Stephanie called this morning around 9 AM. On her way to work at a local country club kitchen, her car broke down, by the concrete plant just outside of town. It was 50 degrees and pouring rain.
I drove to meet her, jumper cables and toolkit in tow. When I pulled in, the rain fell even grayer, even harder. Stephanie was practically sitting in the hood of her car, tinkering around, pulling off hoses, checking for strange sounds.
“I keep mooning everyone!” she exclaimed, pulling up her jeans, which had lost the button but were the only clean ones she could find this morning. “Just to warn you, I’m going to start cussing here in a couple minutes. I hate cars. I seriously want to go to school for mechanics so I know how to fix them. Mine always break down on me.”
Stephanie has been through many cars in her 25 years of life. She never has enough money to get a reliable one, and her credit is shot from unpaid credit card bills and about $10,000 of defaulted student loans. So when she goes to buy a new car, she goes to a “Buy Here, Pay Here” lot, with interest rates sometimes reaching up to 30 percent.
She bought the ’96 Ford Contour that now sat, very wet and very broken down, two months ago with $1400 of her income tax return. It’s not uncommon for her cars to break down after a couple months of owning them. Last time it happened was when she was eight months pregnant and the single mother of a four year old. She bought a van, which broke down less than two months later. She took it back to the dealer, who made the remark, “I’m surprised it lasted you that long!” When they sold her the car, they gave no indication that the vehicle was on its last legs. And ever short on cash, she didn’t spend the money to have an outside mechanic check it out.
“Why can’t I ever catch a break?” Stephanie sighed, her black zip up sweatshirt now wet and clingy, its hood hiding most of her short bleach blonde hair.
I stood there, largely unhelpful. I’d hand her a tool when she asked for it, wipe down the battery with a white rag, retrieve a flashlight, turn the ignition to see if anything had changed. But nothing did. Not even after we tried jumping the car.
“I tried calling my Dad,” Stephanie said. “He basically told me that I’m shit out of luck. I don’t talk to my dad.” Her dad owns a gas station not too far away, but she never sees him.
I thought about my dad—who had given me the tools and the jumper cables and the flashlight, along with a million other useful things, all packed with care into a red duffel bag, a kind of home-made emergency preparedness car kit. If there is one thing I’ve learned from my dad, which he learned from his youth in Boy Scouts, it’s to be prepared. My brother and sister and I all kind of tease him about it, but in times like these, I’m thankful for his foresight.
“I really need your dad to make me one of those kits,” Stephanie said.
We stood for about an hour in the cold rain, until we were soaked through and our fingers were going numb. Cement trucks kept pulling in and out of the parking lot, but no one stopped to help. Cars flew by on the road, no one even slowed down.
“I know I look like a dude right now, but come on people! I bet if I were wearing a short skirt and heels someone would stop,” she joked seriously.
We decided that fixing the car ourselves was a lost cause. We found shelter for a moment inside the smoky cab of the ’96 Contour and decided what to do next. I suggested getting it towed, but Stephanie was resistant to that idea. “I’ve got $100 left in my bank account, and that is supposed to be for gas to get to work, and groceries,” she said. “Oh, and I have to write an $8 check for Colton’s field trip on Friday.
“Do you want me to go pick up Seth and David?” I asked, at a loss as to what to do.
“Nah. They’ve got the kids,” Stephanie said. My husband David was home working (while our eighteen month old watched Elmo—a special diversion reserved for times like these), and Seth is Stephanie’s boyfriend who is stay-at-home dad while Stephanie is at work.
Instead of getting the guys, our plan was to roll Stephanie’s car from the side of the road into the parking lot of the cement plant, and then to find a mechanic who would look at it.
“Go ahead and pull your car into the parking lot so it’s out of the way,” Stephanie directed.
After I parked and was walking back, I saw Stephanie pushing her car…by herself. It was in neutral and she was walking beside it, the driver’s door was open, her right hand reaching inside to steer, her left arm braced the windshield and she leaned her whole body into the frame to help her push the car. I got behind it and started pushing, but when we got to a slight hill, we had to stop.
“Stephanie sat in the driver’s seat, panting. “I’m so out of breath!” she said between gasps.
After getting help from four burly cement truck driver’s we got the car up the hill and into the parking lot. I drove Stephanie to work, better late than never, and paid for a tow truck to take the car to the mechanic my parents’ have used for the past twenty-some years. Stephanie found out a couple hours later that the car is now junk. She’ll probably get a couple hundred bucks for it.
When she told me, she had almost-tears in her eyes. Just almost. She’s strong. She’s got to be.
For those of us who have social capital, it’s easy to miss how hard life can really be when you don’t have it. Stephanie’s dad is out of the picture. Her mom and stepdad help sometimes, but are struggling financially themselves and get annoyed by Stephanie’s requests. Her sister, who is also a single mom, had her car break down this week, too. (Stephanie was supposed to be her new ride.) She stopped hanging out with most of her friends when they got too involved with drugs and the like. She’s mentioned to me before that she’s not sure who she would call if she didn’t have me when she is broken down on the side of the road.
For as much as individual willpower matters (and it does), there is so much to be said for social support, for neighborliness, for a stronger civil society.