Business as usual
In the long view, it was nothing big: it's just that the muffler fell off. Nor, in the end, did it much matter that we were 700 miles from home, or that we were driving a borrowed twenty-six-foot-long motor home built on a truck chassis , or even that it was late on a Friday afternoon. No, what mattered were David and Ralph.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
David you might have predicted, though not by a quick glance at the Gulf station he ran in the seacoast town of Baddeck, Nova Scotia. On the outside, it looked entirely ordinary: the usual gas pumps islanded on the usual oil-slicked cement pavement, with the usual oil-slicked attendant staring out from under his cap as we thundered up toward him. To be sure, the larger-than-usual gravel lot beside the garage, filled with bright red tractors and hay bailers, seemed promising, but we hadn't picked it for its specialty. When your muffler falls off, it's a case (as the sailors would say) of any port in a storm. It was nearest.
And, as it turned out, best - though I could not have known that when, stepping into a repair bay strewn with tires, disemboweled tractors, and sundry chunks of lawn mower, I met David. For a moment I thought he had blundered straight into a Gulf ad. His startlingly blue eyes looked out of a handsome, youthful face, under a blow-dried shock of blond hair. His shirt (it was the end of a muggy, warm day) was impeccably pressed, his cool blue trousers unspotted. On his feet, unacquainted with lubricating grease and still as clean as the day they were sent for, was a pair of brown leather boots. One expected him to pick up a silver wrench, turn his profile to camera, and wave to a Lincoln convertible disappearing into the sunset.
But he didn't. He listened patiently as I explained the need for something - even some wire - that might help correct our unmuffled state. Then he politely asked if he could see to another customer who had been waiting, told me to bring the van around into the garage through the tall back door, and turned to an employee. ''Ralph,'' he said, ''could you see if you might wire up this gentleman's muffler?'' It was the height of courtesy, an almost textbook case of how to satisfy your customer.
As I say, you might have predicted David; but Ralph you never could have foreseen. He, too, was young, probably not long out of trade school, and of the same modest stature as his boss. There the physical resemblance ended. Ralph's shirt was a veritable impasto of grease splotches, and his trousers of some indefinable color midway between soot and old boiled beans. As he directed my efforts to squeeze our vehicle into the service bay, his hair bounced helplessly and sprawled across his sweaty forehead.
I climbed down and leaned against a nearby workbench, and Ralph took a creeper - one of those wooden trays on low wheels - and slid under the chassis. In a moment he was back, looking a bit puzzled. There was nothing, apparently, to attach wires to, no way to hang the muffler back into position.
Now, I don't wish to cast rude aspersions on urban mechanics, nor to compare them unfavorably with their rural counterparts. But the fact is that some of Ralph's big-city brothers in grease would have called it a day at that point. It was hot. They would have been tired. And the problem would have seemed so unusual as to justify capitulation.