Saturday, December 10, 2011

gift from an auto mechanic

A joyous revival    What makes Dad’s old car so special? Its dents and dings? Its faded Sheriff’s Association decal? Or the ones my daughters and I have added? My community college parking permit hanging from the rear view mirror? Maybe not. After all, those are the superficial indicators of layers of ownership, almost like new colors a den might be painted.

However, describing the feel of Dad’s 1996 Buick Skylark does require an embrace of the ivory color its worn since it was new. In fact, that’s a key to what it conveys. Almost 250,000 miles old, it’s more than a relic. It’s a memorial on wheels, a likeness to Dad, his consistency, his predictability, his reliability, his lack of pretension.

In a very real sense, as its current owner, I’ve regarded it as a companion on wheels. That’s why a recent conversation with its mechanic saddened me.

“To repair the front window will cost $281,” he said. Nothing in the tone of his voice indicated whether he thought I should or shouldn’t spend as much as the car is worth on fixing its driver’s side power window. That consideration was mine to make. His dispassionate estimate made that very clear.

If I also had told him about the leaking radiator or if I had inquired about reviving its air conditioner that had expired years ago, he might have pointed me to a junk yard. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t ask.

Indeed, I’d thought of preparing a ceremonial goodbye with my daughter’s help. Chances are that she’d follow me to Chapel Hill to donate it to the public radio station at UNC. I can imagine tears in her eyes for the end of our shared Skylark era.

A week ago, while discussing the immediacy of its demise with a customer, I was surprised to hear him say, “That’s easy to fix.”

The man wasn’t bragging. He mentioned a friend’s junk yard where he would find the needed replacement. “Just a matter of a few screws. Easy work. My Dad taught me.” Knowing that he was a second generation professional helped even though he admitted some would call him a shade tree mechanic.

He loved doing what he did. And while he was at it, he installed new brakes and new rear shocks. For less than $150. I felt rejuvenated.

“What about the radiator?” I asked, trying not to sound too hopeful. It had begun leaking so badly that I had to park the car pointing uphill to prevent the water and antifreeze from draining out. Since he’d made my window work so well, I figured he might have a solution.

“Let me take a look at it,” he told me. I tossed him my only key (my daughter has the other one).

Before the end of the day, he presented his analysis. “Because your cooling fan doesn’t work, your radiator overheated and the plastic frame pulled away from the metal...”

Although I understood what he was saying, it sounded too major a repair to justify. “I’ll fix it tomorrow,” he said cheerfully. He seemed to appreciate that I was allowing him to do the work, that the work itself was a joy for him that he would miss out on if I said no. I wondered whether his Dad had owned a Skylark.

I didn’t ask. Instead, I held my breath when he said he’d found a used fan and radiator and one other part that had something to do with both. Timidly, I asked how much I owed for his work.

“Parts were $80,” he told me. Then he shrugged, as if he didn’t know how much to charge. I didn’t either, so I waited as he calculated.

“How about fifty?” he asked.

I gave him seventy.

And I aksed whether he could fix the air conditioner.

“Tuesday,” he said, smiling.

We shook hands. An hour later, I closed the store, got in the car, and drove. My Skylark felt perky, smooth, warm. On that cold night, I enjoyed my short trip and the heater that now worked so well and so quickly. I rolled down my window. Then up. I parked, facing downhill.

And I imagined my Dad, the time he took me with him to his barber, the two blocks we drove to get there from his store. I was much younger, but I remember how cozy I felt with him behind the wheel. Now I was getting that feeling again, one that my generous mechanic had made possible. I’m sure it’ll be there for me again, on my next trip.

                                         B. Koplen 12/10/11

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