25 September 2006

Tires and karma...

When a man has let go of his attachments,
when his mind is rooted in wisdom,
everything he does is worship
and his actions all melt away.

Bhagavad Gita , 4.23

So, tires and karma…

One of the devotional paths in Hinduism is called the karma path. Essentially it means that, while there are those among us who might worship, say Jesus or the Virgin Mary, and still others who prefer to read, coming to understand their faith through their study of the Torah, for example, there are also those who find it easier to express their faith through their work or their actions. Some examples might be Mother Teresa or, perhaps, my husband Kevin’s dad who became an orthopedist so he could help disabled children as Christ did, something he did all of his life…for free. Another would be Nick at my favorite tire store.

So it was way past time to leave for school and Matt was ready and waiting on the living room couch as usual when Luke came out of his room with his hair still wet from the shower, happily rattling off things he needed to know for a test later that day. “‘Araby’ was written by James Joyce. ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ is Garcia Marquez. ‘Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants’ by Nadine Gordimer. and Chinua Achebe wrote ‘Dead Man’s Path.’”

On my toes to kiss the side of his face, I said, “That sounds good. Now, get into the car, we’re about to be late.”

I shifted my car into gear and started to drive immediately, something my eleven year-old car hates. I thought nothing of the shuddering as I pulled away from the curb but, when it didn’t ease up in four long blocks, it was clear that it was much more than that. Yes, anyone but a mother whose sole focus was on making up for a bit of lost time would have known within a few feet a tire was a flat. A very flat flat.

The good news: Kevin was still home with his car. The bad news: we were already too far to run home to get his car, given the boys’ ridiculously heavy backpacks, and have any chance of making it to school even close to on time. More bad news: Kevin had been up until one o’clock in the morning and wasn’t due to start his twelve-hour day until eleven so my phone call would wake him up. Did I mention he was fighting off a sore throat?

This was not the morning I had planned. To add to the scene, I was dressed in the embarrassing sort of clothes worn by mothers all over the country who plan to go for a run or go to the gym after dropping their kids off at school: flabby thighs on display underneath bright orange shorts leading down to gray socks popping up above brown slip-on Merrills because my running shoes were, of course, in my car trunk. After handing off my children to a grumpy husband, I accepted the fact that my exercise today would be changing my tire.

Excavating the trunk, I dug down beneath the old umbrellas and running shoes, flip flops and crumpled sun screen tubes to find, when I opened the spare tire well, that the spare was flat, too…which made not having a jack in my trunk moot. At least my cell phone worked so, after a call to AAA, I sat down on the curb, on top of my squishy spare tire, to wait with my newspaper and a bottle of water.

While flat tires, in general, aren’t happy occasions, I knew I was going to end up at my favorite tire store - yes, I actually have a favorite tire store. It's a small independent tire shop jammed in between car dealers on Van Nuys Boulevard. Believe it or not, I love that shop with a passion verging on groupiedom. Why? They won’t let me buy tires. Every time I come in with a flat, they tell me not to bother with a new tire, they can fix it.

“That’ll be ten dollars,” the guy behind the counter always says.

Once, when I finally insisted on buying tires after a certain point, they explained why I didn’t need the expensive ones. I love them. I tell them so every time I go.

This morning, the owner, Norm, whom I’d never actually met before, was behind the tall gray counter. I told him how I felt about his business. “You’re unique.”

“Oh, I don’t think so. I think most people do things the way we do. There really are only a few rotten apples in any line of work. At least, that is what I choose to believe.”

When Norm went out back to the work area, the other customer in the waiting room, a thin, gray-haired man who was sipping a cup of machine coffee, said he felt the same way. “This wasn’t what I had in mind for my morning either but I love coming here. And the new coffee machine is great; try it!”

Is this what’s meant by the karma path, the path of work? I mean, is it possible that something as simple as running a business selling – or not selling, in this case – tires can be invested with meaning if attention like this is paid? I doubt Norm thinks about it that way unless seductive girly posters with women of men’s imagination posing on impossibly clean, thrusting cars goes with a form of faith I’ve yet to encounter. But, if the point of religion, of spirituality, is to imbue our lives with a sense of connection, with a sense of the divine, I do know that way Norm chose to live and work gave me that sense of connection this morning and every time I even think about the tires on my car.

And my fellow tire store fan was a lovely man with whom to wait. “I’ve decided to get my wife’s car fixed after I’m done with mine today since this is what my day’s turned into anyway.”
Bob, I soon found out, is a respiratory therapist; his wife was a nurse named Louise. My father is a doctor named Bob and my mother, Louise, was once a nurse. It turned out that his wife worked for a national non-profit that tooks care of the elderly, something my father had done for years back east. Bob said the organization was expanding and might need part-time help from someone like my aging father, who is still a practicing doctor at seventy-eight because a combination of excessive generosity to his children and some bad luck means he and my mother can’t figure out how to afford to retire, can’t afford to figure out how to move closer to us as we had assumed they would.

When the owner, Norm, came back in, he cautiously interrupted my conversation with Bob to give the verdict on my flat. “You had a nail in your tire. I fixed it, fixed the spare and rotated your tires. No charge.”

“How do you stay in business?”

With an almost embarrassed shrug, Norm was out the door and back to the service area.

As I gathered up my things to leave, Bob said, “I’ll have Louise email you a contact for your dad.” And then he added, “It’s karma. We were meant to be here this morning!”

Karma, indeed.

(25 September 2006)


  1. Marley:
    I enjoyed this story, but feel like I must point out that you are missing a major underlying common-sense point with the tire guy. Send your husband in there, he pays the normal charge of $20. Send Crud in there, he pays $30+. With enough customers like Crud, they get to feel good and let you have it for free, while still meeting their overall goal. But, none the less a great way to confirm the truism that it is better to give than receive, even if as I suspect they are making it up elsewhere. Chance it was not karma, but an effective social redistribution based on charm. I am actually a big believer in karma, just felt like throwing out some Friday afternoon crapola. Have a great week-end. Enjoying getting up to speed -- I started from beginning and am working my way through.

  2. "...social redistribution based on CHARM?" You think that's the reason? And that Crud's isn't exactly the same as mine? No way!

    Actually, I think it works even more directly that you lay out. Recently the owner sold the shop and the guy who kept refusing to sell me tires, Dave, left. Where do I buy tires now? The shop where Dave now works. And, just this past week, he got two cars worth of tires out of our family...


I'm interested in any and all comments although it may take me a while to post them.