“What are the odds of you being right here, right now in this very place?” -Tow truck driver, somewhere near Hinsdale, Illinois, approximately 4 AM on July 31, 2016
The photo above was taken at 1:57 this morning, slightly more than eight hours into what would be a nine-and-a-half-hour stay on the shoulder of the beginning of the off-ramp to Exit 12A of Interstate 294 in Alsip, Illinois, a southern Chicago suburb not far from Midway Airport. I made my unintended pit stop at this exit ramp on my way home from a week’s vacation in Northern Michigan. A lot of people like to vacation in Northern Michigan in the summertime. Nobody ever likes to vacation in Alsip, let alone on the Exit 12A off-ramp – a strip of tarred concrete populated by overgrown weeds, empty cans of domestic beer, myself, my dog, and my car for more than nine hours last night, and (unfortunately by around the time this photo was taken) some of my urine.
Unpleasant, utilitarian places such as this are only meant to be passed through at 60 or 70 mph, so those who wind up staying likely have some unusual circumstance. Such was the case Sunday afternoon around 5:45 PM. My Boston Terrier, Copley, and I were entering the home stretch of our 380-mile drive home. I was on target to get home before 6:30, and my thoughts were turning to what leftovers might be in the freezer for me to reheat for supper.
I drive a 2011 Subaru Forester. It has been a fantastic car, but thanks to my putting 94 miles on it each day simply by commuting to work, it has already traveled more than 160,000. As they increase in age, these Foresters have been found to burn oil. While the final verdict has yet to be determined, my own Forester seems to have chosen the end of this year’s family trip to Michigan to begin burning oil at a much-increased rate.
In a fortuitous circumstance, my wife and daughters are remaining in Michigan for another week while I return to work. Otherwise, they would have been with me during my drive home. As it was, the Forester was traveling northbound carrying only myself, Copley, and some luggage when the engine began banging loudly and alarmingly. I immediately pulled into the right lane, hoping to get off at the next exit to check things out. After about 20 seconds of this banging, however, the car was no longer able to accelerate and the oil pressure light came on. About 15 seconds later, I felt the entire engine shut down and the full suite of warning lights illuminated. I pulled off onto the shoulder and coasted as long as the car would coast, coming to a stop at the beginning of the Exit 12A off-ramp. By my estimate, the entire process of the car breaking down lasted about 90 seconds from start to finish.
In a slight panic and not remembering entirely what to do in these situations, my first instinct was to call 911. The operator asked if I had roadside assistance coverage through my insurance. “Oh yeah, I do have that!,” I remembered. “Let me call them.” And so, I called Progressive Insurance. Thus began a nine-hour odyssey of frustration.
Although I very specifically gave the first representative I spoke with at Progressive my exact location (Alsip, Illinois, Interstate 294 Northbound, pulled off on the shoulder at the start of the Exit 12A off-ramp), she inexplicably had a very difficult time identifying that location. Eventually, she transferred me to an additional representative to confirm. At the end of my conversation with the second rep, she informed me that a tow truck had already accepted the assignment and would be arriving within the hour. Okay, cool.
More than an hour passed, and I had seen no tow truck and heard nothing. I called the tow truck company which had accepted the assignment. An unhelpful man said, “oh, the Forester? That job was cancelled. You’ll have to call Progressive.” I called Progressive back, asking what the deal was here. Apparently, the towing company decided it had more important things to do than actually go tow a car and canceled on me, but never notified either Progressive or myself appropriately. End result: I waited more than an hour in which no progress was made.
At this point, Progressive assigned my case to a different towing company, which they also assured me would arrive within the hour. They did not. I called Progressive back, they checked with the towing company, and the response from the tow truck was that they would definitely be coming and were “on their way,” but it had become a busy night and it would be “2-3 more hours” until they finally arrived. After a couple of automated texts were sent to me with conflicting ETAs, and more than 2 additional hours passed (along with one of the ETAs) with no sign of a truck, I called Progressive yet again. Here is where the ordeal reached its peak of frustration.
Progressive and myself each spent the better part of a half-hour trying to contact the second no-show tow truck of the night. Finally, Progressive finally got a hold of somebody, who basically told them, “oh, yeah, we’re not doing that one anymore because it’s on a road we can’t access.” Apparently this is the world’s first towing company which refuses to tow cars off the Interstate.
Finally, with my stay at Exit 12A at the six-hour mark, Progressive decided this situation had become extreme enough to escalate my case to a supervisor named Rachel. Rachel set about trying to find any tow truck driver in the Chicago area who could possibly take me home. As it was past midnight on a Saturday night, this process took Rachel more than an hour. Eventually, she called me back and informed me that there was one driver who could do it, but he would take yet another 2-3 hours to get to me. She assured me that this particular driver was “phenomenal” and very reliable, and that if I could stay patient he would definitely be there to help. I didn’t really have much of a choice.
So, Copley and I continued to wait. I occasionally offered Copley food and water by placing his bowls outside the car on the shoulder. He didn’t feel like eating. I hadn’t eaten since lunch myself, and all I had left in the car fit for human consumption was a lukewarm bottle of Gatorade. I drank it for the hydration and the sugar. Eventually, as alluded to above, I resorted to stepping outside into the darkness and peeing it out. I had turned on my hazard lights after sunset for safety purposes, but they began to dim after a couple of hours as my car battery lost power. I also lost the ability to listen to the baseball games on the radio, and finally, the ability to charge my phone. Fatigue increasing (and heightened from having run a 10k race in Michigan Saturday morning), I reclined in the passenger seat with Copley on my lap. Glancing in the rear-view mirrors hoping no drunk drivers would careen into us and with my phone close at hand, we waited, and waited, and waited. Then, at 3:04 AM, we saw the tow truck lights approach and pull over just in front of my Forester.
I greeted the driver, but Copley did so more excitedly. Sensing this was the helper we needed, Copley enthusiastically jumped out of the car, tail wagging. The tow truck driver liked dogs, and extended his hand to pet my Boston Terrier.
And now, after all of this background detail, we finally arrive at the central point of our story, where a very bad night turns strangely good.
This driver, as it turns out, was quite the character. A smallish, graying, goateed, tattooed man of about 50 years old, his facial features somehow struck me as a composite of David Spade and Chris Rock. I realize that makes no sense whatsoever and David Spade and Chris Rock look completely unlike each other. You will just have to trust me when I tell you this guy looked like a cross between David Spade and Chris Rock.
Once he’s finished attaching the Subaru, the Spade/Rock hybrid says Copley and I can get in the truck. We begin the long drive to North Aurora, which didn’t seem so long when I was attempting it 10 hours ago.
“So, why were you waiting so long anyway?”
I give him the details of the first truck that didn’t cancel correctly, and the second truck that strung me along. He shakes his head.
“These guys…” he says. “These guys… I had nothing to do earlier this evening. I could have picked you right up. But I don’t work directly with the insurance companies. They don’t have my information to contact me unless they escalate it to a supervisor. And that’s how I’m making a lot of money doing this, from these other drivers blowing people off.”
He continues to tell me an overview of his life story, which is pretty fascinating if true. He graduated college with a finance degree, then went into the restaurant business and briefly became a millionaire, only to squander virtually all of his money in the stock market when it went south in the dot-com bust and after 9/11. He describes becoming “very nearly homeless,” but then picking himself up again. He went into construction work for a time, but when he was helping renovate homes he took note of all the business the movers got, and realized he could buy himself a truck and go into business for himself again. Now, he’s the driver picking up stranded motorists when other drivers ignore, and he’s “on my way to making my second million.”
Then, he gets philosophical. “What are the odds of you being right here, right now in this very place?”
At first, I think he’s referencing my immediate situation, that things happen, it’s not the end of the world, I’m lucky my wife and kids weren’t with me, etc…. But that’s not really what he’s talking about. He continues to touch upon what an incredible miracle it is that there is life on Earth at all, before you even reach the astronomical odds against any individual one of us being born, and all the circumstances that would need to fall into place for that to happen. “I mean, what are the odds? ,” he keeps repeating.
I frequently have thought of this as well, and the driver has come to the same conclusion as I have: Simply by our being here, there are two possibilities: Either each one of us has hit the most incredible lottery of all-time, or there is a God who created all of this. Personally, I have concluded the “God” explanation is the correct one. I get the impression the driver has either concluded the same or is heavily leaning that way. But his larger point is, either way, we should be tremendously thankful for every day we are given and take small troubles in stride, because what are the odds?
I realize that this is similar to my own thought process, which is a result of both my faith and my cancer survivorship. It’s the reason why nine hours stranded on a highway shoulder, despite being highly uncomfortable and unpleasant and tedious, didn’t drive me bonkers. I have endured and survived worse than this in the past. I will encounter worse than this in the future. And, in the end, God is in control and will come through – albeit usually not in precisely the way you’d expect. My health history and my faith both allow me to keep a level head.
The drive continues west towards North Aurora, and the driver’s conversation continues in unexpected directions. He asks me about my opinions on the election. I tread lightly at first, but soon discover that we agree on the larger point that both major candidates are terrible and reflective of a nation in decline. After finding out what I do for work (“Moneyball made you guys the cool guys now!,” he enthuses), he engages me in discussions about the future of football in light of CTE. There are other varied topics I don’t remember as clearly. Overall, it is one of the more interesting, unexpected, unusual, varied conversations I can ever remember having with a tow truck driver at 4 AM.
Finally, we reach home, detach the Subaru from the tow truck, and I thank the Spade/Rock hybrid for his help so late at night. Somewhat to my surprise, he doesn’t request payment for the extra mileage. Progressive has picked up the tab. If there is a cable TV producer who gets stranded on the roadway, please let that producer get towed by this man, because he needs to be the star of his own reality show immediately. It could be titled “What Are The Odds?”
In the absence of that chance occurrence, if you need a tow truck in Chicago, give Big Town Towing a call. I will be adding to his collection of unanimous 5-star reviews on Yelp, as a thank you for turning a disastrous evening into a strangely redemptive experience.
What are the odds?