Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

On spark plugs and being present where you are

Yesterday, which spanned 48 hours, my car broke down while moving a load of stuff to Las Vegas. Cruise control decided that jumping to 6,000 RPM would be appropriate on the Cochiti hill; pistons went sproing-a-tattatat; oil all gone. Until They came, the predicament had no solution because tow trucks must – according to some towing logic – leave your trailer there on the highway, amongst rain and pillagers. Towing was my only plan I could think of but would amount to giving away the trailer with three chain saws, chicken wire, a table, back packs, and basic necessities such as a croquet set and other things I can’t remember.

They came flying by and some kind of flash happened in her wild mind. Stop, she said, and that was final. (How can we leave the lady there? Can’t.) They came back, found some oil, checked everything. They were both mechanics. She explained she learned how to fix everything because she could not afford to get it fixed. The questionable tail lights caught his attention and he went to work on that too. She alternately hugged me and diagnosed the oil pump.

They helped tenaciously from that sprinkly warm afternoon through nightfall in Santa Fe, through two trips to Vegas, and sunrise outside Tecolote. What do they want, I kept thinking. If they were con artists, they were not very good at it. They were somewhat intolerable to be around in the pushy way of people selling, but they were not wanting money or anything. All sleepless night I thought, surely they put water in the oil reservoir, and they overheard me telling my address, and a looting was surely in progress. They would disable my car, then conveniently “run out of gas” outside Pecos after waiting til the bats go home when no one would ever know what happened. I facebooked my coordinates because I think ahead.

I noticed two interesting things about their language. One was the omission of names, hellos, good byes, or anything of protocol. You just start interacting in the middle of the conversation and end in the middle. Or just don’t talk if that suits you. The people involved in this thing were normally referred to as The Man or Dude (interchangeably as there were two of them, the talking one and the other one), Home Girl (the dominant one who said Stop), The Lady (that was me), Her (her who owned the Suburban), and the nephew. In this context, the formality of “nephew” stood out as oddly specific. In the 14 hours, no one asked my name or said theirs. Home Girl and I were both the age of grandmothers.

The other oddity – a syntax rule – was a way of phrasing possessives. It’s become a meme to say “my baby daddy”, or to laugh at people saying that. But their dialect took this further. The main man held up a device and said “This: home girl baby daddy phone” with no verb or prepositions, like you might (not really) say in German Das Heimmaedchenkindvatihandy, leaving the word for the actual thing as the last element in the compound word. Latin languages would start at the other end of the chain of nouns and say this is the phone of the dad of the baby of my girl, putting the word for what it is – a phone – first. English is historically undecided between those two syntaxes, apparently excepting this German-leaning dialect of Spanglish.

I also noticed two patterns about behavior. One was living in the moment. Really in the moment. Not filling up the gas tank before driving in remote country in the middle of the night. Not considering what he would do without a tow bar once he got there. Forgetting food.

The Man talked about his own Suburban (currently missing since being “borrowed” without notice) being a gas hog at one time, and then he put in new spark plugs and that raised it from nine miles per gallon to something more affordable. He said he would rather spend the ten dollars for new plugs “up front” rather than spending $60 in gas each time he drives to Albuquerque. But he announced that as if it was radical to do anything preventive or with foresight, while to me, 10<60 is pretty simple math so of course you would do that. On the other hand, the suburban of Her, which he had “borrowed” for today’s adventure, did not have features like updated spark plugs, so it still got nine miles to the gallon, a fact that one had a lot of time to contemplate in the silence that happens without gasoline.

The other behavior that was impressed on me was the dedication to being responsible that is so full that they could not seem to even consider dropping a commitment. So he stayed up all night through sunrise because I had no other choice. A middle class American would have set a limit: “It’s 2 AM, so I can’t help you any more!” That thought didn’t seem compatible with their whole way of thinking. When Home Girl saw me, stopping to help me became true forever, not just for a reasonable amount of time. It wasn’t up to me to refuse or for them to reconsider. There was no undoing of that flash.

These are poverty behaviors, they say. If people could learn to think ahead and set limits, they would get further; they would get out of the cycle of poverty. Rich people buy in bulk and do things in a durable, planned manner, so they actually spend less and save more, while the poor are forced to live crisis to crisis eating at convenience store prices and paying for gas because of not paying for tune ups. The story is that poverty thinking is the problem that keeps them always on their last ten dollars.

I agree that people who tread on others, accumulate, and hoard do get ahead. I’m just not sure I know which of the two sides is the one with the problem.

He knew how to fix tail light bulbs with scrap bubble gum, spending nothing as habit because habitually there is nothing to spend. While scientists may not have discovered it, he had become an expert in getting ambient air pressure at certain temperatures to raise gas fumes into an engine when there is no gas. He clearly had years of experience coaxing life out of broken things.

I wondered if she was a calm heart of gold on the inside with tarnish and rough edges on the outside, or maybe a con artist to the core with a thick layer of deceptive frosting. Both seemed to be true; the layers were so thin and so sandwiched together, that it was impossible to tell which was on top and which was beneath. She was in some larger battle in life and like me, losing it most of the time but never giving up.

I had a sense from them that their role in their fleeting social network is keeping things zipped together and resisting entropy. The Other Dude did not have that role; he ran reactionarily into the twilight of Tecolote, which is not walking distance from anywhere, and did not reappear in this drama.

Demonstrating the power of the Suburban while still in Santa Fe, the main man flew over curbs, and not all our stuff remained on the trailer. One of the things about moving is, if you cannot remember what else you had before, after a portion of your belongings launch from your trailer into the night, you might not have needed those things.

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