I am eighteen years old. I am in the passenger seat of a Mustang that is being driven by a friend of mine who I have an unreasonable crush on. Neither one of us is the owner of this Mustang. This Mustang–which is, of course, cherry red–is owned by a third friend, who purchased it with money he got in an injury settlement. We are in the middle of nowhere, Illinois, coming back from a wholly unsuccessful trip to Watseka, county seat of Iroquois County, where we went to the courthouse to contest a speeding ticket my friend had gotten on a previous trip between Chicago, where we live, and Champaign, where most of our friends have migrated for college. I have accompanied him on this trip, despite having nothing to do with the case, because, well, see above.
Now, it’s possible that we were unsuccessful in contesting the ticket because my friend was asking to get off on a technicality, but it’s also possible that we were unsuccessful because we walked into the courthouse looking like utter freaks.
I am eighteen years old, and I have magenta hair. I am likely wearing a tight black t-shirt, baggy jeans, a pocket watch on a chain fastened to my back pocket with a safety pin, a metallic pentacle on a ball chain necklace, and black Doc Martens. My friend’s hair is either blue or bleach-blond or both, and he is probably wearing a black t-shirt, jeans, army surplus boots, and thick plastic sunglasses. I remember remarking earlier on this trip, when we stopped at a gas station in some one-blinker town, “I think they think we’re from the future.” This is to say, we do not blend.
We are driving down a perfectly straight, flat highway between soybean fields. It is the middle of the afternoon, not a cloud in the sky. There is no traffic to speak of. We are mad at The Man for not only not throwing out my friend’s ticket but actually tripling the fine. My friend is changing the CD. I believe we have been listening to They Might Be Giants, but it just as easily could have been Violent Femmes or the Dead Milkmen. And as he changes the CD, he looks away from the road, and as he looks away from the road, he drifts slightly into the empty oncoming lane. And then something happens that even now, thirteen years later, is a matter of some controversy. In my telling, I say his name, in order to bring to his attention this shift in our course. In his telling, I flip out and scream his name in a panic. Either way, his response is to jerk the wheel back to the right, which sends us spinning off the road and into a ditch.
We quickly ascertain that neither of us is hurt. Good. OK. The next step is to get the car out of the ditch. The car starts and the wheels spin, but we’re going nowhere. A quick glance at our physiques would make it obvious that we’re not going to push the car out. In short, we are stuck.
It’s 1999, and both of us are years away from owning cell phones. We get out of the car, but no one else is coming down the road who might pull over to help. I can’t remember the last town or gas station we passed, and there’s nothing on the horizon except one old farmhouse.
Well then, I guess that’s where we’re going.
The whole way there, I am terrified that something bad is about to happen to us. We are suburban kids who at least somewhat fancy ourselves city kids, and all we know of the country are horror movies where suburban kids find themselves alone in a cornfield terrorized by flesh-eating cultists. And, leaving horror movies aside, now we have to rely on the help of what we can only assume is a conservative Christian who will hate us on sight, on principle, as we would hate them, and who will probably slam the door in our faces, because that’s what they do to dumb punk kids like us, right?
We walk up on the porch and knock on the door. I think he does it, because I can’t, because I’m too scared. It feels like a very long silence after the knock. What are we going to do if no one’s home? I don’t know if that will be better or worse. But then there are footsteps from inside, and the door opens.
A lady peeks her head out. I remember her as being old, but she probably wasn’t. We explain the situation–Our car’s in the ditch. Can we use your phone? I hold my breath. She’s going to say no, she’s going to yell at us, she’s going to send us away to be hunted to our deaths in a field.
Of course, she says, or words to that effect. Come on in. You poor kids. Here’s the phone. Do you want something to drink while you wait?
We stay at her house for maybe ten minutes, long enough to call the closest service station and have a quick drink of water and probably make some chit-chat about our lives or what we’re doing down there or something small and normal and friendly like that.
I don’t know how to explain to you how deeply cynical and angst-filled and me-against-the-world-y I felt at that time, other than to say I was a teenager. But I was starting to grow up, and these ten minutes of my life, being treated kindly by a woman who could have had every reason to dislike or distrust me, who had nothing apparently in common with me, who wanted nothing from me, being treated like a human being in a situation where, to be quite honest, were the roles reversed, I probably wouldn’t have done the same, started to chip away at that stupid, pointless armor I’d built up around myself. It didn’t change everything–I don’t think even today I could be called an optimist or an idealist–but it made enough of an impact that I still think back on it with some weight.
Pretty quickly, the tow truck pulls up and easily gets the car out of the ditch. I think there are some small scratches on the car, but nothing major, and everything is still in good working order. I pay the tow truck guy, and we get back in the Mustang and head on home with no further incident. If you have to crash a car, this is really the way to do it.