For a while I’ve been worrying that I’ve lapsed into language laziness, calling the garage el garaje instead of el taller, as Tito calls it. But the dictionary bears me out. Un garaje is indeed a garage, while un taller is a studio, workplace, and repair shop. Perhaps, I speculate, un garaje is only for parking, but when I ask Tito, he shrugs. “Son iguales, ma’ o menos.” More or less the same thing. And then, with his characteristic glint, he tells me that un taller has more artistic connotations.
And so I begin to see the garage differently. On my jaunts to the deli I now pause to watch the mechanics work. They are doing what mechanics everywhere do–changing oil, checking brakes, replacing mufflers, and fixing whatever needs repairing under the hood or the car, suspended high on its lifter. As I listen I make out a rhythm that syncopates with the songs coming from the radio. Sometimes it looks as if the mechanics themselves are moving to the music, with one mincing steps, another twirling, and another just swaying his hips with a flourish of his wrench in the air. And so I’ve come to think of the garage as el taller, the musical.
From the outside, it could be any of the twenty or so garages that populate Blissville, the unlikely name for my isolated neighborhood of garages, factories, and aluminum-sided homes wedged in between. El taller is another brick-sided building with an oil-stained floor, weak fluorescent lighting, and the reek of gasoline everywhere. Yet if I’d never met Tito, I would have missed its nuances, even with the view I have from my bedroom window of all its happenings.
The day begins with slim Danilo who raises the grate and doors to the garage. Danilo is both the foreman and a mechanic. He speaks softly and smoothly, both in English and in Spanish. Maybe that’s what gives him away, that deference of his. Danilo has his own deals on the side. Even I, an infrequent client to the garage, can deduce that. How else could he tolerate his boss yelling at him day after day, week after week, year after year?
Tito, the sweeper, is the first to follow Danilo into the garage. He waits each day outside the deli for Danilo to arrive. There have been many sweepers over the years, but Tito’s surely the happiest and most eager. He’s also the wiliest. He knows to grab a broom or a mop for his empty hands when the boss summons him. Still, Tito marvels at his luck. He doesn’t care that he works 50 hours for a meager $300 a week. He’s grateful for the work and his few responsibilities.
Gray-haired Manolo enters next. He is from Ecuador, and he can fix anything. He’s a man of few words except when he’s telling a joke, long and winded and without a punch line. The father of seven children with two wives, he supports them all.
A minute before the garage officially opens, Simón, the bodyman, slips through the door. Simón is from Chile, just like Tito. But unlike Tito, he grumbles daily about his misfortunes. Yes, one day at home he was robbed of all of his gold jewelry, and “Sí, él me roba del sueldo lo que merezco.” My boss robs me, too, in paying me so little. Tito mimics him in a soft whimper to sound just like Simón. But Simón is here illegally and too timid to look for new work. New problems aren’t worth it. He’d rather complain about the ones he has.
Now the garage is open, and el Apache strolls in. When he finishes his parole in a month, he’ll quit. But until then, “Coño, fuck this work.”
Five, ten, fifteen minutes pass before Guillermo swaggers in. He doesn’t talk as much as sputter. But no one pays much attention. “Yo soy de Argentina,” Tito says, pretending to be Guillermo on his first day of work, pronouncing the Argentine yo like sho. Guillermo claims to be a good mechanic, but according to Tito he’s as inflated as that country’s economy. A fellow Argentinean came in for a change of anti-freeze on Guillermo’s first day of work, and Guillermo busied himself in his countryman’s car. He checked out its brakes, chassis, air pressure, and fluids, and then poured anti-freeze into the receptacle for windshield fluid. He has improved, but he still makes errors daily. Everyone tolerates him because the boss does.
The last of the mechanics to arrive is Junior. He enters downstage with a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “Mi Mami, she was in the hospital las’ night.” Tito can copy Junior in perfect Spanglish. Depending on the week, Junior is caring for his cousin, brother, father, grandmother, or in-law. But Junior is oblivious about the transparency of his excuses. He is the youngest, the tallest, and, in his own opinion, the handsomest of all, with soft lips and curly, blond hair. He owns $10,000 of tools and the biggest toolbox in the garage. None of this keeps him from making misdiagnoses which cost the garage time and money. But he’s the only citizen of the group, the only one who knows how to do alignments, and, most importantly, the only one licensed to make car inspections.
By mid-morning customers are rolling in, and there’s a line of Towncars snaking into the garage. Under the revving motors, the customers are a restless chorus with their cell phones to their ears, a cacophony of languages from all over the world.
But when a heavy, silver Mercedes glides through the entrance and straight into el taller everyone hushes, and Nicolás Patricio Urbano Mendoza steps out. He is tall with long and wavy hair slicked back so that it just touches the collar of his warm-up suit. Nicolás is the owner and founder of el taller. For just a second everyone stops to mark his entrance. But only for a second, for minutes are ticking, and those minutes belong to Nicolás.
Nicolás is a self-made man who can run everything but his own computer. He came to New York at seventeen. He was the first of his family to arrive on these shores. He left his middle class parents, four brothers and four sisters and everyone he knew behind in Chile. He came with nothing. He’s been a cook, a sweeper, a mechanic, a driver, and now he is the owner of 50 Lincoln Towncars, which he rents out to chauffeurs. His cars glide through the city’s streets to offices, airports, and clients’ homes.
He founded el taller with his wife Fernanda to service these cars. That’s why he can keep a Towncar running with over 400,000 miles on it. As he’s explained to Tito, the more a car is on the road, the more money it can make. This is what has made him the millionaire he is today, with a mansion, swimming pool, and tennis court in a gated Long Island suburb. The visible proof of his success.
Fernanda, who drives her own car, makes no such entrance. She parks outside and enters from the side with barely a murmur. She is la Señora to Tito, Fern to Nicolás, and Fernanda to the rest of the world. She opts to stay backstage and think about the numbers. As for her solos, she gives those to Nicolás. And Nicolás, from wherever he stands, booms out his lines. “Fix this car first, huevón!” “Ay, huevón! Why did you paint it this shade of gray?” “I want it now, huevón, now!” Because to Nicolás, everyone is a huevón, a Chilean vulgarity for a man carrying balls so huge between his legs they make him stupid.
But anyone who comes to the garage must find Fernanda, because she’s the person who collects the money. I felt a little like Alice sliding down the rabbit-hole on that first visit years ago, being pointed down and through a series of doors to her office, while the black, fat garage cat watched me from its perch on the stairs, staring at me with its green, squinty eyes. Under its gaze, I passed through the first door and into an unlit hall lined with a dingy bathroom and a blinking pinball machine, and with a door at its end. Through that door and I was in her office. She sat behind her desk, plump and disheveled, her half-blond hair covering her face as she bent over the ledgers, tracing columns of numbers with inky fingers.
“Yes?” she said without even looking up. Her clipped enunciation didn’t sound Spanish. Perhaps it was Russian. I wasn’t sure, but I wasn’t comfortable enough to ask. I was new to the neighborhood, and I was nervous about this garage. I didn’t trust language, not even English. I waved the bill I’d been given, really just a few scribbled words I couldn’t even read. No name of the garage graced its head, let alone the make, model, and mileage of my car. Still, I trusted that it said what it was supposed to say–an oil change and filter.
“Seventeen dollars,” she said to me in her hard accent. I pulled out a credit card. “No tax if you pay cash.” I took that to be a demand, and lucky for me, I had the cash that day.
I returned to my car dealer, my car’s real specialists, where the waiting room smelled of new cars. But as my car grew older, the dealership couldn’t compete with the local garage. The dealership was far away, and it was more expensive. I began to patronize the local garage for routine things, flat tires and oil changes, mostly. And in time, the occasional emergency. And so I found myself a reluctant visitor to her office with its fading posters of soccer teams – players running, players in mid-air, players posed and lined up in front of a red, blue, and white flag. During one visit, I learned that I didn’t need cash for an expensive repair. “I can accommodate you,” she said with a little sigh. Click, click, click went her fingers over the calculator. “Here is your tax and your bill,” she said. She handed me an almost blank bill for $260, and I gave her my credit card.
On another visit I thought I heard her speaking Spanish. When I asked her where she was from, she said, without looking up from her numbers, “Rio.” It was enough. That simple name evoked another world, salt air from a port on the other hemisphere. On my next visit I asked her when she came to this country. “When I was eighteen,” she said, barely glancing at me.
I thought of her as lonely, a single woman in a shop of men. I pictured her living somewhere in Queens, maybe Elmhurst, in one of those pre-war apartment buildings that always smells of meat roasting in spices, no matter what the hour. Whether she had a family or not, I couldn’t sense. I was curious but I was wary of invading her privacy. She seemed to protect it so. One day at the garage, not too long before I met Tito, I pocketed a business card from her desk. Days later, I discovered it on my desk, Fernanda Sousa Beltera Mendoza, President, Blissville Limousine Auto Repair, in cursive writing.
Most days at el taller end as they begin. Danilo lets down the gate and heads out to work in another garage. El Apache walks out as tall and remote as he entered. Guillermo swaggers out as he swaggered in. Junior gives Simón a ride home in his boat of a car. Manolo hops into his dented van to drive home to his family. And Tito walks back to the subway that will take him to his apartment way up in the Bronx.
They leave only Nicolás and Fernanda at el taller. In their office they review the books and plan what they’ll need for the next day. And when darkness falls and the traffic dims, they lock up the office and get into their cars – she in her Land Rover, he in his Benz – and drive off to their mansion on Long Island.
But on one evening I run in to pay the bill that I had promised to her earlier. No hurry, she told me. She would be at the office late, because she was going to a dinner in the city. The gates are down, only the door is unlocked. I push it open and stand in the narrow corridor. When I try the next door I find it locked. I knock. Fernanda opens the door, wearing a black, beaded, fitted dress. It is low-cut, both sexy and elegant in a way that I know I could never manage. Her diamond earrings dazzle and her coiffed blond hair shimmers as she moves toward us. She smiles. She is no accountant. She is not even President or Treasurer. She is la Reina, she is a queen.
The moment I’d aspired to – eavesdropping in Spanish—arrived for me with cuídate, which translates as be careful. I overheard it first on street corners. It was how men parted when they said goodnight. Then I’d hear two girlfriends call it out when one got off at her subway station. I caught it in the whisper of a father to his son as he left him off at school. Cuídate, m’hijo. Take care of yourself, my son. I even made it out on the lips of lovers as they said goodnight. Cuídate, mi amor. I seemed to hear it everywhere, and soon I began to hunger for those words, too.
“You need to visualize what you want,” a college friend advised. “That’s the only way you’re going to find what you’re looking for.” She was training to be a healer, so I figured, why not? I was thirsting for love. I saw myself as a ripe peach, 48 years old and near withering. I needed to be open to all suggestions. So I began a list and wrote loving at its top. Then I waited, but nothing seemed to happen.
Nonnie, who was long married, a mother of two and living on Park Avenue, suggested that I go out on blind dates to meet people. “The odds are better,” she said. For a passionate person, my sister sometimes surprises me with her rationality. “You’re dealing with only a degree or two of separation.” But I could tell she was really worried for my safety. So she offered to set me up. As she described him, I grew hopeful. He was an independent art dealer, smart, canny, and with a sharp eye for beautiful objects. Two days later he called and invited me to dinner. “I’m tall and thin,” he said, so I’d recognize him in the restaurant. But I didn’t. No one told me he was twenty years older than I was and bald with a bitter spirit that obscured his brilliance. When he reached down to kiss me at the end of the evening, I shuddered and gave him my cheek. I went home and inked in joyful and youthful. For good measure I added good looking, even though I’d never considered myself as someone who thought looks were important. But it couldn’t hurt.
I tried to remain receptive to all ideas and prospects. A photographer who had just married thought I should meet a male friend of hers. “You two are perfect for each other,” she said. I raised my eyebrows. “He’s quirky,” she said. I nodded. And then she said the magic words. “He’s written books.”
We went out. On our first date he picked up the check and told me that I could get the next the one. I let it pass. He was sweet, smart, and eccentric, and for a while we enjoyed each other’s company. But I couldn’t forget the way he always accounted for our expenses. A few months later I broke off with him and wrote generous.
“Try the personals,” suggested a girlfriend from Spanish class. “Lots of people have met and married through them. I think it’s as good a way to meet people as any other I know.” She was a therapist, so I assumed she knew what she was talking about, even though she’d been living with her college sweetheart for almost as long. With her advice in mind, I went out and bought magazines I never normally would have read. I scrolled through their personal ads. Only a few promised anything different from candlelit dinners and walks by the ocean. I circled those. Then I dug out pictures of myself and crafted a letter.
“I’d say you’re in the middle of the pack,” a retired broker told me after cocktails. I added good manners. A professor of behavioral sciences told me he’d decided on someone else. “But could I see you again anyway?” I inked in loyalty. A banker insisted on splitting the bill for our two coffees. Didn’t he know that generosity was an aphrodisiac? I scribbled down intelligent. A foundation director insisted on directing our get-togethers. I added spontaneous. A political aide enjoyed lecturing. It didn’t matter what the topic was. I wrote down curious and gave up dating. I still had a year before my 50thbirthday.
Then one day I ran into a man I’d known from my married years. He directed commercials, the same thing he’d done back when we knew each other. But now he was ridiculously wealthy and as witty as ever. And for the first time, we were both single. One day, before leaving for Los Angeles, he came over for breakfast. When I poured him a cup of coffee, he asked, “How do you make coffee?” There are some things money can’t make up for. This man would never be able to make breakfast in bed for me. He wouldn’t even have thought of it. I went back to my list. Must be caring.
Spanish class offered new possibilities. After flirting with a classmate, I took him roller-skating. He took me to a concert of Cuban music. A few dates later, we went back to his apartment. Dirty dishes lay in the kitchen and rumpled clothes sat in the living room and bedroom. “I wanted you to see the real me,” he said from on top of his waterbed. I left before dawn and added neat. I never saw him again, not even in Spanish class.
When classes ended, I attended Friday night wine and cheese socials at the school for conversation practice. I told myself I wouldn’t date anyone I met there. But when a lively participant with better Spanish than mine asked me out, sí slipped out. I discovered through a series of suppers and visits to museums that he was sensitive, generous, loving, and loyal. Then we traveled to Guatemala together. Each morning as the sun lit up the lake and mountain behind it in golden hues, the man next to me woke up blue. As we struggled through breakfast and the day ahead, I foresaw a life of gloom. We flew back, and I wrote in optimist. I didn’t care that I was six months away from my 50th birthday.
My healing friend reminded me of the work I’d done. “The better the chance you have of finding what you want,” she said. I thought her pronouncement smug. But back in the safety of my apartment I agreed with her. I was close, but I was too superstitious to admit it. I printed out my list and taped it above my desk. With or without love at 50, I’d be fine. This is what I told myself each evening.
I wasn’t thinking about the list when I met Tito. I put it out of my mind and stopped seeing it. But the day before my birthday I spotted that list, its edges curling with age. I peered at it, read down loving, generous, good manners, spontaneous, curious, self-sufficient, optimist. Tito was all of these and more. I could add gentle, wondrous, kind, passionate, positive, and probably a lot more. He even said, “Cuídate, mi amor.” But I’d forgotten to write available.
You can find the next installment here.