My twenty-two year old truck broke down in Portland recently and it got me thinking about my dad. We’re close and he’s never that far from my thoughts, but he comes up especially during breakdowns. It’s his voice I hear in my head, “Hmm, it’s turning over but not starting, so the battery’s probably fine…probably fuel, maybe spark…check for anything dripping, check the plug wires, distributor cap, coil…” He was never a professional mechanic, though once he told me he wished he had been. That was one of the two times he’d said something like that to me. “That’s real work,” he said. “Something’s broken and you fix it.” (The other time he talked about being a park ranger when we visited Crater Lake. “Imagine living in places like this all the time!”) He’s been a working musician, studio engineer, and commercial photographer since I was born. That’s real work too, of course, but having done some of it myself, now, I know what he was talking about. With aesthetic work, it can almost always be better, you can always fuss more over it, you’re never quite sure how much is enough to make the current client happy, and you don’t want them to just be happy. You want them out in the community raving about you and how you went the extra mile and how the project turned out so much better than they ever imagined. You want that both because it turns down the heat on having to constantly hustle for new clients, and because you want to be proud of your own work, and this is your work, making other peoples’ art look and sound as good as possible. For a mechanic, you just have the right tools, know your shit, put an ad in the yellow pages, fix the cars that come in, and do it right. There is much less room for fussing and second guessing. If it came down to it, though, I doubt my dad would change much about his past. He’s a craftsman and artist and thinker. He is, as my mom often says, a genius at fixing things, and he does like to get his hands dirty, but he prefers fixing sound systems and soldering broken music gear to working on cars, and he much prefers for things not to break at all, so he can concentrate on the mix or master he’s working on.

Another reason I was thinking about him when my truck broke down was because I had to call a tow truck. If I had been home, in Eugene or in Joshua Tree, I would have called a friend with a tow chain to get it home and tried to fix the thing myself. In Joshua Tree, that friend would have been my dad. It’s something of a family tradition. I’ve only owned used cars, so I’ve broken down with some regularity over the years, and I know for a fact that my dad has towed me over 200 miles because one of the ten or so times was from Bakersfield down to Joshua Tree, when I cracked my block on the I-5, on a trip down from Eugene. It’s been continually surprising how slowly my reliance on my dad has diminished over the decades—the price, I suppose, of having such a reliable dad. The thing is, I was never aware of him relying on his dad at all, and I’ve known him since he was a lot younger than I am. There has also been a continual recession of ‘living up’ to my dad. It’s not that I get any outside pressure to be like him—he has scrupulously avoided that. It’s that there are a bunch of ways that I just assumed I would be more like him by the time I was an adult. A small but salient example: Will it ever be that when I tie something down in the back of my truck that there is no chance it will fly out a mile down the road? I know it’s possible. When my dad ties things down, they stay down.

Maybe living up to your dad is a mind trip that every son lives with—that someone further along than you always looks invincible and unreachable in important ways. There were ways, though, that I reminded myself of my dad when I broke this last time. Unlike me, he would have known that the distributor had gone. In fact, he likely would have known as soon as the truck started faltering a little, a couple weeks ago, and fixed it then, probably with a distributor he’d had laying around the shop for years just in case this happened. But even though I was more confused, I did remain calm and fully engaged in my environment. This is one remarkable element of my dad’s personality that took me a while to appreciate: Wherever he is, that is where he is. I mean if he’s in the shop, returning the tow trailer after towing me home from Sacramento for seven hours, he’s not in a hurry and he’s really interested in the guy who rented him the trailer, and probably knows his name, where he lives, and a decent amount of his history before he leaves. And from that day on he will probably not only remember him, but refer to him as “my friend Jim, who owns the towing company down Fox Trail.” It’s been a source of some boredom and occasional consternation for me over the years, because a trip to town for some plywood and a drill bit is likely to take a couple hours. I would be lurking in the background on those trips (unless he drew me out, usually by bragging about me) and eventually saying some version of “Let’s go, Dad.”

I reminded myself a lot of my dad, in Portland. The mechanic I found was not through the phone book, but through the guy running the gas station where I broke down. The tow truck driver I found through the mechanic. When the driver arrived, I asked for his name and shook his hand. I called him Valentino when we talked. I asked him if he took his kids on jobs with him when I saw the baby seat in the cab. By the time I’d paid him for the job, not long after, I knew that his older son was eight and hated homework but was great at soccer, that Valentino supported him in soccer even though he was a basketball player, that his younger son was four and came on jobs with him because they didn’t have baby sitters, that he moved from LA to Portland 12 years ago because the gangs were not as bad there. My dad would have loved the mechanic he took me to. He was a giant white guy in his 50s named Vale, hands easily three times the size of mine, with thick, oil-encrusted nails and skin. Works seven days a week, all day. (Lucky for me—I broke down at 5:30 pm on Saturday.) His shop wasn’t one of those clean, spacious places with uniformed men and a receptionist. It was tiny and cluttered with tools and parts and books and rags and stuff, staffed by Vale and his partner, his son. His daughter is nineteen and apparently brilliant, studying psychology on scholarship at OSU. He diagnosed my truck out loud to me, with us both leaning over the engine compartment. “Well, it’s getting fuel… Looks like you replaced the cap and rotor recently… Start it up so I can check the distributor.” It was late in the day, Saturday, and it looked like he couldn’t get the part until Monday or maybe Wednesday, but he had it running perfectly for my by noon on Sunday for $300.

This is what my dad knew instinctively and I was proud to see come out in myself: The people that you meet and know aren’t just interesting. They are your source of information, adventures, and luck. They are your community. It doesn’t matter if they share your beliefs or aesthetics. It doesn’t matter much that they live in a different city. That you are at the same place at the same time means that you share something with them and it’s almost weird not to find out what that is. I get it. Thanks, Dad.

Dad, Me, Mom

Dad, Me, Mom

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