The Toyota Whisperer – Part 2

An update to my post from last summer.  http://wp.me/p1AJQQ-dz

It’s annual inspection time for us, with both cars’ inspections expiring in the same month.  I told my mother-in-law I was going to take the cars to Mr. Kim in College Point, and she gave me some wonderful news: Mr. Kim, his partner, and even Beto their undocumented helper, had moved into a brick-and-mortar in September.  I took my wife’s car first.  The drive is jarring when you consider where Mr. Kim had previously been.  Huge oak trees line the thoroughfare, then you pass Kissena Park and almost a full mile of green.  Turn left at a side street and you’ll see a former gas station with a two-bay garage, and parking for future jobs where the pumps had been.

Mr. Kim comes out into the rain to greet me.  As before, I greet him with a short bow and addressed him as Jungsa-nim, or Staff Sergeant.  His face is leaner, which he attributes to the long hours he spent setting up this shop.  He claims that I’m one of his first customers at the new place, but six cars parked outside the bays gives the lie to that statement.  I ask if he has time for me, and he just grins and waves me inside the office.  The same photos and certificates are on the walls, this time drywall painted nondescript cream, not raw plyboard.  His old rank insignia is now pinned to the door frame; several ROK Army and White Horse Division hats line the windowsill.  His desk, whose top is plied with small parts, printouts, and dirty gloves, sports a new computer.  The repair bays are just as pristine as his old shop in College Point, if a bit bare because he had to sell most of his trove of parts to help finance the move.

Like the last few times, I either squat or sit while he works on my car, and pepper Mr. Kim with questions.  His partner found the place on Hey Korea, a kind of Craigslist for the Korean community.  I remembered driving past when this was still a run-down Gulf station with gas about fifteen cents higher than its competitor across the street.  Which, if you think about it, likely contributed to its demise and cheap sale.  The biggest expense, Mr. Kim says, was removing the gas pumps and repaving the front to make it conducive to park waiting cars.  To afford this, he has used some of the money he’d set aside for his son’s college tuition, but is confident he’ll make that back in the two years before the boy graduates high school.

As he moves from bay to office, outside to smoke, then back again, you can see that Mr. Kim is happy.  His posture is straighter, not slouched from bending under car lifts for years; his eyes are no longer closed partway in the beginning of a wary grimace.  If he’s happy, then Beto, his undocumented helper, is on cloud nine.  He has a car – not new, more a Frankenstein of various Toyota pieces pulled together to make one marginally running car – replete with an inspection sticker, registration, and insurance.  I get the sense that this, more than anything else, cemented their odd master-apprentice relationship.  They still speak in an odd melange of Spanish and Korean, which now contains a personal banter I didn’t hear in College Point.

I can’t help but think that this is the American Dream in its purest form: two Korean emigrants and an undocumented Mexican immigrant, moving out of an industrial wasteland to this garage at the edge of the suburbs.  If anything, the move seems to have given them new purpose.  Beto says he hopes to move into his own apartment soon, having saved enough to move out of the two bedroom flat he shares with up to four other undocumented immigrants.  Almost shyly, he adds that maybe one day he might be able to start a family.

Mis hijos serán legales.”  My kids will be legal.

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