Monday, October 14, 2013

The miniature ecosystem of an auto garage

I just spent a whole day at an auto garage. My transmission failed just as I was paying the toll booth.
So here I am at a little repair shop at the freeway exit servicing vehicles that mostly break down while in transit. Here in the Philippines, every highway exit has one, it seems. The last time I broke down, I spent a long day at another small garage... at another exit along the freeway.
This is not your high end dealership service center.
This is a bunch of guys squatting on the sandy ground using the most basic of tools to get the job done. With just one 2 ton alligator jack and a few metal pipes and a lot of wood blocks, I have seen them drop engines and transmission boxes.
It always is fascinating to see mechanics at work. In the high end garages, they don't allow you to loiter around and watch. Here, you're welcome to chat and hang around and you implicitly agree not to hold them responsible for accidents. In short, you look out for yourself.

This open yard with half finished cars mingling with real shiny lookers can look very pedestrian to some... boring  and depressing for others. But for me, every car, had a story. This is a gold mine of information and experiences. So, as soon as me and my Dad pulled up, my ears were open and my eyes were alert; and the learning began!

Each car and every man had a story to tell.
It begins with the usual banter: how dealership hotshots don't know what they're doing and usually overcharge for bad work.
The head guy used to roll in the cash when he worked at the US base. After a stint there, he got pirated by a Saudi man and worked in the Middle East where he made even more cash. So how is he now in this rinky dink place? He was way too generous with his money, he says, but he has put a lot of relatives through school. With the end of his Middle East assignment, and a few more turns of bad luck, he was back to square one. It can really happen to anyone. He's stoic about it. He works hard and you can tell. We even talked about his limp. As usual, we all are experts when we consult Dr. Google MD.
The old Samson. It seems every garage team has a man with exceptional strength. At times, this is obvious as you see a bear of a man lumbering around the yard. Sometimes, it's not. As I watched them strain to put on a really tight belt, I saw a young dude straining with his upper body to wrestle the thing into one of the belt shafts. A pudgy old man got impatient, shooed him away and just used his wrists to turn that shaft and get the belt in. God, the strength in that old fat dude! You would not even expect it but there he was using just his wrists when the younger more fit looking man used his whole body to no avail.
Another mechanic used to be a truck driver. He was hauling 1,400 kilos of fish to the markets of Manila when an even bigger truck slammed his back and sent his mid-sized truck careening on its side. The driver of the 36 wheeled behemoth was partially asleep. So, the fish went flying. As he and his companions struggled out of the smashed cab in a daze, he saw people jumping the freeway fences with pails, buckets and large pans. In a semi-shocked stupor at finding himself still alive, he watched as the scavengers snatched the fish. They all ran when the highway patrol came by and took over. He said only 800 kilos remained. Highway patrol shared with him even more scavenger stories. They would pick up anything --car parts, tires, everything that's easy and fast to get before the patrol comes and puts a stop to it. There are even stories of the scavengers picking at people's jewelry and cel phones as they were stuck in wrecked cars!
The things you hear when people tell you their life stories.

The economies of scale
Just a day here, and I got to experience another miniature economic system at play. Here we were stimulating their local economy because we were there with our car.
Here in this small ecosystem, my cash goes to support the small canteen nearby where we had lunch. The mechanics regularly eat there. Right away, there's another bunch of guys already dependent on the steady stream bought by their neighbors and whatever client chooses to stay and watch their cars being fixed. My short one day also stimulated the economies of other stores nearby where I bought snacks, drinks and ice cream. (It was a hot day.) 7-11 hotdogs taste really awesome when you're hot and tired. Having that outlet there was a life saver.
In the garage is another example of an economic ladder. We were the only car owners there making sure the car got treated well. In this instance, we need not bother. The mechanic was honest with us, it turns out. But as a fan of science, I was also there to learn. Dad was also a fan of watching mechanics at work. Very few people do this, but Dad and I love to share. So we buy snacks and drinks for everyone as they fixed the car.
And when you spend a long time in a garage, you get to eventually know the stories behind all the other cars in the lot; where they came from and what part of the freeway they stalled at and how far they had to be towed to this spot.

It's similar to being in a hospital emergency waiting room: "what happened to you?"
 I saw 4 other clients' cars scattered all over the yard. There, on one corner is the mechanic's pet project; an unfinished automobile he hopes to fix up and probably sell one day. But right now, it looks like a piece of junk with no seats, glass or anything else. Then there's another car which looks like it's been there for ages. Dogs live in it and people use it as a storage bin.
The big fish customer just left his vehicle there some days ago. It's a 2010 model and very top of the line. It's a "just get it done- I don't care- send me the bill" kind of job. As guys who can only dream of plunking down the cash for such a model, me and the mechanic agreed that had we the money to own such a beauty, we would not be so reckless as to not give it oil. That was the high end SUV's problem. Engine quit for lack of oil. Isn't that sad?  I told the mechanic if he had a car like that, he'd probably make it last 20 years with constant maintenance. (it's a regular thing here--cars lasting a long time)
Another client there was what they called a "cheap overhaul". Meaning, he was stingy with the money needed; but he wants top of the line work.
Now that I know the stories behind every car in their lot... it pays not to be the annoying customer. Yes, they will use your car as a snack table.
Tne fourth client's brother in law came by for his car. All their vehicle needed was a drive belt which they had to go to Manila to get. Apparently, Hyundai parts are so specialized you cannot get them where we were (80 Km outside of Manila).
To get our transmission fixed, the mechanic called yet another member of this small food chain: the parts man. This is a guy who the mechanic sends out on a parts run to locate the components he needs for real cheap. So he hops on his motorcycle and off he goes to find the best and cheapest part. It bears mentioning that since this is a small operation, I did not bother to ask where he'll find a pristine transmission box. We're probably talking about guys who know... guys. That can be anywhere from a junk dealer to someone who just stripped that off of another car... somewhere...

The small world of economics goes on. The car accessory vendor came by and hawked his wares. I bought a shammy and a cel phone charger for $5 for the pair which I thought was ok (he initially wanted $10 for both).
With all the people whose small economies we help stimulate just by being present there waiting for our cars to be fixed, I had a vision of the garage clients being large whales passing by and tons of fish come swimming up and taking advantage of the free food that comes when a huge creature eats its fill.
It was a good day. Eventually, the parts man took too long and we knew this job won't be done till the next day. So, we left our partially dismantled car with the mechanics and went home.

Trust me
So... as we were bidding the car people farewell till the morrow, one of the mechanics asked if we can drop off his kids at an intersection he knew we'd be passing by!   I suppose the kids looked street smart and we have built a rapport of some sort already? But geez! To send your kids home with a stranger (well, one of your customers).
We just said "yeah, sure" without a second thought. I suppose our other car is some kind of collateral just in case? I guess... some folks trust you. As we trusted them that first night. I mean, we left our car in their garage... without receipts or any paperwork at all. You just trust they haven't packed it off to be sold somewhere when you come back. And so it was still there the next day when we arrived. The kids have never been in a car with power windows. They seem really taken with them and they did what all kids do: push the buttons to play with them. Puts things in proper perspective once again.
So here I am, tired but learned so much about a part of the province we usually blow by on our way to somewhere else... just a small patch we did not know existed till today.
Since I just got a short story done, I reckon it's a good time to have your car in the shop for repairs. A day well spent, my head sunburned, and a new experience well earned.

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