When you stall a 1974 Volkswagen at an intersection, any intersection, even ones on the far side of Memphis in the middle of the night, somebody always materializes to help push it to safety. This time it was a volunteer firefighter about to leave a nearby drug store, and a disheveled guy hanging out by the lotto store at the gas station mini mart across the street. The firefighter gave me a jumpstart, the other guy asked for some change.
(Welcome to another installment of The Little Engine That Couldn’t, wherein I try to drive across the country in a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle that I bought semi-running five days before departing. It all seemed pretty doable. After all, I had only needed to do a single engine-out repair in a driveway.)
The car was running hot and the battery had been sitting for a year, so it didn’t have enough charge to re-start. That’s why I was pulling in to east Memphis in the first place: change the battery and find a shop to help me fix the overheating problem.
I did give the guy the change I had in my pocket, and when he asked me what I was doing in Memphis this time of night, I told him I needed to change my battery at the Autozone up the street.
Not fifteen minutes later, I was in the middle of taking out my old battery when I looked down and saw two feet come up behind me.
“Don’t move or I’ll blow your head off.” I could smell the booze on his breath, but he had a grip on my arm and two fingers in my side. I didn’t think he had a gun, but I didn’t want to fuck with this guy over the money I had in my wallet. I handed it over. I don’t think I had more than 50 bucks on me. When he told me to give him “the rest of it,” I showed him I didn’t have any more money and he let me go. I turned around and saw it was the same guy who I had just given my change to down the street.
So I told him “Well, that’s not very nice!” and he got embarrassed. He tried to tell me he was teaching me a lesson. I told him lesson learned, now give me back my money. Flustered and a little drunk, he did.
He told me that I should never leave my back turned, that I should be more careful. I told him the same. We each looked at one other like the other guy was crazy.
This was not the first time I’d been mugged, but it was the first time I’ve scolded someone into giving me my money back.
After, the guy asked if he could borrow my phone. I told him he couldn’t, and he walked off into the night. I got back to swapping my battery, then I drove off to find the shop I’d go to in the morning. Wolfsburg Automotive. One of the mechanics is an aircooled guy.
Very kindly, went looking for a a piece of metal off an older engine he’d been working on in his spare time that might fit my car. He found one that did, well enough to get me back to New York at least, and he gave it to me. He laughed at my story. “People tell me that I’ll never believe what happened to them in Memphis. I always do.”
I didn’t buy an old Volkswagen to get mugged. I bought the thing because it looked cool and I wanted to learn how to wrench. But this is the real cost of owning an old car, not a piece of the idealized vision of challenging roads and cheery conversations struck up at gas stations. General life shit, flung at you by a car that forces I don’t know how many more stops compared to a car that, you know, works. Broken parts, bad gas gauges, fatigue from the droning engine. Countless auto parts parking lots, out-of-the-way repair shops, little town restaurants, locals smiling through it all and at least one mugging.