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Driven to Exhaustion

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In 1991 Morry asked me and my wife if he could park his car in our yard. It wintered there among the snow and a variety of stunted brush and weeds. When spring came, the weeds surrounded the car and reached into the engine, choking it. Morry came for his car in May, but it didn't want to cooperate. He called a tow truck, and had a new transmission put in. Then he sold it to us for $100.

Morry came to the United States from Iran. He says he escaped during the night with a large wad of cash, some of which he had to pay in bribes. But he still had enough left over to become the proud owner-operator of a Chevy Caprice taxicab. He started making money right away, even though he didn't know his way around for the first few months.

"Here's the deal," Morry told us. "A cab can't be older than five years. I didn't want to trade it in for new cab. You know they're cheap assholes. They don't give you enough of a break. I got a used one instead. I know you need a car, so here, I'm going to sell you this one."

We owned a Toyota, but it had over 150,000 miles on it and the stick shift was broken. It was sitting in the yard, where my son and I had pushed it before a street cleaning. We clawed a parking space out of the weeds, and the car stayed there for the winter. When Morry offered us the taxicab, we couldn't refuse.

He told us that this car was his home when he first came here. "I didn't have enough money to rent a place," he said, "so I lived out of the car." He went on to explain how he learned the ins and outs of being a cabbie--how to find a rest room or a free shower, how to eat cheaply, and which places cater to cab drivers' appetites.

"After six months, I had enough money, so I rented a place to stay," he said. Morry obviously had a sentimental attachment to the car, but he said, "I believe in your family. I know you'll take care of it for me. I'll sell it to you for an even hundred. Is that OK?"

We wrote him a check, and he filled out the paperwork. A week later he was back. "How's the car doing?" he asked, and then he went into the yard where it was parked on a new bed of stone. He looked it over while we were busy cutting down weeds in the part of the yard we wanted to civilize. A half hour later he approached me and said, "It needs an oil change. I need to borrow the keys."

And so began our relationship with Morry and the car. He came by at least twice a month to fuss to my wife about my not checking the oil every three weeks. He took it personally when other problems started to crop up. He'd ask my wife for the keys to the car, and then take it somewhere to be fixed. I began to see it as the best $100 investment I'd ever made.

"Don't you think we should pay him something for his troubles?" my wife and I took turns asking each other. But each time we offered, Morry refused the money. He acted like it was an insult. After a few months we stopped offering.

Our $100 Chevy passed the 300,000-mile mark, and we hadn't put a dime into it for nearly three years. But winter was fast approaching, and we knew the car needed to be winterized. My wife and I decided it was time to declare our independence and claim the responsibilities of ownership. When Morry stopped by, we told him firmly but politely that we no longer needed his assistance. The car was, after all, ours, and we would take care of it. He still asked for the keys so his mechanic could give it a once-over. "And when did you last change the oil?" Morry demanded from me as he looked directly at my wife.

We didn't hand over the keys. Instead we explained again that it was time for us to take care of the car. Thank you very much, but we really want to do it ourselves.

He left shortly thereafter with his head bowed to the ground like a four-year-old whose puppy has just been taken away.

That winter was the worst one in the last ten years, and the car decided to fall apart. First the windshield wipers stopped working. I was turning the corner at Rogers and Clark in the pouring rain when it happened. I couldn't see a thing. I pulled over and pushed the wipers back and forth a few times. They started moving on their own, but over the next few weeks I found myself having to do this again and again. When the first blizzard hit, the wipers refused to rise to the occasion.

A week later, the engine died ten miles from home. It was cold outside, but I walked to a gas station a block away. It cost $50 to tow the car one block. I asked the mechanic not to fix the windshield-wiper motor. He said that was OK with him, but the car did need a tune-up and a new alternator--but the price he quoted was too high, so we agreed only to the tune-up. It cost $182.

Later that evening I bought a refurbished alternator for 50 bucks and put it in the trunk. The next day the car broke down on the way to my wife's dance class. We pushed it into a no-parking zone. I asked a StreetWise vendor if he'd help me install the alternator for $25.

"Sure," he said. "Let me just go over here to my car and get my tools. I'm a mechanic by trade, you know. I just do this StreetWise thing when business is slow."

When we finished, the car still wouldn't start. He pulled his car up and gave me a jump, but the battery was dead. I paid him a little extra, thanked him for his help, and stayed with the car until my wife returned from her class. Then we purchased a battery for $89, and my wife sent me to the hardware store for a socket wrench kit. She taught me how to use it, and I installed the new battery.

But after we got home the car refused to start. The engine would only turn over after it was jumped. I purchased jumper cables for $12, and found a mechanic who told me he'd fix the car right away. "Fifty dollars," he told me. I pulled out my checkbook. "Cash only."

I had to go home for the money, but the mechanic had already fixed it by the time I returned.

"You crossed the alternator wires," he informed me.

Days later the front wheel made a strange noise, and the car leaned to the side. A tow truck took it to a mechanic who--thankfully--was open late Sunday evenings. Something was wrong with the joints in the wheelbase, he said. The axle needed work, too.

An hour later, he was finished. He also wouldn't take a check, but said, "I think I can trust you. I'll hold the check till next Saturday, and then you can bring me the cash."

That next Saturday the car started making a strange sound. I had to bring cash to the mechanic anyway, so once I got to the station I told him something was wrong. He took the car for a drive. Moments later he brought it into the garage and climbed underneath it. The tire rods were broken and the brakes shot. When he removed the wheels, he showed me a shiny plate and said if I didn't replace it, the brakes would go bad every two to three months. By this time, I didn't want to pay for any more work to the car. I wanted to cut my losses. After all, it only cost $100.

"Listen," the mechanic said, "it's a Chevy, one of the best ever made. If I fix it, you'll have about 50,000 more miles to go."

He fixed more than he had to--throwing in free tire rods because I paid him the $150 on time.

Two weeks later I was crossing Ridge on a green light when a car ran the red and broadsided me. My front end was hit hard, denting the metal and pushing it against the wheel. The other driver didn't have a license plate, and there was no indication, like an orange identification sticker on the windshield, that he had just bought the car. He jumped out, threw back down the hood that had popped open on impact, and somehow drove the smoking, leaking wreck out of there.

I thought about calling for an ambulance--I bumped my head, and it really hurt--but instead I drove home with the tire rubbing against the metal at every turn.

I called my doctor and told his answering service that I was going to the emergency room.

"Why?" my doctor asked when he called back seconds later.

I told him about the accident.

"Are you unconscious?" he asked.

"No," I answered, "I'm talking to you."

"Are you dead then?"

"What?"

"How'd you get home? Are you dizzy? Are you vomiting? Can you walk?" He sounded like a machine. "Take two aspirin and call me later. But don't lay down. Walk around for an hour."

The next morning a friend and I sledgehammered the side panel back away from the wheel. When we drove through Chicago's potholed streets, the metal didn't touch the wheel at all. Success, and it didn't cost me a cent. The mechanic told me he could fix it like new for $700. I passed.

On the Outer Drive the next day, the car began shaking when I reached 50. A week later the shaking began at 45. When it began shaking at 40, I decided I better get it fixed. Then there was a loud bang. I slowed to 30. The banging slowed. I exited the expressway and drove to work on side streets.

It took me two hours to get from the south side to the north side. Later the mechanic told me I needed two new back tires. But the front end of the car had been hit, I told him. How did the back tires get involved? The mechanic didn't know. "Fifty dollars," he said. "Cash."

Morry came by the other day after a long absence. But he didn't ask about the car. He said he was thinking about maybe returning to Iran. Then he got into his new taxi and drove off. How he missed the dent from the accident, I do not know.

Now the muffler is making noise, and everyone tells me it will cost at least $200 to fix. I went under the car and saw a gaping hole. I'm looking for someone who can slip a metal collar around the opening.

I think it's time to talk to my wife about Morry. We really should think about his feelings. After all, I'm sure he wouldn't mind visiting his first home in America one last time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.

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