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Monday, October 15, 2007


"I'm an import killer," Ray said through a cloud of blue dust.

Ray had two packs of menthol cigarettes shoved in the front pocket of his work shirt shirt. At mid-afternoon on a sunny Friday, it was his job to be under the hood of my foreign, gas-guzzling SDV (Stripped Down Version). I didn't envy him the work. An hour before, I'd thrown up the hood and looked down at the battery. The positive terminal was hidden underneath a crust of blue-green corrosion that looked rather alien. I actually said aloud, alone in my driveway, "Woah, that's not good."

I had some suspicion my SDV's battery was on the wane. A couple of nights before, a beer run had nearly been cut-off when my vehicle almost refused to start. Then, sensing how cruel it would be to keep me from beer, the engine turned over. I took that as a sign to completely ignore the problem.

Then Friday afternoon came and I had four errands to run before a friend was scheduled to be at my house to pick me up. After working for about 35 straight days and nights, I was going to take a night off. Out to the driveway, I hopped in Emilio (see if you can figure out why he's named that) and turned the ignition.

Everybody knows the sound. It's a low, halting, groan that ends with the dome light extinguished, the radio channel pre-sets erased, and the car making no other noise. I wasn't even sad. I looked back through my mental maintenance file and recalled that since I bought the vehicle in November 2001, I have never changed the battery. It's a rather amazing feat, really. The standard life of a battery is 2-3 years. This one--a factory battery that looked more like something that would fit in the back of a big flashlight--had lasted for six years without ever failing me.

Now, it was dead in the middle of my driveway on a perfect Friday afternoon. My initial intention was to run up to the store, buy a new battery, and change it myself. Then I realized my wife had to use her car to go pick up the boy from pre-school. Thinking quickly, I grabbed some brand new, still-in-the-package jumper cables from the back of Emilio and hooked them up. After checking the connection on my wife's Honda, I went back to Emilio and said it again: "Woah, that's not good."

Smoke was coming off the positive terminal. I'd done my best to remove all the corrosion and produce a clean connection, but something was obviously still quite wrong. I grabbed for the red handle, then realized it was, well yeah, smoking hot. So, I grabbed for the cable and realized the insulation had melted off. Fingers singed, I grabbed the black cable, ripped everything off, and threw the smoking, melted mass as far as I could (incidentally, about four feet).

It was a sign, as far as I was concerned, that someone else should be replacing the battery in my car. While the jumper cables were obviously defective (another set out of the garage worked just fine), I didn't see any reason to press my luck.

And that's how I ended up with Ray the Import Killer.


The new battery was $80 including installation. Ray grabbed a red cart stacked with tools and wheeled it out to Emilio. I'd left the vehicle running and Ray took it upon himself to climb inside, turn it off, and get started before I'd even finished paying.

Ray wore sunglasses, a work hat, and a stained shirt. His hands bore all the signs of a career in manual labor. He worked with a silent deliberation. I stood on the sidewalk and wished I'd worn something different. I was in a pair of jeans--a little too tight--a graphic tee and a pair of Ecco shoes. To anyone driving by, I was that guy from the nearby suburban neighborhood where men don't change their own car batteries. I was about to stick my head under the hood, too, just to keep up appearances, when Ray emerged.

"You're going to need a new terminal," he said.

He was pointing to the positive connector. It was sea-foamy with corrosion.

"I'll go get one," I said with zeal. With a task, I felt like I was helping, much like the three-year-old that helps his father clean up autumn leaves, which is to say, not at all.

"It's the band-type with the bolt sticking out of the back," Ray said and ducked back under the hood.

I went in and ran into the woman who sold me the battery.

"I need a new terminal," I said. "Band-type with a bolt sticking out of the back."

Just five minutes before, I'd seen the same woman (a cross between Chastity Bono and Abe Vigoda) run to the store room and pick out an obscure part for a 1978 Cutlass from memory. There was no need trying to deny my emasculation. The new part was another $4. Still, $84 for the pleasure of having a brand new battery is no small price to pay. I mean, this battery came with a three-year warranty, something that would serve me very well if this massive container of acid lasted only half as long as my little flashlight battery.

When I returned, Ray was using a wire brush to clean the negative terminal. The blue-green dust smoked up into the air and blew with the breeze. I wondered how much corrosion dust Ray had breathed in his life. Like my battery, I'm pretty sure Ray was outliving his projected lifespan, despite the career of battery acid bong hits

"This work?" I said.

"Sure," he said. "You're going to need another terminal." He pointed to the black one. "Bolt won't turn."

I ran back inside and pulled the same one Ms. Vigoda had just picked out. In the sunshine once again, I said, "This work?"

"Nuh-uh," Ray said. "You need the one with the band and the two prongs that bend over the wire."

Of course, I do.

I went back inside, found the right part, and brought it back to Ray. That was another $4, bringing the total to $88. I was still okay with it. After, all, Ray was into his work. In all, he'd been going for about 25 minutes, and now he was installing new parts, straining over a pair of channel locks, and breaking a small sweat in the unusually warm October air. I wondered if I could tip him.

See, I spend 30% of my year in places where you tip everybody. Guy opens your door? You give him a buck or two. Dealer pushes you a big one? You throw'em a red bird. Server spends a couple hours making sure your meal is presented as well as it can be? Twenty percent is the minimum.

I've tipped bellmen, gift shop cashiers, housekeepers, concierges, valets, dealers, waitresses, bartenders, floormen, chip runners, deli counter workers, cab drivers, limo drivers, doormen, and cashiers. I have never, however, tipped a guy who installs car batteries. Is there a proper percentage? Is it even kosher?

A bearded man walked out of the store, looked at Ray, looked at my SDV, and shook his head. It was a rueful head shake that communicated all it needed to. The old dude drove a beat up teal Cavalier, but was bemoaning my driving of an imported vehicle. That's what happens in these parts.

He drive away in light cloud of smoke.

Ray looked up and spoke. "He got out of his car earlier, looked at your car, and said, 'You know, that thing will never run right again.' I told him I'm the import killer.'"

I couldn't tell if Ray was defending me or mocking me. Soon, it didn't matter.

I looked down and Ray was on his hands and knees, chipping away with a screwdriver at some corrosion that had formed on what I took to calling "that thingy that makes sure he battery doesn't slide around under the hood." Ray was a true professional and was going beyond the call of duty. I reached in my pocket and pulled out $5. I cupped it in my hand and wondered how one tipped a guy like this.

With doormen it's easy. The bill is folded a couple of times and rested between the tips and second knuckles of the index and middle fingers. It's slid into the doorman's hand with a simple, "Thank you." Card dealer? Just rake your pot and leave the tip on the felt. It's understood. Car battery installer? What do I do? Slip it in his tool box?

I almost changed my mind and forgot the tip, until Ray pulled out some industrial anti-corrosion liquid and slathering it in all the right places. For the past 40 minutes, it had been nothing but wire brushes, likely poisonous dust, new parts, and now lubricant.

With no fanfare, Ray stood and said, "That's it."

Ray probably wasn't more than ten years older than me, but he wasn't going to live as long as he should. I don't know what kind of cancer you can catch from battery acid corrosion, but it seems clear that ol' Ray is going to pick up whatever it is.

I pulled ten bucks from my pocket, walked over to Ray, and shook his hand.

"Thanks," I said and put the ten-spot in his hand.

I couldn't gauge the guy's reaction. "Aw, man," he said. He shut up as I turned to get in my car. I was feeling bad. I'd probably just offended him by giving him something extra for something he would normally do. He's a working man who didn't expect anything more.

"Sir?" I heard behind me. I turned to see Ray. "Thank you very much."

There are people in this world who break things. There are people who neglect things until they break or their own or reach the end of their normal lifespan. I am those people.

There are people who fix things. Ray is those people.

Sometimes, as we all live out our own personal battery life, we must accept our role. It's not always easy, and it's quite often emasculating, but it's life.

There's your tip for the day.



Anonymous greylikesunday@hotmail.com said...

Now can you tell me if a person is supposed to tip the servers at Sonic in this neck of the woods? And if so, how much. I mean, it's not like they're hanging out to refill your disposable carbonated beverage cup with the plastic lid snapped onto the top. And they don't bring around a desert tray or anything like that. I've never understood what the culture requires. I don't like their food enough to pay the extra tip to receive it. I might consider it on occasion if it weren't for that little detail. Back when I was a kid growing up near a local A&W it was just understood that they brought your food to the car and hooked it neatly over your window on a tray. We didn't tip them then. I get various responses from people when I ask about this. The whole thing makes me uncomfortable enough that I pass them by for the Golden Arches. I already know how your family feels about the Golden Arches, btw.

So if you really know all the tipping rules, please tell me the one for Sonic so I can put issue to rest!

10:32 PM  
Anonymous Grey Like Sunday said...

Apparently I forgot how to sign in properly.

10:35 PM  
Blogger golden said...

Curious, I've been struggling with the Sonic tip question for several years now myself. Good call tipping the car fixer dude, especially because of the anti-corrosion dousing.

Am I the only (Loyal Reader) who didn't understand anything in your 10/11/07 blog, (The Story I messed Up?) What did you mess up? Why are you sorry? Don't get it.

Anything new on the Devon Epps front?

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

batteries are fun. within a year I've changed my bobcat($120), gutter van ($80), and my pick up which has 2 ($160)


9:02 PM  
Anonymous Peter said...

Nice blog! More people should read it. If you want, you can register your blog www.pokerweblogs.com. It is free and and it automatically updates when you do an update, so visitors of our site can see when you updated your blog. The big advantage is that it will attract much more visitors to your blog.

7:09 AM  
Blogger Drizztdj said...

I heart guys like Ray.

Except I call him dad.

3:09 PM  

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