I have told this story often but with less detail than in the current version. It is the first time I have written it down. I hope you enjoy it. I swear it is all true to the best of my recollection. But keep in mind that this did happen at least thirty years ago. Have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Holiday, and a healthy and generous New Year.
Early December in the early eighties. The semester was nearly over. Not much left except the grading of student papers. But that could wait. After work this Friday afternoon I would do a little Christmas shopping.
It had turned bitterly cold when I finished my last class of the week at Fanshawe College and set out to retrieve my car from the parking lot. I wasn’t dressed for it; only a light coat, no hat nor scarf or gloves. I was glad to escape the bitter northwest wind in the shelter of my small blue Honda Civic. A few flakes were beginning to fall.
Well, no matter. Where I was going, the shops I had in mind were housed close together along Richmond Street just south of Oxford Street: the Oxford Book Shop that carried the best sellers as well as government publications and local stories and histories; the hardware store, where you could find almost anything for any occasion; the futon shop which sold those wonderful down-filled duvets that were becoming so popular; Stan C. Reade’s camera store with its cameras and binoculars and spotting scopes. And a whole host of little boutiques nestled along the Atrium Restaurant gallery.
It was almost dusk when I reached the parking lot off Piccadilly Street. Unpaved, it had been a bit muddy but it was freezing up fast. Parking was cheap; it was before the days of Impark. I parked close to the entrance and lifted the door latch while depressing the lock on the car door. It was such a convenient way to lock the car door without having to use the key.
Unfortunately, it was much too convenient as I discovered a couple of hours later when, laden down with parcels, I reached into my pocket to retrieve my keys. Nothing there. I shifted the parcels. Nothing in the other pocket either. Nor in my purse, I learned as I frantically rummaged through it. I must have left them in the ignition and locked them inside. I brushed the accumulating snow off the driver’s side window and peered inside. It was too dark; I couldn’t see a thing. I walked around to the passenger’s side. There was less snow to deal with here. I couldn’t be sure but it looked as if something was hanging from the ignition.
Not again. I remembered some other occasions on which this had happened. The last time it had been in the parking lot at Fanshawe College. A colleague had happened to have some tools in his car with which he had managed to remove the rear window on the drivers’ side, a window that tilted out rather than rolling down. Another time, the matter had been resolved by a wire clothes hanger and an adroit bystander. Neither was available now, and it was beginning to snow harder. My hands were icy from carrying parcels and brushing snow from the car.
There wasn’t any alternative; I would have to call for help. Fortunately, there was a phone booth only a half block away. I blessed the shelter it afforded, set down my parcels on the floor and fished for a quarter. Or maybe it was a dime. In any case, my husband was home to answer the call. What a relief.
“I’ve locked the keys in my car, I’m pretty sure,” I wailed. “Can you bring me the spare one?”
Ted is great in an emergency. He doesn’t blame or ask stupid questions like how I could do that. Instead, he got right to the business at hand. “Do you know where it is?” he asked reasonably.
“I’ve seen it recently,” I replied, and I had. I could picture it now, small and silver, with a wide black head. But where? In my mind, I could see it lying amid other small miscellaneous items. In a box? In a drawer? Under the bed? I began to make a list of the possibilities.
“Listen, here’s what we’ll do,” he said decisively in response to my suggestions. “I’ll pick you up and bring you home. We’ll have some dinner, you can look for the key and we’ll get your car later when the weather clears a bit.”
Twenty minutes later we were on our way home. The snow was falling heavily and, safe in a warm car, I didn’t relish the thought of having to go back out into the night. But fortunately, the key was right where I thought it might be, in a box under the bed. How it got there will remain forever a mystery.
We prepared a quick meal, ate, and then settled down in front of the TV to wait out the storm. Within a couple of hours, it had alleviated considerably and off we went, back to the parking lot. Quite a lot of snow had accumulated, in the streets and on my car. Between the two of us, we managed to clear the windows all around and brush most of the snow off the top.
I unlocked the door and got in. There were the keys dangling from the ignition. The car started easily. I turned on the lights.
Ted climbed back into his car, tooted the horn and headed off toward Oxford Street.
My breath frosted the windshield so I waited a minute or two before following him. I tried clearing it with my mitten. I turned the defroster on high but then the windshield began to freeze over on the outside. Using the washer didn’t seem to help; it only exacerbated the problem.
By now it was getting close to ten o’clock. I was impatient to be off. Leaning over the steering wheel, wiping the inside of windshield and trying not to breathe, and turning the wipers on their highest speed, I headed home. Rather than following Ted along Oxford Street, I turned south toward Queens Ave. I would take the Riverside Drive route home.
It was snowing again when I reached the Dundas Street Bridge. The wipers were having difficulty keeping up but through the swipes I saw flashing lights up ahead near Wharncliffe Road with police cars, and a large van pulled over to the side of the street. Was there an accident?
The cars ahead of me were stopped, and police were talking to drivers. Then it dawned on me: it was the RIDE program.
The RIDE program had started only a few years earlier and I had never encountered one. They made you take roadside breathalyser tests; if you refused, you could be charged. There had been a lot of publicity about the program a few days earlier. The police were trying a new strategy, some kind of positive reinforcement. What was it again?
I felt my heart beginning to race. The presence of police has a way of making you feel guilty even if you are perfectly innocent. And I wasn’t perfectly innocent. I had had a glass of wine at dinner. Not a large one, but still a glass of wine. It was hours ago. Would that count?
A tall young officer in a dark heavy jacket and a cap with earmuffs turned up was standing beside my car. Snow has settled on his shoulders and head. I rolled down my window with difficulty. It was still not fully thawed. I got it down about one third of the way.
“Good evening Ma’am,” the officer greeted me.
“Good evening,” I replied, diffidently.
“Have you been drinking?” he wanted to know.
I thought quickly. If I said yes, would I have to go into that van for a breathalyser? Ted would be worried sick that I wasn’t home. And I hadn’t been out drinking, after all. It was hours ago. Should I mention that? How far back would one go in answering that question?
“No,” I replied meekly.
The officer leaned toward the window and reached through it. There was something in his hand, something dark and small, something like a microphone. “Here,” he said, “this is for you.”
Oh my God, was this the breathalyser? Did they administer it right in the car? I thought they took you out of the car and into the van, maybe made you touch your nose and walk a straight line on the way.
But the breathalyser was in my face. There was no help for it. I had to blow on it. Or into it? Should I put my mouth on it? My face felt hot.
“Pfft. Pfft.” I blew tentatively. And then a little harder. “PFFT! PFFT!”
I glanced sideways at the officer. His lips were twitching.
“No, no,” he said. “This ice scraper is for you, because you haven’t been drinking.” But he no longer sounded certain.
As for me, I have rarely felt as humiliated, or as relieved.
So when holiday season comes around, I don’t tie a red plastic ribbon on my side-view mirror. I carry an ice scraper. It’s a great reminder.
And the police officer? He has probably regaled many colleagues with the story that begins: “Have you heard the one about the woman who mistook an ice scraper for a breathalyser?”
But this is my side of it.