My aging Dodge minivan began to show its age a few months ago. Already on its second transmission, the old gal’s 3rd gear began to intermittently jump in and out at highway speeds. This van was assembled in 1994, four years before the Germans took over, 13 years before Cerberus and 15 years before the Government took it over and arranged a shotgun marriage with Fiat.
I can say it has been a solid used car. I have never, and probably never will, buy a car new. Used cars make far more financial sense, even accounting for repair costs and the occasional unexpected breakdown. For $3000 ($1500 to purchase, about another $1500 in major repairs) I drove a reasonably reliable vehicle for over four years. It is inevitable that you will be inconvenienced one day on the highway, but I say carry AAA and a cell phone and comfort yourself with he fact that over five years you are likely saving tens of thousands of dollars (I buy really cheap cars). One big repair I did myself with the aid of my very mechanically talented son. 300 bucks in parts, 8 hours of labor, 100 bucks to my son and 1400 bucks to my physical therapist. Net savings $19.21. That’s three lattes at Starbucks if you have a coupon.
My legendary thrift aside, all good things come to an end. I cleared out my van of stuff and made arrangements to take my car to a “recycling center”. Taylor’s place is a junkyard about six miles from my job. Located at St. Charles Rock Road and Kingsland, they offered a fair sum if I drove the van to them, saving them the trouble of a tow. My plan was to load up my bicycle, offer up a handful of prayers invoking the patron saint of drivetrains and drive the van in. I would complete my trip to work under my own power. On the evening before taking my 15 year old beater, I pulled up to my garage and noted that the van was not where I left it.
The damn thing had been stolen.
Annoyed as hell, I reported it missing to the police, after establishing it had not been towed for some violation of alley-parking etiquette. Around 9:00, the police dropped by my house and asked if I was missing a van. The 1st district cops gave me a ride where the van had been abandoned, after first encouraging me to get a screwdriver to use as a “key” as the ignition switch had been wrecked. The little Rasputins who had boosted the van had found several solid objects against which to rub the fenders and quarter-panels. A loose plastic chunk made a forlorn, staccato wail from the wheel well until I yanked the piece free.
The next morning I loaded up my fancy bicycle, donned my fancy cycling shoes and clothing and continued on with the intended mission. I was prepared to accept a lesser sum, though the man offered the amount sight unseen. I did tell him about the bad transmission, but he asked no more questions. Arriving early, I pulled into the seemingly abandoned junkyard. Doors were open, music played, but the only human form was a mannequin lying on the ground, clothed in a mechanics uniform and surrounded by empty beer cans. Under my breath I muttered “Cujo?”.
Eventually a sturdy man drove up from the bowels of the yard in a giant forklift and asked if I was going to junk my van. He told me the guy who handles those transactions would be in somewhere between 8:00 and 8:30. The yard opened at 8:00 for people seeking used parts.
Right at 8:00 people began to file in. Admission is a buck, though I think it applies to the price of any parts you buy. Working men brought tools and grabbed wheelbarrows to find the part they needed to get back on the road. An older black man strode through with a failed part, his son or grandson following. The young man chirpped happily away obviously glad to be with a respected mentor.
FYI – if you ever need to feel like an idiot, I recommend you begin by putting on spandex cycling shorts with a pad tucked up in your nether regions followed by a snug cycling jersey. Finish the deal by standing in a gritty junkyard as people who have real jobs file past. Perhaps the only way to be a bigger tool would be to saunter to the grimy window where “Joe” collected money for parts and order a soy macchiato. With nutmeg.
“Joe” didn’t have much use for me. I said “Hi” and offered my hand, which he refused, half-regarding me out of the corner of his eye. I thought about making a wisecrack about the snub, but I was outnumbered by young men who worked for a living. My shorts already ride up. A wedgie would be catastrophic, probably requiring reconstructive surgery.
Eventually Da Boss arrived. He was friendly and we quickly exchanged paperwork and handshakes. I looked at the check and calculated how much more valuable my bicycle was than my car (4x). A young man sprayed “94 7/1” in yellow paint indicating the day they got the car and the model year. I tucked away the check, loaded up my junk and took off for work.
I have a nice, easy job where I work with my head, not my hands. Surrounded by conditioned air and clean environs, I can remember scrambling to find a part at a junkyard in the afternoon so I could fix my car in the evening to get to work in the morning. A mechanic named Doc takes care of most of my repairs. I can turn a wrench, but it is an option, not a necessity. That said, I do not pity those guys I saw today, neither do I envy them in some yeoman-hero sort of way.
I just appreciate them.