I got in my car yesterday, turned the ignition and noticed the car sounded like a bear was coughing loudly inside the engine somewhere. Something didn’t sound right. Sure, my Ford Ranger is no kitten when it comes to engine purring, but something was clearly wrong.
My palms were sweating as I drove to the mechanic’s shop. I was expecting the typical shpeal upon arrival– “Dude, I got like 98 cars to look at today. Park it in the lot and we’ll have a look at it by Friday. The diagnostic check’ll be $100.”
I pulled up to Trumbull and 94 Auto Care. It’s a modest looking place with a neon sign that reads open the majority of the time. I figured I would give it a shot. I arrived at 4:12 pm and just walked right in to the garage because the front door was locked. Two figures stood underneath midsized sedans that were suspended in the air via a lift. Both were smoking cigarettes, both looked on to their tasks with the concentration of an eagle on the hunt.
“I need some work done to my car. Might be an exhaust problem, not sure. Can you look at it?”
“Yeah, yeah, no problem,” said mechanic number one whose name badge read “Fred.” “Give me ten minutes to get this rig out of here first.”
I sat in the car, palms still kind of sweating. Eventually he signalled me in like I was a 747 aircraft coming in for landing. Full arm signals, whistles, yelling, the whole nine yards. Within seconds of me getting out of the car it was already suspended in the air while “Fred” had a light wand in his hand inspecting the underbelly of the truck.
“Yep, right here boss. Here’s your problem.” He was pointing to what looked like a corroded mess of steel, salt and rust lodged to a portion of the exhaust system.
“What are we talking to fix it?” I’m expecting the worst. Last I saw on a Meineke Car Care commercial they were advertising a $250 special for a complete exhaust system repair. That wasn’t going to be the best news.
“Really?!” Relief. Not so bad after all. At that rate, I figured I would also let him know about a couple other things I needed done. “How much for a couple of rear tires, used ones are fine, just something that’s better than these beaters”
“Fifty bucks for both rears installed.”
I sat there feeling pretty good about myself. In fact, I sat on a pile of tires in the garage and watched Fred go to work on my exhaust system with a sawzall, a blowtorch, a TIB welder and a modest-sized sledge hammer. Feeling overjoyed and proud of myself for happening on such a deal, I was feeling rather talkative with the two guys in the shop. Jake was the other mechanic, a stocky fellow wearing a beanie who looked like he could fix a car with a blindfold.
We talked. And talked. I found out Fred has owned the shop for 20 years, and learned about Jake’s penchant for living close to a river. We talked about Detroit and historical neighborhoods. Over the course of the conversations, four other people came through the shop, only two of which had cars to be repaired. One fellow from a nearby auto shop needed a part– some sort of filter. Fred dropped the blow torch and got it for him. Another woman came in and was greeted by Jake. She promptly told Jake she needed to speak with Fred. Fred came back from around the other side of the shop and sat her down in a wheeled desk chair and talked with her while he was repairing my truck. I turned to Jake asking what was going on, to which he replied, “This place is like a therapy shop. Everyone wants to come through and talk to Fred. He’s too nice of a guy.” Turns out the woman just wanted to talk. And Fred listened.
Still perched on a bed of expired rubber tires and looking on to the whole scene with the enthusiasm of a toddler watching Sponge Bob. I was used to snide remarks, cheap sales pitches, slimy behavior and general nausea when it came to going to get any car fixed. Hell, these guys made me want to stop by and drink my coffee with them in the morning. The repair was eventually done, Fred and Jake both looked over everything to make sure it was all set.
“Thanks for the swift service and, well, just being honest.” I kind of felt a little too sentimental, like I was getting all mooshy with these bruisers who fix cars for a living. Both of their hands were covered in grease.
“Well, honesty is good. I might not be rich, but I’m happy at the end of the day. People come back here, you know?”
Fred and Jake tell the tale of Detroit pretty well. While the big box retailers stay away, a force of small business owners makes an honest living and do business the way that it should be. You go to Bureau of Urban Living in Midtown to get housewares or dish soap because you know Claire Nelson will take care of you. You go to Brooks Lumber in Corktown because you are certain that someone there will be able to tell you anything about the repair job you are trying to embark on. You go to Joey’s Meat Cutter Inn at Eastern Market because you know you can sit up at that bar with the tastiest hamburger, good jukebox and the pleasant company of their staff to boot.
I wanted to hug the guys, but instead shook both of their hands and parted ways. I threw the key in the ignition. The coughing bear in my engine was gone, the slow leak in the left rear tire was obviously non-existent and drove away feeling pretty good about the day, about Detroit and even the pesky little snow flakes that were drizzled throughout the evening sky.