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!’ ”
There is a steady stream of gringo and Hispanic, white and black, sentences in English and Spanish, a constant naming of body parts — “A Bronco II rear end,” “A T100 is way too hard to find,” “Does she know her ratio?” “Do you have a ’91 D50 clutch pedal?” “Ah, alternators, I’ve got plenty of.” “Gina, an ’86 Ford harmonic balancer?”
A bearded young man with a cold is standing at the counter looking depressed. Marion says, “The truck is such a late model that it would have to be almost annihilated to wind up in a junkyard. Did you try Toyota Truck? You did? You might have to buy new. Sorry.” She gives the young man a Sudafed, then asks Gina, “Where’s the Advil?”
A Hispanic man with a heavy accent tentatively approaches the counter and asks Gina, “You still have that mean dog?”
“Sure do,” says Gina, with her sultry smile. “It’s right behind the counter.”
The man looks and sees only the sleeping antique rottweiler.
“That’s not the same dog.”
Gina jabs her thumb toward a shelf above her. “He’s right there in that box.” The ashes of three of their past rottweilers are kept in three small fancy boxes — two of the cremated remains are the grandparents of the two dogs in the flimsy cage.
The man looks thoughtfully at the three boxes, and I can’t tell if he’s encouraged or discouraged.
“We’re all kind of dog crazy,” Gina tells me. “Robin has rottweilers. I’ve got a shepherd and a chow at home. The chow’s so smart — he takes my money off the table and carries it out to the back yard.”
Gina holds out a large plate of sweet rolls to me. “Mom makes these in the morning. You might have noticed that everyone’s a little chunky around here.”
A young man who looks like a student asks Marion to find him a part. “You wouldn’t want me to get grease all over my fingers, would you?” she asks him. She calls one of the parts pullers.
Out in the back lot the chaos of the office seems increased a thousandfold with hundreds of trucks in various states of disintegration, like turkey carcasses lined up and in heaps on the days following Thanksgiving. Some are only shells making their way to the scrap pile. On the heavy shelving is a tidy row of many colored doors above hunks of transmissions, cylinder heads, all the heavy pieces. A yellow forklift winds its way along makeshift paths. Near the exit from the office an oil-streaked driveway leads to the alley with trucks on either side, but far back in the yard it’s a jungle of metal.
Marion shows me around. “Our business here is we buy what people don’t want anymore and try to convert it into parts that somebody else might need for the same vehicle. It used to be a really lucrative business, and in some ways it still is, but it costs you about three times more than it did 25 years ago. I’ve been doing this since 1961, and I started in this very place, working for someone else, and it’s been my own place since 1987. The man who had it found he was ill so he sold me some of his equipment and said it was up to me to renegotiate the lease with the lady that owns the property, which I did. We get the trucks from the insurance auctions and sometimes we buy them off the street. Someone will call and say I just had an accident and I don’t have insurance and want someone to pick it up. Often one of the three of us will go out and look at it and give him an idea of what we’ll pay for it.”
Marion points to a dark red ’89 Toyota truck that appears to have been wrapped partly around a tree. “We just bought this yesterday. The fellow didn’t have insurance. And you can see it was a pretty nice truck until he got in trouble. That’s definitely totaled. First of all what we do is bring it in and let it sit here while all the paperwork clears. Seventy-two hours at least. Now, my dmv girl just came and took the paperwork, so now I can start parting it out. The dmv girl is actually bonded to work as kind of a liaison between me and dmv, because obviously I can’t run this business and run to dmv every day too. So I pay her, she comes in and I pay her by the piece. She works for a lot of places. She takes the paperwork and does whatever’s necessary and gets it turned into a junk title and enters it in my logbook so we all know its history and where we got it from.
“So after this truck is cleared, well, then supposing I sell the bed and the door and the seat and the motor, if the motor made it — which we don’t know, see how hard it’s hit right there? We’ve got to get the front cut off and see if the motor is salvageable. And once all the parts are sold out of it, then it goes to scrap — and for us that’s psi — and you’ll see a couple of bins back there. Now it used to be lucrative because scrap used to be up to, like, $40–50 a ton. Well, now it’s down to about $14, so it’s not worth it to them, so I have to pay them to take it. But it will go back up again and then they’ll take it for nothing.
“So for this particular Toyota we paid $1000. Well, the motor would go for about $700 and the transmission for about $300 — so that gets my money back. And then the profit — and then you have to figure something for overhead too — and then the wheels and tires are decent, they’ll go for good money; the bed will go for maybe $300 because it’s damaged on one side. Somebody might buy the top of the cab for 200 bucks. The dash is pretty ripped apart, I don’t see anything off of that. Even the door panels — they go for $25. This back glass will go for — well, it’s kind of bent — if it was in good shape it’d go for around $35. Tripling your money is pretty rare, but, yeah, it could happen. More like double. But if we make double, that’s a hundred percent profit. I don’t know of any business in the world that you can make a hundred percent profit.
“I was about 25 when I got into this business. I was really interested in sports cars. That’s all we bought when we first opened up. I worked up here for a body shop, and every once in a while we’d get some rare sports car, and the parts to fix it were so high that the person who owned it didn’t want to bother. So I told my boss, ‘Gee, why don’t we rent a little lot and store all these cars they don’t want and then the next one that comes in, we’ll have a part for it.’ And we did and pretty soon we had the yard filled up, this yard right here, and I said why don’t we open it up and sell parts. The first month that I opened it, we did $3000 and he said, ‘You know, I probably lost that much by not having you at the body shop.’ And I said, ‘Come on, let me try just one more month.’ Well, the following month we did $30,000. So he closed the body shop. Because back in the ’60s, $30,000 a month was a lot of money. I don’t think we did a dollar under that for the next ten years. Now our gross sales at Mini Truck are about $60,000 a month. Actually, I stopped working for him in 1973, and I came back here in 1980. In between I worked for someone else in the business, several other yards.
“When I bought it from him in ’87, he was still into sports cars. I was living in Alpine. Gina would ride in with me sometimes and I knew I was going to buy this place and I said to her, ‘Okay, you count all the little trucks, like Toyotas and Datsuns, and I’ll count all the sports cars.’ Well, the trucks way outnumbered them. And I said I think light trucks are going to be the next demand.
“I was born right here in San Diego and went to Helix High School. I didn’t know a thing about cars, didn’t even know how to change oil or where to put the oil. Right now I could take apart a Toyota truck if I had to. I’d rather not. I’m still not into getting that filthy, but occasionally I have to pull small parts. And I do know my parts. When they walk in the door with a part in their hand, most of the time I know what it goes to. That takes experience, it takes years of experience.”
Marion gets called away by a phone call. She never appears to hurry, no matter how busy it becomes; nor does she ever seem any less than good-natured. Although on another day, I heard her say, “I never had a day that bad. I thought I’d throw myself off a cliff.”
And her daughter Robin grinned and said, “She threatens to throw herself off a cliff every Christmas when business gets bad.”
This afternoon, however, I roam through the yard in the company of half a dozen prospective buyers, men who wander around, picking up pieces of metal, looking at them thoughtfully, then putting them down again. A few other men are leaning over the hoods of cars, and several others are pounding pieces of metal.
The three parts pullers are Hispanic and wear ragged black T-shirts with Mini Truck printed across the front and back in Day-Glo orange along with the picture of an all-terrain fighting mini truck. The oldest parts puller is Luis, who could be 50, but the grease seems to have permeated his skin so it is hard to tell, and he never stands still — craggy, small, wiry with a mustache and long sideburns — he’s always walking fast, slightly bent over. Even when he’s standing still, he seems in a hurry in his blue coveralls and gray, greasy cap. A dirty red rag hangs from each of his back pockets. When he came to Mini Truck in 1987, it was only part-time because he was working at a restaurant as a waiter and a cook, and what he really wanted was to be a waiter. Actually, he hurries around the yard somewhat like a waiter hurrying from table to table. In Mexico, before coming to the States, he had been a circus acrobat and juggler.
“Luis has never taken a day off,” Marion told me. “Never. Even the day he got married, he only took an hour off for lunch.”
At the moment, Luis is with another man in overalls — a customer — who is pointing under the hood of a bashed Mazda, saying, “¡Basura, basura!” Trash, trash.
Luis is adamantly shaking his head, with a touch of indignation. “No, no, es muy barato.” Meaning that the part can be fixed cheaply.
The two other parts pullers have been at Mini Truck a much shorter time. Blas, or Freddie, is in his 30s and is round-cheeked, unshaven, mustached, and his black-framed sunglasses are perched on the visor of his baseball cap and an orange rag hangs down from the back. A thin gold earring sparkles in his left ear and he has the beginnings of a substantial belly. His is quiet, somber, and wears steel-toed shoes with the steel cups showing through as he walks slowly from one side of the yard to the other.
Blas’s speed or lack of it is often a source of irritation to the third parts puller, Eddie, or Edgar Garcia, whom I hear saying to one of the partners, “Push him a little faster, will you?” on a particularly busy day. Eddie is 30, handsome with a curly black ponytail, a mustache, a thick goatee, and a gold chain. He is clearly very smart and articulate, but troubles in his past have left him with a lot of anger, so his moods seem to range from scorn to a slow smolder, and there seems little sweetness within him, as if he had sand chaffing beneath his skin.
At any point in the day these three men are pulling parts for customers or are in the office or are helping unload new wrecks from a tow truck in the back alley. Years ago in haunting used bookstores, I had been amazed at how the employees would know exactly where a book was in the jumble of boxes, shelves, different rooms, and different floors; and I find that it is no different at Mini Truck. Each of the seven people who work here has a mental inventory and a map of where everything is despite the jumble, and what one may not know — just where is that ’86 Ford harmonic balancer? — another does.
Shortly, I meet one of the other partners, Mike Wolfe, a 45-year-old stock car racer who has known Marion since he was a teenager and whose mother is one of her best friends. Wolfe lives in El Cajon. He is red-faced with close-set blue eyes and sandy hair. He’s about five foot ten and likes to wear loud racing T-shirts and caps with names of race drivers and vehicles in Day-Glo. Wolf is proud, a little vain, and fast in his movements, actions, and speech, which sometimes causes a problem, because he has been accused of talking faster than he thinks and getting himself in trouble. But, others assure me, he’s getting better. Wolfe has a six-year-old son, Mikey, who is the treasure of his life and who races high-performance bikes, going to highly competitive races with his father several times a month. Wolfe’s main job at Mini Truck is to supply the yard with wrecked trucks.
“Where do I buy the trucks?” says Mike Wolfe. “Years ago, the insurance companies themselves used to sell to the dismantlers and dealers only. Well, this big company up in L.A. called iaa [Insurance Automobile Auctions] started buying up wrecks from the different insurance companies. They’ve got about 50 places around the country, and another auction place, co-part, has another 50. iaa has an auction here every Monday morning. Nowadays they also sell to the public. They have a big auction here. They charge you $25 to get in, a $100 buyer’s fee, then $15 to load your wreck onto your truck, then a $20 storage fee after the second day, then I’ve got to pay $175 a year to have a bidder number. But the trouble is that this ’89 Toyota truck that I got yesterday for $1000 would go at the auction for $1500 to $2000. And I’ll give you three reasons why. One reason, you’ve got competition. Second, you’ve got thieves doing what they call the vin switch — you’ve heard of the vin switch? These thieves will buy a truck wrecked real hard. Then they go steal a truck just like it. Now they cut the frame number out and take the door tag off of here and the one off of here. The vin, or vehicle identification number, has a nine-digit code. See, it has a rivet on there — it’s a special rivet. You can’t make new rivets. This has got a sticker on here. You pull it off, it’ll screw it all up. So what they do, they laser it out and they weld this piece on the other truck. And now they also have all these other parts from the wrecked truck to sell to people. So they’ve got the other stolen truck that’s perfect, never been wrecked, with these little part numbers on it, identification numbers, which you can register. And they got the rest of this wrecked truck to sell. And now they’ve just got an $8000 truck for $2000. These guys make millions of dollars a year. By opening up the auction to everyone, it also lets in these thieves and you’ll see them there buying these hard-wrecked cars, late models for more money than they’re worth, and they’ll go steal another just like it. Also places like iaa are pushing out the smaller auction companies and they’re gambling on the thieves for their profit, but they want the dismantlers to take the trashy stuff no one wants. But they pretend to be everybody’s friend.
“But these days the cops in San Diego County have something called rat Patrol, a bunch of cops from different departments and agencies with special funding and they have undercover guys who go to auctions, there’re probably two or three at every sale, I don’t know who they are, and they’re watching, but the sad thing about it is they won’t bust the thieves on one or two cars. They want to get them for over a hundred cars. They want to make a big bust. So you and your friends who have lost your cars, you’re out of luck.”
“The third reason that stuff is more expensive at the auctions is that you’ve got guys from used-car lots and body shops. Like this ’89 Toyota, there’s no way to be fixed. It needs a whole new frame — thousands of dollars of parts, and even if it could be fixed it’s not worth much. But a body man in Tijuana makes $8 a day, in San Diego he makes between $100 and $200, and in an Asian shop he might make $50. So imagine you got this Toyota in Tijuana and you got four or five guys working on it for $40 a day. They can do a hell of a lot of work. It won’t be perfect, but they can beat everything out. They can pull it and hammer on it. And they can drive it down there. So that’s another thing I’m competing against. You got United States customers, you got the guys that steal, and you got the Mexican labor. This Toyota would never be right, but they need a lot of cars down there. And it can be sold on either side of the border. It’ll have a salvage title. It’ll say ‘salvage’ right across the pink slip — that means it’s been in a major wreck or was a major strip. People don’t care. I drive a salvage-title truck, my wife does, a lot of my friends do. All it means is the insurance company totaled it. I’ve got a friend in Denver, when they have a hailstorm, he buys a whole used-car lot — all the cars have is dents in them and broken glass everywhere. All totaled. He makes a lot of money.
“But this here Toyota, what’s really weird about ’89 and newer Toyota trucks, two-wheel drive, 98 percent don’t come with power steering. I’ve got a customer who’s willing to pay 400 bucks just for the power steering. So the whole thing is about a minimum of $2000, but we’ve got overhead. We’ve got to figure the rent and everything else, the forklift and paying the workers, and I got to deliver parts. All this stuff adds up. Years ago, you sold the motor and you broke even. Now that’s only $700. If you had to buy the computer, which is under the dash, that’s $800 for the computer. Nowadays the motor’s not the expensive thing, it’s the stuff around the motor, like what you have to have for smog. I’ve been working on mini trucks for over 25 years. I’ve been a mechanic my whole life. I’ve always liked mini trucks, and I’ve always liked big trucks. I’ve lived here most of my life. My dad came here in the Navy when I was 5 years old. In high school I took all the carpentry classes; I wanted to be a carpenter. I got out and I had a delivery truck on Mt. Helix, and in six months I wore out the brakes and tires. The mechanics wanted a million dollars to fix my truck. So I took a college class in ’74 and learned how to fix it myself. They’d wanted a 100 bucks to fix my truck, and I did it all for $20 in an hour. So I thought a mechanic’s the way to go. I went to school and learned a lot about cars and how to fix them the right way and everything. In the ’80s I worked for Chevrolet, but I kept working on my little Nissan truck, then I started working in a Nissan shop and then I came over here. You need to work on one thing and stay with that one thing. And that’s why we done so decent over the years, because we have one product — Japanese and mini trucks. Toyota is what we like the most because it’s a good product and there’re so many out there and they can’t last forever and everybody tears them up. Actually, August is one of our best months. It’s so hot. People are blowing their heads all over town. It goes Toyota, then Nissan, then Mazda, then Isuzu. What’s really funny is all these companies that have their fleet of trucks. They’ll have Toyotas and they’ll tear up the trannie. And then they’ll be complaining. We got a friend, he said, ‘I’m getting rid of my Toyotas, I got a whole new deal at Chevrolet.’ So he bought the S10. For like the first two years he was happy. He got the 60,000 miles on it, but after the warranty was over, man, they were falling apart worse than the Toyota ever did. He got rid of them all, now he’s back with Toyotas.”
Each day trucks are delivered to Mini Truck. Some come from other small auctions, some from dealers that Mike Wolfe engages. Every three or four months the ins has a sealed-bid auction for United States dismantlers for vehicles seized in the smuggling of illegal aliens. Because the ins wants to make sure smugglers don’t buy the car or truck and put it back on the road, the buyer has to sign an agreement to dismantle it completely and sell the vehicle piece by piece.
Mike Wolfe also buys a lot of trucks in sealed-bid auctions in Utah, Idaho, and Montana. “This Toyota T100 came from Montana two weeks ago. I have a guy from Washington who brings them back for $500. He has lumber and other stuff and he goes up and down the West Coast. He’s just an old guy I’ve known for years. I used to go a lot in my old truck, but now I’ve got a kid and I can’t travel that much. But I used to go once a month and I’d buy the latest trucks for parts, but around here everybody buys the late ones for paperwork. That’s what they’re called here, the hard wrecks. Then they’ll go steal a truck just like it, like I was saying. That Honda Passport I bought in Utah for $1600, and down here it’d go for $2400 to $4000. I’m buying it for parts so I go where there’s no thieves. You know, it’s funny, right? I go to Montana to the auction about once a year now and the old guys will crawl underneath the car and measure everything, get their book out, tell you what the car is worth, then bid on it. Out here there’s guys don’t even know what to bid, they just bid on the car until they buy it. And the trucks from up there always come with a jack, tool kit, and radio and have less miles on them.”
Wolfe, as I learn, is someone with a lot of suspicions and he hurries to conclusions. Even though his suspicions may turn out to be correct, he often suspects a gimmick or scam and he has a deep belief in the world’s instability. It is one of the reasons he is quick to judge and tends to intolerance, and it must keep him on edge and uncomfortably watchful. Only his love for his son seems unconditional. Marion, on the other hand, seems just the opposite. It strikes her as too difficult to be suspicious, too difficult not to be truthful. She seems naturally generous and likes people. Forty-some years ago she was married to a cop in Riverside and was herself briefly a cop, but she says she wasn’t any good at it. “I had too much empathy to be a cop.” Frequently she found herself siding with the people arrested.
Behind the counter there tends to be a lot of good-natured haggling. Marion normally lowers the price. When she doesn’t want to go any lower, she will usually say, cheerfully, “Then go someplace else,” or, as she tells me, “When I have trouble saying no to a person, I just call in Mike Wolfe.
“I tell my customers,” says Marion, “if you buy it and hate it, you can always bring it back. There’s something all businesses have to contend with. It’s called buyer’s remorse. I’ll always give them their money back, but usually they needed the part in the first place and usually you can show them that they still need it.”
On the other hand, Mike Wolfe wants to be fair-minded. “Body shops and wrecking yards are increasingly squeezed by environmental laws, but we haven’t raised our prices in ten years. The people coming to our place don’t have a lot of money. You don’t see a lot of doctors and lawyers at Mini Truck unless they’re buying something for their kid.”
“It’s a balance,” says Robin. “They balance each other out.”
When I go back into the office, Robin is cleaning up. She owes her mother some money and is paying it off by doing the cleaning, which is more or less for my benefit.
“Amazing,” says Marion, “I never thought I’d see that corner again. Look at this Mazda fuel pump!”
“Anyone want these tapes or shall I throw them out?” asks Robin. “None of them are any good.”
There is a steady stream of customers. The dogs bark. I again notice the five large flat plastic containers by the door, like dishpans. Each is filled to the top with candy, which customers keep sneaking.
“Hey,” says Marion, “just one each.”
“Look at this,” says Robin, “my best sweatpants and new Hawaiian sweatshirt all dirty.”
Marion tells me, “Robin is a party girl and Gina is just the opposite.”
Mike Wolfe sells a cylinder head to a man who has to take it to a machine shop to be worked on. Wolfe takes a metal stamp with the letters MT and a small sledgehammer. He stamps the letters into the cylinder head, which starts the dogs barking.
“Sometimes the machine shop likes to keep the good head,” Wolfe says, “and give the customer back a bad one, saying it’s no good. Then, the customer brings the bad one back to Mini Truck. The stamp protects both them and us.”
Gina, who has just reappeared from the small office, adds, “We have to stamp the transmission cases as well. I hate it when some automotive place gets ahold of some unsuspecting single woman and cheats her.” Then she looks into the trash barrel and says indignantly, “I can’t believe Robin threw out my tapes.”
For a few minutes I have been noticing kids at the front door of the office — a few kids around 12 or 13, then some little ones — nursery-school age. The big kids give the little kids candy from the white plastic dishpans. This is the beginning of the weekly Friday onslaught, and it is why Marion is known throughout Barrio Logan as the Candy Lady.
Every Friday afternoon when Perkins Elementary School lets out, up to 500 kids in a semiorderly rush cross the street, fall into line with minimal pushing and shoving along the sidewalk and up the steps to the Mini Truck office, get their hands stamped with the word “candy,” then come face-to-face with the teenager who is balancing the dishpan of candy on a stool by the door who gives each kid a handful of jawbreakers, Snickers bars, Milky Ways, Mounds bars, Baby Ruths, lollipops, Kit-Kats, whatever. Then the kids descend the other side to see what they have been given. And sometimes they don’t like it. Sometimes they have three Mounds bars when what they really wanted was three Snickers, so they go back up and tap the big kid on the arm and say, “Hey, hey…” And the big kid makes the exchange.
Two other big kids are down below picking up candy wrappers off the sidewalk. The whole business costs Marion several hundred dollars a week and she has been doing it for years, so that kids who once came in their teens are now showing up with their own little kids — the Candy Lady.
Marion’s husband, Mike Moon, the third of the three partners, goes out into the street with a large “Stop/Slow” sign to take care of the traffic. Wearing blue coveralls and dark glasses, he is a tall, thin man, a youthful 60 with swept-back gray hair and melancholy eyes. Sometimes he reminds me of a country-western singer and sometimes of Abe Lincoln. He attended San Diego State but had to drop out as a senior because he had a family and was holding down three jobs. During Vietnam, he joined the Navy, worked as a medic, and studied emergency medicine. Before coming to Mini Truck in 1987, he had been a route driver for the Evening Tribune and didn’t like it. “Deadlines, I hated deadlines,” he says. He and Marion have been married since 1996, though they have been together for 20 years.
“We’re very different,” Marion had told me. “That’s probably what makes it work. He’s very much of a homebody, doesn’t like to go out, but if I make a mistake, he always stands behind me.”
I talk to Moon as he watches the traffic. Just to the south is the high curve of the Coronado Bridge. “If I was going to go back into something else, like in another life — it would be medicine, because that’s what I did in the military. But not as a doctor because they catch hell for everything. I’d volunteered for Vietnam, but I had one too many schools under my belt and they said they wanted me here in San Diego to help patch guys up when they came back.”
He is a quiet, thoughtful man, and at Mini Truck he is in charge of the back lot, oversees the parts pullers, sometimes pulls parts himself, drives the forklift, unloads the recently arrived wrecked cars, and also works behind the counter in the office.
“I’m not in charge of anything here,” Moon tells me, “I’m a co-owner. Before I came here I was a paperboy. I didn’t know anything. You pick it up. Some of it’s real easy; some of it’s real technical. After they whip you often enough with a windshield wiper, you learn to know what a part looks like. Some people can’t relate to how a nut and bolt go together. For some people it’s natural. Most people are in-between. For me it was natural. Every day someone comes in and asks for something that I don’t know what it is, but they’re usually calling it by the wrong name, especially if it’s a smog part.”
In his blue coveralls and holding his sign and standing so still, Moon looks vaguely like the statue of liberty. He doesn’t shout at the kids, just makes remarks to them, telling them not to run and to cross at the corner where a teacher from the school is waiting. A number of parents are waiting, partly anxious, partly proud. Despite how eager the several hundred kids are for a candy fix, they are surprisingly well behaved — patient and not too noisy.
Marion stands up by the dishpan, replacing it with another when it gets empty, speaking to the kids as they go by, sometimes by name. The great majority of the kids are Hispanic.
“I always tell them, ‘Brush your teeth,’ ” she says.
Despite her Spanish surname — Martinez — her background is Irish, and she has the pale Northern skin, blue eyes, and blond hair. “I kept the name Martinez, because Gina wanted me to have the same last name that she did. Actually, her father has now changed his name to Avila.
“It took years before my Hispanic customers really trusted me. It probably took about 15 before I finally built up a rapport with them. It took that long for them to realize I could take their money and if something was wrong I would either give it back or make it right. My Spanish is fair. And it’s even got to the point now where some of my Hispanic customers won’t shop anywhere else. If they need a part and I don’t have it, then I have to call some other place and get it for them, or if they need something from the dealer, I have to go get it. They won’t go anywhere else. They only trust me. In the earlier days, my Hispanic customers came in and would go straight out to the parts pullers, who’re Hispanic. They wouldn’t deal with me at all. But now with my Spanish, instead just of understanding what they’re saying, I’m able to talk back. That helps a lot. Some of these guys, you got to realize, their dads were my customers. So this is like a family thing. Now their kids come. Their dads call and say, ‘I’m sending my son down, please take care of him.’ On the other hand, I still get men that call and say, ‘Can I speak to a man that knows something?’ ” Marion laughs. “I just say sure. It doesn’t matter to me. And you know what? You’d be surprised how many women mechanics come in here and buy parts for their own and all their friends’ cars.”
As the candy is handed out, Marion occasionally takes an older kid’s hand and checks his tattoo, then she ruffles his hair or pats his back. “Before we had the stamp, we kept running out,” she says. “Kids would go around the block and change their hats and jackets. The little kids like the stamp as much as the candy and sometimes we’ll forget to stamp their hands and they’ll cry. So we’ll change the stamp in the summer — use a giraffe or a lion. They’ll like that better than just candy.’
“Ten years ago Barrio Logan wasn’t a safe place after dark. It used to be much more dangerous. It’s come up a lot. Every year or so the police and men from the city and businessmen meet with people in the community to see what they can do to improve things. They make a lot of plans but, really, nothing ever happens. It’s just for show. Oh, they may put up a new stop sign or pick up the garbage more regularly for a while, but that’s it.”
When the mob of kids starts thinning out, I walk down to the teacher on the corner, hoping to find some controversy — all the cavities and pimples that the candy might cause, etc.
“A little candy on a Friday afternoon, what’s the harm?” she says. “How could you not like it? Every kid in Barrio Logan knows the Candy Lady.”
Back in the office, I ask Marion if she does other things for the community, like the candy. Gina points to some of the trophies and speaks of a local soccer team that Marion sponsors.
But not all the trophies come from local teams, Marion adds. “The wrecking yards play against each other, and our trophies are in volleyball, baseball, and tug-of-war — so these are our trophies too.”
There are 77 wrecking yards in the San Diego County Auto Recyclers Association, as well as more that aren’t in the association. The group sponsors picnics and other gatherings. It’s a pleasing image — a parts pullers’ tug-of-war, several hundred rottweilers from all the junkyards goose-stepping in military formation, hep-two-three-fouring with their deep awe-inspiring barks.
Outside, Marion has a fourth rottweiler that she keeps locked up in a run — the dog she calls “the mean one.”
“Once I tried to keep him behind the counter,” she had told me. “First time a man walked in here and I was back there, and the dog just leaped right up on top of it. The man kind of froze. So I grabbed the dog shouting, No, no. He’s just not good with other people. He’s really good with us. He doesn’t like anyone else. He’s very good out there in the yard. Even with my huge dog — the one that’s up there in the little box — I used to get stuff missing all the time. Not with this one. He’s a psycho and I think they’re afraid of him. He’s got that look in his eye and you never know what he’s going to do. But my dogs have never bit anyone. None of them. But one time, one old man, he had an old ’72 Datsun, so his truck’s back there and he brings his own tools and I’ve always let him work on his own. One Monday he calls me and he goes, very quietly, ‘Can I come today and get my tools?’ This is an old man; he’s, like, 75 or 80. I go, ‘Well, sure, but what are your tools doing here?’ And it turns out he accidentally got locked up in the yard on Friday and we let the dog out. You wouldn’t think this guy could jump 3 feet, but we let out that crazy dog and the old man jumped that 12-foot fence with no trouble. It put that much of a scare into him. I felt terrible about it.”
Anyway, Gina is fishing out various notes thanking Marion for money she has contributed to a local youth center and other local programs — letters from a school thanking her for contributions for Halloween carnivals, a letter of thanks for $200 for books, thanks for a gift of $250 for toys for the Christmas party for the Mujer Program. Gina keeps looking. “We don’t keep them all,” she says.
“You heard about this community garden that was vandalized?” Marion asks. “Somebody went in there and pulled everything up. So we went over to the garden center and filled up our truck. They’re probably still planting the stuff.”
Robin tells me about a local girl for whom Marion paid for braces for her teeth.
“She could have been real pretty,” says Marion, “but her mother was an alcoholic and her father had had a stroke.”
Gina shows me a note from the girl and a picture of a pretty young woman. “Dear Marion: Just writing to say thanks for everything. I could never explain how nice you are to me. Here’s a picture of me in my baseball uniform. My teeth are natural and straight and beautiful thanks to you. I just need to get them whitened and I’ll be all set.” The girl had gotten the braces in 1997 and will graduate from high school in June. Across the back of the picture, the girl had written, “You won’t believe what happened — I pursed my lips and they closed.”
Robin holds her hand about a foot from her mouth. “She had teeth out to here.”
Mike Wolfe is arguing with a customer over by the door to the yard. He holds some greasy part in his hand — I don’t know what it is. Wolfe isn’t angry, just stubborn. The customer is angry and getting angrier. Maybe he is 25. He keeps saying, “Fifty bucks.” Wolfe says, “No, no,” then shrugs and says, “Try someplace else.” The customer leaves, unhappy. If the door were not already open, he would slam it.
Wolfe holds up the part for my inspection. “I don’t know if you know anything about airflow meters. We got a throttle body here and this is like a carburetor — it’s called an airflow meter. It’s electronic. Years ago this was a carburetor. Well, this is $650 new. Okay? A little spring breaks on it all the time. You can’t buy the spring. You got to buy the whole thing. Well, we sell them for $150 and they throw a fit. This is a specialized wrecking yard. Did she tell you that this is Nordstom?”
Marion joins us. “That’s what I tell my customers when they argue with me. They go, ‘That’s too much money!’ And I go, ‘This is Nordstrom’s Auto Wrecking!’ ”
I discover something very important in my visits to Mini Truck. If I am in the market for a new vehicle, I don’t read Consumer Reports or Road & Track. I don’t go to the dealers for a test drive. I don’t talk to my friends. I go to the dismantlers, the ones who see the vehicles and the end of their automotive careers.
“Each vehicle has its weakness,” Marion tells me, “its particular flaw, and that’s the part that everyone’s looking for. Like Isuzu — the truck and the Trooper — the common thing is the cylinder head, carburetor, and exhaust manifold. Those are the three things we get calls for every day. Today I got three different calls for an Isuzu exhaust manifold — in one day, that’s amazing. Toyota and Nissan don’t have quite the problems as the Isuzu and the Mazda. Mazda has cylinder head problems something terrible. And then all your Fords — Rangers, Aerostars, Explorers — terrible transmissions. The standard transmissions on them are awful. We even sell them for ’94, ’95, ’96, ’97 vehicles. Their transmissions are already gone. They’re made by Mazda and they’re awful. We got in a late-model Ford Explorer the other day and we sold the motor, trannie, and seats within 24 hours. So we make more money on Isuzu, Mazda, and Ford. We sell at least one Ford Ranger transmission a week, sometimes twice a week. And these Mitsubishis are terrible — very bad motors. Toyota and Nissan are probably the best mini trucks, but with Toyota and Nissan, it’s the motors that we make money on. But it isn’t because they aren’t good motors but because there’re so many of them out there and they have so many miles on them and we’re constantly called for 22R motors — that’s the Toyota — or the Nissan D24 motors. They’re a big seller.”
Out in the yard, Mike Moon drives the yellow forklift toward the back alley. This isn’t your normal forklift, because it can scoop several tons of wreckage off the back of a tow truck without a wobble and bring it inside before the local meter maid can rush up and give it a ticket.
“Our last ticket lady,” says Marion, “I once saw her parked at the curb with her boyfriend and her motor idling and they were smooching. So I honked and waved at her and she never gave me a ticket. But the new ticket lady has it in for me and gets us all the time when we leave a car in the alley.”
Mike Moon transports the wreck down the narrow drive as neatly as an egg on a spoon and sets it down in a narrow space. “My Mike,” Marion calls him, as opposed to “the Other Mike.”
Clearly in some of the trucks people have gone through the windshields, and in others the cabs are bashed so badly one wonders how the drivers could have survived. However, since the trucks come from middlemen it is rare that anything is known about the bad luck that got them into the yard. Yet something is sometimes known.
“I don’t even have to tell my guys when we have a truck where there’s been a fatality,” says Marion. “Nobody wants to work on them. Bad energy. We pull the outside things and leave the inside as long as we can — the seats and dash and radio. We had a Mazda covered with black stuff — we all knew it was blood. It eventually went to scrap. And there’s a ’93 Toyota back there in the corner with a blue rose on the seat. A boy was killed in it and his mother lost her sister in an accident just the day before. Really bad luck. No one wants to go near it.”
When Mike Moon finishes unloading the truck, I go over to talk to him some more. He walks slowly and pauses before he talks, then chooses his words carefully.
“Some people will get a part that doesn’t quite fit and they’ll adapt it so it works fine; some people will bring it back if it’s the wrong color. Even though I have a talent for this job, I’m nowhere as fast at it as Luis. I can’t even walk across the yard as fast as he can. A guy came in last night at twenty to five and wanted the head pulled off an engine that was still on a truck. That’s a long job and I wanted to say no. Luis went out there, got to work, and had it back in the office in ten minutes and still had time to wash his hands.
“After driving these trucks, you know which is good and which is bad. You know just by the smell. People come in and think they’re getting something cheap. Well, there’s a reason it’s cheap. We’re not hiding nothing. The guy who’s buying the Mazda — I told him, it has a bad motor. Well, he thinks he can fix it.
“I find it surprising being 60, but I’ve got no wish to retire. I can’t see just waking up in the morning, hanging around the house and moping. I don’t see any point in retiring. I like what I do. It’s companionable here. I’m not a literary person. I’m literate. I read for pleasure, but I’m not literary. I’m not good company for myself, waking up in the morning and hating the world when it’s my problem and not the world’s. I don’t like a high-stress job. I did that long enough when I had the delivery route for the paper.”
When Mike Moon and Mike Wolfe work together, they appear to get along, but there seems to be no closeness between them. Wolfe says, “He’s just putting in his time like all the rest of us.”
But I’m not sure that’s quite true. Mike Moon and Gina have been taking Spanish classes in order to talk to the Hispanic customers, which is more of a commitment than just putting in one’s time.
“I just need to work on my verbs now,” Moon told me, “and get a lot of practice, but that won’t be bad. Everyone around here speaks Spanish except us gringos.” And of Mike Wolfe he says, “He’s mellowing some.”
While we are talking in the yard, Moon keeps an eye out for his wife and shoos her back inside if she is not wearing a hat. Her light skin has made her susceptible to cancerous growths, and she has had to have a number burned off. As Marion walks by, Mike Moon says in his slow way, “Get out of the sun, my little vampire.”
“It’s companionable here,” Mike Moon had said. This also seems to be Gina’s reason for working for her mother. She lives in Clairemont with her 8-year-old son, Brendon, and started working at Mini Truck in 1989 when she was 20. At Mini Truck she takes care of the bookkeeping, manages the office, and often works on the counter.
“It’s funny, when my mom used to work here and I didn’t, I always would come down here and look at cars and see if there was anything I needed for my car, so maybe my interest in being here started with that. I used to work on my own car, just minor stuff, but I don’t do that now. But I pretty much know all the parts, though every once in a while I look at one and say, What’s that? I like working with my family, so I’ll probably stay here, but sometimes I think how hard I work and I think, gosh, could I do this for another 30 years? I don’t find it difficult working here as a woman, though a lot of my out-of-state calls will ask if they can talk to a man and I’ll tell them that I probably know more than most of the men here. Actually, I don’t, but anything I don’t know I’ll get one of the guys to help with.
“As for Mom, sometimes people think she’s tough, but I just laugh because that’s not true because she’s really not tough. Kevin from Snap-On tools said when she started down here 30 years ago she had to be tough because the men wouldn’t take her seriously. She was running a shop and she wanted people to work for her. She had to be tough or they weren’t going to work under her. And it did her good because they respected her. And they knew she knew what she was talking about. There’s a lot of customers come here that don’t have a lot of money, and sometimes when they need something she gives it to them for free, and maybe you’re not supposed to do that, but she does. I think a lot of customers take advantage of her sometimes, because they know they can talk her out of stuff and sometimes I just say, No, that’s it. Because they’ll sit here all day long and argue. What do they think, it’s a swap meet? Trying to talk me down and talk me down. And I don’t think you could do that anywhere else, I mean, maybe. It could be a more profitable business, but we warranty everything and take care of our customers. If our warranty’s out a couple of days, we still do it. If it’s out a couple of months, we work with them.”
On another morning, Marion and I go to an auction of about 40 wrecked cars and trucks at Star Towing. The owner, Star, is a tough, no-nonsense woman, and she eyes me with extreme suspicion until Marion says that I’m with her. Then she eyes me with only moderate suspicion. Star is in the process of arguing with a man who had bought a car for $200 but had not understood the rules and so he has lost both the car and his money. He wants to try his luck again, but she wants him to get the hell out. Marion tells me that Mike Wolfe had made the mistake of arguing with Star and she now thinks he is a “smart-ass” and doesn’t want him around. She has a thin husband who helps the auctioneer by cranking up the bidding when it gets a little slow and an attractive daughter who is running a sort of garage sale where Marion buys half a dozen battered gas cans (“I’m always needing gas cans”).
About a hundred men are inspecting the cars. Some are only good for parts, some are repairable, although, as Marion tells me, many of the small Hispanic garages will attempt to fix up wrecks that no one else would. Some of the men are dismantlers, some are from used-car lots, some are from body shops, some are private citizens, perhaps some, as Mike Wolfe claims, are thieves after the paperwork and vin numbers, perhaps some are undercover members of the rat Patrol. Men are laughing; I hear fragments of English and Spanish. It is hot and dusty. Star has sunbonnets available for the few women. Marion takes one. A red biplane advertising super deals at the strip mall across the street sputters and coughs above us.
The auctioneer goes from car to car. “You buy the car as it is and have to take the car by 5:00 p.m. today,” he says through his P.A. system. “Make $100 deposit. We make no claims at all. You buy it as it is.” Some of the cars are able to start, which seems to surprise everyone. “This one’s working,” says the auctioneer. “Listen to that, this one’s working.” He rattles out his words with his auctioneer’s trill, going back and forth between English and Spanish. He knows many of the buyers by name — Big Jim, Scottie, Arturo. “Got to go, got to go, just like checkers, your move, ten more dollars, gentlemen, would you like it for ten bucks, gotta go, 240, Big Jim. He’s got a baseball bat, don’t bid against him. Motivate your competition in the right direction. Ten dollars, last call, 260, for ten dollars, talk to me, Scottie, 270, 270, sold to Arturo for 260.”
The first car, a Ford Escort, goes for $165; the second, a Nissan Stanza, goes for $835 (Marion says, “It’s got a motor”).
Marion looks at the busted, wrecked, and beat-up trucks the way a millionaire buyer will look at a bit of horseflesh at the Saratoga Springs’ yearling auctions. A couple of Mazda trucks, a Suzuki Samurai, and a Toyota catch her eye. She greets many of the other buyers by name, engages in short, cheerful conversations, asks after their families.
“Some of these guys I’ve known for a long time,” she says. “That man over there, Paco, he won’t bid against me. At the beginning, he’ll ask me if there’s anything I like and he won’t bid against it, just out of respect. But it means if he starts bidding for something, I can’t bid against him either.”
As we near the Toyota truck, Marion gets more serious, thoughtful, slowly approaches the truck as if stalking it. The previous car, an ’86 Honda, had sold for $560. Star’s husband starts the truck.
Marion bids with a nod. The bidding starts slow, then when Marion bids a lot of guys jump in. “They’re so macho,” she says. “They can’t stand it when I bid. It just goes crazy.” The bidding gets much faster, louder, many men jump in, the truck goes for $560.
“I went up to $500 and that was enough,” she tells me. “Did you smell it? The motor’s going.”
The cars and trucks stand in moderately neat rows. There is a big sign: “Please do not open doors or hoods.” I ask about it, and the manager tells me they put up the sign because of the huge amount of theft.
“All these guys know each other,” he says, “they’re even friends, but they steal from each other all the time the moment a car is sold. They try to take the battery, distributor, radiator cap, anything they can get. Even the person who bought it can’t get in the vehicle until it’s taken from the lot.”
About ten minutes later, the manager kicks a man out for stealing sunglasses. “You see, it’s stupid stuff. He looks this way, then that, then he takes it. But after the glasses, it’s a radio, then something else.”
Marion gets the ’87 Samurai for $360. “I’ll pay up to $500 if they’re running, so that was cheap.”
She says she will get $300 for the transmission; $200 for the rear end; $100 for the drive shaft; $100 for the carburetor; $100 for the seats, etc.; $100 for the head; $100 for the motor, if it’s good; $100 for the bumpers; $100 for the wheels; $200 for the transfer case; and $200 to $300 for other miscellaneous stuff. Then she has to take out her buyer’s fee, transporting the Samurai to Mini Truck, and other overhead. A little later she gets the Mazda for $460; the other one goes to someone else for $725.
It’s been a pretty good morning. As we drive back to Mini Truck, she tells me about her son who is a cop up in Riverside County in the sheriff’s department, who worked for Marion when he was younger and whose father is also a cop; and of another son, Jeff, who has also worked for Mini Truck and still helps out. I comment about the number of husbands. Marion rolls her torch-singer eyes and says something about “men.” It’s a subject I decide to tiptoe away from.
One evening Marion invites me to the San Diego Auto Recyclers Association meeting at the Radisson, which begins with cocktails at 7:00, then a chicken and roast beef buffet. It is in one of those windowless hotel conference rooms, both classy and oppressive — round tables with seating for 100. A variety of venders and salesmen have come to talk about their products. Dismantlers have come from about 30 different yards. Some look like bankers, some like hoods, some like schoolteachers. Marion’s reddish blond hair is piled up and shines, gold flakes glitter on her lavender nails — she could be dressed for a reception at the White House. The meeting is chaired by the group’s president, Gretchen Mathison, owner of All G.M. and Escondido dismantling yards. She announces the upcoming convention (complete with dance and picnic), the trade show in July with seminars in hazardous shipping materials (for example, air bags can accidentally explode and this draws a huge fine), seminars on family businesses, and so on. She offers subscription forms to the California Dismantling Magazine. I realize every organization from the Ant-Squashing League to Penny Eaters Anonymous must have its conventions and trade shows.
Men have brought their wives. There is a certain amount of animosity between the dismantlers — people who will not sit with other people. Anglos who dislike dismantlers from the Middle East; gringo-Hispanic prejudices. This creates a delicate ballet. Marion says she has been censured for sitting with anyone. The venders are friendly to her, as are about half the dismantlers. Other snub her rather aggressively. She laughs it off.
“I had to be really kind of mean for a long time just to show people I could do it, just to be accepted in a man’s world,” she says. “Now people say how nice I am or how nice I’ve become and how mean I used to be. Life’s too short to be tough all the time. My mother was afraid of everything. She was a Mormon and my father was a sailor. She was timid, small, and the last of 12 children, and I always said I wouldn’t be afraid of anything, but sometimes I have to deliver some part to a rough place with five or six rough-looking guys, and for just a minute I feel afraid and I can’t hide it because my lower lip quivers.”
She spends some time discussing the price of health insurance and workman’s comp with other owners — what they pay, what they do — and wonders whether she would save money going someplace else. They discuss if business is up or down (“You been busy? Dead at my place too. It’s slow everywhere right now”). She discusses what parts she has for sale and hears what others have for sale. She hears who is sick, who has been injured, learns if anyone has died, and passes on whatever information she has herself. Salesmen give her trinkets — pens, key chains, little tools. She seems delighted. She talks about her lousy Jaguar sports car that had 32,000 miles that she finally unloaded for ten grand because it broke down all the time with a man who had a similar Jaguar that worked fine, except his was a 6-cylinder and hers was a 12.
She tells me about her ’90 Lotus with 40,000 miles that she hardly takes out of her garage except for smog inspection. She says she liked to drive after midnight “and blow it out, but now there’s too much traffic even after midnight.” I ask her about “blow it out” and she says she’d had it up to 130 miles per hour. I imagine her son, the cop, pulling her over for speeding. “Hi, Mom.”
The vendors give little talks on their products. One talks about the need for dismantlers to computerize their yards, to bar code all their parts so they can do their inventory with a laptop. Then Jerry from Environmental Service says how his company will pick up hazardous waste, oil, gas, antifreeze, and contaminated soil. A man from Pacific Steel says they buy car bodies and engine blocks. There is a heath-insurance broker, a man selling uniforms, a man selling solvents for cleaning the oil out of your hands. Each vender has brought something to raffle. The winning tickets are drawn. The lucky winners get a pair of Padre tickets, a box of chocolates, a T-shirt. During it all the dismantlers talk business — who is doing well and why, who is buying what cheap and how and where they got it.
Marion tells me how in the ’70s and ’80s she had become an expert in rare birds and would help the former curator of rare birds at the San Diego Zoo key out some odd bird that might fly in and need to be identified. After a while she had a private collection of her own of 150 species and subspecies. “I had read a lot about birds and I traveled to a lot of zoos — the Bronx Zoo, Colorado, Baltimore, Dallas, Miami, Seattle — and saw what they had, helped key out birds, and traded birds back and forth — red-leg honey creepers, Queen of Bavarias. It was more fun than anything else. There was no money in it. Finally I sold them all.”
Next Marion became interested in channeling, or perhaps it should be said that channeling seized her, which, after a dozen years, ended up in a book published in 1989 called The Survivor and dictated to her and two friends, Ruth and John, by a spirit entity by the name of Matthew. “There’s no money in that either,” says Marion.
Matthew spoke to them over a Ouija board. “My past lives were even more varied than yours,” he said. “I fought wars just as Genghis Khan did. I blessed souls as a high priest. I was a pirate and wore black. I showed black flags and blackened the eye of anyone who got in my way… I am trying to show you I was only human too… The last time I shared a physical life with you was at the time of Christ. In that lifetime I was called Matthew the Apostle.”
When I was 30 I spent many hours over a Ouija with two older friends whom I had known for ten years. We received extremely clear and long messages from six different people. They weren’t particularly interesting but they were detailed. The only thing to say about it with any certainty was that none of us were consciously faking it. I only mention this to indicate that it let me listen to Marion with less skepticism than I otherwise might have had.
In any case, Matthew had discussed at great length the hopeless corruption and decadence of our society and said how Mother Earth would destroy most of the country, cleansing it (Matthew supplied maps). “California will be particular hard hit. The cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego will be destroyed by earthquakes, tidal waves, and/or just fall into the ocean, but not all at the same time. San Diego will be the last to go. Mexico will also be destroyed.… There are three areas in Arizona which will be safe: Flagstaff, Sedona, and Prescott.… The whole state of Nebraska will survive but will not necessarily be a desirable place to reside after the disaster. Here, and especially in the Midwest, there will be many tornadoes and windstorms creating fury on the flatland.”
Matthew, as can be seen, had this figured out in some detail. The book took two years to complete, and afterward Marion, Ruth, and John drifted apart. Despite the imminent destruction of San Diego (actually the date has passed), Marion did nothing to prepare. I ask her about this.
“Those aren’t necessarily my ideas,” she says. “They’re Matthew’s. I have no idea where it came from.” In any case, she has stayed away from Ouija boards since that time.
One Monday morning, I go to an iaa junk-car auction with Mike Wolfe. The auction is held inside a gigantic building about 100 by 600 yards, constructed of corrugated metal and steel girders with a 30-foot ceiling, though only half the space is used, with about 400 busted cars lined up in rows and a row of motorcycles. I pay $25 to get in and get my hand stamped just like at the candy line at Mini Truck. By the sliding door where the forklifts haul out the goods are several hot dog and taco stands. There are several hundred men, half around the auctioneer, a quarter nearby, and a quarter scattered around. More than two-thirds seem Hispanic, 10 percent Asian, a few blacks. Only about a dozen are women. It is dusty and people sneeze.
Many of the vehicles are marked “Mexican Theft Recovery” with the warning “true mileage unknown.” The cars aren’t warrantied. They don’t start them up, as they did at Star Towing. They don’t wash them or do anything to them — the competition is too great.
The auctioneer stands in an oversized modified golf cart on a plywood platform under a blue canopy — a sort of chariot. Beneath him and in front sits the driver and a clerk with a catalog who takes the buyers’ ID numbers. The auctioneer is fiftyish with a gray mustache, goatee, gray hair, and tan baseball cap bracketed by the P.A. system headset. He wears a bright green, yellow, and red Hawaiian shirt with palm trees, yellow flowers, and woodies with surfboards on top. Behind his glasses, he has eyes like a red-tailed hawk. He says, “Beep, beep,” whenever he wants the cart to get moving and he never stops talking. Most cars sell in 15 seconds; in active bidding, the length of time might go up to 40 seconds.
Mike says the auctioneer gets between $3000 and $4000. “This guy’s been doing this about 20 years. He flies all over. You need a good auctioneer to make it go.”
Mike recognizes about ten other dismantlers and a number of small car dealers, then about a dozen men from body shops. Mike speaks to about a quarter, but not like Marion, not with warmth. They are more remarks than conversations, no backslapping.
He tells me that to make its money on a vehicle, the auction house has to get a certain price. If it doesn’t, then iaa auctions the vehicle again, maybe several more times. Or it ships the vehicle to another of its locations where that particular model might be more popular. Or it might give up and lose its money, but what they lose on one they make up on another.
The uglier stuff did better here in San Diego, he says, where it “went right across the border to Tijuana and into the cheapo body shops. The ritzier stuff goes up to L.A.”
Mike uses the phrase “bouncing off the wall” to refer to the practice of guys who work for the company bidding in order to force up the bid of legitimate customers.
According to him, the dismantlers themselves often force up the bid just out of spite. “The wrecking yards are an organization but they’re also in competition, so there can be a lot of bad feelings, and a lot of people can run each other up in an auction just out of bad feeling, and the auctioneer loves that.”
Mike Wolfe has an endless stream of stories about vin numbers and stolen cars going back and forth across the border. He describes how a thief often hires a crew with air tools, then picks out a new vehicle he likes that’s parked on the street. The crew totals the car in less than eight minutes by taking the wheels, interior, computer, radio, and air bag. Cops arrive in ten. The insurance company then sells the car at an auction and the thieves buy it back for $5000 and reassemble the car. They make millions. However, it also drives up the price of the cars at the auctions. This had changed quite a bit because of the rat Patrol. Ten years ago, 100 out of 400 cars at auction might be complete strips. Now there were only about 25. He has a kind of manic excitement when he describes this. He assures me there are undercover cops nearby right at that moment.
I sidle up to three cop-types to hear what they are talking about. They turn out to be used-car salesmen discussing the perfect mixture of alcohol and premium gas they need to use to get a bum car to pass smog inspection.
But Mike shows me half a dozen of what he calls “complete strips” — cars that someone could put back together again if he had the pieces. Then we look at an ’86 Toyota Celica all banged up with what appears to be big bites taken out of the steering wheel.
“This had a Club on here,” he tells me, “and they just cut it off. If they want your car, they’ll steal your car. A Toyota Celica used to be the number-one stolen car. Not anymore. Now it’s Honda. I wonder why they stole this Celica. Now there’s a big business in stealing air bags. You can get $100 for them. They’re hotter than radios.”
He points to a string of bashed-up motorcycles. “Russians and Eastern Europeans buy them for big money and ship them out of the country. They make a fortune on the parts. There’s lots of money to be made. It’s funny, if I had to do it all over again, I’d have a tow company. Really, there’s huge money in it. Now look at this Ford Explorer. It’s a ’98 and it’d cost $28,000 or $29,000 new or $23,000 used. With ten obvious problems, the insurance company would total it and send it to the auction, where it would normally go for about $10,000. But you see? It’s gone for $13,000. Thieves were after the vin. It’d cost ten grand to fix that here in San Diego; three grand in T.J., but it would never be right. In Mexico, they don’t care if it has a salvage title. In Montana, I could buy that for between $4000 and $6000. I don’t know who bought it, but to make a profit, he’s got to fix it with all stolen parts. The insurance companies hate the body shops — it’s cats and dogs. Any borderline total they send to the auction, which means less headache.”
Then Mike points out a badly wrecked ’93 Chevy truck that went for $900 but only has $900 worth of parts. “You couldn’t fix it anywhere. It’d be a good candidate for a vin switch. Maybe they have a similar truck in Mexico without papers. You see? A wrecking yard might pay $300 for it, but it went for $900.”
Mike says he usually buys one truck a week here. He’s interested in a Toyota truck. When he decides to bid, he leans resolutely back against the hood of the truck and folds his arms. He looks a little tight-lipped, anxious. He looks like someone who is showing that he can’t be fooled. When he bids, he lifts his program a few inches. His face grows redder. He is very serious. Five people are bidding. It drops down to three. Mike quits at $500. The truck goes for $700.
I am struck that the gigantic room is filled with hundreds of examples of people’s sudden bad luck and, on occasion, sudden death, lots of blown air bags looking like the discarded condoms of giants. Dream machines transformed into what Mike calls “hard rollovers.” There’s a beautiful black ’97 Mustang muscle car that someone had lovingly cared for and which had banged off several unforgiving big objects. One blown air bag, a windshield that someone had traveled through, and dried blood on the seats.
Mike buys a ’94 Ford Ranger for $725. “Our driver will come over tomorrow for $35 and pick it up.” The miscellaneous parts — $400; seats — $200; wheels — $400; motor — $300; trannie — $550. The profit might be a couple of hundred.
Driving back to Mini Truck, Mike tells me more about his son, Mikey. The high-performance bikes cost $2000 and weigh 10 1/2 pounds. Mikey races against kids his own age, but there are three different levels — novice, intermediate, and expert. He races locally about three or four times a week
“Once we went to a race up in Minnesota where all my relatives live who I haven’t seen for 30 years. My wife, Janet, she works in a pharmacy. She hates traveling, but I’ll go to races within 500 miles. She’s happy with Mike’s trophies. He’s got 25 of them. He’s amazing; he’s got no fear. I don’t know how she’ll be when he breaks an arm or a leg. I’ve raced stock cars for years — 600 sprint cars or mini-sprint with 600cc Honda motors, on a quarter-mile dirt track with 15 to 20 cars. All the cars run on Japanese motorcycle motors, which run up to 13,000 rpm. We get used motors at auctions because everybody crashes them. I got one guy to help me and we race about three weekends a month, but I’m selling the car at the end of the year to spend more time with Junior.”
I think how I’d like to go to some races with Mike. He’s been good company.
As we’re about to get off the freeway, Mike points to a late-model Ford truck. “See how it bends to the left? It’s been in a major wreck and wasn’t put back together right. Now he and his friends are going to sell it to someone and it will never run the way it should. The front end must be three inches off.”
The next morning I come by Mini Truck for a last visit. It’s about 11 o’clock. There is a lull in the office. The dogs are snoring. Marion’s sweet rolls are being passed around; cups of coffee are being poured. Then the tow truck arrives in the back alley with the ’94 Ford Ranger, which Mike Wolfe had bought the previous morning at iaa for $725. Mike Moon starts up the oversized forklift. It backs and turns and lurches, and soon the Ford Ranger is lifted up about eight feet off the ground. It is somewhat V-shaped, as when you take a beer can and bend it in half. The windshield is shattered; the hood’s a mess; the front bumper is just a squiggle. Bits of the underside dangle down like rusted ribbons. Marion comes out to look, then Mike Wolfe and Gina. Luis stops what he is doing, then the others. As the Ford Ranger wobbles on the forklift, they stare up at it with the proud expressions of a family looking at its newest addition.