Boston Driver’s Notebook 1/14/11

14 01 2011

The Boston Building Department is located at 1010 Mass Ave. in Roxbury. The parking lot fills up early, and I could count on there not being any space. Accordingly, I had to leave my 18V construction tools at home. I had my traveling mechanical tools in a metal Milwaukee drill box. Parking would be in sketchy industrial areas, if at all.

Sketchy Industrial Area


The inspector had been moving at a glacial pace on our permit, eagerly awaited since the application was filed in early October. After 4 months we finally had a meeting.
We were to repair, as part of the project, front steps going down to the sidewalk, which triggered various variances and violations. Then the inspector, taking a shine to me by my serene attitude of acceptance, conceived a possible work-around.
“You said the place is unsafe, right?”
“Yes.”
“If we declare it ‘Unsafe and Dangerous,’ then I don’t have to reject it for setback violations.”
So I set off to find the Ward Inspector, when the Application Inspector intervened once again, and he took the lead into the hinterlands of the building department. The Ward Inspector knew of the property, and its rooftop raccoon crossing. “Hell yeah it’s unsafe and dangerous, I’ll sign that right now!” said the inspector. It was starting to be good day in the neighborhood.

Safe and Dangerous

“It’s more like safe and dangerous at the moment,” I opened my big mouth. “I propped it up on some 2×4’s and nailed down the loose decking.” The morning continued to smile on me as they laughed politely and signed the magic papers. This was the moment Dave and I had been waiting for while he was still alive.

The Wasteland

Then it was back to the new truck, which needed a new nickname. The old one had been christened “the Death Tuna” by Dave. Now the truck was gone and so was Dave. But we had the permit. The nameless truck was still there on the industrial street. The entrance to the side street was marked with a muddy raggedy Ann doll and a plastic half gallon jug of domestic brandy, empty of course. There in the remaining grainy slushy snow the still life would have made a good poster for a horror movie. This is where I admit to not having brought the Leica.
The previous owner’s brother had called the blue Toyota “the wheelbarrow”, since it was his yard truck out in the sticks. I sailed down the expressway, as one would hope to on a Wednesday morning at 11AM. “The Wheelbarrow” seemed too confusing and non-self-explanatory. Maybe Bonnie Barrow? Still too obscure; or Clyde Barrow, Clyde for short. It would require a lot of further thought.
I had called Dick at Central Machine and Towing where I had impulsively retired the Death Tuna for crushing. In exchange he would pull off some parts for me and call it even. If I had sold the truck to the shifty hucksters who had driven by and offered me $50 for it, some dopey kid would end up with it, and have the rotted frame fold up on him like a ninja bear trap.

The Death Tuna

There was also the tax donation dodge, but to pay taxes you must earn money, so again, I was doing excellent.
Dick said to call a half hour before I arrived, which, Physics aside, would be easier said than done. I ended up taking the back roads off route 3 South, and stopped at the Cumby’s for a phone card, then drifted across the street to the 3 Corners breakfast place. I had the home-made corned beef hash with poached eggs. Inside, people talked to each other, Mayberry RFD style. There was a Norman Rockwell kid, on crutches from a lacrosse accident. The large guys at the counter across from me talked to him about their sons’ sports injuries. The hash was not over-salted, which vaulted it into the 99th percentile, sight unseen.  It was crusty and satisfying.
I called Dick from the parking lot of the café, and he said he’d meet me in a half hour.

Clyde (Wheel)Barrow

Then I went over to Dave’s house to get the Azek plastic 1”x10” x 18’ board that was out behind where he used to live, when he used to live.
The lack of power tools came back to haunt me as I looked for ways to break the bendy, bouncy, and maybe even achy, but not breaky, board, I got it bent in half, and was trying to walk the plank toward the fold, in order to break it. The lower half of the board shot out from under with surprising vehemence. The material has a strange plastic edge that can give you these deep nasty paper cuts that are fearsome. I looked in the truck and came up with a ½” wood chisel and the heavy, metal post from a jackstand to use as a hammer. I used the chisel to score a line across the width of the board at roughly 9’ from either end. Then I repeated the bending routine, and this time it broke unevenly at the score line, which I had, of course, oriented outward at the breaking point.

It Gets Worse

It let go with a loud snap, and somehow sliced a deep cut across the back of my right hand at the ball of the thumb. I tied down the two lengths of plastic and nailed a red shop rag to the end of the board for looks.
I grabbed two pots of bamboo from the backyard, from the ten or so pots of bamboo lined up at the back wall of the house. According to Dave, it was the non-spreading kind. At his house there, he had planted the spreading type for some reason, and every evening after work, we would eradicate some of the monster bamboo that was eating the yard. We could have eventually beaten the bamboo, but now it would win.

Bamboo Spreading

By then it had been a half hour and I headed over to Central Machine.
I arrived there before Dick, so I parked out in front of the house at the edge of the bluff, where it drops fifteen feet to the lower yard.
A large flatbed tow truck showed up at a high rate of speed and pulled forward, as if to back in where there wasn’t room between me and a junk car.
Dick jumped out of the truck, and walked back to where there was a hood on the ground next to the junk Chevy. He picked it up and threw it on the roof of the Chevy. “How’s it going?” he asked me.
“Great,” I said.
“Good, I’m glad somebody’s having a good time,” he said.
He jumped in the tow truck and backed it into the spot where the hood had been. Without a word he got out and headed down the slope to the yard. Tow trucks, dump trucks and a junk pickup truck were parked in the outer lot. Dick went through the gate in the chain-link fence into the inner yard. I followed at a contrite distance. Even though I had given him the old truck, and he had said he’d take the parts off the week before, I know enough about rage to leave him alone.
I arrived at the back of the lot where the red 1985 Toyota pickup sat forlornly in a snow bank. Dick looked over at the front end loader with forklift bars attached. “I didn’t get a chance to plug in the block warmer,” he said. Then he got around to what was bugging him. “Some people won’t lift a finger.”
“Somebody giving you a hard time?” I asked.
“The lady had me tow her car to the dealership, and they didn’t know anything about it. I had the slip with her number on it but they wouldn’t call her. I’m sitting there with the car and they wouldn’t do a thing.”
“They didn’t give you any respect…”
“They didn’t give her any respect either. Their paying customer.”
“People are getting worse. Young people.”

I tell ya, no respect.

We looked back at the truck. I said, “I think you can drive it out of there. It’s good in the snow.” He got in and turned the key. After the requisite 3-5 pumps of the gas pedal, it started right up. The truck had run horribly for ten years until last summer, when car guru and friend of Charlie Paradise, Ricky Mullen, had pointed me toward the multifarious vacuum lines of the emissions control system “Something’s getting a lot of vacuum that should only be getting a little,” was Ricky’s incisive pronouncement as we stood in the August heat around the shuddering truck.
After unsquangling the small rubber lines per the under-hood diagram, the motor had miraculously changed its tune and smoothed out heartwarmingly.
So the doomed little truck roared to life for the last time and Dick gunned it out of the snow bank, banking off a junk LeBaron with a satisfying crunch. It scared his large, friendly German Shepherd. He parked it next to the frozen front end loader and climbed out. He seemed suddenly much happier.

“I like how you drive!” I said.
“Well, they’re all junkers,” he said with a grin.

God is Laughing

He went over and cranked the front end loader. The frozen diesel engine turned over listlessly.
“I brought a small jack and a jackstand,” I said, “I can just tilt it up right there.”
I went and got the jack, jackstand, and a tray of wrenches from the new truck. I passed Dick talking to his son near a big, idling plow truck. Dick looked with skepticism at my little mismatched set of tools. “This is what passes for a nice day around here,” I said, breathing out clouds of breath in the cold sunshine.
“I know it.”
“I realize I’ve been a pain in the ass about this. It’s just that I need the catalytic converter sooner than I realized.”
“Not really. I said I’d pull those parts for you, but got slowed down by the snow. Everybody needs a tow, now.”
I went back to the old truck and jacked up the frame rail under the driver’s side, and added a jackstand next to it as a backup. I wouldn’t need to get under the truck, so it was fairly safe, given that everything was sitting on oily ice. There was a block of ice just where I needed to lie down, and I kicked at it with no result. I lay uncomfortably on the block and was instantly soaked by the layer of greasy water on the surface of the ice. Later it occurred to me that I could have driven the truck forward a few feet to a better location.
The rubber hangers holding the exhaust in place were as cooperative as usual: not in the least. I needed a 14 mm wrench to undo the catalytic converter bolts, but naturally had a 13 and a 15, but no 14. I opened the hood, and undid the exhaust manifold bolts. I would be taking the entire exhaust, just in case. While I was there, I removed the newish distributor cap and wires and plugs, as well as the wiper motor.
I noticed a frayed tarp covering some parts on a trailer, and borrowed it to lie on. I took a minute and looked around at all the junked cars and trucks in the vast yard slowly emerging from the snow in the mid-30 degree sun.

American Truck

It would be fun to have something like this out in back of the house. I ended up using a small pipe wrench to undo the cat bolts. With the exhaust separated into two pieces, I went up to the hood to remove the manifold and header pipe. I had to bend the emission system air-injection tubes out of the way to get the manifold assembly out. My hand slipped and I gashed my left index finger on something cold and greasy. It didn’t bleed much.

Digital Imaging

It took me 3 trips to get tools and parts out to the new truck. I didn’t have a parting moment of reflection with the old truck. It had no more brains than a goldfish, but still, we had been though a lot together. I didn’t see Dick or the kid as I drove away.

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