Car Trouble and Overheated Angst





An hour of roll forward, brake fast, wait, creep forward, brake, and my aged Mini’s air-conditioning goes tepid. Then a warning message flashes: something about my battery not recharging itself. Ten seconds later, I am still assimilating the first warning when a new one flashes: engine overheating. Stop and let it cool. If you open the hood, it will scald you.

Relying on the kindness of strangers, I make my way across three lanes of stuck traffic and off at the Fourteenth Street exit. In just a few blocks, I see a gas station, and I glide in and snap off the engine.

Now what?

First, I call my husband and assure him that I have found a BP where I can wait for a tow. For someone who has had her car stall on highway ramps and narrow country roads, this is a most excellent outcome. Why does he sound so grim?

He reminds me of the recent spate of gas-station carjackings, many of them violent, all over the metro area. He tells me to not be my usual blithe self, preoccupied and spacy, but for God’s sake stay vigilant.

I promise and hang up. Damned news reports. Damned worrywart husband.

A police siren screams; a bright yellow schoolbus trundles past. Across the street, tucked into the Clinton-Peabody affordable housing complex, is what looks like a daycare. Surely no one would shoot or carjack when there are children watching?

Oh, but they do, all the time. I remember interviewing a nine-year-old boy whose penis was shot off by crossfire. We hold other people’s horrors in our memories, but they stay in tiny compartments, and I shut that one fast. Right now I need a tow truck.

The AAA AI tells me it cannot get my location, though it has pulled up a map with my location marked. It wants me to go to an AAA-approved mechanic, but I want to be towed back to Waterloo. The AI says it has never heard of Dobbs. I think it is just playing dumb to get me to the shop on Delmar. When I turn stubborn, I am transferred to a human being whose niceness is as mechanical as the chatbot’s. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that” is the stock reply for everything from a near-fatal highway accidents to the slightest inconveniences. When did customer service take on the unctuous tones of an undertaker selling a coffin?

A young man paces in front of the gas station, carrying four plastic bags. After about ten minutes, he walks away. A car swoops in, windows tinted dark, and pulls up, not alongside a gas pump but making a T at the end of the pump islands. Another car pulls ahead of that one. Soon they leave. Was it a drug deal?

Here in St. Louis, Clinton Peabody is the oldest of what used to be called housing projects, before stigma turned the phrase pejorative. I like its traditional red brick—but it is easy to approve the façade of a place that is not your best alternative. Residents are pretty tightly packed, and they have been complaining for years about conditions in the complex. Several of the front windows are boarded up, maybe from gunshots, maybe from something more banal. Oh, wait. Gunshots are banal in this country.

The broken-window theory, the idea that if property is kept neat and pretty, people can be proud to live there, has apparently gone by the wayside.

A man walks up wearing a dark blue shirt and dark pants with a holstered pistol at his side. Ah, I think, police. Because I am White, the thought still brings a reflexive sense of safety. Then the man walks to a little yellow car instead of a police car, and I remember that open carry is legal in Missouri, and a visible pistol is more likely a threat than a reassurance.

Oh, well. I could have a gun, too; he cannot be sure. Is this the game of Chicken people envision when they advocate for less and less gun control?

I want to open all the windows, recline my seat, and read a book. Would that be relaxed confidence, foolish trust, or a stubborn refusal to adapt to reality? All this vigilance is making me twitchy. A young man walks up in a hoodie, and because it is eighty degrees and I cannot imagine wanting all that fabric pulled around me, I watch him a little longer. I have lapsed into the sort of unfounded, knee-jerk suspicion that gets innocent people killed.

Fear feeds bias.

Switch lenses, and this is a pleasant city intersection. There is a rhythm to the life at this convenient corner where people come to fill their vehicles with enough energy to carry them to their destination. Or to replenish the tiny comforts, beef jerky and cigs and Dr. Pepper, that carry them through their day. Or to buy a chance that their dream will come true.

I check, again, for a text about the tow truck’s ETA. Should I hide the phone when I am not looking at it? That feels a little squirrelly. On the other hand, a young college student was killed for her iPhone. I wish I had not written so many sad stories. Too much reality, and T.S. Eliot was right about not being able to tolerate it.

Should I keep the windows rolled up? Sweating, I roll the driver’s side window down halfway. The rain comes, and the sky darkens. The station is getting busier again. One of the guys filling his car has a laminated ID around his neck. Why does that reassure me? A steady job is a good thing, but serial killers have them.

A teenager who has mastered the art of looking tough walks by. Do I smile and say hello, or does that somehow make me, reveal me to be, vulnerable? They say it is harder for a criminal to hurt a stranger if the stranger is smiling at them. But that presumes a social connectedness he has no reason to feel with a clueless sixty-two-year-old woman who has lived a soft life. Somewhere along the line, we declared hiding from one another, avoiding human exchange, the smart thing to do.

Here comes a nice guy in a suit—whoa, yet another stereotype popping out. This is what happens: fear and uncertainty bring out all the ridiculous stereotypes and fix them a sandwich.

Still no ETA from the towing service, but five texts just to say they have my call. Actually responding is always the tricky part; the rest of life is automated.

Andrew told me to be vigilant, but I am scribbling this instead, because I do not want to live shifty-eyed and suspicious. If they want my Mini, they will have to fix whatever has made it overheat. If they kill me, at least I will not die worried. Worry isolates us. It freezes us and muddies our thinking and turns us against one another.

Comfort is also an enemy. When I was young and my beat-up car stalled regularly, I thought nothing of it. Now I have grown soft, alarmed by any lessening of all this acquired comfort.

A woman sinks to the low curb in front of the ice machine, knees together, thonged feet angled apart, reading something intently. Above her, a sign reads “Loitering strictly prohibited.” What is loitering, though? Hanging out if people do not like the look of you.

Another woman stands on a different curb smoking a cigarette. She is pretty, a little gaunt. The first woman catches sight of her; turns out they know each other. For some reason, this makes me happy. Smiling, they exchange a quick greeting. A bit of community to warm this commercial patch of concrete.

The pacer is back, but now with only two plastic bags. After he passes, the smoker bends to pick up something white from the ground. A cigarette? Or has he just dropped a packet of dope? That seems silly, too risky, what if it breaks and spills cocaine (or fentanyl) all over the concrete? Both of them walk out of sight. Face it, I tell myself, you have no idea what a drug deal looks like. Those of us with the least clue like to tell one another we saw one “going down.”

Forty more minutes go by. Still no friendly ETA for the tow truck, but I have started to have fun. Being interested is all it takes. The woman from the curb is still here, and now she has snacks. Also, she is fingering something—a scratch-off card? A legal bid to change your luck.

A text! They are monitoring my request and have switched to a different towing company, which will arrive in half an hour.

I text back to say thanks, adding—as a ploy to hasten the tow truck—that the neighborhood is a little sketchy. I receive an automated reply offering me Josh, a virtual assistant, if I have any questions. Will Josh care if I get carjacked? I set down my phone and think about how racist I sounded, calling the neighborhood around a predominantly Black housing project “sketchy.” Sure, it was a deliberate strategy, but “sketchy” came straight to mind without benefit of a single crime stat. Yet I would be in the same theoretical danger in an affluent suburb where people had the same skin color I do.

Still waiting. Waiting is an art. You must remain conscious of the passage of time, but you cannot let yourself tip into frenzied measurement. Clocks can help you quantify if asked, but what is at stake is felt time, in which a minute can stretch an hour long.

All those clouds, and such a tiny spattering of rain, when we are parched for it. Rain is also outside our control.

A pump malfunctions, and the driver pulls forward to the next one, her car aimed right at me. I yell out the window that I am stuck and cannot move to make more room for her. She cups her ear, puzzled, then comes over. When I explain, she asks if I need help. Nope. Tow truck will be here by the middle of next week. We compare notes about car mishaps and towing services. She uses State Farm, which she says comes within thirty minutes, and meanwhile you get a tracker to track their approach.

Humans love to track things. Our weight, big storms, pandemics, stock prices, crime…. The movement of those trackers busts us out of static ignorance and lets us think we can control what we are tracking. This remains comforting even when we know it is ludicrous.

Having filled her car, the woman pulls up alongside me. “My mom told me to tell you, ‘Don’t talk to anyone if they walk up to your car and ask if you’re okay,’” she says. The mother is leaning forward in the passenger seat, looking at me with concern. I thank them and promise.

Because these women are Black, it is suddenly obvious to me: what was racist was worrying that worrying about crime was racist.

(As is a city that lets low-income Black neighborhoods seem, and often be, less safe.)

As the two women drive away, I smile and wave, filled with warmth. We need not be tied by blood, faith, or any other likeness in order to feel safe with one another. This thing about “finding your tribe” has gotten out of hand. As I muse, my phone rings. The gift, rarer and rarer, of a live human voice. Maybe we are poised to enter a new era, and instead of fear driving us apart, it will join us against AI, our new common enemy.

All the driver says is “I’m on my way.” I grin, not caring how long it takes. Cocky now, I open both windows all the way. Nobody should have to be scared. Yet humans have always had to be scared. Do we manufacture the fear even when the crime stats are ridiculously low? In which case, blame the media. Or is it that we have given up on crime prevention and gun control, and crime really is more violent, prevalent, and random? In which case, is it better to be scared or to set aside the risk and live?

I need to retie my sneakers—I can feel my swollen feet tightening the laces—but that would involve ducking low, not staying vigilant.

I retie my shoes.

The station is deserted again. There is a rhythm to its life, a series of murmurations, like starlings that cluster and dissipate, cluster and dissipate.

A guy pulls up, leaves his car idling, spits on the ground as he walks. Ritzy people draw themselves up and spit with disdain. People without ritz just spit to spit. Maybe there is disdain in that, too. But it is often more warranted.

We talk a lot about race, far less about class, which is the real point in a neighborhood where the only affordable part of anybody’s dreams is the lottery ticket. Ignoring class sounds elevated but only means it is our goldfish bowl, unnoticed until we are thrown into unfamiliar waters. Then class signs are everywhere, telling us we do not belong.

This “classless” society is made of pigeonholes, and we barely poke our heads out.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.