This is a story about how cars sure aren’t the same as they used to be, and about swallowing one’s pride, and how we have good neighbors among the local Rockland merchants, and how sometimes our best intentions are thwarted by the latest modern engineering.

First, a small disclaimer: You can only jump-start a battery if you can find a battery.

Recently, I was at the checkout counter at E.L. Spear Ace Hardware in Rockland, paying for my drill bits, when I heard a commotion behind me. An anxious woman was complaining to a few folks that, “Nobody will help me. Nobody has cables.” Turns out she was parked across Route 1 at the Salvation Army and had a dead battery. “I have jumper cables,” I said.

Sure, I carry jumper cables. My kids carry jumper cables. I thought this would be simple. I also thought it was a common thing drivers did for each other all the time, and wouldn’t be a big deal, or take very long, or attract attention, or turn into a newspaper column.

We drove across the road, I pulled in beside her PT Cruiser, popped my own hood, and —

— could not find my battery. That was pretty embarrassing.

That day I was driving our Toyota Prius. Do you know where the 12V battery is in a Prius? More to the point, do you know where it isn’t? It isn’t visible. It isn’t accessible. It isn’t, I later found out, supposed to be used to jump-start another motorist.

I had raised the hood of the Prius plenty of times to fill the windshield washer fluid, but to my great shame, I had to admit that I’d never paid attention to the fact that there was no battery in the customary location. Anyway, in the interest of getting the other driver going, I suggested she round up somebody else in the Salvation Army store who might have a “normal” vehicle with a “normal” battery, while I moved my useless hybrid electric car out of the way.

She came back with another woman who was by no means at ease with this whole exercise. She saw me with my cables and immediately asked, “Do you know what you’re doing? I don’t want you to explode my battery.”

I wouldn’t want that either.

We got the third vehicle in place, popped her hood (she with the normal battery), and I started untangling my extra-long cables. The other two began fussing and worrying right away. Then, looking under the hood of the PT Cruiser with the dead battery I found —

— no battery. 

There was a large bolt or threaded rod sticking up with a label indicating “positive jump point.” There was no realistic access to the battery — so once again, evidently a car not set up to assist other motorists — but at least it could receive a jump. Except that the car’s driver insisted — absolutely insisted — that I attach the negative (ground) clamp of the cables to a location on the far side of the engine compartment, because she’d seen it done that way once before.

The cables simply didn’t spread that far apart. There was really no reason the ground clamp had to be where the woman demanded, but I had a highly stressed car owner standing behind me and I couldn’t make myself say, “Look, lady, calm down and trust me.” The two seemed to be expecting a fireball anyway. At that point the third woman, with the working battery, was all done. “I am not comfortable with this. You guys don’t know what you’re doing. You’re going to ruin my battery. I don’t have time for you to ruin my battery. Call a mechanic.” She wanted no more to do with our confused little rescue. I can’t say I blamed her. But the PT Cruiser’s owner had to say something about “We women …”

The driver with the accessible battery left — and again, I couldn’t fault her, given all the befuddlement, although I really had done this before with less human-proof vehicles. I delivered the woman with the dead battery back to the warmth of Spear’s hardware, at her request, wondering how you call “Triple-A” for a stranger (you don’t). Then I went to Eastern Tire with some questions. Aaron confirmed that no, I wasn’t crazy, there is no battery under the hood and no practical way for me to jump-start somebody with the Prius. He also offered to go rescue the stuck driver. I called back to Spear’s; one of the guys who worked there was helping her. 

They’ve got some good strong coffee down to Rock City called “Genuine Jumpstart.” I believe it is named for another local mechanic’s shop. It was time for a cup of that.