It’s 12:45 pm on a Friday afternoon and I am sitting in the waiting area of my mechanic’s automotive repair shop. Reclining in a faux wicker hammock not remotely comfortable but also, not entirely unreasonable, I feel the urge to distract myself from knowing what news awaits me when he finishes fixing my car.
My mechanic, Henry, is a kind, honest, hard-working man, and one of the first people I met when I moved to Los Angeles. Before I had made the road trip to Los Angeles, my girlfriend at the time, Bea, had done the proper reconnaissance in finding both a nearby mechanic and pharmacy; two things that would save us in this new city, time and again (minus saving the eventual doom of our relationship.)
But back then in the beginning, when I was full of the type of optimism you only get when you’ve decided to give up everything to follow a dream and a suntan, I packed my little Ford minivan from tip to tail with only the essentials needed to leave my old life behind for a new one: a suitcase full of shoes, an electric piano and three days worth of trail mix. California here I come.
Right before I began the trek from Boulder, Colorado to sunny and/or glamorous Burbank, California, I remember Bea calling excitedly. She couldn’t wait for me to meet the adorably cute mechanic she found for us.
“You’re going to love him. I mean, like, want-to-marry-him-love-him.” She gushed.
I applauded her enthusiasm, but wondered, what could that possibly mean in terms of his ability to fix our cars? Turns out. A lot. Sure enough, three days later after having barely coughed its way across the Utah, Nevada, and California state lines, my traveling shoe apartment puttered into the driveway of his shop in dire need of help. My girlfriend, eager to introduce us, was thrilled my car was completely jacked up.
Deflated in the first ten minutes of my California residency, I had called her from the road, “My car is a mess.”
“Great! I’ll meet you at Henry’s. Go straight there!” Her excitement should have been my first red flag. But absence makes the heart grow fonder, and she hadn’t seen Henry since her last oil change, so she jumped at the first opportunity for one of us to need an automotive fix.
Crawling out of my car, my knees temporarily fused into a seated human LEGO, I watched as Bea walked up and greeted Henry with a giant hug. When she finally let go of her stalker-like embrace of him, Henry warmly turned his attention to me, and I could see exactly why she had gone totally berserk.
Henry, stood an honest 5 foot 3 inches tall, with tiny patches of hair residing slightly above his defiantly protruding ears. It was as though his sideburns had somehow lost their way. He wore a smile stretching from his furthermost molars, traveling up his grease-covered apple cheeks, all the way to his opalescent blue eyes. Every other word engaged his smile, while the tiny lines around his eyes whispered subtly, “I understand. It’s ok. I’m tired too. Hang in there. I promise you, it’ll be ok.”
“It is so nice to finally meet you!” He gushed with his warm Armenian accent, the words rising and falling in concordant melody. His presence invited me in like an old friend sheltering me from a cold, endless night. Yet his ascending volume and tone rang more like an impatient librarian, scolding me for my late book return. The combination of the two was disarming and surprisingly charming.
“Nina! Why didn’t you put water in your car in Las Vegas?” He gently scolded me that first day while looking under the hood.
“I dunno”. I mumbled as I worked to unhinge the ninety-degree angle of my legs. “It felt like a gamble.”
“Ah, have a cookie. I’ll take care of it.” He shook his head at me while handing us a platter full of tiny, colorful cookies. He was like the grandma who got mad at you for not finishing your vegetables but scolded you with a consolation dessert.
From that day forward, Henry had both our hearts and our business. Lucky for us, my cars for the next seven years would be one hot mechanical mess after another. But we weren’t Henry’s only admirers. When walking into his office to pay my bill that day, I was immediately assaulted with a wall full of glamour shots from dozens of women who clearly had been as charmed by him as me and my lesbian girlfriend. Harry had a way with the ladies. Who knew balding short men in greasy jumpsuits could wield such power?
“Who are all the ladies?” I asked him as I signed my repair slip.
“Oh, just customers.” He responded nonchalantly, with neither the vanity of someone who cared, nor the disrespect of someone who didn’t.
Not that I had a wallet-sized headshot handy, but the thought did occur to both me and Bea to find the nearest photo booth so we could add our mugs to the lineup of ladies.
“What do you suppose we have to do to get our pictures on his wall?” I asked Bea one day.
She quickly responded, “I don’t know, but I’m willing to spray my bangs and put vaseline on the camera lens if it means we have a shot.”
The first time I brought my car to him he said my radiator was broken. He charged me a discounted rate of $300 and handed me a bottle of champagne, saying, “Welcome to California. I hope it gets better.”
Over the next few years, I came to fully realize the value of his automotive and life advice.
Six months later when the ignition broke on my sweet, sweet, pimp of a ride, my sexy 2008, Ford Focus, I called Henry. He immediately walked two blocks to my new, post-break-up apartment, showing up on my doorstep with a platter of croissants, a can of soup, and a car hack that kept me from having to get towed. It required me to keep the soup and a hammer in my car at all times. When the key would get stuck in the ignition, he instructed me to place the can over my key lodged in the ignition and slam it hard with the hammer. Sure enough, the two-dollar can of Campbell’s Chunky Minestrone and my 1957 ball peen hammer, staved off having to spend $500 dollars on a new starter. (Ball peen you say? Yeah I know, my toolkit might need an update. I also have a sickle in there too, but I’m not sure how to use it unless I’m terrorizing teens at a sleepover.) Three maintenance-free months later, the car died backstage at a show in Folsom, California, leaving me stuck bargaining for a new car within a mile of the state penitentiary.
At the time, my rearview mirrors on both sides were being held together with packing tape and the kind of hope you carry with you after reading a Magic 8 Ball. I had knocked both off, I kid you not, on 4 separate occasions while trying to park in my garage the size of a child’s corrective shoe. I’m pretty sure my stand-alone garage was built around the time the Model-T was falling from fashion. The dimensions of my parking space reflected as such. On three separate occasions, I scooted into Henry’s, head hung low as I’d knocked off my mirrors with the grace of a teenage street vandal mowing down mailboxes.
“Nina!” He’d holler as he embraced me, drawing out the “aaahhh” in my name with love and tender scorn.
“You do not love your car.” He’d say.
“But Henry,” I’d insist, “This is how you show love. Sometimes, you just have to beat it into submission until you can’t see what’s behind you.”
Henry fixed my mirrors and strongly encouraged me to work on my communication skills, all while feeding me plates of hummus and falafel.
The day before leaving for a tour I had the fourth assault on my mirrors. Out of time and full of carbohydrates, I decided to just tape them back on and hit the road.
Next came the problem with my automatic windows. One after the other, they all began to disobey my command to roll up. Rolling down was easily in their wheelhouse, but the moment I depressed that little button under my left hand to bring them to a full and upright position, they refused. (No doubt, in part due to the repeated abuse of their close friends, Left and Right Rear View Mirror.) As a result, I stopped rolling down my windows. Every time I had to jimmy them back up, their resolve to fall back down became stronger. Henry said he could fix them, but if I needed to save money, maybe I should just consider taping them up with clear packing tape to prevent any unwanted automotive wardrobe malfunctions. Rolling a window was a luxury I didn’t necessarily need. And with that advice, he offered me a candy cane and a ukelele. Every malady for my car meant a consolation prize for me. It seemed like a decent system.
That night of my tour, when the previously mentioned starter finally said goodbye only moments after my performance to a sold-out crowd, I sat behind the massive stage, hammering my ignition with a can of Cheesy Tomato Supreme soup. Hundreds of miles away from Henry, I feared I’d have to deal with my car and abandonment issues on my own.
When it came time to bring in my car to the dealership in Folsom, I knew I was going to have a hard time convincing what was most likely, reformed criminals, that my car was a gem of a trade-in, free from any mechanical issues whatsoever.
Armed with Henry’s advice to “clean it up real nice. And whatever you do, don’t show them the car until you’ve made the deal!”, I went around to different dealerships sans my sickly car, bragging that my candy-apple-red Ford Focus wagon was in mint condition and worth a bundle and a half.
Because I was on tour, I needed to make sure whatever I got had enough room for my gigantic keyboard to fit in the back. So for every car I wanted to test drive, I began by laying down in the back of the car, stretched out like I was measuring for a casket. After two days of intense car spooning, I found myself napping in the back of a Silver Scion resembling an aerodynamic toaster. Feeling genuinely comfortable as cargo, I determined I’d found my final resting place and my next touring vehicle.
Several dear friends who happened to live in the area came with me to help do the deal. One had the girth of a wrestler, the other a professional magician, and the other an actual salesman (albeit his forte was in selling backyard grills.) But between the sleight of hand, bicep-flexing, and greasy smooth talk, the three of them managed to get me into a brand new car for the same small payment as my older, wiser, more taped-up vehicle. I don’t like to play the damsel card, but dammit to hell, those guys had game. And I am forever grateful for their weird combination of bullying, fast talk, and three-card monte.
I also miraculously had something like a 750 credit score, which boggles the mind. I’m pretty sure they had me confused with another Nina Storey, some gal living in the Maldives making money trading dairy futures.
But I went with it and as we drove away in my new 2009 Scion XB, I looked in my rearview mirror as Tommy from the service department was examining my Ford for the first time. Slinking down in my seat, I watched as he began to notice the packing tape covering all the windows and yelled to my pal, Magician Dave, who was driving the four of us, “Step on it before he takes the tape off the windows and they shimmy down like a pair of stretched out underpants!”
Since then, this Scion has been a gem of a car to me. I, on the other hand, haven’t been the reformed, loving owner who Henry wishes I would be. I mean, it’s not like I’ve gone joyriding down the freeway at 120 mph, or driven over moguls, potholes and prairie dogs. But I have, on occasion, gone a wee bit too long before changing my oil. And maybe I have backed up into a fence or two when staring a moment too long at a celebrity/attractive dog walker/delicious billboard image of a twenty-foot Twinkie.
But in the eight years since buying my car, Henry has been a constant in giving me honest advice about what I absolutely need to keep from crashing, losing my tires to a swarm of angry bees, and the rough but realistic odds of me breaking my axel if I push my luck.
He once confided in me about the challenges of being a mechanic in this city. Everyone thinks you’re trying to screw them over all the time. Like, imagine if at your job, every time you told someone your experienced, professional opinion, they thought you were a liar and questioned you repeatedly before paying for your work. That’s got to be wearing on the spirit.
Let’s imagine that scenario in someone’s 9-to-5…
For instance, say you work in a job where staples are required and one day your stapler runs out. So you tell your boss you need to order more staples.
Your boss then says, “I know where you’re using too many staples, Donna. (You’re the Donna in this scenario.) I’m betting there’s someone in the office who can do a better, more efficient job stapling. Also, I know you’re replacing all the new staples with ones you’ve stolen from other staplers. I’m not going to pay you for your work stapling those ten thousand leaflets until I do some more investigating on the matter.” Your boss snarls at you (remember, you’re Donna) before he stomps off to get a second opinion on the staple debacle.
Needless to say, I trust Harry. So when he said to me ten minutes ago, “Nina, you need $800 in work or your car might explode on the highway.” I’m pretty sure I should believe him. I asked him yesterday, when I got the first part of the work on my axel done, “Does that come with a free donut?” He gently laughed at me. But when I showed up today slouching and once again questioning my life choices, there in front of me sat a giant pink box of donuts.
As I now sit here covered in powdered donut dust, eating my $847 glazed cruller, reflecting on why I didn’t decide to become an accountant, a mechanic, an attorney, an inventor of Mucinex, or any of the occupations I spend ninety percent of my income on, I do reflect on how this $800 dollar donut will, just like my friend and confidant, continue to help me as I make my way down the highway on to my next adventure.
****Side note, I asked Henry if he could explain to me the parts that were broken and he offered to teach me about cars if I ever wanted to learn. Next week I’m going in to work as his unofficial volunteer apprentice. He said I even get to wear a jumpsuit. He tells me my embroidered name tag will say, “Harotoun Vartabedian” and I couldn’t be happier.