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 US$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 US$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 rollaway 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, New Jersey.
"I'm like an ambulance," said Luis Mares, 40, who installs rebuilt alternators for as little as US$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 ticket 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."
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 5pm, 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 US$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 1993 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 1970s. The mechanics came uninvited around the same time, like weeds in a garden. They formed a symbiotic relationship with the stores' employees.