The Toyota Whisperer

Willets Point literally stinks.

The ground has had an untold volume of gasoline, diesel fuel, hydraulic fluid, and God only knows what else, spilled on it over fifty-odd years.  The air smells of smelled cigarettes, backbreaking labor, and dashed dreams, reminding me of Fort Ord, before that old Army post closed and became a Superfund site.

The triangular warren of streets bordered by 127th Street to the west, Willets Point Boulevard to the east, and the Grand Central Parkway to the north, is an orphan; Queens ignores it, and the city government keeps trying to improve it.  Both fail.  Few buildings here are taller than two stories, and if they are, one floor is usually dedicated to storing parts for long-discontinued cars about which few people but their owners really care.  Many storefronts are obscured by racks of doors, fenders, wheels, and tires; if anything, the graffiti is helpful, distinguishing the shops from one another.  The streets look like they haven’t been paved since the Reagan Administration.  On dry days, a sheen of dirt covers the roads like a scene from some post-apocalyptic film.  Mad Max would’ve gotten his car fixed here.

Welcome to arguably the bleakest corner of Queens, where many businesses within walking distance of a $600 million ballpark aren’t connected to the sewer system, and rely on septic tanks.  This leads, naturally, to street flooding after a heavy rain, and platoons of men with squeegees pushing deep puddles off their shop floors.

The men (at least, the ones I met) are Latino, Chinese, Korean, and Albanian.  There is little intermingling, unless they’re at the one deli here with a working toilet, or happen to be smoking near each other on the sidewalk.  The men here, regardless of their ethnicity, adjust their accents or dialects to suit the clientele; an Ecuadorian will make himself sound Mexican to help close a repair deal; a less urbane Korean from near Pusan can be found speaking with Korea’s version of Received Pronunciation.  One of my former employees, who is ethnically Chinese, had a shopkeeper greet her in backcountry Cantonese, only to switch to cultured Mandarin when he heard the Beijing accent she’d inherited from her mother. The common language in this automotive tower of Babel is English, and yet each subgroup seems to have learned enough of the other’s language to get by, particularly when it comes to bartering for parts.

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Every mayor going back to Ed Koch has tried to redevelop the “Iron Triangle,” threatening to use eminent domain to force the shop owners and employees to move.  Mayor Mike Bloomberg saw Willets Point and CitiField as the cornerstones of a megaproject that would include a half-square-mile mall, a 1,000-room hotel, a convention center, and 1,500 upscale condos.  But first they’d have to clean up Flushing Creek, whose water is a color that hardly ever occurs in the natural world.  The landing pattern at LaGuardia would also need to be rerouted, since jets use CitiField as a marker to line up for final approach to runway 31.  Foul balls at the stadium could hit these airliners.

In the meantime, shops come and go, with shopkeepers and employees changing gradually as some become more established and move to better parts of Queens.  Only newer immigrants seeking that elusive American Dream open businesses here.  This is not something your average wrench turner wills to his eldest son, unless, of course, there is no other option.

 

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I actually found my guy through my father-in-law, who knew a guy, who knew a guy who could find parts for my father-in-law’s dying Kia.  That guy knew another guy who specialized in Toyotas, with the caveat that his shop was somewhere in Willets Point.  My mother-in-law had just started going to him for her old Camry, and swore by him.  My hangup was less language barrier, more persnickety.  He’s where?  Is that even safe?  I wondered how someone who once patrolled Third World shit holes could finally reach a point in his life where he wondered about this.  All I knew was, Willets was that dirty area between the stadium and East Hong Kong Flushing, with so few street lights that even the 109th Precinct advised against driving through at night.  During the occasional detour to avoid traffic on the Grand Central Parkway, day laborers and street hawkers had approached my car at almost every stop sign and traffic light.  After several years of fits and starts with official Toyota service and my neighborhood mechanic, I gave Mr. Kim (a pseudonym) a try.

I drove to the western edge of the Iron Triangle, through an open section of sliding chain link fence, into a central courtyard surrounded by four smaller individually owned repair shops.  The interior walls were thin sheets of plywood, with square cutouts for service windows.  Each shop had two service bays, with one lift per shop.  A dozen cars in various states of repair filled the central common area to form an ersatz traffic roundabout.  Mr. Kim’s was on the far right, identifiable by the American and Korean flags on plastic poles above a Plexiglas window; one other shop flew a Taiwanese flag, another had a Mexican flag; the fourth just flew the Korean flag.  Looking up, I realized that the chain-link fence had been topped with coils of not just de rigueur barbed wire, but a double strand of honest-to-God concertina wire.  Where the actual hell had they gotten that?  The chain link fence had been reinforced with hand-straightened overlapping X’s of more concertina wire.  Later, I would learn that the men here parked their shared tow truck in front of their gate every night before they left – but only after draping the top of said truck with more concertina.  This explained the small ragged holes I saw on almost everyone’s coveralls.

Mr. Kim is a short, squat Korean in his fifties, with a neat mustache and calluses atop calluses on his hands.  His cap proclaimed that he’d served with the ROK Army’s White Horse Division.  Needless to say, his former unit’s renowned badassery gave him immediate bona fides with me.  My own unit ball cap, apparently more than my mother in law’s phone introduction, gave us a tenuous connection.  Inside his plywood-enclosed office sat an incongruous computer with which he could order parts, framed New York City and State certifications, and a thumbtacked family photo showing his wife and teenage son.  Above all these was a brass rank insignia pinned directly into the wood: two upside-down chevrons above a crescent wreath.  Even his partner referred to him as “Jungsa-nim,” roughly equivalent to Staff Sergeant.

Between my American-accented Korean and his Korean-accented English, I was able to convey what ailed my ’06 Matrix. Mr. Kim had an idea, and after less than a minute on the lift, had diagnosed the problem.  He recommended a partial fix that would cost me $300 less than what my previous mechanic had quoted, and that the full job probably wouldn’t be necessary for another 20,000 miles.  “It’s a Toyota,” he said in Korean.  “You don’t have to fuck with these things too much.”  I could’ve kissed the guy.  That begged the question, though: if, as you claim, you don’t have to mess with Toyotas, then didn’t that reduce his potential workload?  He laughed.  “Between you, your mother, and anyone else with a Toyota older than three years, I have more than enough work.”

I squatted next to the lift while he worked and made a pest of myself.  Where was he from?  “Does it even matter here?”  He had a point.  What did he do in the White Horse?  “You were a sergeant, too, right?  We do everything,” he said, but allowed that he’d been an infantryman, then motor transport.  We discovered we’d both done the DMZ wave.  This is when, during a patrol along the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone, you halt when you’re 110% certain the North Koreans are observing you.  Then, as long as it’s warm enough, but not so hot the flies and mosquitoes feast on you, you drop your trousers, and “wave” at the NorKs to demonstrate South Korean and/or American “superiority.”

I asked Mr. Kim how he ended up in Willets Point.  A relative of his wife had owned this shop but was going to move to a converted gas station “on the good side of the stadium,” as he put it.  This relative helped Mr. Kim get the requisite certifications within a year of arriving in the States, then sold the shop, parts and all, to him at a discount.  What was next?  He laughed again.  “I’ll probably die in this shop.  I’ve been here almost ten years, never took a vacation, but I make enough to save for my son’s college and send money to my mother in Korea.”  He said all this so glibly, as if he’d transcended aspiration, it was chilling.  The hours at the entrance read 8am to 7pm, Monday through Saturday, a prodigious number of hours per week, not counting setup and breakdown.  “What else can I do?  I don’t like working in restaurants.  I don’t want to own a deli or a dry cleaner.  So here I am.”

On the rare day that Mr. Kim or his partner are sick, or they have more jobs than they can handle, there are two laborers who hang out under the Grand Central Parkway overpass, whom they’ll use as temporary fill-ins.  These men will work on anything with an internal combustion engine. I don’t speak Spanish fluently, but I can carry a conversation thanks to my career in restaurants and a childhood in Texas.  Consequently, my rather odd accent hews more towards campesino Texican than proper Telemundo news anchor, which is probably why Beto talked to me.

Beto is in his mid to late twenties, and  claims to have been an electrician in Juárez.  Unfortunately, he’s undocumented here, so he scrapes a living fixing cars near the Grand Central, toting his tools in a Jansport backpack.  If there isn’t enough work on cars, he’ll wait for work across Flushing Creek, on Willets Point Boulevard next to the U-Haul store, or further down by the lumber yard.  Regardless of the weather, Beto and his compatriots wait for the possibility that someone will hire them for a few hours, if not the whole day.  After a good gig, he said he can clear about $60, enough to buy lunch from the lady who sells tamales from the trunk of her car.  Maybe get a better dinner besides instant ramen.  Beto does good work, evidenced by the quick, clean job he did on my Toyota’s water pump.  Mr. Kim looked on, if not proudly, then at least with a satisfied expression.  Beto told me he’s learned a great deal from Mr. Kim, to a point where Beto admitted to me that he hopes to eventually take over the shop.

It’s been over a month since my last visit to Mr. Kim and Beto, and I miss them.  I miss the easy camaraderie of manual labor, which I haven’t felt since I wore a chef’s white jacket for a living.  There’s also much to be said of the respectful interplay between two veterans, even ones from different armies.  Maybe this is why, after researching prices online, I realized that Mr. Kim had undercharged me by a ton.  Even so, his last words to me as I left the shop were, “You’re paying with cash, right?”

 

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