Serj charges anywhere from $200 to $1,200 for an oil change.
It’s not random though. He has a system. So when I pull up to the shop, I expect the same treatment. It’s a two-stall garage. In one, he parks his cherry 1963 Mustang. The other stall is, as it always is, empty.
I call out, “Hey Serj, can I get an oil change?” Serj is about sixty-years-old and mostly mustache, but I still wouldn’t mess with him. As I idle in front of the garage, he polishes his fingernails on his mustache and squints at me. “An oil change,” I say again, and then after a good bit of sizing up me and my car, he recognizes me. I am, of course, his only customer.
Serj asks if I’m going to stick around while he changes my oil, but Jiffy Lube, this place ain’t. There’s no lobby, no stale coffee, no TV playing TMZ. Serj knows this and I know this, so I decide to give him his space. He’s pretty quick anyway. There’s not much to do when it comes to my car. So I bid Serj adieu, planning to kill 30 minutes attempting to walk to the next sign of civilization.
Serj goes back to his office where there are three black office chairs, a computer that he’s never turned on, sugar cookies from Ralph’s, a vase of walnuts (a symbol of good luck for former Soviet mechanics) and the Wheel of Misfortune.
The Wheel of Misfortune is lined with all your basics for a superstitious and fatalistic mechanic. Some of the categories are: New Timing Belt, Transmission Leak, Broken Catalytic Converter, etc. Of course on the low end, there are things like: Replace Brake Pads and even, or so I’m told, a straight up $45 oil change. But that’s like the fucking unicorn of the Wheel of Misfortune. That’s the grand prize. That’s the mythical beast. That’s Global Warming in 2006.
Today when I return, Serj is eating grapes and watching the traffic go by. Because Serj works all day with wrenches and pencils, I’m fairly certain he only eats with his hands. To ask a man who makes his living with tools to use utensils at the end of the day would be totally inhumane. It would be like asking a police officer, who has carried a gun all day, to then come home and murder his dinner. You just don’t do it. That’s why God invented Trader Joe’s and Seamless.
We stand there in silence before he asks, “How long have you had this car?” Serj always opens with this question when I return to pick up my car. I learned long ago that there’s no right answer, so today I think long and not very hard before saying, “Four years.”
He grumbles, as he always does. My answer both disappoints him and confirms exactly what he was thinking. He tells me in no uncertain terms that if I don’t do something about one of the things that’s under the hood of my car that has something to do with how it runs it’s going to cost me tens of thousands of dollars and maybe the lives of innocent women and children.
I exhale. I’ve gotta think about this. Serj encourages me to take my time; all the time I need. Of course, he’s closing in five minutes because, well, once your only customer has already stopped by, what’s the point of staying open?
Serj can see I’m not sure so he offers to pop my hood and show me exactly what he’s talking about. With one hand he holds up the hood and with the other he points while words sputter out from under his mustache and into the abyss that is my knowledge of cars. I nod my head very seriously. I notice there are several things under the hood that are various shapes and colors. Some appear to be metal, others rubber. I know that African warlords prefer Toyotas, but Serj isn’t interested in what I have to say.
Serj closes my hood. “How did the oil change go?” I ask. He shrugs and leads me back to his office where I can see the Wheel of Misfortune resting on: Replace Spark Plugs.
“Well,” I say, “I guess it’s gotta be done.” Serj nods and I hand him my credit card. He runs it for $784.93. I sign his copy, then he hands me a piece of paper where he’s scribbled something, in maybe Cyrillic, along with some numbers. It’s about the size of a post-it. We shake hands and I thank Serj for his time and his service both to myself and my car, but also to the community. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says, shooing me away, “see you next week.”