When Airbags Attack

Five months before COVID-19 was labeled a pandemic, on a Saturday night back when people gathered together in public places to goof off, I drove from Duluth to Superior to attend an event called “Soup ’n’ Slides” at a place called “The Barbershop.” It might be helpful for me to explain both of the quotation-marked things.

The principal purpose of the event was for a fellow named Nik Nerburn to artistically project a bunch of 35mm slides he had found onto two screens while musicians Alan Sparhawk and Allen Killian-Moore sat nearby, collaborating to provide a live soundtrack to the slideshow. Three pots of soup simmered in the next room for anyone seeking nourishment. Put those elements together and we have “Soup ’n’ Slides.”

The event was held in an old barbershop on Belknap Street that was being used as a music and arts venue at the time simply because no one had been using the space to cut hair for profit. One room had about 20 folding chairs in it, assembled facing the performers who were set up against the back wall. The next room was about the same size, but acted as sort of a lobby. A considerable collection of phonograph records surrounded the small huddles of soup eaters engaged in casual discussion, so that they might at any moment flip through the assortment of albums and change the subject of conversation to the 1983 film D.C. Cab after gazing at the sneering Mr. T on the original motion picture soundtrack cover. And that’s what “The Barbershop” was all about.

None of that information is essential to this story; it just sets a scene in a pre-pandemic life of leisure. The soup was delicious, the slides were fun and the musical accompaniment brought it all together. It was perhaps 9 or 10 p.m. when the entertainment concluded. Time for another small serving of soup and some final jibber jabber before exiting into the crisp autumn night.

Whether I had decided to go home or engage in further nightlife, the outcome of the evening would likely have been the same. Going home meant taking the Bong Bridge. Extending the night by having a beer at the Caddy Shack pub’s grand opening with music by the Slamming Doors, WNDY and Black River Revue meant taking the Blatnik Bridge. I chose the Blatnik.

It’s a bit helpful to this story to know the history of my car. Four years ago I bought a 1986 Mercedes 300E sedan. Despite being a 30-year-old car at the time, it was in outstanding condition, at least in appearance. Unfortunately, I had problems with it almost immediately, and it quickly became the subject of a trilogy of Saturday Essays.

Part one: My Fancy Foreign Car is a Symbol of American Freedom
Part two: My Fancy Foreign Car is a Symbol of My Idiocy
Part three: Positive Thinking Meets Bad Car-ma

Now the trilogy has become a tetralogy. About one-third of a mile after crossing the centerspan of the Blatnik Bridge on that fateful fall night, the airbag on my fancy foreign car deployed.

Yes, I was just casually driving 55 m.p.h. about 100 feet above a rail yard or an iron-forging plant — or whatever section of Rice’s Point the bridge had taken me — when a fabric jack-in-the-box lurched out of my steering wheel into my face for what seemed like no reason at all. A cloud of dusty smoke and the sound of banging car parts made it obvious I needed to pull over immediately. Since I was past the centerspan, there was thankfully a shoulder lane available to park the car.

As soon as the vehicle came to a stop, I brought the window down, turned off the ignition, checked to see if it was safe to get out, and then walked about 30 feet away. It seemed like the car could be on fire, but the smoke soon dissipated. My assumption was that perhaps a tire had exploded, but it was easy to assess that wasn’t the case.

There were no marks on the outside of the car, and I didn’t see anything I could have hit. There were no parts hanging out of the bottom of the car or sitting on the road. Everything looked normal, except a flaccid airbag was now protruding from my steering wheel and the ignition was inoperable.

The infamous 1986 Mercedes 300E, parked on the Blatnik Bridge on Oct. 19, 2019.

At this moment I should have called for a tow truck, but I was a little shaken by the experience and somewhat uncomfortable with the notion of standing on a bridge while traffic sped by. Since I had already crossed the St. Louis River it was possible to step over the guard rail and stand on a grassy slope. But my first impulse was still to get the hell away from there as fast as possible, relax for a minute, and then figure out what to do next. So I called Adeline.

Adeline Wright was one of the soup makers at the event I had just left, and one of only two people there who is a contact in my phone. As Allen Killian-Moore’s partner, she was still lingering at the Barbershop while the soups and instruments were getting packed up. She was happy to pick me up on the bridge and take me home, bless her heart.

But as soon as I got home I realized that a tow truck would have picked me up just as quickly and solved two problems at once. Now I had to drive my wife’s car to meet the tow-truck driver and pay him for his service — another $141.54 in the Mercedes expense list. I had him bring the car to my mechanic’s lot, where it would sit for a while because, let’s face it, no matter what the problem was, at this point the vehicle was almost certainly a lost cause.

For a month and a half, I had no idea what had actually happened that night. I just figured the airbag had spontaneously deployed.

Then I finally got the news.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” were the first words out of my mechanic’s mouth. He told me a set of bolts on the drive shaft had torn, bent and otherwise come apart, causing the rear differential to seize, causing the transmission to fall apart, causing the airbag to deploy. At least, that’s the best theory my mechanic could put together. In summary: everything broke.

“Your drive shaft was just bouncing around in there, just ba-boom ba-boom,” my mechanic said. “And it actually cracked your transmission housing … the whole case cracked … hit your oxygen sensor, bent a bunch of stuff up.”

Then he basically rephrased the same opinion as if in disbelief.

“I feel like those bolts came out and the drift shaft started whaling around and it was causing such a crazy vibration and maybe from beating it like that it jammed the differential? I don’t know.”

All of that probably happened, but it happened so fast that the only thing I noticed was the airbag exploding at me like an enraged punching bag out for unexplained revenge. Clearly, it was time to rid myself of the Mercedes.

I had already written the Craigslist ad in spring 2019 after replacing the power steering pump and gear box. But after driving the car around for a few days I was quickly seduced into thinking the repairs were finally over and the glory days of worry-free driving might have arrived. Why sell the car right after getting it fixed to perfection?

One more little thing went wrong shortly after that. The ignition had started to become misaligned so the key would jam before full insertion. This meant I’d have to take a deep breath, relax and carefully insert and jiggle the key to get it all the way in to start the car. One day I just couldn’t get it to work and had to give up and catch a bus to make it to a meeting on time. Then I called a locksmith.

The locksmith made a new key, but that didn’t work either. He sat on my driver’s seat fiddling with the original key, talking about how my mechanic will have to take out the ignition so he can attempt to put new tumblers in that will match my door key. Then suddenly, while he was telling me that, the key just slid right in. He sat silent with a look of surprise on his face before explaining the obvious.

“Well, now all you have to do is never take this key out,” he said.

I didn’t. Problem solved. I kept the key in the ignition and drove the car until it unraveled on the Blatnik.

In the months that followed I either walked, took the bus or used my wife’s car to get where I needed to go. I had a lot of work keeping me busy and no money saved up, so I figured I’d look for a new vehicle in the spring. For the first month and a half, when I thought my airbag had deployed for no reason, I would tell people what happened and they would often ask if I have any sort of mild post-traumatic stress or a fear of driving, unable to stop imagining that I might be randomly smacked in the face at any moment. I don’t. I never think of it. But I suppose if it happened when I was 16 or resulted in a crash I might.

I do have some trauma related to using my wife’s car. She has a subcompact sport utility vehicle, which I refer to without mentioning the make or model because it doesn’t matter — all those cars are the same. So no matter where I go, the odds are good there will be another grey car that looks just like it.

Once, in the Denfeld Retail Center parking lot, I walked out to the wrong car and the door was unlocked. I would have sat down but the owner of the twin car was obviously a smoker and I figured out my mistake the moment I opened the door and inhaled.

Another time I exited the West Duluth Menards, clicked the unlock button on the keyfob, and when I noticed no sound of doors unlocking realized I was at the wrong car, so I went down the line and was about to go for another wrong one until I saw a window decal I didn’t recognize. Seconds before attempting to unlock a third vehicle I noticed a bunch of stuff on the passenger seat that I didn’t recognize. Yes, I had to approach four different grey subcompact sport utility vehicles in one row of a parking lot before finding the correct car. That kind of thing never happened with the Mercedes.

But alas, the love affair was over. I put the Mercedes up for sale on Craigslist for $500 as a parts car. It was the first time I had to spend money on a Craigslist ad, and even though it was only $5 I still couldn’t help shouting at my computer, “This car is still costing me money!”

I got quite a few callers responding to the ad. They all wanted to fix it instead of use it for parts, and after they questioned me about its condition they decided they weren’t interested. A guy in South Carolina wanted to buy it by transfering money by PayPal or eBay, then having someone pick up the car and deliver it to him. I decided not to do that, figuring it might be a scam, even though I couldn’t really figure out how that would work as a scam. But it certainly didn’t make sense that someone wanted to buy a wrecked car and pay for someone to tow it one thousand miles.

Eventually I wrote a new Craigslist ad explaining the car’s condition in greater detail. No one called.

A couple months later I posted the ad a third time for another $5. “This car is still costing me money!” I repeated. One person called. He looked at the Mercedes and offered $150. I accepted.

It was March 16, five months after the car fell apart and just days before businesses would start to shut down across the country as the COVID-19 pandemic became real. The new owner of the Mercedes handed me the stub from the car’s title, then held out his right hand to seal the deal. I instinctively shook it, then immediately said, “Oh, that’s right, we’re not supposed to do that anymore.” I haven’t shook hands with anyone since then.

My wife works from home now, so there is no need for a second vehicle. What will I write tetralogies about in the future? The world is so quiet and uninteresting, right?

But the old Mercedes is still alive. The new owner told me he’s going to try to get it back on the road. I wish him luck, and I’ll certainly know that car if I see it.

2 Comments

Paul Lundgren

about 2 years ago

In sincerity I don't hold it against you, but for the purposes of comedy: Damn you Vicarious!

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