Feb. 15, 2016
I am up to my elbows in freezing cold water, alternately cursing and humming wordlessly with pain as I reach for the bottom of an old washing machine. I did not imagine this scene in my fantasies about a Presidents Day getaway to see my eldest daughter in Ohio.
“Mom, can you do my laundry?” my 17-year-old asked about 45 minutes ago. “I didn’t bring enough clothes, and I have to study. Pleeaase.” We are staying in Columbus an extra two days because a storm closed schools back home in Northern Virginia. My 17-year-old daughter, Ginger, and I are visiting her big sister, Cassandra, a student at The Ohio State University.
“Sure,” I said. “I can do that.” The best part of this vacation for me is watching my girls having fun, loving their time together. Soon enough, life may part them. Only God knows the future.
I also am blessed – or cursed – with an extreme desire for my children to need and to love me. I will do anything for them. Running a load in the old machines in Cassandra’s apartment building cost $1.50. Highway robbery, but like I said, a mother’s love knows no bounds.
My love is about to undergo a harsh test. I rush to get a roll of quarters from a convenience store. The coins go straight into the slots and the clothes I scooped off the floor and couch and bed of Cassandra’s room go in right after. We put off dinner so the girls can study. Now, our stomachs gurgle with hunger, but Ginger has nothing clean to wear. For me, rushing is almost always asking for trouble, but I rush anyway.
The price is high. My electronic car keys are swirling around with Ginger’s jeans, underwear and socks. Have to be. I already dumped the contents of my purse on the floor of Cassandra’s one-room studio, flung my coat against a wall after I checked the pockets. No, those keys are here, probably jammed under the agitator in the center, the same agitator I am afraid will catch my shirt sleeves and rip my arms off. Ruined keys. Tears of frustration flow down my cheeks. “Shit.” Shit. Shit.” I say it over and over and kick the side of the washer.
Cursing is a new habit for me. I know I should feel bad about it, and if kids are around I don’t do it. But the truth is I like cursing. Maybe the novelty will wear off and I’ll stop, but for now it satisfies. And I have more reasons to curse than usual. “Mom, your car could be towed, you know,” Cassandra tells me casually as I run down the hallway to the laundry room, frantic to find my keys. “Costs a lot to get it back,” she adds before she turns up the volume on Coldplay and turns back to her “Human Sexuality” textbook.
Ten minutes tick by before the load shudders and stops. I toss the clothes on the dirty floor of the apartment laundry room like a dog digging in a garden. I feel the keys. YES. I close my eyes for a moment, afraid to look, then open them. They look damp, but no rivulets of water flow out of the cracks in the electronic buttons. Will they work? How will I get home if they don’t? How will my husband feel about paying for a new set?
I decide waiting a few minutes for the keys to dry will increase the chances they work properly, much like an iPod or other electronics work if their owners remember to let them dry out thoroughly first. I have no time for thorough, however. I must cut corners. I run up a flight of stairs and outside into the late afternoon cold, the wind blowing through my coat. My car is there, right where I left it. No worries. No one’s car gets towed in 20 minutes, right? I try the keys. They work perfectly. Thank God.
I return to Cassandra’s studio apartment, where my two daughters are studying, one Advanced Placement psychology for high school, the other “Human Sexuality” for whatever. I’m not sure. The room is warm. I sit down, eat a cookie, lean back and start to doze. Our “girls’ weekend” contains too many short nights for Mom. “Those keys are probably dry enough now,” Cassandra says. She doesn’t add, you better go check on your car. I never had a vehicle towed in 40 years of driving, and the possibility is more theoretical than real to me. I live, have mostly always lived, in “the sticks,” where no one worries about cars being towed from under their noses in front of their family’s apartment.
I step outside and the cold whips my face, making it go instantly numb. “Face freeze,” we three take to calling it. My car isn’t where I think I left it, but that doesn’t bother me at first. Even though the lot isn’t really a lot at all, just a space to jam 10 cars together, I look at each vehicle, thinking one will morph into mine if I blink hard enough. An awful truth is dawning. Someone stole my car, a possibility in Columbus, or towed it, which seems less likely to me. What now? “Call the tow company,” my daughter says when I run down the stairs to tell her what happened. “What tow company!” I am nearly screaming, and she puts her book down, her voice deliberately quiet. “I don’t know. Did you look for a sign outside? There’s usually one there.”
“No.” Fear pounds in me.
“You have to look.”
“Are you sure someone didn’t hide it to play a joke on us?”
“What?” Cassandra asked.
“That makes no sense whatsoever,” Ginger mumbles over her textbook.
“Yeah.” I run back outside and see nothing. Then I scan the walls of the apartment building. More than halfway up the side of the three-story building is a smallish sign, smallish to my middle-aged eyes, anyway, warning drivers not to park without a sticker and giving a phone number I can barely read in the deepening afternoon gloom and the snowy glaze covering the sign. Seven numbers. No area code. The number doesn’t work on my cell phone. I run back into the apartment building.
“Cassandra, what is the area code in Columbus?”
614. 614. 614. I repeat it as I run back up the stairs. I can’t read the rest of the number. Cassandra comes out, reels off the number and goes back into the warm apartment building. I dial and find myself talking to a man who asks me the make, model and color of my car.
“Yeah, we got it,” he says, as mildly if he is telling me the breakfast cereal is in aisle 8B. “But what do I do now?” I am getting mad and scared at the same time. “Where are you? Where did you take my car? Why did you take my car? I’m from out of town. I don’t know the rules. I can’t read your signs.”
“Ma’am, I am about to give you the information you need to get your car back: the location and the cost.
“Our facility is at 462 N. Freedom Lane. The cost is $110.”
“What? How am I supposed to even know where that is? How am I supposed to get there? Why would your company prey on people from out of town who don’t know your rules?” I launch into a detailed explanation about why my car was in harm’s way. I have reasons. Good reasons. The key was in the washing machine. They would see that.
“Once the car is here, there is nothing we can do about it,” the man’s voice says. “This conversation is just about over, ma’am,” he says. “I have other customers waiting for help. I’m going to hang up now.” He does.
I had written the address. Cassandra retrieves her car from a parking garage across the street. Together we finally find the car jail, in a sketchy neighborhood of two intersecting alleys, grimy, isolated in the middle of the city, garbage everywhere. She drops me off. I tell her to go back home and study. She is behind because of our visit. I don’t want my trouble to ruin the kids’ last night together.
I step inside a place with Citywide Storage stamped on a dirty concrete wall. The name is different from the one on the tow trucks that speed in and out of the gated parking lot, stashing car after car after car in rows. The door is already open, and the only room to which I have access is as cold as the outdoors. In a sort of room within a room is a huge, brawny bald man whose workspace is entirely encased in concrete and what looks like tinted, bullet-proof glass that makes it hard to even see the man clearly. A tiny slot in the glass provides access for “customers” to slide their credit cards.
“But I … “
I got no further. “Ma’am, I didn’t take your car. I don’t drive the tow trucks.”
I have no patience for this. Does he think he works at Walmart? “Condescending jerk,” I tell him. (Substitute curse word of your choice for “jerk,” if you are so inclined). Who cares which of the dirty jobs he has. He clearly has one. I am getting madder by the minute. I curse out the giant bald man. I am without a doubt rude, as rude as I can work at being. They have taken my car while I’m not watching for about 15 minutes and are holding it for ransom. I push my credit card through the slot, but the space on the other side, HIS side, is so short that the card sails off the end and lands on the floor. He picks it up and hands it back to me. The first time is an accident, but the second time isn’t. I do it again, this time on purpose. It falls to the floor again. This time, the giant brawny man complains I “threw” the practically weightless card at him through the tiny slot.
“I don’t have to give you your car back, you know.” His voice betrays controlled anger. “I can keep it. I am going to keep it.” He starts to walk away, into some back area of his bunker I can’t see. Seriously? I think. If this guy has to do his job behind concrete and bullet-proof glass, surely he faces bigger problems than cursing from unhappy customers. Why is he pulling a power trip on me? “When you are ready to slide your card through nicely, I will give you your car back,” he tells me.
“I hope you sleep well at night, you jerk (only I use another word, a coarser one).
“Like a baby.” He demonstrates by laying his head atop two prayerful hands.
“You must be joking.”
“I am going to call the police.”
“Fine. We have you on our surveillance cameras, every rude thing you said.”
In Columbus, is rude a crime? Can the big man legally let me freeze to death outside? I don’t know. A shop owner once told my daughter that living and working in Columbus, near the university, at least, is like living in “the Wild West.” I go outside and call the police nonemergency phone number. A dispatcher tells me an officer will come, but doesn’t say when. I hang up and text my husband, my hands so cold I can’t punch the buttons on my phone without introducing typos. “I’m so cold.” I tell him. “They won’t give me back my car now because I was rude.”
My husband calls the dispatcher for the towing company, but he quickly gets mad at what he perceives as a condescending, disrespectful attitude from the employee. She hangs up on him.
By now, I am afraid to slide my credit card through the slot. I picture the giant demanding I do it over and over and over until I do it just right. I don’t want to play. I want warmth. I want safety. I want to go home. The dispatcher first tells my husband that if I walk around the building, there is a warm place to wait. Nope. No such place. She also tells him the company only takes cash, and I don’t have $110 in cash, and I don’t know the PIN numbers for my credit cards. I get scared all over again. But nope. That’s not right either. In the end, I find out that credit cards work fine.
Finally, a squad car pulls up silently in front of the broken sidewalk at the car-napping lodge, and I feel warm air drift out as the officer emerges. I beg to sit in her squad car, and when she opens the back door I bounce in, expecting a cushion to bounce me back. No. The back is wood, or that’s how it feels. It is too dark to see. If I hopped in more eagerly, I might have broken some bones in my backside.
After a long talk in which the officer tactfully hints that it might be better to go inside and not freeze to death outside, I follow her in, and we take care of business. I slide the card. The big man takes it, processes it and hands me the receipt through the tiny crack in his bunker. I tear it up and hand it back to him.
He says nothing. Since the officer arrived, he is a gentle giant, as sweet as a newly bloomed tulip in spring. Still, I ask the officer to go with me to my car. The big dude scares me, and I don’t want him following me out to my car and deciding I’m not doing something respectfully enough to suit his need for good manners.
I pull out the wrong keys and when they don’t work, I think that they are the machine-washed keys and that I will never leave the lot of the Jolly Green Giant.
The officer comes over and gently walks me through the process of finding the right key in my purse. I do. It works fine. I thank her for her kindness, say nothing to the giant, who avoids looking at me, and drive out of the lot, observing all traffic laws.
I am out $110. Nothing I can do about that. I am still mad, although the police officer helped me calm down.
Lessons learned: Never, ever, for any reason, park in the wrong place in the city of Columbus, Ohio. It is, in many ways, a cold and unforgiving place. Maybe all big cities are. I just don’t spend enough time in them to learn the details, and I hope I never do. Lesson No. 2, get a grip. Why am I unwilling to work with a man who probably deals with so many grouchy, even homicidal, humans in a day that he is lucky to stay human himself?
Just before my trip to Columbus, I am Web hopping when I come across some quotes from Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun who spent a lifetime serving the poor. I read about her before, but this time her words land on my heart and stick there. “If you judge people, you have no time to love them,” she wrote.
And for me most telling, “In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.” That is the right way to look at life’s bad moments, but I’ve never been very good at it. Whining, and lately cussing, are easier.
To the man in the bunker: I’m sorry. I was wrong. I’m learning.