Old-Car Smell & Checkered Flags & Honest Mechanics

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

It's blazing hot outside. I've been out of my vehicle for a whopping 20 seconds, & already I'm sweating through my cotton dress - though this might have something to do with the fact that my car's air conditioner has been on the fritz since May.

When the mechanic's teenage son asks me, "What year is this?" I tell him it's a 1997. I don't even notice my mistake until he laughs out loud, looks at me funny. "1997? I don't think it is." Yeah, oops, add a decade. Can you tell I know nothing about cars? Great way to introduce myself to a new mechanic.

He asks me to pop the trunk. I'm sure I'm familiar with this action, but momentarily flustered & forgetful, I tell him I don't know how to do that. He laughs again, ducks into my car & pops a lever under the dash, then lifts the hood. Man, this is getting better & better, isn't it? My hot-day sweat is supplemented by God-I'm-a-freaking-moron sweat.

"You can wait in the office if you want," he tells me, hooking my car up to gadgets that I assume will help him diagnose the problem. "There's air conditioner in there."

I make my way to the back of the garage, passing two mechanics along the way, both in grease-spattered cargo shorts & stained T-shirts bearing the shop's name. They look like car people, I think to myself, like the kind of people I used to know, like the kind of people I come from. No one is inside the tiny, cold office when I push the door open, & it's a good thing, because I start to cry.

It's not just my car troubles, though at the time, I still believe that those will be fixed at a relatively low cost to me (call me a dreamer). It's that nothing reminds me of my childhood or my dad quite like being in a garage or a mechanic's shop does. It's the memory of that smell, that stale, hard, old-car smell, exactly the opposite of a dealership's fresh, clean, new-scar scent. It's that metallic, oily, engine smell that seeps into everything, soaks it, hangs in the air & suffocates you. That smell brings it all back for me: being a kid in my dad's office, visiting the attached factor & garage; busying myself with a book in the corner of my uncle's garage while he & my dad built a rally car.  

My dad loved cars - rally cars, NASCAR, the cars in other people's garages. I remember going to a garage sale together in a neighboring city, when I was maybe 7 years old. He took one look at a car hidden under a tarp & immediately pegged the make, model, & year; the owner joked that the only thing he couldn't guess was the color, so he made a (correct) go at that, too. His small headstone, which sits in a large, shady cemetery in Kent, Ohio, bears an engraving of checkered racing flags & reads "One of the good guys."

I've never been able to call my dad when I've had car troubles (he died six years before I got behind the wheel), but it always breaks my heart a little to know that he could've fixed it - or at least diagnosed it - in a snap. I never miss him more than when I'm waiting on some questionably trustworthy stranger to fix my car, wondering what it would be like to be able to ring him up & know he could take care of it for me. I worry I'm being swindled by mechanics who see a ditzy young woman who knows nothing about cars, so I'm always sure to tell them - part warning, part bragging - that I come from  a family of car people. 

The mechanic & his son quote me $900 - "busted compressor," they say. I text my cousin to make sure the price is legit (he says it is), then I make an appointment to bring it back, to hemorrhage money so that I can drive my car again without turning into a human puddle. 

As I drive away, I notice a light on the dashboard that wasn't on before. I call the mechanic back. "I was just in," I tell him, "& there's a little light on now? It looks sort of like an orange helicopter?"

He laughs, just like his son did before. "That's the check-engine light," he tells me. "We'll take care of it."

When I hang up, I start to cry again, but I quickly find that it's too hot to dehydrate myself like that... especially without air conditioning. Windows down, sunroof open, I look to the sky & whisper an apology, stop thinking about it until the next time I set foot in that garage. No, I'll never know what it would've been like to have kept on being daddy's girl. Right now, the best I can hope for is an honest mechanic - maybe one who's got a daughter of his own somewhere.

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