Last spring, after one of my car tires deflated as I pulled out of the driveway, I parked and walked 200 yards to Nick’s, the nearest filling station and mechanic shop, to ask for advice.
I’m a Nick’s regular, but I know very little about the people who work there beyond what anyone would observe with each quick, practical visit. For years, my gas had been pumped either by a Lebanese man named Karim, or an attractive young guy whose name I never caught and was too shy to ask for. Both are gone; Karim died of cancer a year ago, and soon after, the young guy moved on.
After Karim died, another Lebanese man would often pump my gas; this, I learned later, was Nick, the owner. Nick is older, in his eighties; his bald head is peppered with spots and his gait is slow. His accented speech, emphatic, punctuated by silences, makes it seem as if he’s half here and half elsewhere, but he’s sharp, in charge, in touch, and focused on the nuances of his shop.
I stepped into the garage and explained my situation to a younger assistant. He thought for a minute. ¨Go back and drive the car over here, we’ll take a look.¨
¨No, no, no!¨ Nick appeared from behind a lifted car. ¨This can ruin the wheel.¨ He walked up, then pointed a finger at his charge. ¨You pump the tire and bring it here.¨
Dutiful, the assistant walked back with me and pumped some air from an ancient metal canister into my tire. As he pulled into the garage, Nick watched, checking out the tires from a few angles.
¨You may need a new tire or you may need just a patch. We’ll put it on the lift and look. Wait in there,¨ Nick said, gesturing to the little registry room off of the garage.
This was my first time inside, but looking around, something felt familiar. A lot of things, actually. The garage, the office, Nick: they all reminded me of my grandfather, Joe, who was a race car mechanic. Worn, smelling of stale cigarettes, and lit by fluorescent lights that seemed to have survived a few decades burning at the same low temperature, Nick’s place was spare, like my grandfather’s garage, containing just the basics. I could feel how much time was spent here: minutes, hours, days—a lifetime.
My grandfather was an impenetrable person whose conversation ran almost exclusively along the lines of cars, race cars, and races. As a child, I felt in his garage a mystique laced with touches of comfort and touches of fear. Deep in a central Phoenix, fifties-era neighborhood strung with one-story houses and backyard citrus groves, his garage loomed out back off a stretch of polished red concrete. Inside, the garage was cool and dark. The shelves were lined with old peanut and cashew canisters filled with (metal) nuts and bolts. A pinup calendar hung on one wall where naked women with huge, cartoonish breasts posed on top of Jaguars and Ferraris. Fixed in the middle of the room would be, of course, a car, one of a few classics, the gods of that house, whose inner workings were as mysterious to me—and as little probed—as those of the man who worked on them.
Who was the person in this space? I only knew the contours of the space itself, and even then, I only knew them from my limited perspective. I only could tell, whatever it meant, that this room, a universe lit by metal, rubber, and oil, was my grandfather’s place. This was where he really lived, which was the next closest thing to who he really was.
My family would drive to my grandfather’s house twice a year, in the late afternoon on Easter and Thanksgiving, after visiting the extended Lebanese family of my grandmother (Joe’s first wife), who died when my father was a little boy. We’d sit in the living room as Joe chain smoked, ate mixed nuts, and discussed cars, race cars, and races with my father, until he would finally lead me, my brother and my sister through the garage for a good look at the cars. (A favorite: the Model A—he’d start up the engine for us). Then we’d step out the garage’s side door to the backyard, where we’d pull ripe grapefruits from the trees and throw them to the neighbor’s flock of sheep. The sheep would eat them skin and all. I dreaded trips to Phoenix, but throwing grapefruits to the sheep as the air cooled, next to the polished red concrete and the garage, the concrete so close, so smooth and odd to me, from another time—this holds up as one of my most mythic childhood memories. Trips to my grandfather’s house always ended this way: a tour of the garage, a few grapefruits thrown to the sheep, and then a shuffle down the red concrete to the front yard, as the sun set, to say goodbye.
I looked into Nick’s garage, taking in its energy. Can a space itself, and a person’s presence in it, say enough about who that person is? How intimately can one know another simply by spending time in the rooms in which the other spends the most time? Those rooms might say everything and nothing at once.
And within the rooms, their objects—these cars—how much can they say? As an adult, I now understand the value—the necessity—of mastering complex but predictable systems. Among other things, they can function as conduits, ways to relate to others—even if those ways are abstract, or remote, or deeply incomplete.
I stepped into the garage to ask Nick how the inspection was going. Before I could ask, he turned from the car to face me. ¨The tire is fine,¨ he said. ¨It needs only a patch. You live right down the street?¨
Yes, I said, right down the street, so I could come back anytime to pick up the car.
I wanted to ask him something unrelated to the car—anything. ¨Do you live in the neighborhood too?¨
¨No.¨ He was quiet. ¨I live here,¨ he said with a laugh, then paused.
¨You come back in an hour and it’s finished.¨