Driving out of the parking garage at my workplace this morning I happened to spy the nifty little warning light on my dashboard telling me that one of my brand new tires was suffering from low air pressure. Since my parking spot in the huge impersonal edifice dedicated to efficiently storing as many cars as possible is on a slight incline, I did not readily notice any sort of tilt in my car as I approached it minutes earlier. I would have liked to have pulled into another empty spot so I could have checked to see which tire was in trouble and just how low it had become but at that moment I was being swarmed by the nearly insane day shift personnel trying their best to all get parked at the same time. On a side note what is even more disturbing is the footrace that takes place after the oncoming shift gets out of their cars.
My very brief hesitation at studying my options so irritated a woman I knew to be a high-powered floor nurse with aspirations to becoming a war criminal she rolled down her window and screamed at me to move. Not wanting to draw anymore of her attention and possible ire, I decided discretion was the better part of valor and got the hell out of the way while saying a prayer she did not remember my name or ever came to night shift to work. The one piece of good news about the low tire pressure warning light was that it was glowing yellow, instead of red, which meant that I had a little time before the problem tire went completely flat.
It was then I decided not to fight the incoming mob, filled with similarly stressed out medical professional types and just drive straight to the nearest convenience store with a tire pump. Being on the west end of Columbia, South Carolina and near two Interstate roadways convenience stores are as abundant as stars in the sky and weeds in my yard so a few minutes later I was pulling up to a prime example of excessive capitalistic greed, the coin-operated tire pump.
Few remember the now nearly extinct old-fashioned gas stations complete with service repair bays, staff mechanics, and attendants who pumped the gas for the customer as he or she stayed in their car. Not only were they businesses that for decades met the needs of the American car culture but in many ways they provided a degree of free services that while very small nonetheless have left a gaping hole in daily life.
Contrary to what women generally say about men, I remember my granddad pulling into a gas station plenty of times to ask for directions and not only receiving them but also walking out with a free map to boot. These days only people with little commonsense or a huge self-destructive streak would ask anyone in modern convenience stores directions to anything other than the filthy, and usually broken bathroom they offer the public. For me though, the one service I found myself missing this morning were the once free to everyone air pumps.
Now like any good former Boy Scout/United States Army NCO I prepared long ago for just such an occurrence and pulled out the three quarters I squirreled away inside my car for just such a predicament. Thinking I would soon be back on the road, I walked up to the oversized stainless steel cylinder and was surprised to find that inflation or greed had struck again with the tire pump now requiring $1.50 to be activated.
“Son of a bitch!” I yelled loud enough to draw the attention of all the good commuters over at the gas pumps. Feeling tired from working all night and utterly disgusted over the fact that something once offered free as a courtesy now cost twice money as I had on hand I almost decided to put on the spare tire and be done with it until I remembered my new KIA Rio does not come with one.
Okay, for you folks who have not had the “pleasure” of buying a new car lately let me bring you up to speed on what is soon to be standard on both new imports and domestic cars. When my wife and I were going through the motions on our recent car purchase, we learned that to reduce the weight of cars to help increase gas mileage the entire industry was eliminating even the temporary spare tire for a small kit that essentially is a can of “Fix a Flat” on steroids.
I found the left, rear tire to be the problem child and since I did not want the hassle of using the new system, I felt around tread area hoping not to find a nail or some other piece of metals sticking from it. We learned from the helpful salesman that once you use the kit, for the wheel to be fixed it has to be cleaned out before it can be patched. With the tire appearing to be serviceable, my plan was to go inside the convenience store, purchase an item, and then explain to the cashier, who I knew in a limited fashion, how he could charge an extra seventy-five cents on my debit card so I could use the store’s air pump.
“Sugar, you want what?” The flamboyantly dressed dude said from behind the counter after I placed a bottle of orange juice next the cash register. At first I was rather puzzled, “Joe” the cashier is cool and I had seen him do the very same thing for others when they needed a couple of extra dollars after using their own credit or debit cards. It was only when he pulled down his certified Elton John Fan Club sunglasses and looked over towards the shiny new miniature ATM next the newspaper rack with a smiling Ricky Santorum clone in a suit standing beside it that I understood his reluctance.
“Never mind,” I said walking back to the freezer to put away the orange juice. I learned my lesson long ago about those small and inconspicuous, non-bank affiliated ATM’s which charge anywhere from five dollars or higher for their use. Santorum clone kept smiling like a pleasantly dressed but maniacal serial killer as I walked out leaving me with a slight concern for my safety but an overwhelming urge to wash my hands for some reason.
Back in the car, the low tire pressure light on the dashboard was still yellow as I drove away heading for the next convenience store a little ways down the road. After locating the air pump I was happily surprised to find it equipped with an actual debit or credit card reader, this would have bypassed my lack of sufficient coinage solving my problem in one neat swoop. Like the non-bank ATM at the previous store I was a little worried about what it might charge but the city traffic was getting exponentially worse as I was getting sleeper and figured it was worth the risk. Unfortunately, my luck remained the same and after sliding the card through, the little LCD screen did not change. Sliding the card a couple of more times only resulted in me verbalizing even more salty language to the point I was again drawing the attention of the nearby commuters at the gas pumps.
Because I was getting increasingly sleepy, a sort of obsessive desperation invaded my mind and I began driving around with no real plan on how I was going to fill up the tire going flat. If I had any idea at all, it was some thin hope of finding another air pump with a working card reader. Whatever the case I was simply not thinking coherently and over the next thirty minutes I stopped at three different convenience stores with no luck. After each stop, I somehow slipped further into the worsening flow of traffic going increasingly off course and deeper into the city. At some point the thought did pop into my idled mind that morning rush hour traffic in a big city had all the characteristics of a swarm of flies buzzing around a steamy pile of fresh cow shit.
Just when I began contemplating actually using one of those non-bank ATMs I pulled up to yet another coin-operated air pump the very same time as another guy. I jumped out and told this fellow I would be more than willing to go halves on the cost activating the damn thing as long as I could pump up my one low tire. The guy shrugged off my offer and paid for the whole thing himself and handed over the air hose after he was done.
With my problem solved, I began to feel slightly better but just to show how thin my marge of good luck was I had barely filled up my tire to the proper pressure when the pump shut down. Had I needed to reposition the hose to the other side of my car I would have probably not had enough time. Playing the good citizen I at least rolled up the hose and hung it on the hook when another person pulled up in a upper scale BMW. It was a lady with two kids in the backseat and she seriously looked about as befuddled as I felt a minute earlier.
Seeing that the pump had already deactivated after quickly stepping out her car she slapped one of her hands on top of the roof in frustration. “Damn.” she said, “I saw you from the road and hoped I could get here before it turned off. I don’t have enough change to start the pump but I have two tires going flat but I refuse to use those criminal ATMs in the stores.”
Feeling an unavoidable kinship at her situation, I laughed a little which did not sit well with her. “No problem ma’am, would seventy-five cents put you over the top?” I asked.
Another lesson I have long since learned is not to try and play the chivalry game in an urban setting filled with already mistrustful people. While the lady took my change, she clearly eyed me suspiciously as I had the Santorum-clone earlier. I drove away figuring I was fairly accurate with my idea of the true nature of a dense urban setting and the people driving around it.