Sunday, January 22, 2023

Roadside assistance

One summer evening about twenty years ago I left work at rush hour and joined a line of backed-up traffic using the on-ramp to merge onto the parkway I took to get home. Several minutes went by before I made it to the head of the line. The compact car immediately in front of me, driven by a woman who looked to be in her thirties, had no choice but to come to a complete stop and wait for an opening, to the considerable frustration of the drivers behind us, some of whom had started leaning on their horns. I could see the woman leaning anxiously out her open side window, intently watching the cars to her left until, finally, a car moved into the center lane and let her out. The gap was small, however, and so she immediately floored it to get up to speed with the flow of the oncoming cars. What she didn't see, and had no reason to expect, was that two bicyclists, who weren't supposed to be on the parkway at all, had crept up on her right and pulled into the highway lane just in front of her.

As soon as she realized what had happened she slammed on her brakes, but the bicycles were moving too slowly and her momentum was already too great. Boxed in to her left, with only a fraction of a second to react, she had nowhere to go but over the curb to her right. Her car lurched onto the grass border, flattened a small bush, and came to rest at the base of an overpass some ten yards from the pavement.

I had kept my foot on the brake pedal while I watched all this happen, but when the lane opened up I crept out, then carefully pulled off the road onto the grass. So did the car immediately behind me, which was a tan Ford station wagon that looked like it had seen better days. The bicyclists, in the meantime, had heard tires squeal and stopped along the curb to look back. I turned off the engine, walked over to the woman's car, and asked her if she was okay. She said she was but she seemed dazed, distraught. I stepped back a bit, uncertain, half-expecting a cop to come along and sort it all out. After a moment, when nothing seemed to be happening, a heavy-set Black man in his fifties got out of the station wagon and walked, with a barely perceptible limp that suggested a painful hip, over to the woman's car. Even before I noticed the instrument case in the back of the station wagon, I had no trouble recognizing the bass player and composer Clifford Margen. I had seen pictures of him in jazz periodicals and even in a spread in Life magazine. I had a few of his records, one of which some record company marketing whiz had unimaginatively entitled Margenalia. I also knew that he had a reputation for what one writer, with no particular axe to grind, had called "truculence and unpredictability."

The woman tensed visibly as the man approached, but as soon as he spoke to her she relaxed, again said that she was okay, and leaned back against the headrest. He walked around the car once to make sure there was no damage, but by the time he got back to the driver's window he could see that she was sobbing. I couldn't make out his words, but whatever they were they seemed to help and soon she was more composed. He had her take some deep breaths and eventually she managed an embarrassed smile. When it was clear that she was all right he glared briefly at the bicyclists, who were quietly slipping off, and also at me, then got in his car, started the ignition, flipped on his four-way flashers, and crept back to the curb. He waited until the woman had started her car, then put his arm out the window to hold back traffic and let her pull out ahead of him. When they were gone I got into my car and drove off as well.

There was an office party at work the next day, and while chatting with my colleagues I told several of them about the incident. They were about evenly divided between those who shook their heads over the woman's bad driving and those who deplored the presence of bicyclists on a road where they had no business to be. Just one of them recognized the name of Clifford Margen, and he wasn't sure what instrument he played: tenor sax, maybe? Only on the way home that night did I remember what I had, in truth, known perfectly well all along, namely that Clifford Margen had been dead for twenty years, the victim of a landslide on a deserted mountain road somewhere northwest of Mexico City. Even so, I had no doubt about my identification, just as I have no doubt, even now, that there's a tan Ford station wagon somewhere out there driven by a heavy-set Black man who's heading for his next gig and rescuing travelers along the way.


Michael Leddy said...

The initials C M, alleged “truculence and unpredictability”: could he be a dream stand-in for Charles Mingus?

Chris said...

Could be, Michael. ;-) To be honest, in the dream the musician had a different name.