 years old and now that he’s 50 and semi-retired from it, in a manner of speaking, his confidence is supreme and justified.
We take off through the streets of Lowell at an unseemly pace and his cell phone rings. He answers with his left hand, grabs a notebook and pen from the dashboard with his right and starts to write, all the while steering our giant vehicle through the narrow streets of this mill town that some call the cradle of the USA industrial revolution. “Star Towing. A dead battery? Okay, give me the address. Yeah, in front of Kmart or behind? Fine. Yeah, we’re on our way.”
He turns towards us. “Do you mind if we stop and give these folks a jump? They’re stuck in a dark parking lot. They sound stressed.” We don’t mind. He floors it. Barry and I look at each other. It’s an unusual situation for both of us. For him, he’s generally a nervous passenger, and for me, I tend to avoid putting myself inside an all-male flesh sandwich. Somehow, though, Rick radiates competence and Barry and I both step away from our everyday defenses and relax in Rick’s hands. The scenery whizzes by the screeching truck. We are sitting high above the roofs of the cars we’re passing. I’m happy to be in the midst of an adventure.
We stop and Jose and Rick leap out and leap in. “Fixed already?” I’m incredulous. “Just a jump,” Rick says.
Back on the road, the phone rings. “Star Towing. Where are you parked? Is that Lindsey Road or Lindsey Street? Well, is the fire station across from you? No? Is there a little traffic island then? Okay, stay there. We’ll be there soon.” He writes all this down and then lays down the tablet and pen on the dashboard and picks up a walkie-talkie. “Flat tire on Lindsey Street, at the north end. Can you go?” It crackles like walkie-talkies do, and we hear a man say, “On it.” So Rick’s a dispatcher too.
“It was so quiet all evening,” Jose says after the third call. “That’s why I’m here. I’m driving a truck too but nothing was coming in so I just came along with Rick.”
“How long have you been driving a tow truck?” I ask.
“Three months already.”
“Do you sit around a lot?”
Rick answers. “They don’t pay us for down time. Just per job. $15 per job, don’t matter what kind of job. So we sit around an hour, two hours, we’re not making a cent. A call comes in to tow someone home to say New Hampshire. The AAA guys don’t want the job cause it’s too far. They’re getting paid by the hour. They refuse it and it comes to the independents. So if I turn jobs down, they stop sending things my way. They don’t consider me cooperative, and the owner of the tow truck is losing money. I don’t have a job pretty soon. So I drive to New Hampshire and back to home base in Lawrence and I’m making $15.”
“Who owns the truck?” I ask.
“A guy who’s been around. He makes all the money. After I sold my gas station – bought the first one at 21 – I bought my own tow truck, but then I retired at 50. Now I’m just helping him out. He can’t find drivers. I’ve been on since 6:00 this morning.”
“Me too,” says Jose. “And now it’s 11:00.
The phone rings. “My girlfriend’s gonna kill me,” he says in my direction. “That’s how I lost the last one. No, make that the last two.” Back to the phone: “Star Towing. To Plymouth? Not me. Hold on, let me check at the yard.” He talks into the walkie-talkie, “Anyone want a job in Plymouth to bring someone back to Lawrence?” There are some crackles. “Plymouth?” the voice sounds dubious. Rick turns back to the cell phone, “No one available. Sorry about that.”
“I feel for those folks stuck in Plymouth,” he tells me. “It’ll be hard to find anyone to help them.”
Jose makes a noise. “Do you want the Plymouth job?” Rick asks him. “Well, it’s getting busy all of a sudden,” Jose answers. Rick’s cell phone rings. He answers and asks them to hold because at the same time a guy’s voice jumps out of the walkie-talkie. “Can’t find the Lindsey Street flat tire. And I’m ready to go home.” Rick looks at Jose, who nods. “Forget it,” Rick says to the walkie-talkie, swerving into a closed gas station with an almost sickening suddenness. I refrain from looking back at the car on the flatbed. If it was going anywhere, we’d know by now.
“Want to go back to the yard and catch that flat on Lindsey, Jose?”
“Don’t mind if I do. And I’ll bring those poor folks up from Plymouth, too.”
Rick returns to the cell phone. It’s the Lindsey flat and he reassures them that help is on the way. We are flying. I ask why the cops haven’t stopped us the way he is speeding. “I know them, built up a nice relationship over the years. They let us alone.”
His phone rings and he answers as he grabs his notebook and pen. “Why don’t I take the notes?” I ask. “I’m good at it and you can read my handwriting, I promise.” He hands me the pen and paper. “Go ahead.
I’m stunned by the way he multi-tasks so capably, by the kindness he feels towards stranded strangers, and by his ability to stay on the road at high speeds despite sleep-deprivation and endless interruptions. I tell him so.
Rick stops the truck and Jose hops out. Rick makes a loop as we gratefully lock in our seatbelts – well, mine just goes around my lap – now that we’re down to three in the front, and then we’re on the highway at last. The calls come in and I take down the notes, while Rick manages the phone, walkie-talkie and this giant rig. He worries about the safety of each customer and about his boss the fleet owner who can’t find enough drivers (no surprise, considering the conditions), all with the greatest humanity. I tell him I really dig his pen, the one I’m taking notes with, and he insists, absolutely insists that I keep it. Won’t accept a trade or anything. Just has a chronic case of “nice guy.” I look at it more closely and see it’s called B-to-P – a plastic bottle made into a pen. Very cool.
He takes us to Barry’s mechanic’s garage and unloads the car. He dictates a note for Barry to leave (about changing gears manually in order to move the vehicle) and insists on waiting for us to drive us back to Barry’s place, although we say we can walk. It’s not enough for Rick to get us to the complex, he snakes that giant truck through the back driveways in order to drop us at the door. Rick is not just an emergency tow truck driver to his stranded customers: he’s in loco parentis – the Big Daddy of (safer) excitement.