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
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
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
"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
"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."
The text is the property of the estate of Chikako Atsuta and is not to be reproduced without written permission.