It's that time of year when I venture to places other than growers' markets and cyberspace to purchase goods -- buying gifts that get wrapped and bowed and lovingly placed under a lighted tree in my abode. Now, I appreciate that for some people, shopping is its own reward, but for me, shopping takes away from other pleasures (like hiking mountain trails or reading about whales), and is not something I eagerly anticipate.
While I was bustling around town filling the coffers of Albuquerque's merchants, it got cold enough that I figured I had better fix my car heater, which gave up the ghost over Thanksgiving weekend. This being Albuquerque, and yours truly being a heat-jonesing creature of habit who ventures out when the day's temperature is highest, the radiant solar heat during the midday had heretofore been sufficient that I had forgotten the need for an artificially heated car cabin. (Until the temperature dropped below freezing during daytime hours!)
My neighbor had suggested to me that I check out the place where he gets his vehicles worked on, and so off I went to the far northeast heights to Affordable Tires & Service. It was easy to find, with the red and white signage apropos for the season standing out against the backdrop of a snow-covered mountains. (Little did I know that this hint of the season would foreshadow my afternoon.)
I dropped off my horseless carriage and jaywalked across the street to a chain bagel store that makes puffy buns with holes in the middle. Sorry, but these don't taste much like any bagel I've ever known -- and I once worked in a bagel factory. (Do they even boil them, is the question I always have afterwards, and if so, for how long?)
After some time, I saw that the auto shop had called, but not texted, and I walked over to get the message. When you are deaf, life involves a number of extra steps. Hearing people could have stayed in the warm confines of the cafe, sipping their coffee while talking to the mechanic on their phones, but the need to speechread means that I require face-to-face communication. In this age of text neck the need for face-to-face communication can be an advantage; I certainly think of it in this way!
José, the shop owner, greeted me with a gap-toothed smile that lit up his face.
"I could sell you brakes," he noted, "but you don't need them!" Holding his hand out with thumb and forefinger extended a couple of inches apart, "You have this much left -- it'll be a while before you need to replace the brakes. I cleaned them out, and you're good to go once we flush the radiator and replace the thermostat."
"I don't need brakes? But the guy at [shop name redacted] told me that I did, and that it would be dangerous not to replace them now."
"No, no brakes are needed. They're just fine."
"The joys of being a clueless woman," I sighed. "I had a feeling something might be wrong when the guy at the other shop pushed so hard for the immediate need for service, plus the discrepancy between my understanding of how long the brakes should last and how many miles it had been."
We spoke for a little bit about the need for businesses to meet expenses and how in some places, that need for cash gets traded off against the desire to conduct one's business ethically.
At this point, a young family of four entered the shop. Dad was wearing shorts and a blanket draped over his shoulders; mom was clad in black jeans and a matching lightweight hoodie. The children, one a toddler, the other preschool age, were bundled up against the elements in puffy jackets, this being one of the coldest days of the month. They moved like Michelin man offspring, limbs akimbo.
The father asked about the tire price they'd been quoted over the phone -- for two SUV tires that would help them get to where they were going. He mentioned that they'd left Louisiana that morning, and were headed west to visit family. From the concern etched on his wife's face, I could tell that money was tight.
José confirmed the cost, and called one of his workers out to replace the tires. The father walked outside, still draped in the blanket. His snowsuited toddler son tailed after him, holding one end of the blanket he was wearing in his chubby fist, and together they watched the old tires get pulled off and the new ones go on.
The mother stayed inside, sharing a cookie with the preschooler as they read a book. (These were homemade Christmas cookies brought in earlier by a grateful customer.) I smiled at them both from across the room, and returned to reading "Moby Dick".
Once the new tires were installed, the mother shepherded the children back to the vehicle, the younger one having wandered in since apparently cookies trump pneumatic tools when the temperature is in the twenties outside. As mama secured her kiddos in their car seats, papa came inside to pay the bill, thanking Jose profusely as he did so. Curious, I lifted my eyes from the page where Melville was waxing on about cetacean taxonomy and causing my attention to wane and eyvesdropped. (That's the speechreading version of eavesdropped.)
It seems that the family was 160 miles away from Albuquerque when the tire blew. Dad changed out the spare, but they knew that wouldn't get them where they were headed. So they had called around to the nearest towns, and the quoted prices for tires was much higher than they could afford -- except for Affordable Tires, which was charging about half what they'd been quoted at other places. They turned around and headed to Albuquerque, to do otherwise "would mean the difference between having to choose between food or a motel."
It was then that I saw a twinkle in José's eye, as he waved off the father's words of gratitude, bidding them safe travels and a Merry Christmas, as the father walked out the door.
"Did you make any money on that sale?" I enquired.
"A little. Not much. When I found out they had kids..." he trailed off.
I was beginning to see why José's customers showed up with homemade goods.
"I work with people, you know? They tell me what they have and I try to work with them. Yeah, I have a shop to run, with bills and workers to pay, but I make it work. People need to get by, and good customer service is how I keep my business going. I have people coming here all the way from the west side because I'm honest and don't take advantage."
Just then his worker drove up with my heated car.
I paid my bill, and drove off, thinking that Santa Claus doesn't always have a white beard and red suit. Sometimes he shows up with grease-blackened hands and a plaid wool coat, but the twinkle in his eye always gives him away.
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"