Support your local junkie,” read the bumper sticker.
“Ahh, Marion, do you have to?” said the police in Barrio Logan.
The junkie is Marion Martinez, part-owner of Mini Truck Dismantling Center, what used to be called a junkyard, and the bumper stickers had been an advertising gimmick. Mini Truck primarily specializes in Toyota and Nissan trucks, but just about any other small truck can be found in the seeming hodgepodge of twisted metal and banged-up examples of hundreds of people’s bad luck that fills Mini Truck’s back lot.
But from the front, on the 1700 block of Newton Avenue, Mini Truck doesn’t look like a junkyard, despite the razor wire and half dozen signs. Leaning over the 12-foot corrugated metal fence are ten 30-foot eucalyptuses, while on either side of the entrance to the office are two tall Mexican palms that Marion planted back in 1960. And on the fence itself is painted an underwater seascape with octopuses, jellyfish, whales, porpoises, sea turtles, and dozens of oversized tropical fish.
The reason for the trees and mural is what’s across the street — Perkins Elementary School.
“We went out and planted all these eucalyptuses,” says Marion, “so the kids wouldn’t have to look over here and see a yard full of junk. I thought they might enjoy it. Then I hired a dozen taggers from a local halfway house to do the mural and I supplied the paint. Now I’m getting ready to paint the fence again. I’ll turn it over to the kids. Let them do what they want. They can paint their houses. No matter how primitive.”
In the same way Mini Truck has a classy look for a junkyard, so is Marion equally stylish — a good-looking blond in her early 60s, carefully made up with lipstick, eye shadow, and long lavender nails that get a little chipped by the end of the day. She has torch-singer eyes, and 30 years ago, she must have been striking.
“I had a girlfriend in the business who was over 200 pounds and falling out of her clothes, the typical stereotype,” she tells me. “Just because it’s a junkyard doesn’t mean we have to look like a junkyard, so I told Gina we had to wear makeup and dress well.”
Gina Martinez is Marion’s attractive 31-year-old daughter who works at Mini Truck as office manager. With blond-streaked hair and more makeup than her mother, she has Marion’s eyes. A second daughter, Robin Badilla, is 34, equally attractive and worked for her mother for seven years and still works for her off and on. She has just gotten back from vacationing in Hawaii and is full of good cheer. All three women are at the edge of sultry and seem dressed for some sort of celebration. But they don’t flirt, because Mini Truck is a serious business and they are serious businesswomen. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As I enter the office at Mini Truck, my first impression is one of chaos. Telephones are ringing; dogs are barking; people speak loudly in English and Spanish; from the yard comes the sound of banging and the whine of a power wrench; someone drops a chunk of metal on the floor; a man laughs.
Gina shouts into the yard, “Hey, is that a military jeep or a mail jeep?” Then she shouts into the telephone. “Do you want a free jeep, no motor, no transmission? No, I can’t send you a mail woman with it.”
The office is about 25 by 25 feet, half the floor is concrete and half plywood, the walls are dented paneling with shelving on two walls and pegboard on the others. There are shelves of fuel pumps, generators, boxes of mirrors, steering wheels; against the walls lean hubcaps, bumpers, grills, reconditioned transmissions, cylinder heads. Stuff hangs from the ceiling. To the left entering the door is another small office. To the right are five white containers with towels over them — we’ll come back to these. Two large rottweilers are lying on tattered yellow rugs in a rather flimsy pen. Occasionally they bark ferociously. One of the women calmly addresses remarks to them — “Oh, stop that. Cut it out, why don’t you.”
Near the dogs is a sign: “These dogs can reach the fence in three seconds. Can you?”
At the far side of the office is a plywood counter about ten feet long, four feet high, and three feet wide with two stools in front and two behind where Marion and Gina usually sit, or whoever is answering the phones. The counter is covered with phones, papers, Styrofoam cups, a Rolodex, cups full of old pens, a closed-circuit TV showing the yard, a jar of candy, endless bits and pieces. The front of the counter is covered with bumper stickers — “Keep Honking, I’m Reloading.” “All Cars Run On Used Parts.” “Just When You Think Life’s A Bitch, It Has Puppies.” “We Support Our Troops In The Gulf” — maybe 30 bumper stickers. On the wall behind the counter are tacked dozens of photographs, postcards, letters, pictures of movie actors, pictures of racing cars, calendars, a dozen trophies on shelves, receipts, pictures of dogs, a small statue of a rottweiler, and various small car parts hanging from the pegboard. On the floor behind the counter sleeps a 14-year-old rottweiler — more comatose than sleeping. Rottweilers are very popular here. To the left is a refrigerator, microwave, toaster oven, watercooler, a fan, piles of auto books, and several bags of oranges and avocados — “bribes,” Marion calls them, a gift from one of her customers, and at the end of the day she gives great handfuls to her three parts pullers who work in the yard. Although the office seems to contain 10,000 objects, what appears to be clutter is in fact a peculiar sort of order. Or at least anyone who works at Mini Truck can lay a hand on a part almost immediately.
“I’ve known that guy since Gina was six months old,” Marion is saying to a customer seated on one of the stools. “He’s a nice guy, but he drives you crazy. He painted the top of Robin’s Subaru gray and I took him out and showed it to him. The paint was all blistered and chipped. I said look at that and he said, ‘What do you expect? It’s almost one year old!’ ”