Caught in Auto Parts Purgatory

I know you won’t believe this, but I am not as tough as I look.

I am often intimidated by the simplest of things. Pencil thin female sales clerks with pouty lips look straight through me unless I staple my Visa card to my forehead. Stapling a credit card to your forehead is a sure sign of a serious buyer. Long lines at my favorite coffee shop give me a venti headache. Also, I hate returning anything I’ve purchased even if it doesn’t fit or doesn’t work. I imagine the pencil thin sales clerks will ask: “Well, why did you buy it in the first place.” And I can’t always answer that question.

However, few things intimidate me more than a trip to an Auto Parts Store. I am not a “car guy,” so I’m usually unsure of what I need. I know Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers whose columns appear on Fridays in The Herald, have me in mind when they write to one of their clueless readers.

Let me give you an illustration of how lost I am in auto land. One night last year I looked out my front window. There was my old gray 1990 Volvo Station Wagon sitting at the curb with flames shooting out of the hood. My first thought was: How neat! Volvo has some kind of device like a self-cleaning oven and my car is purging its engine block of grease and grime.

Fortunately my second thought was to call the fire department.

Whenever I walk into an auto parts store I feel like I’ve entered the bar scene in “Star Wars.” Everyone is from another planet, or they’re all from the same planet and I’m the alien.

The counter man particularly intimidates me. He is usually a very large guy named Bluto. Transmission fluid runs through his veins. Bluto has 12 earrings in each ear, pierced eyelids, a lip stud, and one eye blinks furiously like a timing light. The last time he drove past Olmstead Road the metal detectors at the airport went berserk and played “Radar Love” by Golden Earring. Bluto is a member of the Raider Nation and goes to tailgate parties four hours before kickoff, where he barbeques road kill and tears the legs off quiche-eating 49er fans.

There are racks and racks of parts behind him in small dirty bins and he knows what is in each bin. He’s casually looking through a book that’s thicker than the Oxford English Dictionary. He flips through pages, runs his finger along a line, then turns the page. That is his sole purpose in being there, well not his sole purpose, because he’s also there to completely ignore me.

Bluto finally looks up when someone else comes into the store. He smiles, showing steel teeth with Raider emblems chiseled into them and says: “Hi, Crud Man, whasssssup?” This is another thing that intimidates me about auto parts stores — everybody, except me, knows everyone else. Then they converse in auto parts language, a tongue never written down.

“Hey, my man, Bluto,” Crud Man says, “I need a diaphragmatic magneto Aeroflot dynamo timer skorp.” Crud Man is a walking bundle of grease. He doesn’t launder his clothes, he sends them to a nuclear waste dump. He keeps a 40-gallon vat of Goop by his wash basin.

“Sure thing,” says Bluto, and heads for the exact rack and bin to fin Crud Man’s part, making it clear to me I am on my own.

Well, all I need is replacement wiper blades, so maybe I can find them on my own. I head down an aisle, surprisingly finding the wiper blades section. There are six million of them. I look for a chart to tell me what refills I need for my old Datsun Defecta. There are no charts, just an electronic gizmo that will supposedly find the correct blades for me. I follow the instructions, but no matter what I do, after three attempts at entering the proper information, the gizmo keeps flashing “Press Start Button.” Suddenly I look towards the counter. Bluto, Crud Man and 20 other macho car guys are watching me. I’m not sure whether or not they are smirking since the grease on their faces covers their smirk lines. I am caught in auto parts purgatory-1 can’t ask for help with something as simple as wiper blades, and I can’t walk out empty handed without being the butt of their jokes when later they all get together over a round of 10W30. I grab two boxes and take them to the counter. Bluto rings up my purchase.

“Need anything else?” he asks. It is a simple question, but his cohorts are making throaty carburetor sounds, so I know there is derision implied.

Somehow I’ve managed to buy the correct replacement blades. I stand at my car reading the installation instructions. No matter what I do the frames end up with the rubber blades pointing up towards the sky. If I run them that way they’ll carve a lovely arc into my windshield. An auto parts posse has formed at the entrance to the store. They are watching me intently. I know they are itching for any excuse to send me and my car to an impact car crushing machine to turn us into a Salvador Dali-esque bale of bones and rusty rocker panels.

I join the wiper blades in looking up at the sky. Oh heck it hardly rains around here      anyway.



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