The problem had begun months before.
One day when I turned the key in my van’s ignition, I got a click instead of a start. That was weird, I thought. I turned the key again, and this time the van roared to life. I thought it had must been a glitch and didn’t worry.
Over time, the problem happened more often. Sometimes the van started right up, and sometimes I got a click. Eventually the click was normal, and sometimes I had to turn the key two or three times before the van started. The situation was definitely getting worse.
The Man was pretty sure the problem was the starter. He could replace it, he said, He’d only have to remove two bolts. He wouldn’t even need to jack up the van; he could just crawl under it. I was glad he was willing and able to do the work, but at the moment I didn’t have the money to buy the starter. I just hoped the part wouldn’t give out completely before I could afford the new one.
After three weeks of work on the mountain, I had the money I needed. In AutoZone, I told the young man at the counter the make and model and year of my van and he told me my options. One starter only cost $35, but he didn’t recommend it. Another had a lifetime warranty, he said.
I’d bought a starter at AutoZone in 2014, a couple days after I’d purchased my van. I asked him to look at my purchase history and see if the starter I’d bought four years ago had a lifetime warranty. Good news: it did! I had to pay for the new starter, but when I returned the old starter, I’d get a full refund. That sounded good to me.
The new starter sat in the tent for a week while my van’s situation got worse. Every time I sat it the driver’s seat, I wondered if this would be the time it wouldn’t start at all. I didn’t expect The Man to work on my van after a long day at his job; I figured he’d do the repair in a week when we had two days off in a row.
On our Wednesday off, we went on a long, hard, ridiculous hike which wore us both out. On Thursday we were still tired, and I didn’t push the issue of the starter. I hoped the old one would hang in for another week until our days off rolled around again.
On Friday, The Man left the mountain. He was frustrated by the paperwork and having to account for the money he’d collected during the week, and he really wanted to do something else with his life. I wasn’t mad at him for going, but I did wish he’d changed my starter before he left.
On Monday I began making calls to mechanics in civilization. Les Schwab didn’t do that kind of work. When I asked the office manager if they recommended anyone in town to do the job, she mentioned a place whose name she was unsure of. I figured it was a suggestion more than a recommendation, and I didn’t bother trying to find that shop’s phone number.
I’d had some work done on my van in 2015 when the battery was giving me trouble. I’d liked the guy who’d done that work well enough. I had the receipt from the previous repair in the folder where I keep information about the van, otherwise I would have never remembered the place’s name.
I found the phone number via Google and called the shop. I explained my situation to the man who answered the phone. When I said I worked up on the mountain and needed to make an appointment so the repair could be completed in one day, the guy on the phone said he remembered me. I was speaking to the mechanic himself! He said he could replace the starter for $76. He said I should come in at nine o’clock on Wednesday morning. I moved, he warned me before we hung up and told me his new address, which matched the information given by Google.
On Wednesday morning, I moved the van from where I’d slept in the parking lot of a 24-hour supermarket across town to the discount grocery store. I went in to use the restroom and pick up a few things. When it was time to leave, I put the key in the ignition and turned. Click! I turned again. Click! I must have turned the key five times before the engine engaged. It looked as if I was getting the repair done in the nick of time.
When I’d used this mechanic before, his shop had been on a busy street in the heart of town. This time I had to drive to the outskirts. For a few minutes, I thought Google Maps had sent me off on a wild google chase. Just when I was beginning to wonder if I should pull off and investigate further, the Google Maps lady told me I’d arrived.
The shop was much bigger than the one I’d been to before, and I thought the mechanic had come up. The shop was farther away from the action, but had plenty of space now.
I parked the van and went to the front door. Locked. There was no open sign either. I was no more than five minutes early. Had none of the workers arrived yet?
The gate on the side of the building was open, so I walked through. I found the mechanic sitting behind a cluttered counter, eating a grocery store pastry.
When I’d been to the mechanic’s other shop, it was a bustling place. The bays were filled, and vehicles waited their turn in the large parking area. Several other mechanics worked for this guy whose surname was on the sign in front of the shop, and everyone moved briskly about their business of car repair. The shop I was currently standing in seemed lonely. My van was the only vehicle parked in front of the shop and the mechanic seemed to have no employees.
I have an appointment at nine, I told the mechanic.
You have the van? He asked hopefully. He seemed relieved when I said yes. Maybe he thought I wasn’t going to show.
He asked me to give him a few minutes, then he’d come to collect the van. I went back to the van and gathered the things I’d need while I waited for him to complete the repair.
At the other shop, he’d had a clean waiting room larger than most independently owned auto repair shops offer. An office manager greeted customers and answered the phone. I think I’d even been able to charge my phone while I waited. I was prepared for a similar place to hang out while the mechanic did his magic.
As promised, the mechanic joined me in a few minutes. He asked me again about the problem the van was having. I explained I’d often turn the key and just get a click. The problem is intermittent, I said, and the mechanic interrupted to say, What does that mean?
I felt bad about using a word he didn’t know. I wasn’t trying to show off. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of another way to explain the problem. I don’t know why my brain couldn’t come up with it doesn’t happen every time. I stood there blankly.
Let me try it, the mechanic said, and I handed him my keys.
He leaned into the van, put the key into the ignition, and turned it. Click! He turned the key again. Click! Turn. Click! Turn. Click! Finally the van started and he said he’d take it to the back.
I looked around the parking area. There wasn’t a tree to sit under or a lick of shade anywhere. There was no way I could sit in the direct sunlight for the hour it was going to take to replace the starter.
Do you have a place where I can wait? I asked the mechanic.
I have a waiting room, but it’s dusty and full of cobwebs, he said discouragingly.
It would be ok, I assured him. I just needed to be out of the sun.
He unlocked the front door and led me into a ghost town of a waiting room. To the left was a big office area with a counter and a window behind which the office manager would have sat, had there been an office manager. To the right was the area where waiting customers were meant to sit. Three plastic chairs lined the wall and in the corner a coffee table held magazine covered in an eighth of an inch of dust. Everything in the room was covered in an eighth of an inch of dust. Everything was so filthy, I didn’t want to sit or set my backpack down.
When the mechanic said the waiting room was dusty and full of cobwebs, I thought he meant no one had run a vacuum in a couple of weeks. What he actually meant was that he’d taken possession of an abandoned automotive repair shop and hadn’t done a single thing to make the waiting room decent for his clients.
Where does his expect his customers to wait? I wondered.
By the time I was ready to leave, I was wondering where his customers were. No one arrived after me. No one came in to ask about a repair or to pick up a vehicle that the mechanic had finished with late the day before or to bring a vehicle in for the ten o’clock appointment. The phone rang once—once!—in the hour I was there. Never before in my life had I sat in an auto repair shop for an hour and only heard the phone ring once. What in the world was going on here?
I heard the beautiful sound of my van’s engine turn over. Finally, this was done.
The mechanic stuck his head out of the door between the bay and the waiting room. He was finished, he said. I could come with him.
I followed him through the bay to the counter in the corner. The top of the counter was littered with greasy car parts and the over crispy ends of fried convenience store snacks. That will be $68, the mechanic said.
I was pleased that the final price was less than what he’d quoted me over the phone. I pulled out four twenty dollar bills and handed them over. He started pulling money out of his pockets to make change. That’s right…out of his pockets. There was no cash register, no lockbox, no zipper bag from the bank. He was going to make change out of his personal pockets. The last time I’d seen this man, he’d been running an auto repair business; now he might as well have been running a lemonade stand.
He pulled from the pocket of his pants a few crumpled ones and a wad of twenties he rummaged through looking for a smaller bill. He didn’t seem to have any fives or tens on him.
I picked up the two ones he’s dropped on the counter and said, It’s ok. Don’t worry about it.
I’d planned to pay $76 anyway. Why get uptight over two extra dollars?
Are you sure? He asked.
Yes, I said. I appreciate your help.
He got a smile on his face that made it seem as if my not insisting on change was the nicest thing that had happened to him in a very long time.