The Road Hazard Jar
Years ago, my father hung a lighted, neon sign in the picture window of his tire store. It read: We Fix Flats. It hung there for at least a decade, lighting the way for weary travelers. A few months after he passed away, I decided to rearrange the signs and fix the broken ones. When I took the “flats” sign down, our foreman said, “I wouldn’t change that one if I were you. It brought in loads of money.”
We complete at least one flat repair a day, I’d say. Sometimes, it’s more like a dozen. Some folks pull in with the donut on or the full-size spare or the deflated tire itself still attached and working too hard to support the car. Sometimes, they come on flatbeds, the steel wheel cracked and pitted. Most people with flats are exasperated. Some are downright angry, using us as an easy outlet.
Usually, we find nails and screws in the tires. This is to be expected. I don’t know where they all come from, but there they are. Wherever they come from, the customers want a surefire answer.
“I’ve got a slow leak,” they say, or, “Could you just take a look for me?” But, when we tell them, they don’t believe us. “Well, where do you suppose that came from?” they ask indignantly. One man told us that, as soon as his tire was fixed, he was going to retrace his “steps” to find where the nail had come from. He intended to drive until he found it.
Because of the customers’ disbelief, we’ve learned to leave the evidence in the rubber, make an X around the offending object with white chalk, and bring them right out to the garage to see for themselves. Would you believe I’ve been accused of pushing the nail through that hard rubber and steel? One customer couldn’t believe he ran over it, and he thought I sabotaged his tire to make a sale. But something must have brought him in…
I started a collection in a square-ish glass container—the kind you’d find on a counter at home for storing candy or spices or buttons. Since then, we’ve kept hundreds of nails and screws, but also: porcupine quills, a whole fork, a bedspring, a bicycle jack, a plastic golf tee, a piece of tar with metal sticking through it, a wedge of orange plastic reflector, a tiny wrench, a giant wheel weight, and a metal pipe large enough to cause a concussion with one blow.
This Road Hazard Jar does more than house foreign objects that have somehow worked their way between rubber and steel. It proves that the customer whose tire we are presently patching is not the only one afflicted with this problem. When they plunk their nail or screw or spike into the jar, they feel somehow in solidarity with all the others who’ve needed flat repairs. It proves that we are not “making it up.” It proves that we know what we’re doing—we’ve seen this before.
When they plunk their nail or screw or spike into the jar, they feel somehow in solidarity with all the others who’ve needed flat repairs.
The Road Hazard Jar rests near the edge of the counter where the candy jar used to be. We had a mechanic who worked for us on and off for many years, first for my father and then for me. He came in one day looking for candy and found broken, dirty, jagged metal scraps instead. He reached his hand in instinctively, then pulled back remarking, “Boy, we’re hard-pressed for candy these days!”
We have only one lift which we use exclusively for oil changes. The rest of the tire changing happens outside all year long.
We’ve jacked up regular cars and trucks by the thousands, but we’ve also worked on stretch limos and thirty-foot campers. So, we shouldn’t have been surprised when a livestock trailer pulled in on its way to the rodeo. The mechanics walked toward the trailer, sizing it up. They tried to figure out how much it weighed, how much the jacks would need to support. They walked all around, peeking in the barred windows. Suddenly, an eye met their gaze. A huff. A commotion. That’s when we realized: there were live bulls in this trailer!
Ken turned to me, grease-stained, his fingernails black from hard work, broken and jagged. He looks like the kind of guy who isn’t afraid of nothin’. The kind of guy who’s had a life, you know? He turned to me and said, “I’ll work on a lot of things, but I’m not workin’ on that.”
I wish my father could’ve seen those bulls. Maybe he would’ve convinced Ken to work on it after all, teasing him about his manhood, about his honor, about his paycheck. Or maybe he would have jacked the trailer up himself. Maybe he would have snorted along with the bulls and made his way back inside. I don’t know what he would have done, but I didn’t do any of those things. I just looked the bull square in the eye. Then I looked Ken square in the eye, squinting just a little. Then I said, “Sorry,” to the rodeo man before he drove away.
The Many Variations of the Store Across the Street
Since we’ve owned the tire store, not much has changed. The drive-ins still open for summer and the Chinese buffet with its emerald pagodas still draws a crowd. But, the store directly across the street has evolved so many times I’ve lost count.
First, it was a penny candy shoppe just like the one my mother wants to open. Years ago, my father sent my brother and me across the street with change from the cash register to buy gum and taffy. Next, it was a fitness place. I think they had personal trainers. The main coach convinced his students to exercise outside, in the narrow parking lot in front. They lunged and twirled and kicked and squatted right next to Route 9, a major highway.
This exhibition of moving flesh didn’t stop traffic, that I can remember, but it did stop our mechanics. Once they noticed the wiggling bodies across the street, one by one they set their tools down and gawked. I don’t know if they were looking at a whole lot of pretty or a whole lot of ugly, but until the Route 9 exercises were complete, we couldn’t get a lick of work out of those guys.
Next, it was a quilt shop. I never went there. And then a bike shop. I remember a wheel out front with its many spokes, tacked to the building. And then a fitness center again. But nobody exercises out front anymore.
These days, that building, low and blue with yellow trim, sits vacant. It’s for sale. And the drive-ins are switching to digital media. And the Chinese buffet may be closing its doors after all; the owner opened a liquor store down the street and doesn’t want to run both. And the salon directly across from us, standing since before we opened, is closing down too. The owner came over to say goodbye. He has a perfect view of our shop from where he stands behind the register across the street. I wonder if he is sad or happy; he doesn’t show much emotion as he lets us know. He seems excited, at least, to continue his Elvis tour. His hair is always in a kind of shiny black bouffant. And he offers to plow for us as always; he will come by around seven, before the cars fill our lot, though his salon will remain closed. I say I appreciate the offer, and I accept. I say we will pay him just like last year.
I wonder who will move in to the Chinese restaurant, the salon, the store across the street. Am I happy that we are still open while our neighbors close their doors? Should we shut down too, with our customers going up the road, down the road, to our competition? Should we become a candy shoppe, a strip club, a car hop? We can’t decide. And my father is not here to guide us.
But, in this time of consideration, we have hired and fired Jimmy and Derek and Pedro and Tony and Josh and Jimmy again and Derek again and Dakota and Rob and Devin and Jason and Chad. And the tires have rolled in. And the tires have rolled out.
Sometimes these days, the days of my father’s absence, my mother dreams of selling the store. And sometimes, my mother dreams of incarnations: things the store could become. Today, it’s a tire store. Tomorrow, it’s a fifties car hop, and Ken the foreman will roller skate up to your car window to take an order, his fingernails caked with a new kind of oil—not motor oil but canola.
And the next day, it’s an old-fashioned candy shoppe. My mother’s in the picture window wearing her striped chef’s hat, poofy and white, pulling long strands of bright orange and pink taffy and offering it to the kids who pass by. We say, “Of course this can’t be a candy store, Mom. You’re diabetic.”
My brother Matt dreams up a strip club called “The Garage.” There are sexy girls in skimpy coveralls dancing on hydraulic lifts which go up and down.
I don’t dream up anything except for ways to sell more tires.
And I don’t know which of these ideas is the craziest. Probably keeping it a tire store with the economy the way it is and so much competition moving in.
Two springs ago, another tire store opened about a stone’s throw from ours, just north of us on Route 9. My mother said she couldn’t handle “one more tire store in this town” and wanted to “investigate.” One winter day before they opened, my mother sped past their empty, un-plowed lot in her minivan. She veered suddenly, swerving into the snow. I sat in the passenger seat up front, speechless. Matt sat in the back, saying, “Mom, what are you doing? Mom, don’t do this. Mom, trespassing is illegal. Mom, curiosity killed the cat!” But still, she veered. Until we were stuck. And there we sat, the owners of the tire store just up the road, stuck in the competition’s parking lot. As we waited for the tow truck, we tried to convince our mother to wait in the car. Instead, she tiptoed up to the tinted bay windows, cupped her hands to the glass, and peered in.
Last week, she stalked a customer. He didn’t know it. At least, I think he didn’t know it. At any rate, he did not call the police. She called me from her minivan; I was at the library and answered in a hushed voice.
She said, excitedly, “I’ve always wanted to see where a customer goes when they leave our store. So, today, I followed someone. He got a quote and left. And I was wondering where he’d head next, so I peeled out behind him. He made his way to Firestone, and we’ll just see what happens now. I’m parked at the gas station across the street, eating a hot dog. He just went in. I’ll keep you posted.”
The next call came a few minutes later, “Well, it looks like he’s staying. They can’t have better prices than us. They’re notorious for that. I’ll bet he’s getting an alignment. Maybe we should do alignments…” She trailed off. Then, she spoke up again, “Well, I should get a lunch for you and Matt anyway, since I’m out. You want a hot dog?”
I wonder what my father would say. He’d laugh, I’m sure. He’d hold his belly and laugh that hearty laugh and send her on another mission. To the bank, perhaps, after somebody who bounced a bad check. Because with business, it’s personal. No matter what anybody says.
When you own your own little shop, you can make your own little rules. My mom liked to bring all three of her dogs to work, and usually the customers enjoyed petting them while they waited. Occasionally, somebody was afraid, and my mom had to hurry and put the dogs in the back office, but usually the dogs roamed the waiting room freely and sat at the customers’ feet.
Once, a friend of my mom’s decided to go to a tire store other than ours.
“Over three dollars,” my mother said. “Or something like that. A very small difference in price.”
She went on with the story, growing more agitated, “And then, wouldn’t you know, there was a dog in the office, and it bit her! And she never said a word! If that had happened here, somebody would’ve sued for sure.”
She’s probably right about that. It feels like a personal thing, this story. I don’t expect my friends and their families to come to our tire store; they have a right to shop wherever they please. Still, I can’t help but feel badly when they choose to go elsewhere. And I think about this now when I’m out in the world, buying things. And I think about how I run this store for my mother and my father, too. In his honor. How I want people to come in to honor him. And how everything I do at the store is imbued with this kind of importance even though it looks like I’m just selling tires.
The Horse Trailer
My parents opened their first store in Perth, NY, about an hour from our current location. A few years later, they opened a store in Johnstown, NY, and that is where this story takes place. I am sitting with my mother in the passenger seat of her minivan while she tells me this story:
A couple came in from out of state towing a large horse trailer behind them. They needed a tire for the trailer; the one they had was tattered, in shreds, the wires and plies exposed. The only problem, they said, was that they didn’t have any money, but they promised to send my parents a check as soon as they got home. So, in good faith, my parents installed a trailer tire, maybe a B78 (the old way to write such things), and the couple and their horse were on their way.
“Did they ever pay you back?” I ask.
“No,” my mom says, looking straight ahead. “They never did.”
We drive in silence for a while, and we see a tire blown to bits in the middle of the highway. You’ve surely seen them, the carcasses of retreads, most likely, from eighteen wheelers.
You’ve surely seen them, the carcasses of retreads, most likely, from eighteen wheelers.
She tells me another story:
Years ago, there was an article in the newspaper about an accident on this highway. A tire, much too worn, came apart, unraveling from the back of a horse trailer on its way to somewhere. The rear doors unhitched and swung open; the horses came tumbling out. Car upon car piled up, smashing into the back of the trailer, the horses, the whole mess. A woman interviewed at the time remarked, “I will never forget the sound of screaming horses.”
My mother and I sit quietly for a while.
And she says, “I guess we did it for the horse.”
Once, a woman came into the shop and said, “I need a favor, and I can tip the guys who help me.”
“What do you need?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“I hear a scratching sound in the glove box,” she said. “I think there’s a mouse in there, but I’m too afraid to look.”
I sent Derek out to check. He came back with a pile of poops and some shredded paper. Evidence of a mouse, but nothing else. She gave him a bag of pretzels. And he went into the garage, happily munching away.
Some customers like to give tips, and we allow the mechanics to accept them. Most give a few bucks, some give more. But, it’s fun when they give something other than money. One winter, a long-time customer gave everybody including myself a brand new pair of gloves. He let us choose right from the back of his truck. Occasionally, somebody will bring the mechanics a pizza or a box of cookies or a six-pack of beer. Once, after completing an insurance photo inspection, a man gave me a $50 gift card to a local restaurant. But, my favorite tip was a real, leather bull whip given to our foreman, Ken.
Ken said, “This is for when we’re not working fast enough. You can stand outside and yell and crack the whip.” And I considered it—for a second.
I wonder what tips my father saw, what interesting things over the years. And I wonder what tips he received as a young man working in my grandfather’s tire shop.
I tried to let them live.
I knew there were mice living at the tire store because I could hear them squeak while I was alone there at night, paying bills. I could see their mouse poops in the morning on my desk, brown turds stuck to yellow deposit tickets and old inventory forms. I could see candy wrappers, gnawed on one side, left on the counter and in the back office. And, sometimes, I could see the corpse of a mouse in the toilet if we left the seat up by mistake.
The mechanics wanted me to buy traps—specifically, the old-fashioned kind. They liked the idea of snapping their heads off. They brought in peanut butter as bait. But, I just couldn’t do it. I said, “Let’s let them live for a while.”
So, we co-existed for months. When they ate most of the customer candy, I was frustrated, but I cleaned the bowl and put more out. When they pooped on my desk, I was pissed, but I cleaned it up. But, when they ate the $50 bill, I had had enough.
I opened the drawer one morning with the tiny silver key, the one my father stained with red marker on the grooves. There are four slots for paper money: ones, fives, twenties, and large bills. And smaller, square slots for coins: pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. In the large slot, there lay a fifty-dollar bill, or what remained of the bill. Half-moons of green and white mingled at the bottom; half of the rectangle remained.
I put all of the tattered edges and moons in a crisp, white envelope and sent one of the mechanics to the bank to beg for a new bill.
I turned to the rest of the mechanics and said, “Let’s kill those motherfuckers.”
Our Squirrel Friend
The mechanics love to cross the street and walk to the gas station to buy snacks and cigarettes and water. Ken, the foreman, regularly chooses a box of twelve chocolate doughnuts and a candy bar and polishes them off in a few hours. Sometimes, he buys cheese danishes, too. And when he does, he shares them with our squirrel friend.
This particular squirrel lived in the used tire pile in the nooks of curved rubber. She waited outside, perched on the lip of a tire, called the bead, for the mechanics to take notice. They didn’t throw her scraps of things or garbage; they gave her entire helpings of pastries, cookies, and chips. The little squirrel hugged the food, close to her chest, and dragged it across the parking lot toward some secret place. She also collected paper towels, mostly crumpled, grease-stained squares from oil changes, but once she snatched a whole roll and slid it across the pavement in long, lumbering gestures, both little paws grasping at the cottony edges.
Then, one day, the power died. Everything shut off: the air compressor, the tire machines, the balancer, the overhead lights, the air conditioner, even the telephone. When the electric company came, we were relieved to see them repairing a wire on the other side of the parking lot, just past the garage we use for storing inventory.
Finally, the repairman entered the office. He removed his hat with his right hand, placing it directly over his heart. He said that a little squirrel had made its nest up in the wires and that, on that very sad day, she’d been fried.
“Fried squirrel,” the man remarked, somewhat callously, but still holding his hat in respect. “Happens all the time.”
I pictured a squirrel, crispy and charred, clinging to the wires, and then wished the thought away.
The mechanics came in to see what was the matter. When they heard the news, Derek cried out, “Not our squirrel!” and turned to me, somberly. He said, “We should close up shop right now. We should have a funeral, say a few words.”
I told him I liked the sound of that and that we could have a wake at five o’clock, which was when we closed up shop. I was being sarcastic. I’ve become a hard boss in some ways—like my dad—too busy to stop for a squirrel funeral. But maybe my father would have.
They stared at me: the mechanics, the customers. Me, this hard boss who keeps things rolling at all costs. Then, the man put on his hat, and they all went back to work.
I answer the phone all day. I answer questions about our hours, our location, our policies on tire rotation. I give quotes on tires and oil changes and wiper blades and batteries: “Free installation! No appointment necessary!”
Sometimes, we get other peoples’ calls, too. Once, my mother got yelled at about installing bathroom tile. Turns out, they were looking for Queensbury Tile. My mother said, “Ma’am, we may do a lot of things wrong, but we didn’t do that.”
Another time, a man called to accuse us of tearing up his daughter’s inspection sticker. I tried explaining that we hadn’t done inspections in about a decade, but he insisted she’d come to us. Even when he discovered that she’d been to a different shop on a different street, he insisted that we must be affiliated with them. And even after I told him that we were a single store only, and family run too, he said, “Well, I told her to go to your store. I don’t really know what happened.”
Husbands call looking for their wives who are lost at the Firestone down the street. Do they not hear me answer the phone: “Thanks for calling Queensbury Tire!” People pull into the parking lot looking for the tire place just up the road. Do they not see the giant, lighted sign exclaiming our name?
Besides the regularly confused customers, we get lots of solicitor phone calls each day. My father couldn’t take it anymore and bought a device called “The Easy Hang-Up.” It’s a button you push after you answer the phone, and it’ll say in a robotic monotone: “We’re sorry, but we do not accept this type of call. Please take this as your notice and remove us from your list.”
I use “The Easy Hang-Up” when solicitors call for my father. He’s been dead almost five years, so anybody asking for Chuck Taylor is not a friend of ours. When they ask for him by name, sometimes I mess with them, saying, “Oh, sorry. He’s dead.” Then they get flustered and don’t know what to do. “Oh, I’m, um, sorry. Well, uh, did somebody, uh, take over for him?”
Yes. I took over for him. I do not say this. I do not want to be bothered by them anymore.
I want to know what he would do about calls like this:
Customer: “Hi, can you give me a quote on tires?”
Me: “Sure, what size do you have?”
Customer: “Well, I don’t know. Isn’t that your job?”
Or like this:
Customer: “I don’t know the size, but can you still give me a price on tires?”
Me: “Sure, do you know the year, make, and model of your vehicle?”
Customer: “Well, no, but it’s blue if that helps.”
Or like this:
Customer: “I’m calling on a price for tires. Can you give me a quote?”
Me: “Sure, do you know your tire size?”
Customer: “Well, no. Can I tell you what kind of car I have?”
Me: “Sure, go for it.”
Customer: “It’s a Sante Fe. Made by Hyundai, I think.”
Me: “Do you know the year?”
Customer: “Well, I don’t see why that matters.”
Me: “They can change the size any year they want to. So, without the year, I’m only guessing at which size you have. Are you near the car? Maybe I could wait while you take a look?”
Customer: “My car is outside. Do you want me to go outside? Is that what you’re saying? You want me to go outside and catch pneumonia and die?”
Or even like this:
Customer: “I’m looking for trailer tires.”
Me: “Okay, I like trailer tires. Do you know which size you need?”
Customer: “Well, it’s a radial. At least, I think it’s a radial. Let’s see: It says S and then there’s a T. So, ST. And then two zero five, I guess. So, S and T and two zero five and then there’s like a slash and then right after that, there’s a seven zero. And then it looks like another zero, maybe? I’m not sure.”
Me: “The ST means it’s a true trailer tire. And then it’s a 205/70. I think you’re missing the last number. It’ll be a 14 or 15. And the other zero is probably a D which means it’s a bias ply.”
Customer: “Oh, no. It can’t be bias. Gotta be radial.”
Me: “Okay, sir, but it’s only radial if it has an R there. It sounds like you’re reading a D which stands for bias ply.”
Customer: “Nope. Definitely radial.”
Did my father get flustered? Did he get angry? Did he get upset? Did he throw back his head and laugh? Did he ever hang up on them?
I laugh. And sometimes I get angry. And occasionally, I hang up.
We’ve been taking photos for insurance inspections for at least fifteen years now. They are regulated by a company called Carco. There’s three main pictures we need to take: the driverside front, the passengerside rear, and the EPA sticker on the door jamb. If there’s damage, we need to take pictures of that, too.
When I started managing, I asked Ken, the foreman, to help take the photos, but he said, “I can’t.”
I said, “Why? There’s only three pictures. What’s the matter?”
He said, “I’m not allowed.”
I replied, “I’m asking you. So, how are you not allowed?”
And he responded, pointing toward the sky, “These orders come from higher up.”
It turns out, my father made that rule years ago, years before he passed away. He sent Ken out to the car. He apparently took pictures of the car, but also of everything else he wanted: the flowers in the flowerbox, the torque wrench, the yellowed tooth of an old mechanic, the cracked cement. And a woman. A woman’s breast. A woman’s smile. A woman’s behind.
This was in the days of the old Polaroid. Now, we have a digital camera, and we submit the disks daily by mail. But, back then, my father printed the Polaroids and affixed them to page number four of the inspection packet. There were big, blank squares for Picture 1 and Picture 2 and so on.
My father must’ve seen the pictures. He probably chuckled, printed them, taped them, and sent them off to what I imagine to be Carco Headquarters: an impressive brick building full of people sitting at desks, wearing glasses, pouring over picture after picture of car after car. Rows and rows of desks, billions of pictures: driverside front, passengerside rear, EPA sticker.
The story goes that my father received a handwritten note from one of those people at one of those desks. They circled the picture of the woman, and drew an arrow. In the margin, it said: “This is NOT a car.”
There is a densely-packed, one page form all Carco customers need to complete. It asks questions like: Name; Address; Phone Number; Year, Make, Model of your vehicle. Some of the questions get slightly harder as you go along: Do you have air conditioning? Do you have anti-lock brakes? Do you have side airbags? Do you have digital instrumentation? To my surprise, many people do not ever get to these supplemental questions because: Name; Address; Phone Number is too overwhelming for some.
My mother and father used to make them fill out the form themselves. They’d stick it on the clipboard and hand it over the counter knowing full well that this task was bound to be complicated. My dad especially hated it when customers would say, “Oh, there’s something to fill out? I left my glasses at home.” He rarely complained in front of me, but my mom and brother remember him saying, time and again, “If they knew they were going to do this, then why would they leave their glasses at home? And, if they need their glasses that badly, then how did they drive here?”
My mom was fond of pitting husband against wife if they came in for a “couples’ inspection.” She’d say, “Well, your wife knew the answer to that question!” and the husbands would always laugh, embarrassed. In the end, she liked to give out stickers to those who did a “good job.” My brother was abrupt, mostly. He didn’t like helping people at all with the form, feeling like if you couldn’t do this, you really just shouldn’t be living in the world.
I started feeling bad for the people filling out the forms, struggling to enter their name and the date. Who knows what kind of struggles they have, so I often help them complete the paperwork. We, all of us, my mom and dad and brother and I, have our different ways for the very same form.
There is a small bathroom with high ceilings behind the counter in the waiting room of the tire store. A red rectangle with white letters: PRIVATE is affixed to the dark, wooden door. Inside, white cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling house manila folders, day by day, with my father’s scrawl, and now mine, in black magic marker on the outside of the box. Carco forms are kept here, too, and the little Christmas tree we put out front. And the giant inflatable turkey we fight with every year as it collapses near the road, billowing onto the cars jacked up out front. The inflatable turkey marks the official start of Snow Tire Season, and there is nothing like watching the mechanics stomp and swear and kick the nylon as it falls gently down upon them.
Of course, there is also a toilet in there. And a sink. Only the cold water works—and perhaps this has always been the case. Since I was a little girl, a paper cup has been taped over the hot water handle, a message to leave it alone. It remains, all these years later.
The toilet barely flushes and often backs up. Once, it overflowed and ruined the white cardboard boxes with the manila folders inside. Recently, we removed the ceramic lid from the water tank to inspect the toilet’s working parts. The lid slipped and cracked in half. We threw it out. Then, the chain connection to the flush valve got stuck. We tugged until it snapped. My brother, exasperated, replaced the chain with a phone cord which hangs now from the corner of the topless tank.
When we use the toilet now, we say to one another, passing by the red and white sign, “Excuse me, I’m going to make a phone call.”
I don’t know why the handle doesn’t work, or why it was never fixed. Or what my father would say about the bulls in the back of a rodeo trailer or a half-eaten fifty dollar bill. I don’t know how he would answer the calls I get because I never worked with him at the store. My time there, and his, did not overlap. But I know he would find the whole thing funny and serious and interesting. And, as he stood behind the black lacquer counter, he’d laugh with one hand on his belly, and the sun would shine in through the big picture window to light up his silvery hair.