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Hot Date with Big Mike 93
by Chikako Atsuta (9/21/00)

I bought my car, an '86 Chevrolet Nova, for $300 last year from Rob, a Gloucester surfer. Everybody who was familiar with his car told me, "You paid $300 for that piece of crap? It's not worth even $50."

It's true that my car has many problems. The fuel indicator always points to "empty". 4th gear does not work, so I have to shift from 3rd to 5th. On rainy days I have to use ether spray on the air filter, sometimes in the middle of an intersection. The lens cap on the right side is gone, so my car failed the last inspection. When I got the car, I shook the radio, which was mounted very loosely, and a seashell dropped to the floor.

I still love my car. Probably these shortcomings make me love it even more. I have been in this country for about four years. Living in a foreign land, I often feel as if I am an infant not able to do a lot of things by myself. But towards my car I really can act like its abusive master. "Move your body, you wreck!" I can shout towards my car. There is a Japanese saying: "The more dumb your child is, the more affectionate you feel." That's exactly how I perceive my car.

On Friday at midnight I was heading back to Gloucester from Boston on Route 1. The engine started knocking. "Don't do it now," I pleaded. It couldn't be lack of fuel as I just filled the tank. The car started to have difficulty accelerating. I drove into the parking lot of a Home Depot. The starter worked, but the engine kept stalling. I tried to take the car around the dark parking lot. After a while, though, the engine would not even start any more. An odor of exhaust filled the inside of my car.

I gave up. I went into Home Depot, and called a towing service company using the store telephone. It was pretty crowded inside the store. "Why do people come to Home Depot for shopping on Friday at midnight?" I was curious, but I had my own problem, so I could not focus on this issue at this moment.

Cursing, I waited for a towing truck inside my car. Whenever I saw my humble car in the parking lot near my apartment surrounded by the cars of my neighbors - fancy SUVs and shining Acuras -, I would ask myself, "Is my life going down the tubes?" In my mid-twenties I owned a brand-new Mazda red sport car. In those days I was a career-oriented woman in Tokyo, happily married. 10 years later, I was a divorced mid-thirties insecure foreigner, being stuck inside the piece of crap in an unlit parking lot in Saugus. "My life is downsizing for sure", I thought.

A towing car pulled in the parking lot. It was decorated with blinking lights like a Christmas tree. It stopped in front of my car and a huge white man got out of the driver's seat. I stepped out of my car and approached him. He was wearing a black nylon baseball jacket with the company's name on the back. In front, his name was embroidered in yellow stitching: "Big Mike".

Big Mike attached my car to his towing truck in the dark. I sat in the passenger's seat and checked the time. One o'clock. We pulled out onto Route 1 and then Mike tried to make small talk.
  "So, are you Chinese or Japanese or Hawaiian or what?"
  "I'm Japanese, " I answered.
  "Oh, you're a Japanese girl. I'm a Lynn boy."
He turned down the volume of the hard rock radio station he had playing on the radio.
  "Let me tell you something about Oriental women. They never age, do they? A Cambodian girl is living in my neighborhood. She looks like 10 or 12, but she has kids. So she can't be 10 or 12, you know what I mean?"
  "It's going to be a lovely drive", I thought. Sitting in the darkness next to this meatball while he expressed his sophisticated views on race and female reproduction, I still had more than twenty miles to go back home.

Big Mike started to talk about himself: Mike O'Connor, an Irish American, 39 years old, born and raised in Lynn. He had been in the towing business for 22 years, and worked 13 hours a day, 6 days a week. Mike made $97,000 last year. He owned a house in Lynn, and five cars, one motorbike and one boat. His father passed away the previous month. His dad was an "alcoholic bastard" according to Mike.
  "Who do you live with?" he asked.
  "I live alone."
  "Ah, I like that. Independence, right? That's what this country is all about. I live alone too, because I am independent."

We got on Route 128. I noticed that next to his name the number "93" was embroidered on his jacket. I asked what this number meant.
  "Everybody has his own number at this company. There are nine Mikes, so when somebody calls, 'Hey, Mike', nine guys say, 'Yeah, what?' It's confusing, you know. So I'm 93. When they call me on the radio, they go, 'Big Mike 93, where the hell are you?' My boss is number 1. A 28 year-old kid. He has fifty-seven trucks. An Italian. One of those Mafia guys living in the North End, you know what I mean? He is number 1. 28 years old. I'm 93."
I asked him, "Do you like your job?"
He turned towards me, and said, "Of course, I do. A hot date with a Japanese woman at one o'clock in the morning? Are you kidding me?" And he laughed. I laughed with him. What else could I do? I turned back and looked at the front of my car. Smoky navy blue, the color of my car, was fading into darkness of the night on the North Shore. Why did you leave me alone?

We arrived at my parking lot in Gloucester at 2 o'clock in the morning. Big Mike 93 was a nice guy after all. He opened the hood of my car and checked the belt, the carburetor, the oil level and so on. He had me start the engine several times. I could see white smoke coming out of my car. It smelled bad. Mike, folding his arms around his large chest, mumbled, "It's got to be fuel." He inhaled the air once, and asked me, "You didn't happen to fill it with diesel fuel, did you?" His words woke me up. At a gas station the first pump did not work, so I backed up to move to another one, and then…… I dashed into my car to check the receipt. It said clearly and cruelly "Diesel, Self-serve."

"What did I do? I poisoned my car!" I was nearly hysterical. Big Mike, patting my shoulder, said, "Let me tell you something. You're not the first one who has done this. So forget about it. Everybody has a bad day, you know." He went back to his truck. "Hang on, babe. Stay in this country. You'll like it here." And he left with his Christmas lights blinking all over. Standing next to my poor comatose car, I felt terribly guilty.

The next morning I had my car towed to my mechanic in Gloucester. "You did a very, very serious thing," he said with condescending look in his eyes. "I can't even give you an estimate for this." I called another mechanic in Rockport for a second opinion. "You ran the car, right?" this mechanic said. "You're going to have to get every drop of diesel out of the system. It's a super labor-intensive job." He worked on my car many times before. "It's time to let it go, " he said.

I walked back home from the garage. On the way I passed through an Italian cemetery. It was a beautiful Saturday morning on Cape Ann. From the cemetery path, I could see the Good Harbor Beach and splendid ocean down the hill. I walked past the gravestones on which photographs of the dead were posted. I did not want to think about what I did to my car, my buddy in America, so I tried to focus on something else. I looked up the sky. Simply, sheer blue over rooftops of Gloucester. "Maybe it's a good day to die," I thought. I didn't want to make a decision about my car just yet, though. I kept walking. A few blocks from my apartment there was a Portuguese joint. I entered, sat alone and ate a huge fishcake breakfast. The food reminded me of that of my home country, miles away from this fishing town.

Chikako Atsuta was a Japanese freelance writer living in Massachusetts and a regular contributor to Gate 39.  For more information see: her memorial page. More selections from "Ako's East Coast Blues."

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