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Basic Training

“Go down the road that jogs off the main road, then turn right at the stump of the cypress tree that ain’t there no more, then pass by where the Monky Ward’s used to be, then go about half a mile to the place, I think it used to be an Esso, not sure any more, then go see Bill (I hear he finally stopped drinking) and tell him Jimbob’s daughter Suzy sent you.”

We’ve been in Tallahassee for close to a year now, and I’m still trying to build my basic life skills. The above dialog is a composite of directions from several previous lives, such as the reference to the Montgomery Ward’s in Albany, New York that had closed long before our arrival, but taken together, it is the gist of most referrals I’ve had for auto mechanics in Florida.

Other places, I’ve always had great luck with car mechanics. For fifteen years, we found mechanics who were sincere, hardworking, fair-priced, efficient, and highly-skilled. Some of them were funny (such as Dan in Albany, who after Sandy knocked off a side-view mirror for the third time asked her if she wanted him to buy them in bulk) and some were intense (the shop in Palo Alto always scrunched their faces as if they were about to transplant a liver, even though they never replaced anything more serious than the stereo some thug tore out of my car on Middlefield Road) and some were philosophical, such as Steve in El Cerrito, who opined often about the quality of Hondas and got moist-eyed on our wedding day (which was also the day my Honda got its newest set of brakes). Don in Wayne, New Jersey was the boyfriend of a dear friend who died, and we miss him and hope he is doing well.

Every car mechanic came with an excellent, and very specific referral… the best, because it was the strangest, was for Steve. On the afternoon of September 11 (yes, that September 11), when I was living in a dingy apartment on Cottage Street in Point Richmond, California, I was watching my neighbor May fill water bottles and tote them to her apartment, which was the sort of thing we were doing because September 11 seemed like an earthquake, only much worse, when another neighbor — an ex-cop who sat alone in his apartment with his fat calico cat, drinking wine and toying with his extensive gun collection — walked past me and told me to go to Steve’s. “He’s a good guy,” he said out of the side of his mouth, then clammed up and kept moving. So I took his advice, and he was right.

We’ve met a lot of people here, but I think I am experiencing cultural confusion. I keep waiting for someone to tell me to go to a specific auto shop and see a mechanic by the name of [Steve/Dan/Don/etc.]. Instead, I either get vague answers (“Oh I go… anywhere”) or cryptic, almost scary directions (“You turn right three miles past the place where the bridge used to be”) or faint praise that makes me hesitate (like being told that the mechanic in question was probably off the sauce right now).

So I took my car to a place in the paper, a place Sandy had used once (also out of desperation, though they worked out fine), and I want to believe them, and have no idea if I should. I split the difference on the recommended repairs: let’s do X today; let’s save Y for later. If these guys wanted to rip me off, they would not have called me up to say that despite my vague answers, my car did not need a new timing belt or other items associated with scheduled maintenance.

It’s not so much that I don’t trust them as I feel at odds with how I found them, and with the whole blasted process of making sense in this new world. I want things to work they way they worked elsewhere, where I could get Pellegrino water instead of the ubiquitous “sweet tea,” where on time meant on time, and where directions were precise in what I am now guessing was a Yankee sort of way. None of that will happen, so I guess I better grin and bear it.

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