The New York Times
December 19, 2004

A Bronx Curbside Whisper: 'Hey, Need a Tuneup?'

The men saunter up and down a littered block of Third Avenue in the Bronx, casting sidelong glances at passing cars. When the cars slow down, the men mouth silent promises of a cheap fix. When the drivers pull over, the men scan for cops before sliding up to the curb.

It is a singular hustle. There are no drugs or sex. Instead, the hoods of the cars fly open and the men get to work, pulling out greasy tools to perform every mechanical remedy from oil changes to hair-raising tuneups and axle replacements, right on the street.

In the vast underground of New York's economy, street mechanics hold a peculiar if utilitarian place. For people who balk at a $30 oil change, there is Country, a 41-year-old Virginia native who charges a third of that, jacking up his clients' cars as rush-hour traffic creeps by. In the expert hands of Chino and Heavy, a $200 brake job costs half as much, parts included.

On busy days, cars line Third Avenue like sick patients, propped up by metal jacks, worn-out tires flung to the side. The mechanics disappear underneath, their boots peeking out, their tools splayed on asphalt outside the neon blink of auto parts shops.

Sometimes ingenious, sometimes deceptive, they form a blue-collar rung in the city's freelance work ladder. They are mobile, carrying their tools in wheeled suitcases, on call around the clock by cellphone or pager. They draw clients from as far as Connecticut and Rhode Island. Some even wear uniforms, and the best ones travel on distant missions, reviving broken-down cars on roadsides from Boston to Atlantic City.

"I'm like an ambulance," said Luis Mares, 40, who installs rebuilt alternators for as little as $85. "Where there's trouble, I go."

The flourishing, although illegal, street business blends comical improvisation with corporate savvy. But as it does in any profession, the talent ranges. Some mechanics leave customers careering away brakeless. Many make a mess, with discarded oil and strewn parts. And hovering over them all is the constant threat of the police, who issue tickets to the men tirelessly, leading to hundreds of dollars in fines and repeated stays in jail. Yet week after week, the mechanics stubbornly return to the same street to eke out a living on their own terms.

"This is New York," said Country, who would give only his street name and who has been issued, he said, 42 summonses in the last two years. "If you're not on your feet, you're on your butt."

Street mechanics ply their trade all over the city. They can be found near Shea Stadium in Queens and around Pacific Street and Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. But perhaps nowhere are they more brazenly visible than on Third Avenue from East 161st to 163rd Streets, in the Melrose Commons section of the South Bronx.

On any given day, up to 15 mechanics work the street, competing for clients. Repairs begin after noon (the late hours are among the perks of the job) and pick up around 5 p.m., when customers leave their jobs and stop by for a new timing belt change or a brake adjustment. Paydays are the peak. Saturdays are prime: the best mechanics can pocket $400 in one day, saving clients the steeper prices charged by Pep Boys or Jiffy Lube.

"I can't afford to go to the shop," said Howard Dawson, 66, a retired Amtrak repairman who regularly takes his '93 Cadillac Fleetwood to the street. "One hand's got to wash the other."

The Third Avenue mechanics, like most workers, operate in a hierarchy.

At the top are the owners of the auto parts stores, who moved to the street starting in the early 1970's. The mechanics came uninvited around the same time, like weeds in a garden. They formed a symbiotic relationship with the stores' employees. The stores sell parts to customers who often need a mechanic to install them and the mechanics will send their clients to the stores.

"You help me and I'll help you," explained Humberto Ortiz, 56, a salesman at Ocampo Auto Electric on Third Avenue.

At the bottom of the ladder are the "helpers" - mechanics in training who earn much of their pay by luring clients. They, too, have street names that in the mores of the South Bronx are assigned more than chosen. There is Little Mexico, Dominica and Mouse. Not by coincidence, they share several traits: they are small in build, move quickly and seem to have an outsized view of their own mechanical abilities.

"Every time I see them doing something heavy, they look stuck in it," said Luis Martinez, who goes by Chino and is among the street's veterans.

Tales abound of jobs the helpers started and botched, only to be saved by the street's experts. But unlike other would-be street mechanics, whose bad reputations result in swift excommunication, these helpers have clung to their place on the street. They tend to live off small jobs, not always involving cars.

"I walk this dog for $2," said Little Mexico, stabbing two fingers in the air as a tiger-colored pit bull named Puppy yanked him away.

Some mechanics admit they work to support a drug habit. Others say they are "clean" and look upon their entrepreneurship as a career choice. Two Third Avenue mechanics - Pernell Dingle and Elliot Rodriguez - claim they graduated "Mechanic of the Year" from Alfred E. Smith High School, two decades ago. (An official at the school, Jeff Block, confirmed that both men got mostly A's. "Dingle owes us $8," he added, for an automotive encyclopedia he never returned.)

Chino, who has dozens of regular clients, takes his job especially seriously, arriving promptly at noon with a yellow plastic tool case. He wears one of his six navy blue uniforms, washed and pressed by his wife. "Who would you hire: a guy who looked like a bum or me?" he says.

One recent weekday, Mr. Martinez is swiftly dismantling the innards of a shiny black Lincoln Town Car to change the alternator. His hands maneuver expertly around the radiator tank, the power steering wheel tank, several hoses and the engine belt. (He learned the trade as a boy, taking apart engines in his backyard in the Soundview section of the Bronx.) Mr. Martinez's client watches closely and then instructs his gum-chewing girlfriend, who is seated behind the faux-fur covered wheel, to rev the engine.

The engine roars. A Betty Boop air freshener flutters from the rearview mirror. The job is almost done.

"I promised him more power," said Mr. Martinez, 40, who has worked on the street for a decade. "Now we'll check." The two men jump into the car and head off. Not only do clients get test drives, some get credit.

"I've got about $200 in the street right now," Mr. Martinez said.

He keeps a stack of his clients' business cards. One is a plumber, another a lawyer. Then there is the candy wholesaler whose fuel pump went bad on a trip to Boston. He paid Mr. Martinez $400 to fix it. Recruiters from auto repair shops visit the street from time to time, looking for potential hires, but Mr. Martinez is quick to rebuff them. He makes enough on his own, he says - about $40,000 a year.

"You walk into my house right now, you won't want to leave," said Mr. Martinez, who lives in a housing project a few blocks away. "Big-screen TV. Surround-sound system." He sends his stepdaughter to a Catholic school and vacations in Puerto Rico twice a year.

The only nuisance, he concedes, are the tickets and occasional trips to jail. Mr. Martinez has been locked up twice, for two days each time. Some mechanics pay their tickets as dutifully as other people pay taxes. Mr. Dingle, on the other hand, has not paid one of his more than 50 tickets and has been jailed 17 times.

"I tell them to put me in my regular cell," said Mr. Dingle, 44, as he stood on the street one early evening. "The cops know me by name." A few minutes later, a Chevy Impala with tinted windows slowly glided by.

"See that little black car?" said Country. "That's the captain. He's out scouting."

Street mechanics violate a number of city codes seemingly written with them in mind: on the street it is illegal to repair vehicles, remove vehicle parts or discard oil. Each violation can carry a fine of $100.

But fines were rare, the mechanics said, until 2000, when the 42nd Precinct made "quality of life" issues a sudden priority and the police began cracking down on the trade. It was a sign of new times: the South Bronx was transforming, block by block, amid sweeping plans for urban renewal.

These days, the police know the mechanics well. They know, for instance, that Frankie Rosado flashes his worn brown tool belt at passing cars the way a prostitute might lift her skirt.

"If I'm looking at a car, I'm guilty," said Mr. Rosado, 44.

One recent weekday, the security guards at the Bronx Criminal Courthouse on East 161st Street gave Mr. Rosado a familiar nod as he emptied his pockets: fuses, bulbs and screws. He navigated the building like he was walking through his own kitchen. He turned without looking, smiled at a guard who winked back, and approached a man sitting before a computer.

"When's my next court date?" he asked. With so many tickets, he had lost track. His latest offense, written up on a pink summons dated Sept. 29, was for "dismantling." The man behind the desk lifted a plump arm, "Monique" tattooed across it in curly letters, and clicked on a mouse.

"Somebody's always messing with you somewhere," said the man as he searched the Rosados on the screen. "Frankie C.?"

"That's my son," Mr. Rosado said.

Seconds later, the dates were found and Mr. Rosado took off in search of more work.

The street mechanic world is organic to South Bronx life, but like other underground trades, it is increasingly at odds with the borough's evolving self-image. The Melrose Commons area is awash in new development: stately town houses, a gleaming BP gas station, and a $250 million criminal courthouse close to completion. Even the three-block stretch where the mechanics work is destined to become part of a new $30 million campus for Boricua College.

The mechanics shrug it all off, doubtful that new buildings will extinguish the need for bargain car repairs. Some of their clients, they laugh, are off-duty police officers. One of them, Edward Sanchez, dropped by recently to have the alternator changed on his 1993 Nissan Maxima.

"For me, it's better if I see somebody working on the street than making problems, stealing in stores," said Mr. Sanchez, 29, who flashed his badge to prove he works as an auxiliary police officer. "Maybe it's not legal, but I give them credit. They're trying to survive."