Boston Drivers Notebook 2/28/11

28 02 2011

I’ve been working at repairing a large, shambling, falling-apart house in Jamaica Plain.  The owners are old friends of mine.  Benjamin distributes wild mushrooms to high-end restaurants, hoarder, hippie, good heart.  Mei Ching is a Japanese Chinese flower expert, working for the man every night and day.  As such we had contrived to take our collective ball and chain, the highly individualistic wife of our late acupuncture teacher, Mrs. So to dinner in Chinatown.

Needs a Little Work

She had appeared in her silver Mercedes in front of the house earlier that day.  She shouted to us with her windows rolled up.  “WHERE TO PAK THE CA???”
Benjamin gestured urgently at the spot next to her.  It was the best bet on the street, with the space between parking spots still piled high with dirty ice mounds from all the storms.

It Continues to Look a Lot Like Christmas

She recoiled in horror.  “NO!!!  THAT TOO THE SMALL!!  I DON’T KNOW HOW CAN THE CA THE FIT!”  By then several cars had accumulated behind her on the busy one-way street.  She finally rolled down the window.  “I GO THE PAK UP THERE!!”  She inched up the street scrutinizing the few remaining parking spots, none nearly as commodious as the one she had rejected directly in front of the house.  Jamaica Plain is the only place in Boston where no one will honk at you for going too slowly.
We didn’t see her again.  Mei Ching, consummate worrier, worrier princess, called Mrs. So, which is how we ended up with dinner plans.  Mei Ching came over to where I was rebuilding the back stairs.  “Oh Jordan, maybe you are too busy.”

Back Stairs: Before

“Busy to do what, now?”
“It think maybe Mrs. So is too scared to come over here.  To park the car over here.  I don’t know.
“And we have the delivery, so we cannot pick her up.  And maybe it’s too far for you to go to her house.”
“You want me to go get her?”
“But it’s so far for you to drive.”
“I’ll get her.  What time?”
“I don’t know we have the delivery.  Maybe six O’clock we call you, let you know.”
“I’ll go over to her house at 5:30.  Call me there, and we’ll be ready to meet you in Chinatown at whatever time you want.”
“OK.  I call and tell Mrs. So.”

I was finally getting something done, when I saw it was less bright out, and checked the time.   It was 5:15.  I dropped everything and started cleaning up.  It was a half hour before I was ready to go.  They were already back from their delivery, but I decided to keep the same plan for the sake of continuity.  They could use a chance to regroup, and I could do some of the driving.  They lived closer to the So house, and I lived closer to Chinatown, in the opposite direction.

Back Stairs: After

I called Mrs So to let her know I was coming.  “SPIAH!!!  WHERE YOU AH???”  I held the phone away from my ear.
“Jamaica Plain.  I’m coming to get you.”
“See you in 20 minutes.”  It would only take ten, but I knew she’d be timing me.
My clutch, or so I thought, had been making more noise the last day or so.  It would screeetch when I started moving, as a slipping clutch will.  I had noticed oil seeping from the back of the engine, and along with the squeal, I figured a rear main seal leak had contaminated the clutch disc.  I had been hoping to baby it along until spring, since I saw that I would have to take the front driveshaft out along with the rear.  It would be the time to replace the head exhaust pipe and oxygen sensor, another two hundred bucks.   I had a new original equipment clutch from ebay in stock.

I See a Clutch in Your Future

The squealing became louder and more constant before going ominously silent.  The brake and charging system warning lights came on.  I called Benjamin.  “My brake and charging system warning lights just came on.”
“What do you think it means?”
“Broken alternator belt?  Although that wouldn’t explain the brake warning light.  Maybe more stuff just lights up to get your attention.
“I think I’d better abort the So thing.  I should just go home.”
“How far are you from here?”
“About five blocks.  I’ll come over there.”  I decided to circle around to Perkins street, but soon ran into a wall of cars, jammed into a stalled rotary.  I pulled into an Emerald Necklace parking lot, which of course became an epicenter of bumbling, slow driving as people gridlocked the entrance to the parking lot on my way out.  Finally I was able to scoot back across the Jamaicaway to Jamaica Plain.  My same parking spot was still there, although Benjamin told me that a Ford F-3050 had tried to park there just after I called him, but hadn’t fit.  It was definitely shaping up to be one of those good luck/bad luck kind of evenings.

Hard to Park

I called Mrs. So.  “SPIAAH!!! WHERE YOU AHHH???”
“Car trouble.  I went back to Benjamin’s”
“It looks like we have to get together another time.”
I opened the hood as Benjamin shone his keychain flashlight at the motor.  The alternator belt was in shreds.  “This might be the problem right here,” I said pulling at the frayed end of the tatter that was caught under the fan pulley.   We decided to have Benjamin drive me to get parts while Mei Ching made dinner.  None of us seemed too upset at missing the Chinatown ordeal.
Benjamin is a side street master, and we breezed by the hood rats in the Bromley Heath projects.  “Here’s where somebody threw a rock at me while I was riding my bike,” said Benjamin.  “It gave me peripheral neuralgia in my forearm.”

In the Hood Where we do the Most Good

“Why would they do such a thing?” I asked.
We drove past people walking up the road at us between tall chain link fences.  They looked at us expectantly as if we might stop and ask to buy some drugs, but we didn’t.  We emerged on Melnea Cass Boulevard, and crossed Mass Ave before heading south past the building department.  We ended up at the Advance Auto at the end of the world.  There was a plethora of filthy items half-embedded in the parking lot ice.  There were 3 clerks helping 3 parties with no air of urgency.  I settled in for a long winter’s wait as Benjamin aimlessly roamed the aisles.  I determined that only one clerk was capable of producing any results whatsoever, and he circulated behind the counter helping the hapless other two clerks while taking care of his customer as well.  I got in his line, and sure enough, he was finished with his customer before the other two clerks had even acted on the patient explanations they had just received from the alpha clerk.  He immediately recognized that I knew what I wanted and what to ask for.  He correctly observed that he could locate my two fan belts and get payment rapidly and efficiently, in time to deal with the other clerks’ next dilemmas.


We were out the door forthwith, alternator/fan and power steering belts in hand, with a rapidity rarely observed within the ghetto parts community.  “I have to take off the power steering fan belt to get to the alternator belt, so I might as well put on a new power steering belt while I’m at it.

“The good news is that I don’t think I really need a new clutch.  I put two and two together and got twenty-two.  The oil leaking at the rear was most likely from the poorly designed valve cover gasket, and the screeching noise was the fraying fan belt.”
We took an even more obscure route home, over Fort Hill, near Franklin Park.

Fort Hill, Boston

Benjamin held the flashlight while I took off the power steering belt.  There was a trick to it on the Toyota 22R engine.  You have to loosen a bolt in the center of the idler pulley first.  Then you can turn the adjuster bolt , counter-clockwise to loosen the belt, clockwise to tighten it.  “Righty tighty, lefty loosey,” I said, mantrically.  The first time I had tried to change the belts in the Death Tuna, it had taken me hours of beating my head on the wall, before I finally gave in and read the manual.  This time it went rapidly, now that I knew.
“Don’t you have to take the fan off?” Benjamin asked.  By way of an answer, I threaded the belt around the blades of the fan like a woman changing into a bathing suit while fully dressed.  I extracted the belt and held it up with a flourish.  A minor miracle to those not in the know.

Spray It On

Next I loosened the bolt on the alternator bracket.  I sprayed some penetrating oil that Benjamin brought from the house.  I went back to where I was rebuilding the stairs and retrieved a length of 2×4 to use as a persuader to move the reluctant alternator.  I levered against the alternator with the board wedged against the inside of the wheel well.
“You could use this long screwdriver,” said Benjamin.
“No, I need the dimensionality of this 2×4.”  Then I used the long screwdriver to help pry the broken belt from under the fan pulley.
I threaded on the alternator belt, but then had trouble getting a grip on the alternator.  I ended up prying it back into place by levering it using the end of the slotted bracket as a fulcrum and sticking the blade of the big screwdriver, carefully, partway into the ventilation slots on the alternator without touching the rotor within.  The power steering belt installation was the reverse of the removal, as the book says, and we were laughing.  Bob’s your uncle and all that rot.
I started the truck and observed a nice, normal dashboard.
“No warning lights?” asked Benjamin
“No warning lights.”
We went up for a victory dinner that Mei Ching was just completing.  It was some simple Japanese home cooking, soup with daikon and some unidentified fish and vegetable cakes within.  Like most home cooking it was bland and comforting, and you couldn’t go out to a restaurant for it.  An interesting feature was a fish cake that looked exactly like a fresh bamboo shoot.  I forget what she called it.



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