When dad went to Nam, we moved to Sacramento, and that summer for 3 months, I had a purpose. I was a part of something. I belonged.
Near our home was a gas station with a garage, where four dark, greasy men hung out every day but Sunday. When they weren't busy drinking canned beer or playing roundball in the parking lot, they souped up muscle cars – GTOs, Impalas, Galaxies...
I never really took notice of the place till summer vacation started. One afternoon on my way to the park, I heard laughing, and glanced over. I didn't see anyone, but there was a coke machine propped against a shaded stucco garage, and it was hot out. I fished a dime out of my pocket, and walked over. Some guy poked his head around the open garage door, and asked me a question about the principal at my high school, and my answer made him laugh.
He asked me if I knew anything about cars, and I said no. He asked if I could help him with something, and I said yes. He said he'd buy me a coke.
He needed a small hand to reach for a bolt he'd dropped inside the engine he was working on. He handed me a pair of coveralls, and I climbed up into the hood. It was a difficult reach, but I was flattered that he'd even asked, and wanted to be useful to someone grown up. I came up with a bolt, and he bought me that coke.
We sat in turquoise metal chairs and talked about basketball and egg fights.
When I went to leave, one of the other men said if I wanted a job cleaning gears, he'd pay me 50¢ an hour for 3 hours work. So I stayed.
For the rest of the summer, I showed up almost everyday, and stayed for hours, rubbing engine parts and tools with gasoline. Precious metals, the shine might as well have come from silver and gold. But for every minute spent cleaning, there was another spent peering into engines while one or the other was telling me what this part did, and why that part wasn't working.
Never once did any of them come on to me. (I was a skinny 16, and they were in their muscled 20s). But they often teased me about how pretty I was gonna be when I grew up, and how I'd hafta marry one of them, cuz coincidentally, it was gonna be that long before any of them was ready to settle for one girl.
They talked about pot and corn tortillas, about Vietnam and women they'd probably got pregnant. They talked about what a great country America was and how they were voting for Hubert Humphrey. They talked about jail and men they'd met there.
I never quite understood all of it at the time, but was honored to be included. I never told them how clueless I was, because I was too embarrassed to admit my ignorance...I didn't want them to figure out that I was a fraud – not one of them. I just kept my mouth shut, and smiled. Cuz maybe I didn't need to understand. Maybe it was enough that they let me wear matching coveralls and sit with them in their turquoise metal chairs.