While Rome burns

I must admit I was prepped for high drama when I drove Tunnel Road East last week, turning left into the living maze that the NCDOT created when it decided to straighten out the traffic coming down South Tunnel Road and into the Asheville Mall.

As is the case when confronting a nest of rattlers, knowing what to expect is often little help. As you come down Tunnel Road, suddenly you’re aware of a straight arrow and a right-turn arrow. What do they mean?

Turn left, and you soon know by instinct that the left lane leads you to a hanging bank of stoplights where the accompanying arrows (often blowing in the wind) are governed by the laws of perspective and do not hang over the lanes they are supposed to mark. Add to this the confusing mix of red arrows and green arrows and standard traffic lights.

Turn right, and you’re forced to enter the Asheville Mall and all that that portends.

Major accidents and fender-benders reach new heights at the mall intersection — which is amazing, because the situation could easily be remedied by putting up a simple (and cheap) sign like the one on Patton Avenue in West Asheville. Over there, as you approach the Leicester Highway, you easily spy five small signs with arrows that tell you — long before you arrive — where to turn.

I eventually reached Books-a-Million and picked up my reserved copies of The New York Times. Then I headed back to Tunnel Road and downtown.

Traffic was thick. In the left lane were all those retired folks from the Northeast heading for Red Lobster. Ahead of and behind me were those gentle folks going to the Innsbruck Mall and Wal-Mart. The lane on my right was the only direct way to get to the tunnel. On my far right was the beginning of the turnoff lane for I-240.

Nobody was behind me, so I turned on my signal (rarely done these days) and prepared to move to the lane on my right.

Then, my car stalled.

I waited 10 seconds and tried to start the car.

No luck. The stall continued. Already, a van driver behind me was honking the horn. After 20 seconds, I knew the engine was flooded (or so I thought; it turned out to be a bad distributor cap).

So I did the following: In a 20-second lull, I rushed out and opened the hood, waving the impatient man behind me to go around, then flew back to the relative safety of the car where I turned on the emergency flashers. Sticking my arm out the window, I put my foot to the brake pedal — hoping that all of the above would at least give me a fighting chance against the mounting hoard of drivers, hell-bent on the kind of speed last seen when everybody rushed to get gas in Hell’s Angels on Wheels.

Years ago, my family would visit Batavia, N.Y., where my cousin Steve was an officer with the New York State Police. During lulls between rounds of gossip and platters of fried chicken, he’d take me out on the side of a major road, where he taught me how to judge the speed of passing cars without the benefit of radar.

Consequently, it was very scary to sit behind the wheel of a stalled Honda, with traffic literally going 50 (or more) miles per hour and coming within inches of my rear bumper before they suddenly noticed there was something in their path.

Who were they? Delivery trucks, large and small; major and minor trucks; regular cars, old and new; plus a plethora of SUVs, mostly driven by people using cell phones — and completely unaware of what was happening around them.

My favorite was an elderly lady in a very new and very shiny maroon SUV, who, finding me in her path, put down the phone, electrically rolled down her window, and — using hand signals — told me to get out of her way!

I hollered out the window that I was stalled and waved her around. She actually stuck her middle finger straight in my direction.

Using my cell phone, I called the garage and was told to sit tight and not get out of the car, that the tow truck would be there in less than 30 minutes.

I tried to listen to the radio. Then I tried, in vain, to start the car. I’d occasionally look up at the rearview mirror and have a panic attack as vehicles rolled up, stopping just in time, then swerved to the right or left.

Suddenly, a police car pulled up behind me, his blinkers blinking and his lights flashing.

“What’s up?” he asked, as he stepped to my window.

“Stalled.” I said. “And, according to the garage, it could take a long time for the gas to evaporate in this model car. But a tow truck’s on its way.”

The cars continued to speed by like meteor showers up in the asteroid belt.

“I’ll stay here for a while,” he said.

I wondered to myself why he didn’t go back to his car. Sensing my question, he said, “There’s no way I’d sit in that car and be rear-ended by somebody having an unimportant conversation on a cell phone.”

“They don’t seem to be paying much attention,” I said.

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