Monday, April 8, 2013

The Flat Tire of Old San Juan

In my experience, flat tires often turn into good stories.  I hope you enjoy this one as much as I do.

Last Friday, I picked up my friend Lauren from the San Juan airport just before 4pm.  We planned to meet some of my friends for dinner at 6pm, so we had a bit of extra time to kill.  I suggested we take a preview of Old San Juan, just driving through it, since we were close.  Lauren thought that sounded fine.

The day was cloudy, with spatterings of rain.  As we drove along the coast, I assured Lauren that in the sunshine, the water is ten times more beautiful.  She took my word for it, but I think was suitably impressed even by the grayness. 

Traffic backed up in Old San Juan, and we sat bumper-to-bumper on the blue cobblestone streets waiting to exit.  (I hadn’t factored in the fact that on Good Friday, of course there would be tons of traffic near the cathedral).  Stopped on a narrow street, a man tapped on my window and motioned toward the back of my car.  I thought I knew what he was getting at, but had Lauren roll down her window anyway.  “Tiene una goma vacia.”  Yup.  Empty tire.  Got it. 

Well, we couldn’t really stop or pull over where we were at, but thankfully traffic was moving at about 3 miles per hour, so we inched along until we reached a parking spot across from El Antiguo Casino (which, up until that day, I did not know was a casino). 

Lauren and I got out and pulled out my spare tire, tire iron, and the jack from my trunk.  Both of us had changed a tire, or watched one being changed, before, so we dove right in.  After we got the jack in what we thought was the right spot, we realized that I didn’t have the L-shaped bar to crank it up.  Helpful.  We improvised, using the edge of the tire iron. 

While we worked on that, a helpful tourist couple asked if we needed help.  We said we’d accept it, if they were offering.  It’s probably a good thing we did, as the guy asked if we’d loosened the lug nuts, and we realized that’d be a good thing to do before the tire was suspended in the air.  We put the jack back down, and he loosened 3 of the nuts.  The fourth one wasn’t moving.  The tourist apologized and said he didn’t want to break my tire iron, and suggested we call someone.  Lauren has AAA, so she called and they sent someone our way.  We thanked the tourists, and they went on their way.

A few moments later, as we stood in the wind essentially just staring at the tire (because we certainly couldn’t loosen the tricky nut either), a homeless man making palm-frond flowers (and missing just a few teeth) wandered up and asked if he could help.  We shrugged, said AAA was on their way, but he was welcome to try.  Well…he didn’t really know what he was doing, and didn’t accomplish much.  But he tried for nearly half an hour.  As he was working on it, a Puerto Rican man came by and noticed we didn’t have the bar for the jack (we were in the process of lowering the car again, after homeless genius had decided it’d be easier to loosen the nut without gravity pressing down on the tire and found his hypothesis incorrect) and offered to go to his car and get his.  Sweet.

He came back, lowered the car down, and began working on the stuck lug nut.  At about this point, the homeless guy shrugged and accepted defeat.  He asked if we had any change, we apologized and said no (are we bad people? Maybe.), and he went on his way.  Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican gentleman was having no luck either.  After a few minutes, he took my tire iron in hand and set off down the street, first in one direction, then the other, without a word. 

Lauren and I were…perplexed.  Obviously he meant to come back—he’d left his tools with us, and he had my tire iron.  But just what he intended, we were not sure.

We watched him go over to the casino and talk to the guard standing outside for a moment.  The guard disappeared for a while, and then came back bearing a 5 foot long metal bar, which he gave to our helpful stranger.

The man came back over to us with the bar, which was like a square tube missing one side, and his intentions became clear, finally.  Putting the tire iron back on the lug nut, he attached the metal bar to one end and used it for extra leverage.

Now, this approach may have been successful…if my tire iron hadn’t given up and broken under the strain.

But not to worry!  Helpful Stranger assured us he would go get the iron from his car.  And he set off again. 
“Is he going to give me his after he uses it?  He just broke my tire iron!”  I complained. 
Lauren shrugged and empathized. 

Our helpful Puerto Rican returned with his tire iron and was finally able to loosen the stubborn lug nut…just as the tow truck from AAA pulled up.  We assured him we had things under control, but the tow driver stayed and watched just to make sure.  Our helpful stranger quickly and efficiently changed the tire (although we somehow lost a lug nut in the process…it just vanished into thin air).  Tow Truck Driver waved and drove off, Helpful Stranger did the same, returned the bar to the casino worker, and we all went on our way…me with a broken tire iron and missing lug nut, but a working spare tire. 

The whole process only took about an hour and 15 minutes and the help of 6 strangers.
Welcome to Puerto Rico, Lauren!  Bet you didn’t think this is how your trip would start.  I sure didn’t.


  1. Flat tires do turn into good stories --- after the fact. But when you're still going through the stress of getting one and the troubles of changing it, it's frustrating. I'd imagine that's exactly how you were feeling with that stuck lug nut. It was very fortunate that you had a lot of people approach you for help and that you there were establishments nearby. :)

  2. Who would have thought that a simple misfortune will lead you to a wonderful story? Changing a flat tire can really be difficult sometimes. You were lucky because there are kind-hearted people who helped you during that time. Puerto Ricans are surely friendly and hospitable!

    Jamie Ladson @Georgetown Exxon