the only woman here. And I am in my coveralls. Well, my dad’s coveralls, which are three sizes too big and held together by a karabiner stretched between two distant belt loops. In my right hand is a perfectly organized metric toolkit, and in my left, a list of all the supplies I need. This is a filthy place, filled with grease and oil and rust. My hair is pulled back, in adherence to the warnings about a spinning belt and the possibility of decapitation. This is a place you can get hurt – a tetanus jungle of jagged metal and heavy objects stacked too high. A place where toxic fluids seep into the ground and electric wires spread shock-filled tentacles in your direction. This is not a playground… unless you’re somebody like me.
I am an auto scavenger, and this lot is filled with people like me. We either can’t afford to buy a new car or we just don’t want one. Some, like myself, drive old biodiesel Mercedes. Others are young guys who want to trick out their rides for cheap. Some are just looking for a new door after a late night hit and run. And a few are artists, in search of Cadillac bling and photographs of light reflected on chrome hubcaps. But no matter our reason for being here, we have all chosen the junkyard over the dealer and that is enough of a reason to nod our heads at each other and wave.
Most of the junkyards have moved outside of San Francisco in favor of
sprawling landscapes, but there are still a few on this seven by seven,
all in Bayview. Many of the streets down here dead end or turn into
parking lots, so it’s easy to get lost. But whenever I get turned
around, I just return to Bayshore Boulevard, run my greasy fingers
across the map and try again.
I see the same people at every stop – the tweaky academic who arrives on bicycle and pushes his ten-speed through the rubble. I wonder if he’s hoping to go home in a car. There’s the old white man with his younger Latina wife (the only other woman I meet at any yard). She speaks in Spanish and he answers her in English. He seems fluent, but maybe he doesn’t know the Spanish word for catalytic converter; I just learned it in English myself. There’s the group of nervous boys who are looking for a bumper for a Ford Explorer. My guess is they’re trying to fix the car before mom comes home. I’m crossing my fingers for them as much as I am for myself.
Tux, my yellow metal baby, needs a lot of love. I sometimes wonder why I still have her when all I do is move her once a week for street-cleaning, occasionally to Dogpatch Biofuels for a fill-up and once in a while to the Russian River for a weekend. But really it’s not about having a car; it’s about having a project. And this project has given me new confidence. I figure if I can fix a car, I can do anything.
My list of needs include: a new driver’s side lock, a hood latch, front seats to replace the ones with broken springs, a set of fuses, a brace to hold my battery in place so I don’t have to jiggle it to start the car, new dome lights so I can find my keys when I drop them and any other part that looks better than the one I have.
The first stop on my treasure hunt is All Cars & Trucks. Andrew runs
the joint and he has a love for all things metal. He calls me “Sweetie”
and Tux “a pretty old thing.” He seems too young for this
vernacular. But the junkyards are an old world fixture, filled with old
cars and old values and it seems fitting that a 35-year-old man would
be saying “darlin’” and “sweetie” down here.
Andrew doesn’t have anything I need because most of his vehicles are late model cash for clunkers and far too new for my baby. But he goes out of his way to try and find me parts, calling his buddies at the surrounding yards. I feel like I’m in a small town again where shop owners really care about their customers. And while I leave empty handed, I kill a good twenty minutes on the vintage Ms. Pacman machine in the lobby. It still costs a quarter. Everything in these yards is a fraction of the price.
Next on my list is ABC Auto. This is a salvager’s dream – filled to the
brim with parts and meticulously organized: doors on the right side,
grills in back, and my favorite, a statue of front and rear axels at
the entrance. It looks like the gate to the Dark Lord Sauron’s castle
in “Lord of the Rings” and I can’t help but feel a little like Frodo on
You need a guide to navigate your way through ABC and mine is a gentle man wearing steel-toed boots and gloves. I realize what a novice I look like in my coveralls, bare fingers and sneakers. We speak a mixture of Spanish and English to each other, gesturing more often than we use words. And even though he doesn’t work on commission, he seems genuinely interested in helping me find what I need.
The most promising car is a 1983 Mercedes stacked on top of a Ford. I look up at the tower of metal, wondering how I can possibly reach what I need. And then my guide brings me a ladder and prompts me to climb in. No one seems worried about my safety, which I find refreshing. Maybe there’s an unwritten rule that a salvager will never sue. I summit the cars, sit in the front seat and begin checking seat springs and taking out light bulbs. The two-by-fours that hold the car in place seem secure enough, but I want the flasher box, hidden beneath the shifter. I’ll have to put the car in neutral to get it out and risk lunging forward, off the precipice. I double check the emergency brake and nervously pull it from Park. No movement, but some other brave soul had gotten to the box before me.
I leave ABC with two floor rugs, a driver’s side door lock and a hood latch to replace the rope currently attached to my grill. All totaled, $10. Terry, who runs the place, takes my money. His family has owned ABC for 55 years and he plans to retire once he makes his first million; his brother and father in law already have. But before I leave, I have a game to play – next to Mortal Kombat and WWF Royal Rumble is Out Run, the game that throws the driver and his blonde companion out onto the road in a crash, a fitting game for this locale. As I leave, I see the Ford Explorer kids walk into the back room. Terry thinks he has a bumper for them and I’m praying he does.
My next stop is All Auto. There are no video games here, but there is a
bathroom, which I need more than Tetris at this point in the day. All
Auto’s been in business for 35 years and still relies entirely on a
trust-based system – no guides, a less organized inventory and an open
toolbox that you can use. It reminds me of the roadside fruit stands
with the jar of money on a shelf.
I head into the yard and the first thing I see is a 1986 Mercedes. Two rows down, a 1984 and both sides of the lot hold mid-90’s models. This is the Mercedes Mother Lode I have been looking for. I head right for the ‘84 wagon, knowing that she will yield the best results. And she does. From her body, I harvest a new flasher, a set of interior lights, a collection of newish fuses and two front seats.
Removing the seats proves to be more difficult than I imagined and even my manual offers little help. The sun is starting to set, I’m low blood sugar, my fingers are frozen and dirty and I can’t imagine how I’ll get this seat out of here. But then the older man with the Latina wife walks my way. He tells me he has a Mercedes just like this one. He says if I have the tools, he has the knowledge. So the two of us, clad in our coveralls, descend on the car like buzzards, ripping out hoses, seats, speakers and mirrors, and leaving the carcass behind.
I give the owner my money – less than 100 bucks for all of it – and return to Tux, who is patiently waiting for her used, but better parts.
DO IT YOURSELF
Wanna sort through the metal yourself? All the auto junkyards are less than a mile a part, so if you don't have a car, but are looking for one, you can ride your bike or even walk between the yards: All Cars & Trucks, ABC Auto and All Auto.