When I left the Durham Volkswagen shop at a few minutes before five on a Friday afternoon, the old man was sitting at a worktable tinkering with an engine, now and then moving his glasses up onto his mostly bald head. When I returned at 8:01 on Monday morning, he was in the same place doing the same thing. I suppose he had not been there all weekend, but it sure seemed that way.
As on Friday, he glanced up at me over his glasses. He said something I couldn’t understand, and kept working.
I was there because the van had begun to have a problem a couple of days earlier while Ann and I were in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The right rear wheel squealed, and decelerating felt like engine breaking. We had endured two nights and most of two days camping in heavy rain and thunderstorms, so we were happy to cut short our stay in the park and go for help,
I was sure we’d find it somewhere nearby; most towns of any size have shops that work on old VWs. When we found a good internet signal, we located one in Durham, a couple of hundred miles away. All we had to do was limp over a winding mountain road in fog so dense we had to stop at one point and wait for it to lift. We survived it plus several hours of freeway driving.
Old-VW shops are usually booked up pretty far in advance. You don’t just show up; you take a number and wait – often for days. I expected that to be the case for the one in Durham, but I didn’t bother calling ahead. I figured I could persuade them to give me some indication of whether we were likely to kill ourselves or someone else by driving the van until they could get time to fix it. I imagined an exchange such as “Yup. That sounds like bad bearings. Better leave it with us till we can get to you.” Or better, but unlikely, “Just needs some grease. Let me give it a squirt.” Either answer would require them not to go hostile when they spied the New York license plates. That was a possibility not to be denied.
When I described the problem to the man on the desk, he seemed never to have heard of such symptoms. And he didn’t seem much interested. Didn’t talk much either. Then he surprised me. He came out of the little nest of gun-rights signs and anti-tax slogans that was his office, drove the van into an open bay, and pried off a hub cap. Rattling around in it were the broken bits of the cotter pin, the last line of defense when the inner workings of the wheel are so messed up that the wheel is about to fall off. “You were lucky,” he said, shaking his head. He took the wheel off and poked around for a few minutes. By five o’clock closing, he had applied a temporary fix.
“Can I drive it this way?”
“You can, but…”
I took a chance and drove it around town without incident until Monday, when, in a further instance of good luck, the shop happened to have an opening.
Before leaving on Friday, I was treated to the origin story. The owner had started working on VWs in the sixties. His son, the man on the desk, had been at it for about twenty-five years. The owner pointed at the old man working on the engine, “He still had hair when he started.” I think he said his name was Duke. The old man grinned. I wanted to ask how many times they had performed this routine, but I thought better of it.
When the show was over, I tried to pay.
“Naw, we’ll take care of it Monday.” Junior said.
“You don’t even know my name,” I said.
“That don’t matter,” Junior said.
When I arrived on Monday at 8:01, I said to Duke. “When the whistle blows, you start to work, don’t you.” He grinned and kept picking at the engine. I found a broken- down office chair, sat in it, and waited for something to happen.
After ten minutes or so, I ventured, “You the only one here?’
Sooner or later, someone would show up. I kept sitting.
Duke said something that was drowned out by the not-very-good country music playing in the background. I went out to the van to listen to Morning Edition thinking that even the insufferable Steve Inskeep was preferable to the wailing inside. I was beginning to question that when Duke came out.
It was good he could work sitting down. He was hunched, and he took the short, slow steps – sort of a shuffle – of an old man. He pulled the van inside and got to work on it. I resumed my place in the broken-down office chair, and watched him take off the problem wheel, the axle, and the other wheel. I got up once and went over for a close look, but the sight of all those components laying on the garage floor was worrying. At his age, Duke might not be able to remember how to put them back together.
I went back to my chair. Duke shuffled around the shop now and then looking for tools and parts, but mostly he stayed under the van. He was steady beyond anything I’ve seen much of. While he worked, I nodded off, secure in the sense of being taken care of, albeit in a peculiar way.
Around 9:30 or 10:00 a man and a woman came in and woke me up.
“Anybody here?” the man asked.
I pointed at Duke and said, “Just him.”
After standing behind me for a good half an hour not saying anything, the man shouted at Duke, “OK if I go in the parts department and look around?”
Duke said, “Sure.”
Pretty soon, the guy came out carrying something in a shrink-wrapped package and left. I guess he and Duke knew each other.
After a while, Junior showed up. I heard him tell a customer that he was late because he had taken his dad to get his cataracts “taken off.” It sounded like something you’d do to a car.
Around 11:30, Duke put the wheels back on the van and shuffled back to his worktable. His morning of being intimate with the van made him talkative. He looked up and said, “you going on back up to Yankee land now?” I felt like a member of an exotic species. The feeling grew when, as Junior was adding up the charges, he asked me why I lived “up there.” I just said, “It’s not for everybody, but I like it.” He didn’t look strong enough to handle a full answer.
I paid and left, grateful and relieved that the van was fixed and hoping that my presence had given Duke and Junior something to make their world a little bigger and more interesting. They surely had done that for me.