Window Shopping

SCOTT JOHNSON LEANS round the corner of a cinder-block building to peer at the wrecks in back. Abandoned grain elevators loom behind him, and up and down the street ratty signs advertise businesses devoted to spent industry. "I guess this is it," he says, opening the metal door to the office at Atlas Auto Parts near downtown St. Paul. I follow, his assistant on this adventure in thrift. Inside the air is thick with the aroma of old grease. Veteran parts, marked with smeared manila tags, line the walls. Scott moves up to a counter littered with Taco Bell wrappers and makes eye contact with the heavy man behind it.

"Don't look at me," the man says. "I'm just sitting here admiring the scenery." He repeats the remark twice, thinking it's funny. Two other men sit on tall stools behind a counter to the left, both holding grimy phones. All three wear hats and beards; Scott is bareheaded and clean shaven. One of the men hangs up, swivels, and walks into the back room. The other finishes and looks at Scott, who starts with, "Hello, how're you doing today?" Brian--according to the patch on his shirt--says, "OK," but doesn't sound it. Scott goes ahead and explains he's looking for a window for a '90 Audi 200.

"All right," Brian says, "our yard guy'll be back in a minute."

"We'd just as soon get it ourselves," Scott says, "if that's OK."

Brian points at the back wall. "Go into the yard, take a left, 10th car on the right, three cars in." The phone rings and he picks it up.

We step out a side door and into a morass of mud and wrecks. Close to the building, parts are gathered by type: a pile of steering columns, a pickup bed full of doors, a hillock of engines. The cars beyond are stacked two high, reaching back 100 yards to a tall fence. A yellow forklift rushes by with a dead car cradled in its two flat arms. The ground is a black pomade, oil-soaked and strewn with car bits--a chunk of grill, a torn rubber hose, a strip of faux chrome.

Scott, in white running shoes, pauses on the tiny oasis of a smashed hubcap and scans the nightmare landscape. "Oh man," he says, "this is so cool."

One recent evening after work he climbed behind the wheel of his white Audi station wagon and right off noticed a draft against his right cheek. He looked to the right and saw the big hole where the window had been. His daughter's car seat was full of safety glass. In the dark he reached for the stereo and came up with handful of wires. Bang, the $400 CD player, gone.

A yard worker strides past us, then stops abruptly when he spots a young Latino atop a Jeep Cherokee. "Hey, man," he yells at him, "don't fuckin' walk on the hood. That's a perfectly good hood." The cars are packed bumper-to-bumper, and the man on the Jeep gestures toward a blocked-in Hyundai he's trying to get to. "That don't make no difference," the yard guy says, "you're fucking wrecking shit."

The man looks a little confused, but slides off the vehicle on his butt. The yard man, white and bearded like the other employees, grunts with disgust and walks off.

Scott spots a minivan with both air bags hanging limp from the dash. "You could do something with them," he says, pointing. The yard worker has begun taking a grill off a Honda a few cars away. Scott walks over and asks if he can remove an air bag.

"What the hell would you want that for?" the guy asks. Scott says something about how it looks like a useful bag, a unique item, and the man looks at him like he's an asshole. "You'll have to ask 'em up front."

"Oh, well, I guess I'll just leave it alone for now then," Scott says.

"Yeah," the guy agrees with a derisive snort. "I think that'd be a good idea." He turns back to his work.

We find the Audi, but the window's missing. Luckily there's another Audi, a brown one, new on the lot and still fully intact.

Brian, who hadn't mentioned the second Audi, is out in the yard watching the forklift operator rip up a Toyota. He answers questions in short, reluctant bursts. "We get in between three and 10 cars a day," he says. "Don't buy older than '85... payment starts at $35, goes up from there... car might be gone in a day, might sit here six years... goes to the crusher"--he jerks a thumb up the street--"when there's nothing left to sell."

"Some people've been shopping on Sunday lately," he says, warming a little, "coming right over the fence. We haven't caught 'em yet, but we will." What about dogs? "Can't use 'em," he answers. "Insurance. They don't want somebody getting chewed up." He looks a little wistful.

Inside the brown Audi, Scott is giddy with anticipation, pleased to be the first. He removes a dozen parts, the door piece-by-piece from the inside, wielding wrench and screwdriver. A light snow begins to fall, collecting on the dirty cars. Finally the window comes free from the car. The door hangs in a shambles and can no longer be closed.

In the office Brian is back behind the counter. He puts down a bean burrito and asks, "What was the quote?"--a test question to see if Scott had called ahead.

He had and answers "$25," then says, "How much for this?" He holds up a driver's-side sun visor removed from the first Audi.

"Take it," Brian says, without looking up from the receipt he's writing. Scott looks at me and raises his eyebrows, gesturing with the visor as if to say, "Check it out--free."

To Brian he says, "Thanks," and the word hangs in the air, accompanied only by the fast scribbling sound of pen on paper.

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