THE OTHER NIGHT, A CAR DIED IN front of my house. It was a taxi, and, according to its driver, it had simply stopped functioning and rolled to a stop at, it just so happened, my driveway. Since I had to use my car, I helped the driver roll his car out of the way, did my errand and returned. The cab was still there. There was a problem with the timing.
I learned this later from two of the people who had gathered to examine the dead car. One of them, a tow-truck operator, had been driving past when he saw the cab, hood up, and had stopped to see if he could help. The other was a drunk whom, earlier, I had seen relieving himself in the bushes. With the cab driver, our little band numbered precisely four. We were diverse in age, social class, economic class and race -- not to mention degree of sobriety. But no matter, we had this thing in common: a knowledge of and interest in cars. This was our ad hoc community. I belonged.
But, of course, I didn't really. I was trying to pass as someone who knew about cars. I actually know nothing, and I think I have told more lies about cars -- about knowing something about them -- than I have about sex or fistfights, the latter of which I have been in precisely once, with disastrous (for me) results. For years, I have been intimidated by men with mechanical knowledge who seem to assume that all men, no matter what their station, not only know how an automobile works but actually care about it. In my teenage years, I could throw out car terms with utter conviction and can remember some of them still: mag wheels and dual carb and something about struts. This, like sharing a fanatical and childish interest in professional football, is the way men bond in peacetime.
And so I was out in the street bonding. I had already made the taxi driver roll his car back. I had done this even though the drunk had yelled at me, insisting I simply wait until the cab was repaired. Now that I had returned, I was intent on showing them all that I was a regular guy, despite my tie and jacket. And so I took my place at the side of the cab and looked into the engine compartment as if I knew what I was looking at. The tow-truck operator had taken command. He ordered the driver to try starting the car.
A whirring sound ensued. The tow-truck operator pointed. Something was either happening or not happening, but whichever it was, its importance was grasped by everyone -- and, I might add, grasped instantly at that. "The timing's gone," the tow-truck operator said, turning to me. I nodded my head. No doubt.
The cab driver reemerged from the car. "The timing's gone," the tow-truck operator told him. The cab driver looked at me for confirmation. "The timing," I said with not a whole lot of conviction. We all looked into the engine again as if the malfunctioning timing could be seen malfunctioning (I had no idea what I was supposed to see), and this time the drunk threw his arm around me. Oh, the sheer masculine bonding of it all! The interracial, intersocial, inter-economic, inter-generational wonder of it all. We were, like the Musketeers of yore, one, a fused, united group: the Four Timers. All for One and One for All!
"It's internal," the drunk said, pointing at what I assumed was the timing. "Yeah, it's internal." I nodded, for surely what ailed this car was buried deep in its mechanical or electrical innards, about as internal as you could get. "You think it's the timing?" the drunk asked me. I started to answer "yes," which is to say that I started to lie. But then, for the first time in my life, I thought: This is ridiculous. I had already proved my humanity, my concern and my brotherhood by stopping to peer into the dark and mysterious engine. I had been hugged by the drunk and had spent time on the street when I could be at home, doing something else. I do not have to continue this lie, I thought. I am stereotyping these men. I will tell the truth.
"I don't know," I told the drunk. "I don't know anything about cars."
"You don't know!" the drunk yelled. The stunning preposterousness of my confession nearly bowled him over. He took a step backward to regain his balance. "You don't know about cars!"
The tow-truck operator gave me a look of contempt, climbed into his truck and drove off. The drunk just kept looking at me, and the cab driver, by now, was paying me no attention. I felt a need to explain, to say that, okay, even if I didn't know anything about cars, I still could help push the dead cab or help in other ways. But the look on the drunk's face said he would entertain no explanations, and the cab driver just didn't want to have anything to do with me. I offered to help him push the cab to a parking space. He turned me down. I offered to let him use my phone. He turned me down. I was, I knew, out of the club.
And so I went back to my apartment. From the window, I could see the drunk and the cab driver continuing to look into the engine. "It's internal," I imagined the drunk saying. I watched for a little while and then went to call a friend. When my call was over, I went back to the window. The cab was gone. I saw the drunk emerge from some bushes (again!) and totter into the alley. I felt pretty good about what I had done -- confessing to auto ignorance, that is, and, what's more, making my confession at the very moment it counted the most. True, I had been rejected on that account, but finally, after years of faking it, I had admitted I didn't know anything about cars and I didn't care. This, psychologically speaking, was a big moment for me. As the drunk might have put it, "It's internal."