Crack smokin’ fix a flat.

150 East 100th Street, Manhattan.

I lived there from roughly 1986-1990. At that time, anything north of 96th Street was known as “North of the DMZ” (demilitarised zone). My street was a good case in point: there were only two other inhabitable buildings. The others were either abandoned or had been torn down, leaving trash-filled lots. The opposite side of the street contained one long continuous brick wall, courtesy of the municipal bus depot facing Lexington Avenue. There were no trees, although one day workers with a flatbed truck full of saplings tried to remedy the situation. “Ed Koch, Mayor” was the only identifying insignia on the truck. Within a year of planting, all the trees were dead.

I had a five room, two-bedroom apartment for $540 a month, unheard of in Manhattan, unless you lived somewhere like I did. It was a five-story walkup with a solid steel front door. Street level, there was a social club, which blared salsa music on the weekends until three or four am. Calling a local bar a “private social club” was a faintly legal maneuver to avoid paying for a costly liquor license.

All my neighbors in the building were Puerto Rican, including Juan, the Super. He was blatantly obese and always seemed to be in a good mood, with a broad smile. He worked for the city, in the sewer system. Whenever the plumbing broke (which was often), I would go knock on his door downstairs. There were never less than 8-10 people inside; I could hear and smell food frying in the kitchen. He would come up, sweating with his toolbox, bringing one or two of his children. On the first visit, a little girl of about eight looked around and asked, “Where’s everyone else?”

I owned a second hand Datsun 280zx (remember t-tops?), that I was stupid enough to try to park on the street. I couldn’t afford to keep it in a garage, and had to move the damn car every day to comply with parking regulations. It was a stripped down model: three-speed automatic, no fancy rims and no radio (with corresponding NO RADIO sign in the window). One weekend on the golf course in Pelham Bay I found a little furry monkey headcover on the fairway, and put it on the gearshift. Two days later, someone threw a brick through the passenger window to steal it. Cost of replacement window/furry monkey: $280. One Saturday morning I arrived to find blood all over the driver-side window and hood.

One night after moving the car, I was walking back to my apartment, when I realized I had left a book I was reading on the passenger seat. I doubled back to fetch it, crossing the street this time to return. As I approached my apartment building, I passed two guys sitting on the steps of an abandoned building, sharing a crack pipe. I looked at them, and said “Hey” as I walked by. One of them nodded to me.

“We thought you were afraid to walk by us, man.”
“We saw you park your car, and it looked like you were afraid to walk by us. We were saying how that was fucked up, you were judging us. But then you crossed the street again and walked here right in front of us. So it’s okay, man. We were wrong about you.”
“I wasn’t avoiding anybody, I just went back to get a book.”
“You got a nail in your tire.”
“Your car got a nail in the front tire, man. I work in a fix-a-flat, and got this habit of looking at car tires all the time now. I can pull it out for you if you want.”

I glanced back at my car across the street, focusing on the tires. A silver nailhead, the size of a dime, reflected back at me.

“Where’s your shop?”
“The shop is closed. I can fix it right now—I got tools with me. If you wait ´til tomorrow, the tire will be flat.”
His logic was unassailable. “Okay.”

He had a black satchel at his feet, which I hadn’t noticed until then. He pulled out a tire iron and some kind of widget; it looked like a cross between a large wine opener and a wing nut. The tool screwed into the tire, with an empty, interior cavity that encircled the nail. The wine opener part pulled the nail out, with the rest of the tool still embedded in the tire. He placed a sort of rubber licorice stick into the cavity where the nail had been extracted, and screwed that back in. When it held fast, he extracted the entire tool. The tire looked perfect again; it hadn’t even lost air. He tossed the nail at my feet.

“That was fast,” I said. “How much do I owe you?”
“Nine dollars, 65 cent,” he said.

Where the hell he pulled nine dollars and 65 cents out of, I can only guess. It was probably what they charged at the shop he worked at. I gave him a 10 and told him to keep the change, but he shook his head, dug in his satchel again, and gave me the 35 cents back. I guess tips weren’t allowed at his shop, either.

“Thanks,” I said.
“No problem, man.”

I looked at him expectantly, but there was nothing more to say; our encounter was over. His buddy commenced to light up another rock, and I continued on to my apartment.