by jkatejohnston

Dear Max,

I wrote about something private today, so I can’t put it in my online diary. I hate that. And considering the filth that I DO put online, I’m sure you’re wondering, my god, what can it be? I have no sense of my own privacy because it’s only writing and no one gives a shit. (That’s what I love about it.) But other people don’t have this feeling, I have discovered.

Anyway, here’s a re-run from my 1994 Diary. (Available on Amazon. How come no one ever reviews it?)

9 December 1994

Dear Max,

I am writing this at a Chevron Station in Fremont.  This morning I packed everything and printed my diary and was finally on my way back to my Teresa, beating traffic, almost to San Jose, when her little Suzuki that she let me borrow lost power, and I managed to coast across two lanes of traffic to the shoulder. 

The gas gauge said empty, and immediately I thought of a leak in the gas tank, but it turns out that there’s an electrical problem, and the gauges went out along with everything else.  I sat still for a moment, letting the old car-trouble sensation sink in.  Then I got out and pushed the car further off onto the edge of the shoulder.  Then I waited.  There was an off-ramp about two hundred yards ahead, but I couldn’t leave all my earthly belongings in the car to get ripped off.  (It’s an open Jeep type car.)  So I waited and waited, thinking someone would stop and offer to call a tow truck.  Just as I was giving up on help, it arrived in the form of a very fat CHP officer in a gigantic tow-truck. 

The Highway Patrol, it turns out, provides a free towing service along major Bay Area freeways to ease the flow of traffic.  But they only take you off the freeway to a phone; they can’t take you to a service station.  It’s an ethical thing, the tow truck man explained, I guess because the State can’t appear to be giving business to one service station over another.  So this guy (not a CHP officer I slowly figured out but a contracted tow-truck guy) tries this and that, and after much cranking of the engine and adding gas and trying to jump-start the thing, he finally hooked it up for towing.  After about an hour and a half on the side of the road, we were underway.  We passed one exit, then another, and I thought he must be taking me to a very special phone–or maybe, I hoped and hoped, to a service station, though this was against the rules.  We pulled off on Mowry Avenue in Fremont, came to a stop at a big, busy intersection.  On the right was a Chevron Service Station, on the left was a mini-mall and a Quick Stop.  We were in the left turn lane.  “There’s a phone at the Quick Stop,” said the tow truck guy.  I wish I’d had the wit to say, “Look there’s an MCI phone at the Chevron Station–and that’s my long distance carrier.”  But instead I said very meekly and hopelessly, “I don’t suppose you could drop me at the Chevron?”

“I’m real sorry,” he said.

“I understand.”  So he unhooked me about a long block from the service station, facing away from it, with that big old intersection between me and where I needed to be.  I thanked the man for the tow and trotted over to the service station, waiting and waiting for the lights at the crosswalks and checking out the intersection.  I knew I was going to push the car through it. 

At the Chevron I explained everything–that I’d been towed off the freeway and was parked just about a block away.  “Yeah, the CHP contracted trucks can’t take you to a station.  We know all about that.  Was it a big white truck?”


“See, the man who owns this station owns that fleet of tow trucks.  So you can see why the tow truck couldn’t just drop you here when he’s supposed to be working for the state.”  I thought of all the exits we had passed and thought of how the tow truck man had made good and sure I’d end up at his boss’s station and covered his own ass at the same time.

“I understand,” I said.  (This whole time I keep glancing back at the Suzuki to make sure no one is taking my stuff.)

“You got triple A?” asked the manager.  I nodded.  “They’ll tow you over.”  But I had just spent almost two hours getting towed less than two miles.  It was 4:30, and the service station closed at 6:00.  And I was trying to get to my Teresa.

“I thought I might push it,” I said.  “Would anyone like to help me?” 

“The guys aren’t allowed to do any work off the lot,” said the manager.

“Oh, that’s all right,” I said, “It’s a light car.  I’ll push it myself.”  The manager gave me a number to call for a tow truck just in case, and I said I’d see him in a few minutes, sounding much more confident and cheerful than I felt. 

As I walked back to the car, I counted the lanes in the intersection I had to cross.  Then I got to the car, changed my shoes, turned the key to unlock the steering, put it in neutral and released the parking brake.  With the driver’s side door open, I pushed and steered the little car in a wide, slow U-turn.  I gained momentum on the straightaway and then came to the intersection.  Red light.  I coasted slowly to a stop, set the brake and stood there panting, leaning on the open door, all my lovely momentum gone.  The cross traffic went for a long time, then the left turn arrows of the cross traffic turned green.  Then my light was green.  There was one car ahead of me, several behind me, and many cars whizzed past on either side while slowly, slowly, I pushed the car into the intersection.  Rush hour, six lanes in one direction, eight in the other. 

Would you like to know what outfit I was wearing?  Blue silk polka-dotted skirt, black bodysuit, navy tights, Teresa’s leather jacket, saddle shoes.

At this point I realized that there was a slight uphill.  I guess they build roads higher in the middle so that the water will run off.  I would like very much to write that someone behind me leaned on their horn, because this would complete my picture of Glamour in Adversity, but no one did. 

Everyone watched very patiently as the car crept into the intersection.  The incline now seemed very steep, and the car went slower and slower and almost stopped.  I could feel it start to roll back on me.  Then I felt the car surge forward under my hands.  Someone had started pushing with me.  It was a young man.  “It’s a little uphill,” he shouted from behind the car.  After we crossed the center of the intersection we had a slight downhill to work with and got going at a good clip.  I hopped in to steer into the station, then hopped out again almost immediately to push and steer the car into one of the service bays.  The young man had disappeared.

I think the mechanics were a little surprised to see me.  “Someone helped me push,” I said and then wished I hadn’t.

At this moment they’re looking at the car, and I have signed something that says I’ll pay for this.

Now they’ve said that they have to do the work tomorrow morning.  Everyone is going home.  I just called Teresa.  “Oh, no!  Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said.  I told her the Tomorrow Morning part.  “Tell them they have to fix it now,” she said.  “Tell them I’ll fix it.”  Teresa knows nothing about cars.  “Oh, no,” she kept saying, “Oh, no.”


Now I’m in an Indian restaurant in Fremont, and the waiter is hitting on me.  What is my name?  Would I like to please attend a fine evening of Native India Dancing?  He will save me a very special seat.  I wonder what he would think if I started to cry. 

Oh no.  I just asked for a take-out container, and the waiter insisted that putting everything together would spoil the flavors.  (You know how Indian food has all those great side dishes.)  So he has sent me on my way with six enormous Styrofoam containers, each containing an unpolluted dab of Indian food.  So now, wherever I take myself tonight I’ll be toting along this plastic shopping bag of empty Styrofoam cups.  Here he comes again.  I’m escaping.


Now I’m in my room at the Best Western behind the Chevron Station in Fremont.  After dinner I walked over here to ask the price:  $59.00.  Then I called my roommates to see if they could come pick me up.  (I am pitifully close to Oakland.)  They weren’t home. 

“Is there a cheaper place within walking distance?” I asked the two desk clerks.

“Motel 6 across the freeway,” said one.

“But it’s not a good spot,” said the other.  “Cops over there all the time.”


 “And didn’t you say you were walking?”


“The overpass is closed to foot traffic.  Construction.”  So I took the room.  I was still looking on the bright side at that point, and I chatted with the clerks about cars and car trouble, this and that, while they ran my Visa card. 

And then I told a very strange lie.  It came about this way.  I wanted to ask if they had cable TV and movies and stuff like that in the rooms, but what came out of my mouth was a bright and earnest, “Can I watch TV?”  (I think I was beginning to crumble.)

After a moment, one of them said, “Um…sure.”  I was instantly covered with confusion.

“I don’t have a TV at home,” I blundered on, and for the nanosecond that I was saying it, I didn’t know it was a lie.  I suppose it seemed plausible for that instant because I never had a TV until I got to grad school, so it’s something I’m used to saying.  Who knows. 

“No TV!” said clerk one.  I just smiled and nodded.

“What’s that like?” said the other clerk.

“Oh, it’s all right.”

“Why don’t you have one?”

“Just backward I guess.”

“You never had a TV ever?”

“No.  Never.”

When I got to my room, I unzipped my backpack and was mystified for a moment to find a Ziploc bag containing cheddar, gorgonzola and a few cold corn tortillas.  Then I remembered that I had taken them at the last minute–no sense in letting them spoil–and so here they were. 

Then I called Teresa and told her all my adventures, the waiter, the Styrofoam containers.  I was pacing around the room and suddenly, pop! and nothing.  I quickly plugged the phone back in, and in a moment she called me back.

“Hi, babe.  Sorry.  I pulled the phone out of the wall.”

“Ooops!” she said.  Anyway, somehow she got me laughing almost wildly, and after I got off the phone I felt very sad.  And then I lay on the bed next to my cheddar and gorgonzola, and I thought tragically–I’m supposed to be in Santa Barbara with my girlfriend, and instead I’m in Fremont with my cheese.