This is the worst gig story ever.
I’ve told a lot of gig stories on this blog. Some of them are humorous, some are annoying or cringe-worthy, but none even come close to this one. This is the sort of surreal tale that you might see in the movies, but it actually happened to me.
Ever since high school, I had driven old hand-me-down cars from my parents. Typically, these were decent cars with a lot of mileage on them (my dad worked 65 miles out of town at the time), and I drove them until they started to fall apart. At that point they were passed along to my little brother (who would have wrecked them anyway), and I got the next one in line.
This pattern continued through college and beyond into the first few years of my freelance career. As I got on more solid financial footing in my career I knew it would soon be time for a new car of my own. The ever increasing odometer on my hand-me-down Subaru (200,000 miles, 210,000, 220,000…..) made me see the writing on the wall, and I knew I would be paying a visit to a dealership soon.
The big question for me was what kind of car to get. I really liked Subarus, but a new Outback or Forester was well out of my freelance bassist budget. My fiancée had just bought a zippy little Saturn wagon, and I had borrowed it several times while my Subaru was in the shop. It seemed like a reasonably priced and solid bassmobile. When my trusty Subaru finally fell apart at 250,000 miles I drove it (with no power steering and questionable brakes) to the nearest Saturn dealership. I bought the same exact car that my fiancée had.
That was, without a doubt, the biggest mistake I’ve ever made.
February 11, 2004
I had just hit 40,000 miles in my one year old new silver Saturn wagon. I loved this zippy little wagon. It was reliable, easy on the gas, and plenty roomy. I had just played a rehearsal with the Northwest Indiana Symphony in a little town called Merillville, about 20 miles south of Gary. Merillville is a destination city for Northwest Indiana, and it is a marked contrast to the heavy industry of the Garry/Hammond area (my friends in college used to call that area Hell, U.S.A.), and the blight of the south side of Chicago. It was about 65 miles away from my place in Evanston.
This February night was cold. Really cold. A bubble of Arctic air had engulfed Chicagoland that week, and the air temperature was hovering in the single digits, with the wind chill dropping well below zero.
Shivering, I loaded my bass up into my Saturn, started it up, and headed for the tollway, eager to get back to Evanston and my nice, warm home.
As I pulled onto the tollway, I noticed that the ‘check engine’ light had just appeared on my dashboard. I scowled. This was the first time that any light had come on my dash, and I was annoyed that the perfect streak I had been having thus far with my Saturn was ending.
It sure was ending. I had no idea how badly it was ending.
In hindsight, I wonder why I didn’t just immediately pull my car off the road when that ‘check engine’ light came on. That would certainly have made for a much better evening, but ask yourself what you would have done? Does a check engine light mean “imminent death”? Don’t people drive all the time with ‘check engine’ lights on?
Well, they shouldn’t in Saturns—I can tell you that for sure.
I continued driving down the highway, and I noticed that my car was feeling a little unresponsive. It would do what I wanted it to do, but just a… little… slower…. than…. usual. Did it have to do with the ‘check engine’ light problem? The cold? The wind?
All of a sudden there was a huge *BANG* from under the car and a big roaring engine sound, like a motorcycle driving with no muffler.
My scowl turned to a look of confusion and worry. My muffler had just blown a hole in it in the industrial wasteland between Gary and East Chicago on the coldest night of the winter.
Or so I thought. If only it had been that.
I was now driving home with a ‘check engine’ light on and a blown muffler. Not the way I had been planning the night to go, certainly, but not life-threatening by any means.
Hindsight again makes me wonder what would have happened if I had stopped at that point. What exactly had happened at that point? What was that bang? Authorities later could never tell me for certain, because all the evidence would be incinerated in the coming minutes.
At this point my focus was just on getting to the Saturn dealership located a few miles from my place in Evanston. I was on the south side of Chicago when the bang occurred, and all I had to do was to get another fifteen or twenty miles north. Again, this may have seemed foolish to the future observer, but think about the mental process I was going through at that moment. Pull over at 95th street in Chicago at 11:00 p.m. when it is well below freezing and call a tow truck to take me twenty miles north? Dump my car in a south side lot to get repaired in the morning? My timid Evanstonian self wasn’t too into that idea. After all, how bad could a blown muffler be? People passed me with blown mufflers all the time on the highway. It must not be that dangerous to keep driving, right?
So I kept driving. As I approached the south end of downtown I decided to take the express lanes from the Dan-Ryan Expressway to the Kennedy Expressway.
This spur between the expressways has two lanes and no shoulder.
As I made my move onto the express lanes I started smelling smoke. I looked and saw dirty grey-black smoke coming out of the vents in my car. Alarmed, I looked at the engine temperature. It was completely normal. What was going on?
My car was now up on the elevated express lane spur to the Kennedy Expressway. A frigid Chinatown was below me.
I started to feel some heat behind me. I turned around.
My back seat was on fire!
Let me say that again.
My BACK SEAT was on FIRE!!!
At first I wondered why there was this weird orange glow coming from behind me. My brain at first couldn’t reconcile the sight of flames inside of my nice new car.
fire…. car…. fire… car… FIRE?!? CAR?!?!?
I had to get out of there! I pulled my car over as far as I could (no shoulder, remember?) and jumped out. The flames were lapping at the neck of my bass and spreading into the front seat. What should I do? What did I need? My phone! I needed my phone. I knew that. People needed to be told that my car was on fire. My bass! My bass was on fire! AAH! I opened the tailgate and pulled my bass out of the building inferno and into the single digit cold of the expressway.
I ran around to the passenger seat of the car. Where was my phone? I needed it! It was on the passenger seat, which was now very much on fire. I grabbed it, avoiding the flames, plus some other random stuff like:
-A book on tape set from the Evanston Public Library (minus the tape still in the player of the car)
-my novel (I may have some time to kill, right? Maybe I could get some good reading done)
-the Chicago Reader (the free weekly Chicago paper)
I ran back behind the car, making sure to lock it first (gotta keep the highway thieves out of my inferno car, right?), grabbed my bass (minus my bass wheel, which was still inside the car), and started sprinting down the highway and screaming.
Stepping outside of myself that night, I can imagine the bizarre sight I must have made to the observers in the long line of cars that I had gridlocked (2 lanes, no shoulder, remember?) with my flaming car. People must have been bewildered by the sight of a station wagon in a flaming inferno and a man running and screaming while also carrying a double bass.
This was the moment in my life when I decided that freelance music was not the life for me.
I got a few hundred feet away and called 911:
“My car’s on fire! Aaaargh! Fire! Fire!”
“Calm down, sir. Where are you?”
“I’m above Chinatown! Fire!”
“Sir, please explain where you are.”
“Freeway! Fire! Aargh!”
They found me anyway. Perhaps the giant torch of a car and massive resulting gridlock were a hint.
Then I decided to call my parents:
“Aaargh! My car’s on fire! Everything’s burning! I’ve got to go!”
That must have been a restful late night call for my parents.
Then I called my fiancée. Yet another hysterical conversation from me, with her trying to get me to explain exactly where I was and what was going on. She somehow got the information out of me, and she headed out to come find me.
I realized that, although I had gotten a few hundred feet away, I didn’t know what constituted a safe distance from a burning car. They don’t tell you the safe burning car distance when you buy a car at the Saturn dealer. I chugged down the expressway a little more just to be safe.
I had just cleared out of there and turned around to face the car when the gas tank blew.
My own intimate experience with car explosions leads me to believe that Hollywood exaggerates a bit when they portray car explosions in the movies. Parts didn’t fly everywhere, and I wasn’t blown backward. There was a fire, a boom, and then a much bigger fire.
The most surreal moment of the night came after that. Saturn auto bodies are made mostly out of plastic, and I saw the exterior of my car melt off of the metal frame like ice cream on a hot summer day. Like lava, the melted exterior formed a rivulet of hot molten plastic and ran down the expressway next to me. I watched it, covered in soot, holding my bass, novel, and Chicago Reader, watching the scene unfold with an almost Zen-like serenity. I had entered a state of calm (i.e. shock) and was simply interested in the events around me, forgetting momentarily that I was the main character in this drama.
Two fire trucks and five police cruisers eventually made their way to me. The fire trucks hosed down the smoldering husk of my former car as the police searched me for weapons.
Hands on the hood of the police cruiser, bass on the ground next to me, the vast crowd of automobiles lined up behind me, I had the realization that maybe Saturns weren’t so reliable after all.
After searching me, I had the bizarre task of describing to the policemen how to load my bass into one of their cruisers. One of them didn’t have the protective divider between the front and back seat, and we proceeded to figure out how to best recline the front seat and wedge in my bass.
“Just a little more back…now go left….that’s it…no, wait, let’s angle it this way…”
My car was now not on fire anymore. A tow truck arrived, hitched it up, and started to pull it away. All four of my tires immediately fell off in chunks, as did my license plates. All of my windows were gone, and the interior was nothing but charred blackened crust on the metal frame of my former car.
“Do you need anything out of the vehicle, sir?” asked one of the officers.
I declined. I needed a whole bunch of stuff in there (to this day I look for a piece of music or a CD, only to realize that it was in the car when it exploded), but I had absolutely no desire to get a closer view of the wreckage.
The cops waited with me as my fiancée arrived, and she and I loaded up my bass into the back of her car (her car was a duplicate of mine, remember?) and helped me into the front seat.
I was covered with soot and smelled so badly of burnt plastic that despite the Arctic temperature we had to keep the windows open as we made our way home.
We bagged my jacket, pants and shirt in double and triple plastic bags, but the smell was still overwhelming. I was covered in grime and had a hard time seeing and breathing, but I took a shower and hoped that I’d be OK (no health insurance—freelance musician, remember?).
Traumatizing? You’d better believe it. I get nauseous whenever I pass the spot on the freeway where it happened (for years I would take other routes to avoid that memorable spot). Little did I realize that the worst was yet to come, namely the nightmare of dealing with the Saturn Corporation about this matter.
Listen to the audio version of this story here.
Next time: Why you should never, ever buy an automobile from Saturn—lessons learned from a Saturn survivor