The left front tire on Bertha (our '97 Nissan Pathfinder) was in a bad way. I could feel movement in the steering wheel, could see the belt peeking from the corner, knew it was coming apart.
So Thursday I dropped the family off at school, drove gingerly home and went to change it.
Peeled back the cover on the spare mounted on the back and it looked good, hardly worn at all, plenty of tread. So I pulled the cover off and got my first surprise. It would not be the last.
The spare was held on to the frame by three lug nuts – and a big, rusted padlock. I checked all the keys – we had no key for that lock. I don't recall the guy who sold us Bertha last year ever mentioning it and I hadn't checked then or since. Searched the car from top to bottom. Found some interesting thing, but no padlock key.
As fate would have it, I had to drop by Tony's Wrecking Yard that day to pay $30 I owed for something else. (Equally long, convoluted story I won't go into here.) So I gave him a call. "You don't happen to have a bolt cutter I could borrow for two minutes, do you?" Turns out he did. So that problem would soon be solved.
Drove carefully over to Tony's. about five miles. Tony's a funny guy – probably about my age, shorter and rounder than me, bald, and with a crusty exterior that makes him a little off-putting at first. The previous day I'd been there I'd had to wait and watch while he directed his crew in moving some junked cars around the lot to make room for something. It was like one of those wooden Chinese puzzles – pull this one over there, start that one, back it out, slide another past it, then put that back. Etc. Tony stood on the building harassing, shouting, raining out a torrent of colorful invective that blistered paint, but it was all somehow good natured and accepted by everyone.
But when dealing with me he was unfailingly helpful and courteous, and the strongest language he used was comically mild. When I pulled in and he saw the lock and heard that I had no key, he rolled his eyes and said, "Ho-o-o-ly matrimony!"
He had several more opportunities for that one as the day went on.
We were able to snap the lock off without trouble. The tire was just a tad soft, so I figured I'd drive to a service station, put air in it and put it on the car. But Tony said, "You want us to do that for you? We've got air and we can take care of it and get you on your way." I let myself be convinced – fortunately.
Backed the car into the service area and one of the guys had it jacked up and the tire off in no time. Meanwhile Tony himself took the spare, put air in it and ran water over it to make sure no air was bubbling out anywhere. Nope. Looked good. The guy popped it on and with six quick zips of the pneumatic wrench it was ready.
I thanked Tony, offered to pay him, he declined, I gave him the cash I had and he said, "I'll give it to the guys."
I got in, started Bertha up, put it in gear and gave it gas.
Bertha didn't move. Instead there was a horrible grinding noise, which – if I tried to transcribe it here – would be all Gs and Ns and Ks. I got out to check but it wasn't still jacked up and there was nothing blocking any of the wheels. I tried again.
More Gs and Ks.
Tony looked closely at the front end of the car, looked at me and said, "I don't think that wheel's the right size."
He was right. The tire was the same size as the others, but the wheel it was mounted on wasn't quite right. I'm not even sure how you do that.
Now what? Even if I wanted to I couldn't drive it. All I could think was to put the bad tire back on and go down to the nearest tire shop and get it straightened out, as if that was something I could afford.
Tony, however, had other plans. He told me to wait, "We'll get you on the road" – and sent one of the guys out into the lot to find a Pathfinder he was pretty sure was out there. I waited maybe half an hour, and the guy (the one who told me he'd been 9 years old when Woodstock happened a couple of hundred miles from his home and he still hasn't forgiven his parents for not taking him to it) came walking through the rusted hulks with a wheel. The right sized wheel. Then they mounted my tire on the wheel, took another 20 minutes or so – and the new wheel was zapped onto my car. And I was good to go, and Tony wouldn't hear of me paying him for it.
Changing a tire is not rocket science. I've changed more than a few in my life and times and it rarely takes more than about 15 minutes. This had taken about three hours starting from when I'd decided to do it. But I've never been happier about a tire change.
Later I was doing some other chores and mentioned something to the cashier about "the way my day's been going." She commiserated about "the bad day" she assumed I was having.
Not a bad day, I replied. It was certainly an interesting day, and it could have been a very bad one, but it wasn't. Tony is a helluva guy and his crew are really something and they made all the difference.
And I've learned another valuable lesson:
Just because the car you're buying has a spare tire attached to it doesn't mean that the spare actually goes to your car. Check it out.
And go to Tony's.