Storytelling

How I learned about fan belts and self-reliance

I bought a Ford Fiesta around 1984 in order to commute from Ann Arbor to Detroit for a job while I was in college. If you’re not familiar, the Ford Fiesta was nothing like the new one; it was better than a Yugo, but not much bigger. It’s amenities were few, it’s functionality was minimal, and it’s sex appeal was completely missing. It was the dim-witted and plain mail-order bride you bought with hopes of falling inlove, but were at least glad that she cooked and cleaned. Oh, and she had been married before, because I bought the Fiesta used.
The Fiesta got excellent mileage and was fast enough to keep up with rush-hour traffic into Detroit. I listened to the radio and wished very much that the air conditioning worked, but it was fine.
I worked as an intern at Burroughs, which was one of the original computer companies, and its corporate culture was still old fashioned. Suits and ties were expected, and almost all of the managers were white men. Black guys were hired to work as salesmen for black businesses in the metro area.
There were five interns. Most of us knew someone to get the job but one guy, Nick, had scratched and clawed his way in. Most of the men in his family were truck drivers, and he had started to learn the trade as well when it occurred to him to get an engineering degree and work in an office. It’s not unlike the farmer’s son who, sick and tired of staring at the business end of a mule, walks into town and becomes a doctor.
One morning, while I drove along I-94 in a pack of cars four abreast, staring into the rising summer sun, I noticed the engine temperature gauge climb into the red zone. Once the traffic got thick, it settled into it’s inevitable stop and go pattern, and the gauge would pin itself at the top. I certainly didn’t want to abandon ship in the hostile frontier of Romulus, so I used the only trick I knew and turned on the heater full blast, hoping to not be one of those guys with the hood of his car up on the side of the road, shielding his face from the scalding steam.
At the office, Nick was very interested in the problem. He looked up auto parts in the Yellow Pages (the internet was still ten years away) and found a NAPA just a few blocks away on Trumbull Avenue.
I was not comfortable with navigating inner city Detroit, but Nick led me out at lunch and we found the store, hidden in plain sight like a stolen car parked at the mall, and inside this nondescript brick building we bought a fan belt.
I happened to have an emergency set of tools in my hatch cargo area, and Nick installed the new belt in less than five minutes, adjusting the tension by feel.
In spite of the fact that my father spent every weekend repairing cars, I had never worked on one myself, and had been trying to figure out how I would get that Ford Fiesta to a mechanic. It just floored me that he would solve my problem so easily.
I don’t think I learned enough of a lesson from that event. My fear of living in a metropolitan area should have been the first to go, because there is so much excitement and vibrancy in a city if you can learn to navigate the blemishes and blight without soiling your shoes.
My ignorance of cars should have been next, and I should have spent more of the past twenty years driving better cars.
Finally, I should have recognized the exciting life Nick was undertaking to leave his family culture for what, to him, was a challenging and fulfilling life. Driving truck wasn’t going to cut it for him and no matter what his father said. I should have asked myself what I wanted to do, and figured out how to get there. I should have scratched and clawed my way there, bringing all the crap I learned from my family along for the ride in case I needed it, but I should not have looked back until I had safely arrived.