How Fixing a Flat Tire Turned into a Journey into Working Class Brooklyn
Mark Naison Fordham University
Last Tuesday morning , when I walked up to my car in anticipation of driving to work, I noticed that my front driver side tire was completely flat. I was able to use my wife’s car that day, but on Thursday, I decided to get it fixed so I left the house at 6 AM to see if I could do it myself
This was not as easy as it sounded. The street where my car was parked, 6th street between 8th Ave and Prospect Park West in Park Slope Brooklyn, is a through street for the local hospital and cabs and ambulances often come whizzing down the block at forty or fifty miles an hour. My flat tire was on the street side so the thought of getting on my knees to unscrew lug nuts or lying flat on my back to adjust the jack was not that appealing. Plus I am 63 years old, with a bad back and a bad hip, so even if I was in a deserted parking lot, changing a tire was not going to be that easy. Fortunately, I am a member of AAA so that was always an option of something went wrong.
Well, things went wrong pretty quickly. First of all, I had trouble getting the jack out of the trunk in the dark. That took ten minutes. Second, the lug nuts on the tire were incredibly tight. I am still pretty strong, but it took all the strength and weight to get four of them loose. The fifth resisted all my efforts so I gave in and called Triple AAA. They said someone would come in an hour and that I should stay by the car.
I decided to use the time to give the interior of my car a much needed cleaning, but after doing that for fifteen minutes, I got bored and decided to turn my attention to the stubborn lug nut, which to my surprise actually moved, so in the not unreasonable expectation that Triple AAA would be late, I decided to pull out the jack and change the tire myself
This proved to be much more difficult that I anticipated. Because I was unwilling to get on my back to place the jack where the notches near the wheel were located- both because of fear of being hit by an ambulance and fear that I might not be able to get up once I was lying down- I could not find a place on the body where the jack actually lifted the car enough to take the wheel off. The jack worked; the car rose, but the wheel remained on the ground.
After twenty minutes of futile jack raising, which had me pissed off and pouring sweat. A big triple A truck arrived and a heavyset white guy, about forty years old, with sandy hair and a couple of teeth missing, got out and walked up to me
“Are you fucking crazy!” he said, “Why are you changing a tire when you have Triple A. You are told old for this shit!”
After telling him that I was an old Brooklyn ballplayer who couldn’t accept the fact that I was getting old, I settled in to help him change the tire, which wasn’t that easy.
“Ralph” the name I will give him, had his own jack and lug wrench, but the car still wouldn’t rise high enough for the tire to leave the ground, so he had to use my jack to raise the axel while his raised the body. All of this took about 20 minutes and all of it was while he was flat on his back on a Styrofoam pad he brought with him
“Shit that was hard” I told him when he had finished, putting a twenty dollar bill into his palm for going the extra mile to help me. “ I wouldn’t have been able to do that myself, not with the bad back and hip I have.”
“Shit, it ain’t easy for me either,” Ralph said, “I have a hernia the size of a grapefruit that I have to hold in with my hands when I cough, but I hate doctors and hospitals so I just live with it.”
The subject of doctors and hospitals unleashed a torrent of commentary from me about my own mistrust of our medical system and before you knew it Ralph and I were trading stories about how hard it was to get out of bed and get dressed before starting our day
“In addition to my hernia,”Ralph said,” I have carpal tunnel in both hands, a bad back, bad knees, and bad shoulders, all it from getting on the ground and changing tires all day. I have been doing this for nineteen years and it gets harder every year. It takes me a half an hour to get out of bed in the morning and another fifteen minutes in a hot shower to get me loose enough to get dressed. I live on Advil”
“I take my hat off to you.” I said. “I work in a fucking office and it sometimes hard to cope with my ailments. But you’ve got to use every injured part of your body eight ten times a day. How long can you keep this up?.”
“I’ll do it until I can’t anymore,” Ralph said. “This is all I know how to do. It sucks, but I got a house, a family and bills to pay. So I do this till I drop, or until I can’t get out of bed at all.”
“Well friend, good luck to you,” I said as Ralph got in his truck and drove off,
I had just gotten a window into something most people in my position don’t see- the incredible skill and courage many working people display every day on their jobs, and the toll those jobs take place on their body. Auto repair people, sanitation workers, people who repair roads and bridges, construction workers, people who fix elevators, rooves and train tracks, all probably have stories just like Ralph’s. Without them, there is no Wall Street, no Universities, no advertising agencies and flagship stores, no theaters, no restaurants and hotels- there is no glamour , no luxury, no art and no life of the mind.
We who work in finance, in education, in social service, easily forget that, until something happens that reminds us we need people to fix things and keep our homes and schools and cars and buildings and roads in good repair.
Although we like to think it’s disappeared, a large part of the working class in this country still consists of people who work with their hands and do hard physical labor, They help keep the country going and make our own lives possible. And if Ralph is a fair example, they desperately need better health care than they are getting now.
Mark Naison April 2, 2010