I only had time for one thought, and it wasn’t “I don’t want to die.” It was “I don’t want to die in Toronto.”
You know where you come around the corner of the Gardiner Expressway and down the little ramp onto Spadina? That’s where I put my foot on the brake and the pedal slumped all the way to the floor.
I was sure this was the end, this time.
I pumped the pedal to the tune of “Holy shit holy fucking shit” and there must have been just enough fluid left in the brake lines because I came to a gradual and indecisive stop just a couple feet back from the bumper of the car in front of me.
My heart started pounding and I looked around and realized I was surrounded on all sides by downtown Toronto traffic and I had very little brakes and possibly no brakes at all. My foot was all the way down and it was holding, for the moment, then the light changed and I let up just a little bit and moved forward. I was shaking. What could I do, stop and get out of the car and put my hood up in the middle of traffic, or maybe just try to make it, so slowly up the block, up Spadina to Dundas, to Augusta Avenue just ahead, just enough fluid left in the lines, thank god the venue is only a few blocks away.
This is the fourth time I’ve been in a vehicle when the brakes have failed. The first time was in the Equation Of State van when we floated straight through a traffic light in Columbus, Ohio, and Ian Hart bumped us up onto a traffic island to a safe stop. The second time was a couple summers ago when my Corolla wound up wrapped around a metal pole in Hartland, New Brunswick; seat belts saved our lives that time.
The third time was the last time I was in Toronto, just a few months ago.
All of those incidents resulted in a certain amount of stress, but this was the first time when I actually really felt the terror, like Holy Shit… I’m Gonna Die.
For hours afterwards I had this pain across my whole chest plus an upset stomach. During soundcheck I had the sudden urge to run to the bathroom and when I got in there and locked myself in a stall, I wasn’t even sure why I was there. I slumped against a wall with my head in my hands.
You’d think a near-death experience would lead to an awesome intense performance at the show. If only this were the case. I was a little distracted worrying about my car and about how I would get home. Plus the turnout was rather poor at the show. The Boat is a beautiful room, but the way it’s laid out, there’s the stage and then a big dancefloor and then a bunch of tables and chairs way in the back. The dancefloor was a huge empty space during my set and all the people hung in the back in the shadows. It was probably the largest physical distance between myself and my audience on the entire tour. I could scarcely be bothered to try to engage those people back there. I just played.
After the show I had a big music crisis, like: why am I doing this, touring is going to kill me, is this even worth it, I wish I had a job, I wish I had a normal job like normal people, I wish I could have a job and make money like normal people, have a decent car, why am I even still alive, what the fuck am I doing in Toronto, Toronto hates me, why do I play music, people don’t dig my shit, I should just stay home, before I get myself killed. And so on.
I stayed with Allison Outhit who is an excellent person to have around in a crisis. The next morning I got right to dealing with things, got my car up on a hoist at a nearby Petro-Can garage. The mechanic said he took my wheels off and the brakes fell apart all over the floor. The cylinders on both sides were blown out and the whole works had pretty much disintegrated. He said it was the worst he’d ever seen it and quoted me a price which was more money than I happened to have.
Now as it turns out, Allison’s place is just a short walk from the garage on Bloor Street that repaired my brakes last time when they blew in Toronto. After only a few months since the repair, you’d think there would be some kind of warranty on that work. But I had no paperwork, nothing to show for it. I could walk into this big-city garage and the guy could just give me a blank stare and say “Who the hell are you?”
But I had to try, so I ran from 900 block down to 1400 block on Bloor Street. And I walked into the garage, and the little Vietnamese elf guy came out and said “Long time no see! 1996 Intrepid!”
So we had a little talk and he said “You get tow truck. Bring car over here.” So I got the car towed over and he wound up fixing the brakes and not charging me for labour. The parts were still $200 plus $50 for the tow and then two lines had to be replaced as well at another $120 plus tax. Still pretty pricy but if labour had been included… I shudder to think.
The lines were the culprits. They’d gotten clogged and fluid could get in but not out and that had caused my new wheel cylinders to explode. The elf said it was the worst he’d seen in 25 years, the way both sides had blown out at the same time like that.
He pointed at my vehicle on the hoist and said “That car is going to kill you.”
The first time I had to use the brakes after I left the garage, I panicked for a moment thinking they weren’t going to work. Supposedly everything is fixed now but I’m still scared. If it happened twice it could happen again. Maybe there’s still an underlying problem they haven’t found. I have gotten no sleep, jolted awake by nightmares about impact. I’ve had a headache for three days.
Last Tuesday before I left Chipman I had taken my car into the garage to get the front struts fixed. I said “I’m leaving for Toronto and I’ve had bad luck with brakes so please check my back brakes, they’ve been feeling a little soft lately.” And the mechanic had checked them and he said they seemed fine. So what else could I have done?
On the way to Toronto, I had slowed down by Hartland to check out the spot where the Corolla was totalled. This time when I had driven past Exit 170, there were two new white crosses planted on the hillside. Looks like somebody wasn’t wearing a seat belt.