Imagine the car of your youth, the car of your dreams, the first car you ever loved: an enormous gas-guzzling monument to the Cold War capable of driving over or through any obstacle that New York can put in its way. That’s my car: a big, sleek, green ’66 Chrysler.
Tonight I am driving down Flatbush Avenue. My engine is humming. I am one with my car. Then, steam starts to trickle from under the mammoth green hood.
I swing over to Fourth Avenue, where the gas stations live. At the closest station, I get out, open the hood, and unscrew the radiator cap. A volcano of antifreeze erupts. A burly man suddenly materializes next to me. He offers, for an unspecified number of dollars, to walk 25 feet to a tap and return with water for the radiator. I tell him, no thanks: I am perfectly capable of walking 25 feet to get my own water. When we finally agree that his services will not be required, my new friend offers to get Mike the mechanic. “Mike has tools,” he states.
I walk over to the cashier’s cage where a Korean gentleman refuses to open the door but is at length able to squeeze a plastic jug through the payment drawer. When I get back to my car with the water, Mike is already there.
Mike is a big guy, about 40, with bad posture, who says he has been a mechanic for nine years. He has a Phillips screwdriver and a pair of pliers. While Mike examines the engine, I stand around wondering: What is the penalty for impersonating a mechanic?
Mike tells me the thermostat is stuck. For some reason, this strikes me as plausible. In a fit of abstraction, I agree to pay him $10 to fix the car on the condition that he actually fix something. We remove a large hose from the radiator and he stabs crudely at the thermostat with the screwdriver. This procedure in no way alters the functioning of the thermostat, which is just as well as it is clearly working.
When I inform Mike his services will no longer be needed, he responds with lengthy expressions of anguish and threats of physical violence. I start the Chrysler. A few blocks away I pull into another gas station. I open the hood, under which the hose is clearly deteriorating. Immediately, I am joined by a young man who tells me he would be happy to strip a parked car to get me a hose—an abandoned car, he hastily assures me. Several of his associates await my decision. I am too much of a gentleman to resuscitate my car with one of my neighbor’s hoses. (This is not saying much, I know.) Somewhere back there in the station, the real mechanic may be hiding out. But I cannot get to him.
“No thanks,” I say and drive off to the next gas station, a Gulf, where to my amazement, I am confronted by another faux mechanic with a nearly identical sales pitch. The spirit of enterprise is evidently catching. I nearly have to close the hood on this gentleman’s hands to keep him from disconnecting my still-functioning hose.
Eventually, after bypassing several more pseudo mechanics, I locate a real gas station employee who has real auto parts, which come from a real auto parts wholesaler, and which will really fix my car.
Things are not always what they seem in New York. After a certain hour, the women one sees are probably men and the auto mechanics are actually car thieves. Where I live, people are cocktail waitresses and cabdrivers, inside traders, and gay artistes. Meanwhile, just around the corner, people make a living impersonating gas station attendants.