It occurred to me this morning as I was waiting for my car to be serviced that all places having to do with cars smell exactly the same. Why is that? From a dealership showing the fancy pants living-room-on-wheels to the dirtiest, greasiest one bay garage it’s that…. that…. odor.
It’s not a very pleasant odor, either. It’s the kind that makes you notice right away, and your nose kinds of crinkles up and you realize in the part of your nose that has a brain that “hey, I don’t like this.”
What? Don’t you know that all your body parts have little brains in them? Aren’t you glad you have me here to educate you on the finer points of anatomy?
It is a smell, though, that brings me back to childhood. My dad was very
knowledgeable knowledgable smart about cars and did a lot of the diagnostics and repairs himself, which often required trips to the car parts store. Anywhere my dad went, I wanted to go, mostly because I wanted to go somewhere where I wouldn’t be nagged to clean up my room, and also because I really really loved my dad and he made even mundane trips seem interesting and amusing. I remember several trips to the supermarket where I would be reduced to hysterical giggling tears and people would look at us strangely (strangely look at us? look at us in a strange manner? do I care??) and it would be the one time in my life I didn’t mind people thinking I was weird because I was with my dad and he made me feel so wonderful.
Anyway, on the rare occasions he did need someone to help repair his car (usually involving lifting out the engine which he really couldn’t do in our suburban driveway with the uphill curve) I would go with him. Those trips usually happened on a Saturday after he realized he couldn’t do it himself and he was in a slightly grouchier mood because he would be stuck waiting at the mechanic’s shop and my mother had probably prodded him to take me so she could have some relative quiet to herself. He would be dressed in his Saturday pants and a blue plaid shirt, always with thick black shoes and socks. In my cutoff shorts and flip-flops, I used to smugly think I was so lucky to be a girl, that I didn’t have to wear pants and shoes on a warm Saturday. (Clearly this was before I started menstruating.) (Sorry I brought that up, gentlemen.)
We would enter the mechanic’s shop and that greasy-rubber-oily-raggy-petroleum-dirt smell would hit me full force and I would probably look around for an open window. The faint daylight that seeped through the smeared window that had probably been painted shut since 1937 pretty well summed up the experience I was going to have there. After speaking in a foreign language to the mechanic (carburetor! manifold! spark plug! gasket! ) who always wore a blue ticking shirt with “Ray” embroidered over the left pocket, he would shake his head and settle into one of the green pleather-covered seats with the split right down the middle and stuffing trying to make an escape. I’d find a seat next to him and settle in as well.
There isn’t much to do in a mechanic’s shop. There are no arrays of magazines, like in doctor’s offices. There are parts manuals which my father would read out of ultimate boredom (and probably to avoid my attempts at sparkling conversation. After all, this was no trip to the supermarket!) and I would be stuck looking at a brochure for fishing equipment. I have no idea why it was there. Probably somebody was so excited to get out of there when their car was ready that they dropped it on their speedy way out.
There was also, always, two machines. One held gum, but not the cool, round, jaw-breaking variety. No, this was the flat, square-shaped gum that looked vaguely like Chiclets and promised to be spearmint flavor. No kid likes spearmint, I can tell you that. The other one had salted cashews. I would ponder those machines for quite a while, wondering how skinny your arm had to be to reach up inside the little keystone-shaped slot and grab a cashew, because of course I didn’t have any money. Why would I have money? I was going with my dad, he would always take care of me.
“Hmmm?” A particularly wild set of sprocket wrenches in the catalog had him enthralled.
“Can I have a dime?”
“Can I have a dime?”
“I want to get a cashew.” I really didn’t, but I was bored beyond belief and I figured the cashew might also help with the smell.
“You want a dime for one cashew? That’s nuts!” he went back to his spine-tingling manual. I’m not sure he knew he had made a joke.
“That’s what it says. Look,” I pointed.
He looked over at the little machine with the scratched red top and the less-than-clean glass and said, “Nah, there’s probably worms inside it,” and shifted in his chair towards the greasy-filtered daylight.
Well, now I had something to do! I moved over to the machine and looked at every possible angle, top and bottom, through the weird angle of the thick glass in the corners, and tried to find the worms that surely must be trying to eat their way out. I jiggled the turning mechanism to possibly wake them up.
“Leave the machine alone. I said you couldn’t have any.”
“I’m looking for the worms you said were in here.”
Red-embroidered Ray looked up from the depths of our car engine and hollered over “What? Worms? Where?”
My dad looked at me like thanks-kid-you-take-the-cake-sometimes. And I squiggled back into my seat and smelled the depressing, morose smell of a long afternoon at the car mechanic’s.