A Breath of Stale Air

I finally took my BMW in to be worked on. It was later in the day and hot, which is unusual for early May in the Bay Area. The mechanic and I were the only ones in the building. He let me into the office and then drove my car into the shop where he hoisted it up on the hydraulic lift.

Once inside, the first thing I noticed about the “waiting room” was how refreshing it felt. It must have been ten degrees cooler than the outside, but not from air conditioning, which I dislike. I put waiting room in quotes, because it was much less than that but also much more. Less because the room was dirty, cramped, unorganized, and nothing like the sleek waiting room at the dealership, where you can buy BMW merchandise and help yourself to as many espressos as you like, as if that could possibly justify a $200 oil change. More, because it was just what my soul needed.

What your soul needed? What on earth are you talking about? you may ask. I can explain it this way. When I went into the waiting room and sat down on the fake leather couch, my worries suddenly disappeared. All of the problems at work with invoicing, contracts, and financial reporting were gone. So, too, my preoccupation with neighbors, family, and friends. No small feat, that, considering some of the latter team up against me like WWF wrestlers with demands and deadlines. It doesn’t help that they are nearly incompetent with technology and computers. Of course, they have good intentions, since we are working on business and writing projects together, but we all know where that road is headed.

So, I sat there as the mechanic drained and replaced my differential fluid. It took him a while, because I have all-wheel drive. You know, because I need it. But just knowing I was getting the work done made me feel better as a car owner and citizen. I felt relief. There’s a dad joke in there somewhere about not feeling “indifferential,” but I’ll leave that to the reader.

This gave me a chance to run my hand across the couch’s cushions and look around the room. What I found was pure auto mechanica: a desk with an old laptop, manilla folders, adding machines, a credit card processor, shelves, old office chairs, boxes of discarded car parts (including carburetors), metal file cabinets, a Mr. Coffee with sludge at the bottom, and faux-wood, exterior trim that someone had stood up against a wall and now loomed over the room like a great pair of ibex horns curling backward. The trim startled me at first.

Eventually, I got up and started poking around. I came across some old 45 records still in their sleeves: “Party Doll” (Buddy Knox), “Hanky Panky” (The Shondells), “Be My Baby” (The Ronettes), and “Sherry Baby” (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons). They seemed out of place until I uncovered a huge Seeburg jukebox buried under boxes of hoses and fan belts. I found out later it belonged to the owner and still worked. The guy also had a collection of classic cars. The 1965, two-tone-blue Mercedes parked under a tree outside the office belonged to him. I noticed it as soon as I pulled up. How could I not? It was beautiful.

I made my way to the shop, which was even more cluttered with engine parts, boxes of break pads and fuel filters, tool boxes on wheels, Chilton service manuals, oil drums, an air compressor, a free-standing battery charger, and an assortment of workbenches. Past the workbenches sat the “lunchroom” (also in quotes), which consisted of a table, chairs, microwave, water cooler, and bathroom.

Here’s the thing. Both shop and waiting room were messy and dark. You wouldn’t call them attractive in the superficial sense, and they couldn’t have been more different from the glitz of the dealership. Yet, as I poked around, breathing in the stale air and playing with car parts, I felt at peace. I was content not to talk, not to worry, not to think about anything other than the work being done on my car. And I didn’t do that very often, either. This was an experience of being in the moment. It required stillness and staleness, two things that don’t get much traction in the warmer world outside the shop.

Another aspect of this deserves attention, because it has to do with the nature of work, manual work in particular. Without romanticizing it, working with your hands forces you to get to the essence of things, whether you’re growing potatoes like a Benedictine monk or changing fluids on a car like my mechanic. It requires rolling up your the sleeves and getting dirty. This reminds me of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I read in high school and changed how I view beauty. I now see that life is beautiful, but it’s basically a mechanic’s job. It’s about learning to breathe stale air.

“Be My Baby” (1963) written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Phil Spector. Performed by The Ronettes.

Image credits: feature by Tory Bishop on Unsplash; lift by Anastasiia Krutota on Unsplash; car parts by Florian Olivo on Unsplash. Happy Mother’s Day to all the Brancatelli mothers and those mothers related to them. In memoriam, Sandy Kimball 1952-2021. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes ÔÇťalternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.


  1. There are few things I miss about California, but one is the workshops I had in the two houses we owned. I owned, and used, power tools and hand tools on a bunch of DIY projects. There was something about the ability to fix/build/improve something that was very psychologically fulfilling.

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