Drove from Oxnard to L.A. without incident for a LAFF screening, but just a minute or two after exiting the theater's parking lot, I felt that terrifying shudder that seems to portend the car suddenly breaking into a dozen pieces but really just means you have a flat tire. Unlike the last time this happened to me (en route to L.A.—I never get flats close to home), the tire hadn't completely blown, so I was able to drive, very slowly, to a nearby gas station. My tentative, idiotically spare-free plan was to inflate the tire as much as possible, then find a 24-hour repair place within reasonable driving distance (or at least one I could get to via a route with plenty of additional gas stations along the way).
Upon exiting the car, however, I was instantly approached by a middle-aged dude eager to be of service. "That ain't gonna work," he remarked as I headed toward the air machine with my quarters. "Lemme take a look." I shrugged. He examined the tire. "No. No way, man. You gonna wind up ridin' your rim into the asphalt and then you are truly fucked. Ain't no Jiffy Lube gonna help you then." He looked at my other tires, then back at me. "Those some bald motherfuckers. We call those two-pops. You know why?" I did not know why. "'Cause they set to pop at any moment."
I'm trying to recall what he said as accurately as I can, 'cause so much of it was awesome. You may have gathered, if I'm doing a decent job, that he's black. I didn't mention that at the outset because it seemed vaguely racist to say "a black dude" (I would never say "a white dude"), and also because there surely is something vaguely racist about my forthcoming case of the jitters, of which I was conscious even as it was happening. I'll address that aspect more thoroughly when we get there.
Anyway, he wanted to know what size my tires were, which I didn't know, so he knelt down and looked. "15. You may be in luck, my man. This may be your lucky night. I mean it's already your unlucky night, but I may have a solution to your problem, the cops didn't move it yet." I had no idea what that last part meant, but he rarely paused long enough for me to insert questions. "You got a jack?"
At this point I really wish I could provide a .gif of his dumbfounded expression when I replied that I did not have a jack.
"You temptin' fate, brother. I ain't sayin' you deserve this, but you temptin' fate."
While all of this is going on, I'm also busily Googling "flat tire no spare" on my phone, and I now find an article talking about sealant, which believe it or not I'd never heard of before. (In my defense, I lived in New York without a car for 17 years.) My new friend, who somewhere along the way told me his name is Donny (after asking my name first), says there's a supermarket nearby that might have a can of sealant. He starts heading in that direction. "Come on." And I follow him without really thinking much about it, elated by the idea that I might be able to fix this problem, at least temporarily, with a can of miracle stuff costing only a few bucks.
Donny walks really fast. I'm a fast walker myself and I have to work to keep up with him. After a couple of blocks, I notice that we seem to be heading away from the "main drag" of this area (which I don't know at all, but which appears to be a pretty seedy part of downtown L.A.—in fact somewhere along the walk Donny mentions I picked a bad neighborhood for a flat tire) and into a residential area. One with disturbingly few lights and a lot of black folks hanging out in clusters on the sidewalks.
OKAY LET'S DEAL WITH THE POTENTIALLY OFFENSIVE/INFLAMMATORY PART: This time I went ahead and wrote "black folks," because I do think pretending that race had no bearing on my state of mind at this moment would be kidding myself. Smarter people than me have written at length about this phenomenon, so I'm not gonna rehash that stuff here. Bottom line is that I live and was raised in what is still a racist country, and there's just no way I've been able to completely inoculate myself from that poisonous atmosphere. The best I can do is note that (a) I'd be equally nervous walking in certain white neighborhoods (though "poor people are scary" admittedly isn't much of an improvement), (b) I was feeling guilty about feeling nervous even as it was happening (which I think is commonplace), and (c) I swallowed my fear and kept going. That last part is arguably stupid. I dunno.
"We're going to the supermarket, right?" I finally mustered the nerve to ask.
"First lemme see if this tire's the same size," Donny said.
Before I can react, Donny gets stopped by another middle-aged guy. They shake hands. The other guy says something to Donny that sounds to me like "What you got for me?" (I've been trailing behind Donny, partly because he walks so fast and partly because I started slowing down as we headed out of the populated area and I got nervous. So they're a few feet away.) Donny points to me, says something I can't hear. Then he gestures for the other guy to move a little further away from me, and they have a conversation I can't hear at all.
Now, I was not really scared. Donny was far too affable to be frightening, and if you don't know me, trust me when I tell you I don't look like somebody worth robbing (though I had been waving my iPhone around the whole time, even using it as a light when Donny was inspecting my tires for the size). Had I truly been fearful for my safety, I would have surreptitiously dialed 9-1-1 or something. However, it did occur to me that nobody on the planet knew where I was. I live alone, I hadn't mentioned my plans to head down to L.A. to anyone (except @Nictate, but that was days earlier when we were generally discussing which LAFF films we planned to see, buried in a sea of DMs), and in the unlikely but theoretically possible event that I had been dumb enough to let a psychopath lure me somewhere where I'd be vulnerable, the cops would be searching in Oxnard, 60 miles north. Hence the tweet. I specifically said "don't panic," and was fairly sure I'd be tweeting exactly the followup I did tweet within a few minutes. But just in case. In hindsight, messaging a single person probably would have made more sense. At that moment, though, it seemed like the best way of making sure my whereabouts were on record, just in case.
Jesus, this is getting long. To condense the rest: What Donny wanted to do, kind of insanely, was get me a tire from an abandoned car he knew about, which he said had been sitting there for a week and that he'd been sleeping in. We got to the junked-out vehicle in question, he confirmed that the tire was the same size as mine, and then he spent 15 minutes or so trying to work out how to get it off without a jack, which I kept telling him was not possible or even necessary. "Let's just go look for the sealant," I kept saying. Meanwhile a crowd has gathered to watch this exercise with evident amusement, plus some confused looks in my direction. (I am the only white guy anywhere in sight. Which I'm sort of used to, having lived in Bushwick back in the late '90s, years before the gentrification started.) Finally he gives up and we go to the supermarket, which is not far away at all. They don't carry sealant. On the way back to the gas station, Donny tells me he hasn't eaten in a couple of days—doesn't ask for anything, just finds a way to get it into the conversation. Which I respect. I give him $20 back at the car, and he thanks me profusely, then insists on filling the flat tire with air himself. It gets me six miles to the 24-hour place I'd planned to drive to from the beginning. They replace the tire. I drive home.
Total cost*: around $115. Plus three hours killed during which I'd intended to see Much Ado About Nothing. But it was all worth it for the "two-pops" joke.
* This originally said "including the tip to Donny." Apparently that came across as glibly cynical, which was not my intention. I rarely give money to homeless people (partly because I'm often broke myself), but Donny genuinely was trying to help me out—even if his tire-swap idea was a little goofy—and I was happy to return the favor. Mostly I wrote "tip" because "donation" seemed a little cold, but upon reflection there was no real need to itemize there.