Characters in Search of a Story, Part I

Lakewood Foreign Auto Salvage


Not long after moving to Colorado in 1995, as Lisa and I were driving up into the mountains following a thunderstorm, I was distracted by a spectacular rainbow and drove into the guardrail, busting out my right front headlight assembly. . . . That’s not really the story I want to dwell on.

A week or so later, I went looking for a new assembly. I went to Shortline Mazda on Colfax Avenue, where I was quoted $250 for the entire assembly. The guy suggested Lakewood Foreign, a junkyard between Sheridan and Kipling. It was a cluttered little junkyard on a corner lot. There was a pasture across the road and I parked there in a shallow ditch. I waited for a car to pass and crossed the road. As I crossed a rock-star skinny guy with a long pony tail, unbuttoned work shirt, and a tattoo covering most of his chest yelled advice as he crossed to his own car: “You got to be careful on this street. People drive like assholes.”

The yard was stacked so high with parts that looked like they would never work again that it was difficult to walk through. There were motors in various states of cannibalization, bumpers, auto glass, car seats, auto bodies, electric motors, compressors, things I had no name for. Everything smelled like oil and rust. A couple of guys wandered among the parts holding wrenches. I couldn’t tell if they were Hispanic or Vietnamese or something else. I smiled and tried to look both confident and harmless at the same time.

There was an old house in the center of the yard. The porch was covered with more crap and I couldn’t tell what was inside, but I guessed it was cluttered too. The parts counter was inside an attached garage with a roll-up door. A little office stood to one side. The wood on the counter was worn and greasy black. There was nowhere to sit and little room to stand. The only chair was covered with tools and engine parts.

A Vietnamese man stood behind the counter speaking into a cellular phone. He wore a blue work shirt with “Bui” stenciled on the name patch. He answered a stream of calls while I waited for him to acknowledge me: “What year Celica? . . . ’86 to ’87 is the same, ’88 to ’99 different. We no got it.” There was a radio set that looked and sounded like a CB behind the counter, full of static and a little distorted, and every few minutes a voice called out something like “I need a tailgate for a ’89 F150. Anybody out there?” I later found out from Bui that it was a telephone link connecting 30 different junkyard and parts houses across the city. Other voices chimed in with Hispanic, Asian, and Midwestern accents.

Bui pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at me, raising his eyebrows in a question. I told him what I wanted and the year, an ’88 Mazda 323.

He said, ’86 to ’87 same as Mercury Tracer. I got. ’88 to ’89 different. I no got.”

“You sure they’re that different?”

He showed me the parts catalogue to prove it, then got on the parts link and called out my part. I stood and waited. Every few minutes Bui would announce over the link, “Customer standing right here.” People came in for bumpers, dashes, odds and ends, paid, and left. I moved out of their way so they could stand at the counter. Bui kept yelling into the phone, “Customer standing right here.” Whenever he quoted a price to a customer, Bui said, “I give you, 30 dollar, no fucking problem.” Most of his customers didn’t negotiate, so it was either a fair price or they were intimidated by Bui

The skinny guy came back with a bag of Taco Bell and settled in between parts behind the counter to eat. “They didn’t give me no fucking hot sauce,” he said.

It was interesting to watch Bui work. Regardless of what someone asked for, Bui knew instantly if he “got” or “no got.” He didn’t look at any inventory books. He didn’t need to check a parts catalogue to know if it would fit. The catalogue was in his head, and he knew the yard down to the tiniest bolt. Every price was “No fucking problem.”

After about an hour, ABC Used Parts finally called and said they had my headlight assembly. Bui yelled at the guy for a minute, then turned to me. “He say he call. He no fucking call. I say ‘customer standing right here’ and he no call. Make me look like asshole. He got part, 90 dollar, no fucking problem. You get over there and get it.”

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