Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Road Service

Driving home to South San Francisco well after 10:00 one night in the mid-1970s, my 1971 BMW R50-5 started to slow down. A minute later I was sitting in the middle of the road, bike in gear, clutch all the way out, engine running, going nowhere. It all happened too suddenly and completely to be caused by stretching of the clutch cable, which had recently been replaced; but it doesn't cost anything to try tightening the cable, so I tried. It didn't work. Time to call my husband.

The secondary road I was on was dreary and desolate enough, but a better place to be stranded than the freeway. I tried pushing the bike toward home, judging that the road was level for a good distance. In fact, it was slightly uphill. The bike weighs upwards of four hundred pounds, and the horizontal pistons are inconvenient for female arms; I never could push that thing without repeatedly barking my shins on the left crash bar. I pulled up beside the road and looked around.

The only sign of sentient life on the long, dark street was a trailer park. Knocking on the door of the first trailer that seemed inhabited and awake, I was scrutinized by a woman who declined to open the door or let me use her telephone but suggested that I try the trailer next door. The guy there let me in.

I called my husband and explained the situation. He told m to tighten the clutch cable. I said I already had.

"You obviously didn't do it enough. Go tighten it some more."

I thanked the guy in the trailer, went back to the bike, and set about tightening some more.

You can tell when a control isn't affecting anything. This one certainly wasn't. I turned it many revolutions, and then many more, and then a few more, just to be really sure before bothering the guy in the trailer again.

My husband wasn't impressed. "You didn't do it enough. . . ."

I knew I had turned it enough and more than enough, and I didn't like the way the guy in the trailer was looking at me. Time to insist.

"Yes, I did, and I can't keep bothering this guy who's letting me use the phone. You've got to come out here."

"All right -- but if this turns out to be nothing, it's going to cost you." This really was a threat to charge his wife for road service. He'd have been capable of that.

Ten or fifteen minutes later, he pulled up in his ugly green panel truck, grinning from ear to ear. The best of this guy can be seen in an emergency; once he gets started, he actually enjoys this kind of thing. He turned the same control I had been turning, for some time. Then he ordered me off the motorcycle --obviously, I couldn't be trusted to try it myself, since I couldn't even tighten the cable adequately.

Vaulting into the seat, he plugged the key into the ignition (the old BMWs had that key that pushes down to make the connection and then turns to the "on" position), stomped on the starter, kicked the bike into gear, let the clutch out, and went, as I confidently expected, nowhere. He kicked around from gear to gear for a while, finally announcing with a broad grin,"That's what's left of second gear." (As it turned out, he was wrong. All that had happened was the bolts that connect the transmission to the drive shaft had worked their way loose. Possibly, they hadn't been tightened properly after the last flat tire. The clutch cable had nothing to do with it.)

We produced a long, sturdy plank that lived in the truck, and followed our drill for such emergencies. First, he pushed the bike as far up the plank as he could reach. Then I held it while he jumped into the truck. He pulled it the rest of the way, and I pushed from behind as best I could.

A previous owner of the truck -- I wonder how many previous owners that truck had? - had paneled the inside, so there was nothing to tie a rope to. We put the bike in gear and tied the foot brake firmly. Then I crouched beside the bike, clinging to the hand brake that stops the front wheel, thinking about Newton's laws of motion and hoping we wouldn't hit any potholes.

We got home all right. We always did. As we prepared for a well-deserved rest, my husband remarked: "You're lucky you called when you did. If I had been in bed, with my glass of wine and a book, you'd have been out of luck."

If he had actually left me stranded on the road, I'd have considered murder; but he wouldn't have done that. If he'd presented me with a bill and extorted the money from me -- he did things like that -- we'd have had one of our classic fights. But he didn't do that either. Part of the dynamic of our relationship was that as long as no harm was done, I was inclined to laugh at his nonsense. I have avenged myself for this instanceof churlishness by telling the story to anyone who would listen ever since.