In a throw-away culture, one more car saved

A Mainer's herculean quest to earn an inspection sticker.

Once a year, I set off on an odyssey – to find a garage that will give me a passing inspection on my glorious 1987 Dodge Raider (long may she wave). Needless to say, as the old girl grows increasingly creaky, finding a mechanic to give her the thumbs up for another year is becoming increasingly difficult.

I remember a time in Maine, not so long ago, when there were far more jalopies on the road, and a corresponding number of mechanics who helped to nurture them along by performing inspections that were little more than a wink and a nod. There was Skip in Old Town, for example, who was no spring chicken himself. He'd walk around the car at a leisurely pace, direct me to turn on the headlights and blinkers, and then ask if the horn worked. When I moved to honk, he'd wave me off, "No need to make a lot of noise," he'd say. "I'll take your word for it. That'll be six dollars."

An even more forgiving experience was to be had at the now defunct Penobscot Auto, a ramshackle garage fronting a junkyard. When I was a college student, I owned a 1973 Dodge Colt, complete with misfiring engine, cracked windshield, and rotting floorboards. With great trepidation, I once took it to Penobscot Auto and watched as a grease-streaked mechanic rolled out on a dolly from under a pickup. "Got time for an inspection?" I queried. The mechanic nicked his head toward the Colt. "You drive it here?"

I nodded tentatively. "That'll be six dollars," he said, and I drove off, good for another year.

It's not quite so simple and friendly anymore. The state has been cracking down, going so far as to send undercover agents posing as customers to garages. They've snagged quite a few who have been sloppy with inspections. The result is that a sort of paranoia has set in, and rather than the once-over, cars are being all but dismantled as mechanics strive to comply with the letter of the law governing the extent of inspections.

Which brings me back to my Raider. I recently brought her to my local mechanic who has served me well and faithfully for years now, and I sat in the waiting room as the inspection took place out in the bay. After 15 minutes, Tony emerged wearing an expression of deep sadness. "I'm sorry to have to tell you this," he said, clearly pained. "But I think it's time to cash her in."

I swallowed hard for both of us. "No," I said. "Not that."

"Oh, you can finish out the month with her," he said, "but then...." I gulped as he handed me a list of grievances against my vehicle: the frame, the body mounts, body rust, crummy rear bumper, rotting exhaust system.... "I'm sorry," he said again, clearly at a loss for words.

That night I tossed and turned in bed. What kind of a country was this? Did people actually just give up on cars and toss them away like yesterday's newspaper? By morning I had resolved to fight. Maine, for me, had always been a land of dreams and opportunities, of making do and getting by. Her woodlands harbored more wonders than a book of fairy tales, and that's where I began my search, driving the most remote back roads and stopping in general stores to ask about local mechanics.

I felt like Diogenes who had wandered the streets of Athens looking for an honest man. After only a day's labor, a fellow told me about someone in the woods named Kevin. "He's a genius," he said. "Been fixing cars since he was 14. If he can't help you, nobody can." I found Kevin's garage well off the beaten track. As I walked in, he threw me a cursory glance from under a pickup he had on the lift and then emitted a solitary syllable, "Yep?"

I told him my tale of woe while he continued to work. After I was done, an uneasy silence ensued. Then Kevin spoke in a deep, hoarse crackle. "Bring 'er in," he said as he lowered the pickup.

Five minutes later, the Raider was up in the air like an exhibit in a museum of curiosities. I shadowed Kevin as he slowly moved under the thing with a droplight in his hand, as if exploring a cave. Slush was melting from the body all around us, dripping onto the floor. Finally, Kevin heaved a breath and croaked, "Ain't nothing wrong with this frame. An' I'll take care of the body mounts, too, and everything else. Gimme three days."

I was walking on air. Three days later I picked up the Raider and it was like driving a new vehicle. I immediately headed to Tony's. He came out with his crew, slipped all about my rig as if appraising a prize heifer, and then shook his head. "Well," he said. "I apologize." Within five minutes, the Raider was sporting a shiny new inspection sticker, like a first-grader who had gotten a gold star for an assignment well done.

The things we do for love.

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