I went down yesterday
to fix a leak in my tire. Off Bridge street
there’s a place 95 cents
smeary black paint on warped wood plank
between two bald tires.
I go in, an old Black man
with a Jackie Gleason hat greasy soft
with a mashed cigar stub in mouth
and another old Chicano man
working the other
pneumatic hissing tire changer. The walls are black with rubber
soot blown black dust everywhere
and rows of worn tires on gnawed board racks for sale,
air hoses snaking and looped over the floor.
I greet the two old men
“Yeah, how’s it going!”
They look up at me as if I just gave them a week to live.
“I got a tire needs a tube.”
Rudy, a young Chicano emerges from the black part of the room
pony tailed and plump
walks me out to my truck and looks at the tire.
“It’ll cost you five bucks to take off and change.”
He tells the old Chicano, who pulls the roller jack
with a long steel handle outside,
and I wait in the middle of the grunting oval tire
while the old guy goes out and returns with my tire.
He looks at me like a disgruntled Carny
handling the ferriswheel
for the millionth time
and I’m just another ache in the arm,
a spoiled kid.
I watch the two old men work the tire machines
step on the foot levers that send the bars around
flipping the tire from the rim
and I wonder what brought these two old men to work here
on this gray evening in February –
are they ex-cons?
Drunks or addicts?
He whips the tube out,” Rudy ” he yells
and I see a gaping hole in the tube,
“Can’t patch that,” Rudy says
Then in Spanish Slang says, “no podemos pachiarlo,”
“we got a pile of old tubes over there, we’ll do it for ten
At first I think he might be taking me
but I hedge away from that thought
and I watch the machines work
the spleesh of air
the final begrudging phoof! of rubber popped loose
then the holy clank of steel bar
and every gently the old Chicano man, instead of throwing the bar
on the floor,
takes the iron bar and wipes it clean of rubber bits
and slides it gently into his waist belt,
in such a way
I’ve only seen mother wipe their infant’s mouth.
And I wonder where they live these two old guys
I turn and watch MASH on a tv suspended from the ceiling
six ‘0 clock news comes on
Hunnington beach blackened with oil.
Rudy comes behind me and says,
“Fucking shame they do that to our shores.”
I suddenly realize how I love these working men
working in half dark with bald tires
like medieval hunchbacks in a dungeon.
They eat soup and scrape along in their lives –
how can they live I wonder on 95 cents a tire change
in today’s world?
I am pleased to be with them
and feel how barrio Chicanos love this too –
how some give up nice jobs
in foreign places
to live by friends working in these places
and out of these men revolutions have started.
The old Chicano is mumbling at me
how cheap I am
when he learns my four tires are bald
and spare flat,
shaking his head as he works the tube into the tirewell.
I notice his heels are chewed to the nails
his fingernails black
his face a weary room and board stairwell
of a downtown motel
given over to drunks and derelicts, his face hand worn
by drunks leaning their full weight on it
wooden steps grooved by hard soled men just out
of prison, a face condemned by life to live out more days
I bid goodbye to the Black man chomping his ancient cigar
the Chicano man with his head down
and I feel ashamed, somehow, that I cannot live
their lives a while for them.
Grateful they are here, I respect such men, who have stories
that will never be told, who bring back to me
my simple boyish days, when men
in oily pants and grubby hands talked in rough tones
and worked at simply work, getting three meals a day
on the table the hard way.
They live in an imperfect world,
unlike men with money who have places
to put their shame
these men have none,
other put their shame on planes or Las Vegas
these have no place
but to put their shame on their endurance
unlike men who put their shame
on new cars
so they never have to face their shame
these men in the tire shop
have become more human with shame.
And I thought of the time my brother betrayed
me leaving me at 14
when we vowed we’d always be together
he left to live with some rich folks
and I was taken to the Detention Center for kids
with no place to live –
I became a juvenile
filled with anger at my brother who left me alone.
These tire shop men made choices
never to leave their brothers,
in them I saw shame with no place to go
but in a man’s face, hands, work and silence.
And as I drove away, nearing my farm
I saw a water sprinkler shooting an arc of water
far over the fence and grass
it was intended to water —
the fountain of water hitting a weedy stickered spot
that grew the only single flower anywhere around
in the midst of rubble brush and stones
the water hit
and touched a dormant seed that blossomed all itself
into what it was
despite the surroundings.
Something made sense to me then
and I’m not quite sure what —
an unconditional love of being and living,
and taking what came one’s way
That night in my dream
I cried for my brother as he was leaving,
all the words I used against myself
rotten, no good, shitty, failure,
dissolved in my tears,
my tears poured out of me in my dream and I wept
for my brother and wept when I turned after he left
and I reached for my sister and she was having coffee
with a friend —
I wept in my dream because she was not available for me
when I needed her,
and all my tears flowed, and how I wept, my feeling my pain
all my tears became that arc of water
and I became the flower, by sheer accident in the middle
of nowhere, blossoming….
-Jimmy Santiago Baca