Back when I first moved to Los Angeles from North Carolina, I was awed by retractable sprinkler heads, smog, mountains, rainbows of people, poverty, loneliness, Mexican food, and a runt kitten who fit in the palm of my hand. My now ex-husband convinced me I could join him out here and I could stay in college. There was one we could afford just 30 miles away from his own grad school apartment. Neither of us had a clue what a one-way 30-mile commute in Los Angeles would be like.
I became “in league with the freeway,” as Robert Plant sang. Interstates here were not called such, nor highways, nor I-anything, and never just numbers. They were The 405, The 110, The 91. Titled entities where I would work my steady way to the far left lane, sing with the radio, and try to calm down. My college was in a working port city, Long Beach, and one morning, I was so “in league” I missed the last exit and drove straight onto the docks where our little Chevy Celebrity was the only vehicle that wasn’t about to transform into a container on a cargo ship. I hoped. A dockworker told me to just keep driving through and eventually I would come to an exit. He looked surprised, but he didn’t laugh at me, and I was grateful.
One day, on the way home from school, I had just reached the far left lane of The 405 when there was a loud pop and the Chevy started shaking. My first thought was earthquake, but as I threw myself onto the steering wheel and heard a slapping sound, I realized I had blown a tire. There were horror stories of people marooned on the left shoulder, so I signaled and limped my way back to the right. But I was nowhere near a shoulder. The first open space was the large asphalt triangle separating The 405 and The 710. This no man’s land might be the Celebrity’s final resting place.
Did I say it was 1987? Cellular telephones were for kingpins on Miami Vice, so I would have to make it to a blue call box and hope to be able to reach AAA.
But—that was not something I had to figure out. As soon as I threw the car into park, a white tow truck appeared in my rearview. Out stepped a mechanic who, I swear, looked like Sting in sunglasses—wavy blonde, tall, muscular—but more Malibu than London. He got in my face and yelled over the traffic’s roar, asking if I had a spare. Not that this is any excuse, but I was 20, and I didn’t know the answer. But Sting did. He knew right where to look and, finding my spare, yelled for me to step back—but—not too far!
I’d dressed up for a speech I had to give in class that day. The ridiculous pastel-colored full skirt that I would not normally be wearing to school threatened to flip over my head in the wind from onrushing cars. Bunching it between my knees, I turned around and looked behind me. Cars were coming straight at us, me and Sting, and then at the last second, veering off onto their chosen freeways. Sting’s presence like Moses’s, parting the waters. I was that in awe of him.
A girlfriend had mentioned that her brothers taught her to change a tire before she moved to LA. I, on the other hand, was an unprepared wimpy damsel who just happened to get lucky. I scoff at the damsel that I was, but I’ve learned over time to forgive her. Sting would’ve stopped for anybody. Not the musician, but the mechanic who, like the dockworker, didn’t laugh at me.
It was over in minutes. He put his jack back into his truck. I made my way to the driver’s side. He flashed a smile when I told him I would mentally send him a Christmas card for the rest of my life. This is that Christmas card.