I don’t remember how I knew that the little aluminum capsule with two wires
protruding from the bottom was the reason my Peugeot wouldn’t run, but I
knew it. My guess is that the honest mechanic my father introduced me to
simply told me—maybe it had been a problem once before. At any rate I
had my suspicions. And I hoped that thing, that little tube of electrical
mystery, was the problem, because if it wasn’t, I was lost. So I unbolted it
from the side of the engine block and unplugged the fusible links, and
took it to an auto parts store on the edge of Richmond. Dealing with
motorheads behind the counter is always an adventure unto itself, but
these guys felt a special obligation to make the experience exceptionally
grueling for someone like me—someone with long hair, a full set of teeth
and a high school diploma. I knew it would be that way, but I wanted my
car to run so, I had to go in there.
When I showed the part to a young idiot, about my own age, at the
counter, he laughed a greasy, toothless laugh and said in deep Southern,
“Woll, what th’ hell’s that offen?”
I told him it was offen a Peugeot, and he laughed again.
“A Poo-joe? Woll, goddamn, what the hell’s a poo-joe?”
A big guy in overalls, tinkering with a carburetor on a work bench over in
the corner, shouted, “It’s one of them foreign cars!”
“Foreign car? Are you sure?”
“Yep. Foreign car of some sort,” he muttered without looking up from what
he was doing.
“What sort of foreign name is that? Poo-joe.”
“How the hell am I supposed to know, ask the hippie, it’s his fuckin’ car.”
“HIS car,” he said slyly, “You better take another look; I think it’s a HER.”
He looked at me, winked and grinned.
“But, it don’t matter,” he said, and leaned charmingly onto the counter top
with both elbows, hands pressed flat on either side of an idiotic grin. He
fixed me with his delight-filled, playful, crystal-clear blue eyes and said
matter-of-factly, “We don’t carry no parts for no foreign cars.” As an
afterthought he added the word, ‘hippie’. Then the fake charm, and the
sparkle in his eye vanished completely. It was replaced by a chilling,
“Well,” I said as if nothing unusual were happening—because this really
wasn’t anything new to me—“can you tell me where I might get this thing?”
He stood straight up, placed both palms on the countertop and leaned
across the surface toward me. “Woll, hell man, I don’t even know what that
is; how’m I supposed to tell you where you can get it?” He leaned there for
a while staring at me, saying nothing, grinning, and then, without turning,
said over his shoulder, “You know where this hippie here can get
something like this, Travis?”
“Christ Almighty!” said Travis and slammed his screw driver down on the
work bench. “What the hell is it?”
He stomped over to the counter and took the thing from me. “It’s a
capacitor,” he said and tossed it onto the counter, before returning to his
work at the work bench.
The other guy just kept grinning at me. “It’s a capacitor,” he repeated.
“For a foreign car,” he added. “We don’t carry no parts for no foreign
cars. I believe I have already told you that.” He leaned toward me and
sniffed the air, as if he smelled something bad. Then he grinned
He stayed fixed like that, grinning at me, until I picked up the part, turned,
and walked out the door.
Rather than go through that again I went over to Lilly’s place—where there
was a phone and called around until I got a lead on a place near D.C.
where they said they had the part, but would not ship it. In those days
credit cards were a thing of the future. So I decided to hitchhike up to the
town where the foreign car parts warehouse was located. I didn’t know
what other options I had since the train didn’t run within 20 miles of that
town and the bus ran late in the afternoon, twice a week. This was
something I had to get done. And I had to get it done in one day. If I
missed more than one day’s work at the cafeteria they’d soon find another
sullen idiot to dish up rubberized scrambled eggs.