I remember going to AutoZone on three separate occasions to look at washer fluid nozzle lights. Lots of things were brewing inside me, deep paradoxes and truths. Fantasy colliding with reality. My identity trying to claw itself away from my family of origin. My desire and temperance, form and function, all of these tensions and many more lived in those green-tinted washer nozzle lights.
My 1994 Toyota 5-speed 4-cylinder extended-cab pickup truck wasn’t appreciated for what it was in those years; it was seen only through the lens of what it couldn’t be. Only one company made a header for it, the air intake would need to be a Home Depot affair, and my muffler options were limited. While weighing my options at the local v8 speed shop, they told me “you put this on, and it’s gonna sound like a lawnmower”. As a 16-year-old, my finances were as hampered as my mechanical knowledge, but I couldn’t fight what was in me.
I have always wanted to turn wrenches, despite going to a private school and my father being a white-collar guy. My adolescence occurred during a period where knowledge and know-how had to be passionately sought and not casually gathered from behind a phone screen. My father, while not mechanically inclined, used the networking strengths he did have to find talented shade tree mechanics scattered throughout our town. They could fix anything and everything in exchange for cash money. A cornucopia of bleary-eyed rednecks who had the ability to install a starter on a Buick Regal while never taking a lit cigarette out of their mouth, or friendly Hispanics who shook your hand with palms of rough-hewn granite. I never wanted to miss a trip to meet one of his latest connections.
Those missions to get one of the family cars repaired were like stepping into the pages of one of my favorite fantasy books. Leaving the pristine hallways of my private school, driving to an area of town I didn’t know existed. Stepping onto a shop with a floor so dirty you could feel the filth through your penny loafers. Seeing these men drinking cheap beers and smoking. That, to me, felt like they were so comfortable in their own skin, so themselves. A dream I never vocalized but always had was to come to a place like that every day after school and clean their floors, collect their empties and maybe learn something about who the hell I was. I wanted to tap the resources of these mysterious men my father knew, But he wouldn’t open up his little black book of mechanical geniuses for anything other than fixing or preventive maintenance.
And so when I was of driving age, modifications were silly, and silently discouraged, but not outright banned. This left me with a matrix of trying to meet the needs of my wrenching desire with limited finances and a pittance of ability or confidence. Hungry for mods, I pored over catalogs, back pages of magazines, and dialed up the internet; the matrix relentlessly eliminated my options. I cruised the chrome and neon-washed aftermarket part aisles of Wal-Marts and auto parts stores, until I found myself studying the back packaging of washer fluid nozzle lights.
What hourly parts store clerk could have fathomed the storm inside of me? Could I even install them? What would they look like? Would my friends mock me? Would these somehow make women like me?
Luckily my heart won out over my mind that afternoon and the lights were purchased for $22.77. I rocketed across town, and with the help of a peer more confident than me, we wired them up and turned them on. I was too scared to actually cut wires or pull the old nozzles out. However, I enjoyed leaning over the hood of my truck and making this small change to it: I was making my mark.
It’s only through the lens of time that I have realized the deeper truth of those ricey hood lights. They were one of the first authentic steps towards a part of me that was truly me. They didn’t fit my family, my religion and definitely not my stuffy private school. It was a moment of me, answering the call of myself.
So while my tastes have changed, my resources have increased and my knowledge has deepened, I always hold my tongue when a young man shows me an air raid intake or an eBay muffler. Some could say he is ruining his car, but I always wonder if he’s trying to answer one of life’s hardest questions: Who the hell am I?