Tuesday, April 12, 2011


My brother Robert often reminds us that everything is working out. Over the weekend when our mother’s visit from San Francisco went off so harmoniously, everything was working out. When Elliot did a spectacular job in his weekend performance at the high school play; when the kitchen renovation was finally completed, when my latest story was published, everything was working out. And we are nourished by these affirmations.

Until everything isn’t working out. Until the message on my cell phone yesterday afternoon: “Hi Mandy. It’s Robert. Not to alarm you, but I’m broken down on the New Jersey Turnpike and I’m waiting for a tow truck. Just wanted to give you a heads up. Not sure how long my phone is going to hold up because I was on the phone for quite some time with the Triple A – just wanted to let you know what was going on. All right, goodbye.”

What? How unfair of life! And how does this fit our narrative?

Next message: “Hi Mandy. It’s Robert. Well, I have to stay overnight so I’m here in Brunswick, New Jersey at a Ramada Inn and um, hopefully will get my car fixed tomorrow – I’m looking for my phone charger – and I-think-I’ve-left-it-in –the-car? Oh DAMN it!... Anyway… I’m fine and I’ll just have to work it out – I’ll probably shut my phone off so that I’ll save battery. All right I’ll talk to you later. Bye.”

I Skype with him later, and am reassured to see him propped up on pillows in the Ramada Inn. He is wearing glasses and a black t shirt. He’s coping. He will be fine. He’s also Skyping with his girlfriend Sherry so he’ll talk to me later. He has his laptop so all is well, and anyway, he doesn’t have to be in Massachusetts for his gig until tomorrow.

How like a car, I think to myself. Isn’t it just in their nature to break down? I remember when we lived in Rome, a few years ago, and the family had gone out of town. I’d woken up on my first morning of blissful solitude and driven to a favorite nature reserve on the top of Monte Mario. I parked the car, a black PT Cruiser, and set off with the dogs, Basil the dachshund and Hannah the labrador, down a path lined with fir, cypress and sequoia trees. The air was light and fragrant. I took in the beautiful panorama - a view of the Apennines, St Peter’s dome, a hot air balloon rising over the Borghese Gardens. The perfect life! Friends were arriving from Brussels the following afternoon. I had planned to cook something special, listen to music, do some reading and writing.

I completed the circuit with my dogs, loaded them into the car, and turned the key in the ignition. Then I tried the ignition again. And again.

Not a click.

An elderly gentleman wandered up the path. Could he help, perhaps? After attaching jumper cables to my battery and running his car engine for several minutes, he smiled apologetically. It couldn’t be the battery, he said. Evidently I had a more serious problem. Something electrical, perhaps. Good luck with it. I watched his figure amble up the sun-dappled lane, then I unloaded Basil and Hannah and walked five minutes to a gas station.

I explained my problem to an attendant in blue coveralls. He shook his head. Sorry. He couldn’t help. But there was a Q8 station further up the road. Was it far, I asked. No, no. Just a few kilometers.

Dogs in tow, I started up the road. Cars flew around hairpin turns at top speed. Drivers blared horns and gestured rudely. What was I thinking, walking dogs in such a place? What, was I crazy?

Fifteen death-defying minutes later, we arrived at the Q8 station where I explained my situation to a second mechanic. Again, he shook his head. Sorry. He couldn’t get around to it until later that afternoon. He handed me a card and told me to phone back at 4:00.

The walk home took me an hour. Harmony became a mirage. So I wasn’t in heaven after all. Everything was NOT working out. I’d been plunged into hellish inefficiency, dependent on car batteries and mechanics, where none could be found. Cars and motorbikes flew past. The dogs plodded onward. There wasn’t a scrap of shade. We arrived at the apartment, frazzled and exhausted at 11:00.

“Senora! Cosa fai?” Javid the portiere cried when he saw me. Ah, not to worry. There was an embassy technician, he believed. In fact, he himself would help get in touch with a mechanic, if necessary!

Many useless phone calls later, I arranged for a tow truck, which never arrived at Monte Mario. I took a bus back up the hill and waited for an hour. I walked around an olive grove, talking on my cell phone, trying to form a back up plan – which involved a car rental, suggested by my friend Elizabeth, who lived in Trastevere. But half way through the arrangements, my cell phone battery also died. So I waited at a bus stop for twenty minutes and made a second trip home.

My luck turned several phone calls later, at 3:00, when a gleaming white tow truck appeared in front of the apartment complex, riding high on the road. I almost kissed the driver! He was the most spectacular thing I’d seen all day. I sat in his air-conditioned cab as he drove up Monte Mario and back down the lane to where my dead car was parked so peacefully.

He hooked the front of the car to a cable, pulled it forward, and with his hydraulic crank, winched it to the back of his machine. He then conveyed us down to the Agip gas station on Corso di Francia, where I chatted with more mechanics. No problem, they assured me affably – you need a new battery. It’s very common. How old is the car? Ah, well that’s to be expected.

There were broad smiles all round, as I headed further up the road to the battery replacement people. Certainly, senora. They would have the car ready in an hour.

And that’s how I found myself grateful to be sitting in a McDonalds next to the garage. An old mechanic came in from next door and ordered a gelato. He saw me and smiled, giving me a signal “cosi cosi” with a balancing gesture of his hand. Soon they’d be finished with the car, he said.

So I was not an island. Also, I’d taken batteries for granted. But everything was working out. Four years in Italy taught me not to place much faith in efficiency, so this couldn’t be a lesson to keep my cell phone charged, or to foster a regard for mechanics. Surely it had to be something more profound. Something to do with my plunge from bliss into helplessness, and the struggle back to normality. Maybe it was about being stranded. Or about gratitude and patience and the irrelevance of hope.

I finished my lunch. The old mechanic finished his gelato. We returned to the garage and watched as two guys spray cleaned my car filter, washed their hands in a grease cutting cream and clamped the last few hoses into place.

By 4:00 the car was running once again. My whole day had been spent on the car, just to get back to zero. Instead of a day in peaceful solitude I’d taken a mental journey outside the system – outside the airtight world that had worked so smoothly until suddenly it didn’t, and I found myself locked out of harmony, without the material things I depended on.

Robert had been on a similar journey when he sent me a text at noon today. “Car will be fixed in an hour!” it read. Then, at 1:00: “Car running tip top all set!”

The exclamation points say it all. So Robert’s car died on the New Jersey Turnpike. And he’s been trying to make ends meet, and he’s had another set back. But he is a man who takes things in stride. And he’s grateful to be on his way. Hey, it’s almost better! I for one, am happier than when he started back to Boston, because once again he’s proven to us all that everything is working out.

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