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.

Go Back to (fill in the blank)

I’ve heard variations on this theme for what feels like my whole life.  The blank in the title has ranged from China, Japan, Korea, to Hong Kong – and once, incredibly, even Burma.  I still don’t know how an ignorant white boy in the Houston burbs, who at the time couldn’t even name the states bordering Texas, knew about Myanmar.

My first memory of hearing this is first grade, right around the time I realized that white boys would pick fights with me simply because of my ethnicity.  A related memory is the “a-ha” light bulb moment I had at age 7, when I discovered that if you keep punching, even if you’ve been hurt, you’ll win.  Maybe not with the teachers or administrators, but I got into progressively fewer fights each year, until we moved to Texas.

Two months ago, I was watching the news because I feel incomplete without constant heartburn.  The scene was a Donald Trump rally, and one of his supporters in the background yelled it, presumably at either a reporter or a protestor.  You only have to hear it directed at you once, at age 5, to have a heightened awareness of that hurtful sentence four decades later.  It was unmistakable, though, and I froze.  To my dismay and horror, not a single talking head noticed.  I scanned social media, switched channels, and … nothing, nichts, nada.  I don’t even know if it was a live or taped video of a Trump rally, don’t know its location, so YouTube wasn’t an option.

Then it happened again, this time at a playground.  I was off that day, and took my kids to a playground closer to my in-laws’ neighborhood than mine.  The heat and humidity weren’t nearly as oppressive as they had been, the sun was out – a perfect summer day.  He was about six feet tall, white, with dark hair and a mustache.  A red Trump hat looked like a sundae’s cherry atop his small head and pear-shaped body.  We nodded at each other, the silent solidarity of two dads watching their kids at a playground.  I noticed that he’d look in my direction occasionally, but I paid no attention.  I tend to keep to myself at the playground.  I much prefer to watch my kids play, not engaging with parents I don’t know.  Not so Mr. Trump Hat, who found a kindred political spirit in one of the mothers there.

Their conversation, audible from eight to ten feet away, was about what I expected.  Immigrants bad, homosexuality deviant, all lives matter, a word salad like a misfiring car engine – it was like when Oswald Bates conjured words from thin air simply because they were multi-syllabic.  My kids had wisely stayed away from Trump Hat’s son, who seemed to have problems with playing too rough, and cursing every time he fell.  Then Trump Hat crossed a red line.  He made some comment about “don’t know why we just don’t nuke those sand n—-rs.”  My tweet storm about it begins here.

My sudden rage at that instant clouds my memory, but I said something like, “Hey, man, watch your language.  My kids are here too and they don’t need to hear that.”

“What the fuck is it to you?”  Trump Hat started walking closer to me, apparently thinking I would shrink away from confrontation.  Sorry, but very few unarmed people physically intimidate me, let alone someone who looks like 150 pounds of chewed bubble gum.  I kept looking over at my kids, who thankfully were oblivious to the fact that their old man was about to – what, get into a fistfight at the playground?  Trump Hat replied that this is a free country, he had a right to his opinion, neither of which statement I’d ever disagree with, but then came the zinger.  “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go back to fuckin’ China or wherever the fuck you’re from?”

“Seriously, man?  You want everyone here to know how ignorant and stupid you are right now?”  His recent compatriot quickly gathered up her kids and left.  One other dad I knew peripherally from this park, another minority veteran, but with horrible taste in moto-themed Marine Corps hats, came up.  I couldn’t help but laugh at how ludicrous this entire scene was.  I was determined to not hit the guy.  I didn’t want to be arrested over something as ridiculous as this.  I was afraid, though not for my own safety; rather, I was afraid that if I hit Trump Hat, I might not want to stop.  I knew that if I got into my first fight in 13 years, the release would be nothing less than exhilarating; I also knew I didn’t want to disappoint my children, who would very likely see their father get arrested for aggravated battery.

“I’ll knock your chink ass from here to Brooklyn.”  I asked, with what, his belly?  I called for my kids, told them we were going to a different playground, this one was dirty.  In the few seconds it took for them to run over to me, I told Trump Hat, if he wanted to throw down, now was his chance, but I’d also beat him bloody in front of his son.  Suffice it to say, my quiet angry voice works better than yelling or other histrionics.  With that, he backed off, I gave the Marine veteran a wordless fist bump, and we left the playground unmolested.  I badly wanted a cigarette and half a bottle of Jameson right then and there.  A glass of wine when we got home would have to suffice.  At the next playground, adjacent to my son’s school, the kids found instant playmates.  They were black, Asian, white, and Hispanic – an elementary school version of a Benneton ad, and this made me inordinately happy.

Discrimination doesn’t just exist, it’s learned.  Parents’ actions and words have remarkable effects on their children, it’s not as if the son of a Klan member would suddenly decide to work for the SPLC.  I felt sorry for Trump Hat’s son, not just because one day his old man will run into someone with far less forbearance than me.  But because that boy will grow up hating minorities, inheriting his father’s racism, only to possibly and suddenly wonder why society is leaving his family’s views behind.  Or sadder yet, the son will grow up hating himself as a closeted gay man because his old man has no use for anyone not straight and cis-gender.

What truly terrifies me is not the prospect of another attack by one or two would-be jihadists who are more Laurel and Hardy than Khalid Sheikh Muhammad.  What scares the bejezus out of me is the racism that had been rightfully driven underground, its mainstream voices muted, but now has found widespread acceptance again.  It’s the attitudes of men like Trump Hat, or this wonderful human being, or these extras from a possible Deliverance remake.  As satisfying as it may be to reply in kind with vitriol, if not a fist to the throat, I keep in mind Dr. King’s words.  In particular, I’m amazed at how far short I fall from this passage: “Using grace, humor and intelligence, confront the other party with a list of injustices and a plan for addressing and resolving these injustices. Look for what is positive in every action and statement the opposition makes. Do not seek to humiliate the opponent but to call forth the good in the opponent.”  If you follow me on Twitter, this is not quite how I approach it, but it does make me feel better to read words to which I might aspire.

 

 

To My Horrible No Good Very Bad Server

The night before this happened, and because we have wonderful luck with restaurants when we travel, we had another wonderful service experience.  I didn’t write an email to this restaurant, but if I had, this is what I would have written.

Dear Ristorante Italiano (note: the names have been changed to protect the innocent),

Your restaurant was billed as a charming, traditional trattoria outside Narragansett, with good reviews on Open Table and Yelp, so we decided to give it a try.  We were also staying nearby, and wanted something closer than Newport; wine math is, the tolls both ways on the Pell Bridge could buy me one more glass of wine.

We were a party of 5: 3 adults and 2 children.  Normally, not a difficult table to serve, since parties with children rarely linger in fine-dining establishments.  Mind if I call you Amy?  Because you looked like a young Amy Schumer, and I’ve mentally blocked your real name.  You started off on the wrong foot by taking about 5 minutes (yes, I’m a career restaurant geek who times such things) to get to us.  I could see that you were busy.  I was doing your job when you were presumably still in diapers, so I get it.  With that said, however, couldn’t any of your three peers, none of whom had as many tables as you, have assisted?  Just a hello, here’s some ice water, Amy will be with you shortly?  They even made eye contact as I did the “where’s our server” fighter-pilot-scan-the-skies thing.  The only times I’ve seen this happen is when the server’s peers don’t like him or her very much … oh, wait.

I don’t know about your manager, whom I didn’t see leaving the hostess’s side during our stay, as if the hostess would melt if he wandered more than two steps away from her.  I would have greeted the table myself, possibly even gotten them started with a drink and app order, but that’s me.  I run restaurants as if they’re an extension of the dining room in my house, which is why I’ve always called them guests, not customers.  “Customers” reduces the interaction to something cold and transactional, not welcoming.  If I had to guess, we were customers that evening, not guests.

You were serving three other tables besides us, two deuces and a four top.  Ten covers – well, fifteen, if you count us – can be a challenge for a veteran waiter, let alone a younger one who may or may not have yet learned how to prioritize tasks during a semi-busy shift.  You were perfectly sweet when you finally greeted us – but then you recited the specials before we could even order Shirley Temples for my kids, talking over me when I said we were ready to order.  I saw your frozen smile when you realized my wife and I speak unaccented English.  Please learn to hide that better going forward, it will stand you in good stead in your restaurant career.  I ordered the drinks for the kids, some onion soup right away for them, and a bottle of house chardonnay.  I also gave you our entree order, since I didn’t want another lag.  You thanked me without making eye contact, and left.

Here’s where things started to go south.  My kids were exhausted, as it had been a long day of driving, sightseeing, and swimming.  My daughter started fading immediately, leaning against her grandmother.  My son had caught a summer cold, which had been exacerbated by his time in the pool earlier; since it’s summer, the restaurant was air conditioned (with apologies to Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff) so cold our bone marrow froze.  He put on my mother-in-law’s windbreaker and shivered while we sat at the table unattended.

We didn’t see you for another ten minutes after you dropped off the Shirley Temples.  Yes, I timed it again.  Your other tables received warm, detailed service – the kind that I was silly enough to expect.  Your busboy, who looked all of twelve years old, apologized when I asked him to get you.  “I don’t know where she is, sir.”  This, too, was odd, since five of your restaurant could fill the one I currently run, and I don’t generally have issues tracking my team members down.

I saw you looking through the cooler next to the kitchen for a bottle of wine.  I know very well what I ordered, what the label and foil look like, and have visited that winery in Sonoma; I even saw your hand touch the correct bottle, but move along.  Ordering one of your two house chardonnays would seem to be binary (they either ordered this one, or that one); I therefore don’t understand why it took another six minutes to find, then serve, the wine.  My daughter was asleep by this point.  My mother-in-law had taken her to the car, and told us to just get her food wrapped to go.  I had to pass this along during one of the few times you refilled our wine glasses, and ask you to speed up the meal for our kids’ sake.  I don’t mind pouring my own wine, but if you bill yourself as a fine dining restaurant –  indeed, one of the best in New England – I shouldn’t have to.

One of the advantages of an open kitchen like yours is that people can ooh and ah every time a saute cook screws up flames his pan because he added too much oil to a screaming hot pan over high heat.  As you should hopefully know by now, this bit of showmanship only results in food that tastes like burnt cooking oil.  One of the drawbacks is that people like me can see something eerily similar to an onion soup crock appear in the chef’s window, then watch it lie there dying because no one is running it to the table.  When a guest asks you to speed up their meal, the assumption is that items will be served soon after they are ready, regardless of course grouping or progression.  There is often a perfectly good reason for this, like perchance a sick child, or one who fell asleep.

In any event, the kids’ soups were served with the adults’ salad and prosciutto appetizer, not as they were ready.  The prosciutto, wrapped around cheese that was supposed to be mozzarella but tasted suspiciously like Fontina, tasted like it had been dipped in salt.  Not your fault, but if you’re serving a dish, my expectation is that you’ve at least made a cursory visual check before bringing it out.  Might I, then, remind you of the differences in color and consistency between mozzarella and Fontina?  Or how salad greens should look when properly dressed, as opposed to wilting under the weight of enough dressing for three defensive linemen?  My son’s soup was starting to go cold, the cheese on top burned not toasted, but at least you remembered to wrap up my daughter’s soup and my mother-in-law’s food.  Were you perhaps waiting for an emergency delivery of to-go containers?

The calamari and bucatina carbonara came out quickly thereafter, and only my wife’s intercession stopped me from unleashing the last few paragraphs to you verbally.  I made eye contact and lied through my teeth when you checked on us.  Oh, we’re great, thank you for finally asking.  When I learned to make carbonara from an unstable Roman who drank a pint of vodka every shift, he told me that cooks who add heavy cream to carbonara should be excommunicated.  Harsh, I know, but that’s just as unforgivable as adding heavy cream to buerre blanc, thereby making Georges Escoffier roll in his grave.  The pancetta was … crunchy?  I expected crispy, but not crunchy like the cook had par-cooked the pancetta until it crumbled.  The bucatini sat in a rapidly congealing sauce that, rather than having been bound with raw egg yolk, contained an inhumane amount of – care to venture a guess? – heavy cream.  The calamari was passable.  Neither good nor bad, perfectly forgettable, which is probably a good thing, considering everything else.

I wasn’t going to belabor you with the technical aspects of the service, but YOLO.  No serving utensil, much less small plates, for a couple sharing an app.  No soup spoon for rolling long pasta.  Not even a soup spoon for a seven year old actually having soup, until we asked both you and one other server.  Water glasses left empty until we asked a busboy.  Table never crumbed until I brushed crumbs off the tablecloth myself.  One of the few things you did correctly was not offer us dessert menus, knowing (at least, I hoped you did by then) that we had to make a hasty exit.  I reckon that, for this, I should be grateful.

Our check was the only thing that came to the table with any alacrity.  I’m still not sure why you looked so nervous when you dropped the check.  I left you 20% because I refuse to be “that Asian guy,” and know full well that many Asian immigrants seem allergic to tipping.  I also remember wondering “WTF?” if a table left me 15% or less.  I can only wish you looked nervous because of a guilty conscience, but I strongly doubt it.

As we left, you were talking with the bartender.  Not even a thank you, or a good night.  Just literally turning your back to me like I’m some sort of bug.  We were not acknowledged by either the manager or hostess, who hadn’t left their spots at the front, and were still deep in whatever superficial conversation a man my age might have with a flirtatious teenage girl.

Despite all this, Amy, I wish you well.  You may well be a larger fish in the smaller pond of greater Newport.  You might also be your manager’s favorite, though from my experience at one of your tables, God only knows why.  Best of luck translating any of this, along with an apparent attitude that your fecal matter is not odoriferous, to anything resembling success in a larger restaurant market.

Best regards,

Dan

Angry Email

I wrote this immediately after we returned to our hotel after one of the worst restaurant experiences of my life.  Enjoy the dumpster fire.

To: restaurant info email
Subject: Execrable Treatment
Dear Sir or Ma’am,
I’ve been in our industry for over twenty years, but rarely in my career (as a busboy, server, bartender, manager, general manager, or owner) have I experienced such shocking treatment as I did tonight as a guest in your restaurant.
My family and I dined on the deck upstairs as a 5-top, and sat around 7:00 towards the host stand and stairs.  Hailey tried her best, and was friendly, but judging from obvious lags in the flow of service, it was quite obvious she was in the weeds.  I well remember my days as a server being over his head, so I was (and generally am) willing to make an allowance for that.
The truly puzzling part of the meal came at the end.  My son and mother-in-law left to walk along the beach.  My son was holding the virgin strawberry colada I had ordered for him at the beginning of the meal.  The female Asian hostess chased my mother-in-law down, said he couldn’t take his drink because of liability issues, in a hostile tone that made my son uncomfortable.  This was more puzzling, since any liability issues usually stem from alcoholic beverages leaving the premises – but where is the risk of a seven year old smuggling a virgin drink in a plastic cup to the beach?  I had to later reassure him my son that he hadn’t done anything wrong, since he isn’t used to strangers scolding him.
My wife asked if this was your policy, since we hadn’t had an issue with this at other establishments in Newport and Narraganset during our visit.  The hostess’s dismissive response, since engaging with my wife seemed to be a nuisance: “Well, I don’t know, I guess so.”  Nowhere in my experience is this an acceptable reply to a guest.  My wife brought this to Diana’s attention, not to get something comped off our bill, but because my wife was flabbergasted by the hostess’s treatment.  Even while my wife was speaking with Diana, I could see the hostess rolling her eyes.  Really?
I enjoy writing notes like this as much as I assume you enjoy reading them, which isn’t very much.  Diana sat with my wife, heard her out, and was our one professional interaction of the evening.  I can’t sing her praises enough.  It could have just been a long or bad day for this hostess, but nothing excuses such behavior.  If not for Diana, the entire night would have been ruined.
Thank you for your time.
Respectfully,
Daniel Kim

Happy Father’s Day to my Brother-in-law

Welcome to fatherhood.  I’m so happy for you and your new family, I can’t stop smiling.  I can’t and won’t offer any advice you probably haven’t already received.  What I will do, however, is start by telling you to stop worrying, you’ll do fine.

Before the little man was born, I’d heard that meeting your child for the first time is the single most magical moment of a person’s life.  This is, in fact, true.  When I saw your screaming little nephew, everything I’d ever been or thought of myself – well, that went out the window and I wept with him.  I thought, “This is my son?”  Through my tears, and his hungry cries, which were surprisingly loud, the only thing I could think to say was, “Hello, Ryan, I’m your Appa.”  I kept saying that over and over, because I could scarcely believe that it was true.

I wouldn’t trade any of it: holding him while he cried after a shot at the doctor’s, changing untold thousands of diapers, late night feedings, watching him grow into his gangly long-limbed body, but his smile most of all.  I can’t wait for you to experience all of this, and the pure joy that will be your daughter’s smile.  When Sophie does that, I feel validated, and I’ve got a feeling you will, too.

There’s an old saying in the South that good people make good parents.  To borrow a line from “Peanuts,” you’re a good man, Charlie Brown.  Lord knows, it won’t be easy, but I have the sense that you’ll be intuitively good at the parenting gig.  It will be worth all the monumental effort, the sleeplessness, the occasional helpless feeling of “oh my God, what do I do now?”  You may have already discovered a depth of feeling, an untapped capacity to love, that you might have thought didn’t exist before.  Embrace that, focus it, and this too becomes almost a fatherhood muscle memory.

You’ll be a great father, and your daughter will love you for it.  But in a couple of years, you’re on your own with potty training.

 

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.

Image result for willets point

 

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.

 

Image result for willets point

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?”

 

A Grandfather’s Christmas

Ever hear of a mechanical ambush? It’s basically an improvised explosive device or grenade on a timer or tripwire, set to explode on unsuspecting patrols during the Vietnam War. I just had a memory that hit me like that. The last time I saw my father, he’d already been diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer. Stubborn SOB that he was, he hadn’t gone to a doctor until he collapsed at work with a seizure; his films & other scans led to the on-call oncologist, who told him he had three months left, at best.

My happiest memory of Christmas with my dad, before the downward slope of adultery, neglect, then abandonment, was when I was six years old. We lived in a tiny two bedroom apartment in Staten Island, and like most kids, I had no idea we wanted for anything. As far as I knew then, my parents simply left the door unlocked because we didn’t have a chimney for Santa to slide down. I don’t recall what I got that Christmas, almost 40 years ago. I remember warmth, a note from Santa saying how he wished he’d met me but didn’t want to disturb my sleep (I know, any sane first grader wouldn’t have been put out if St. Nick woke them up), the joy that this holiday is supposed to engender.

Fast forward to 2009. I flew to Atlanta because I didn’t know if I’d get to see my dad alive again. I had tried in vain to get him to New York, to see and enjoy his newborn grandson, offered to pay for his ticket and put him up at my house, but he kept demurring. He wanted me to visit him in Atlanta. The problem with this, however, was that Atlanta meant her. His wife, for whom he left my mother long before my parents divorced, and her teenaged kids whom he’d adopted & doted on more than he ever had with me at their age. My step siblings were blameless, I knew, but in my mind I couldn’t accept that package deal. After some back and forth, I just never went. He never came north. 

My dad passed, ironically enough, around Ryan’s first birthday. Ryan is the same age now as I was then. He’s asked about his grandfather, using a child’s unassailable logic to say, why didn’t Grandpa love him enough to ever visit before Grandpa went to heaven? I still wish I knew.

What I can control, however, is how Ryan and Sophie remember their Christmases. Not as a one-and-done like their old man, but as a continuing series of happy days, with presents and family and food.  Their maternal grandfather, who loves his grandkids to pieces and spoils them rotten, will be around as ever, though with various ailments, for how much longer is anyone’s guess. 

This is my mission. My children’s happiness. My father couldn’t understand that, or if he did once, he forgot. I won’t. I just wish he’d met his grandson before he died.