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The sign affixed to a light pole in the parking lot of the AutoZone on H Street NE is clear: “NO WORKING ON VEHICLES ON PARKING LOT.”
But the detritus strewn about the auto-parts dealer’s grounds say otherwise. In addition to the ubiquitous motor-oil bottles and wiper-blade packages filling the lot’s handful of trash barrels, an informal inspection over several days last week revealed two used fuel filters, an old spark plug, a couple of worn brake pads, empty cans of R134a refrigerant, and a greasy length of radiator hose.
This, the shop’s neighbors say, is evidence of a thriving auto-repair industry operating in the AutoZone parking lot and the streets around it. A thriving illegal auto-repair industry, they note.
Jessica Ward, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who lives two blocks from the AutoZone, says “They lift the vehicle up and spend time doing whatever needs to be done. It’s not a quick look under the hood.”
Recently, on 12th Street NE, Ward saw one of the mechanics doing an oil change on the curb. He had drained the dirty oil into an upside-down garbage-can lid. “That’s like five cans of oil. Where does that go?” she asks. “It’s the environmental hazard I’m mainly concerned about.”
AutoZone’s policy on the mechanics is as clear as the sign posted in the lot—“No working on cars,” says Tom Wood, the store’s manager. Or not: The sign isn’t absolute, Wood says; there’s no problem replacing your wiper blades or topping off the antifreeze. But: “Can’t jack up a car in here. That’s prohibited,” he says.
If mechanics solicit work from the shop’s customers and do repairs in side streets or alleys, that’s not his concern, says Wood. “They’re not doing it for AutoZone. There’s nothing AutoZone can do about it,” he says.
Ward says work in the parking lot dropped significantly after the shop’s management cracked down last year, but the repairs simply shifted to side streets and alleys. “Personally, I don’t feel that’s solving the problem,” she says.
After fielding months of complaints, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs dispatched an inspector in April and May to determine whether an illegal business was operating out of the parking lot. The inspector concluded there wasn’t.
But the neighbors aren’t satisfied with that determination. The residents’ newest strategy to keep the illicit gearheads out of the area is a photo-documentation campaign. Joe Fengler, another advisory neighborhood commissioner, says a handful of neighbors have snapped about two dozen pictures of the mechanics in action. With the photographic evidence, Fengler hopes to convince District authorities to reopen the investigation.
Fengler and Ward may be fighting more than businesses and city authorities, however; they may be fighting the laws of capitalism. If cars need fixing (as they often do at auto-parts shops), and people are there to fix cars, then cars will be fixed. This accounts for the open-air auto-repair market, and H Street isn’t the only one.
On a recent evening at an AutoZone on Rhode Island Avenue NE, the parking lot mechanics are out in full force. A couple of guys fiddle under the hood of an old pickup with Virginia plates. Another guy has his conversion van on a jack, tightening lug nuts. One, in a grimy green T-shirt, sits hanging out of the driver’s seat of a green Dodge minivan, can of beer in hand. “Mechanic?” he asks. “You need a mechanic?”
His name is Cornelius Williams. He says he regularly solicits work out of AutoZone parking lots, both here and on H Street. “You’re not supposed to [work in the lot], but if someone breaks down, you ain’t got no choice but to do it right here,” he says.
On a good day, Williams says, he can make $200, but usually he only does an average of two or three jobs per week. For a tuneup, he says, he usually charges around $40, not including parts—much less than the $150-plus a garage may charge. “A lot of people can’t afford to go to a shop,” Williams says. “Those goddamned garages tear peoples’ asses up.”
Joe, another regular at the Rhode Island shop, says he’s developed a happily symbiotic relationship with his host. He can solicit customers in the lot, just as long as he does the work elsewhere. One of Joe’s customers, the driver of a green Kia who declines to give his name, says he has the AutoZone guys double-check work he has done at a legitimate garage. “Second opinion, just like a doctor,” he says.
The Kia owner won’t be going back to the H Street AutoZone anytime soon, though. Three months ago, he says, he received a ticket for simply opening his hood in the parking lot. “All I was doing was seeing if I needed some oil,” he says. Joe seconds his assessment of the H Street shop. “I been down there a couple times,” he says. “I see what goes on.”
The H Street repair trade is far from exterminated, however. On a Wednesday afternoon, a mechanic named Ben sits in a car parked on the curb looking for work. Ben says he’s one of a crew of five or six regulars who work the AutoZone: “There’s always somebody around,” he says. His personal specialty is installing clutches and transmissions.
Ben’s going rate for a tuneup is slightly higher than Williams’: $50. But it’s still much better than the legitimate alternative, he says. “It’s gonna be way less [than a garage],” he says, before ducking out to do a job. “We just help people out.”
The argument that the street mechanics provide a low-cost service to poorer motorists doesn’t hold much sway in the neighborhood. Fengle says the street mechanics endanger public safety. “There’s a reason that you take the car to a mechanic that’s certified,” he says. “They work in bays, with lights and the proper tools….It’s like having an illegal contractor work on your house. There’s no guarantee.”
For Ward, the bottom line is that the unlicensed tinkerers are breaking the law. “Everybody wants to make a living, I understand,” she says. “[But] there’s D.C. law and regulation that no auto repair can be done on the streets. It’s against the law.”
Back on Rhode Island Avenue, a Southeast resident who calls himself Tony T. waits while Joe inspects the brakes on his mammoth vintage Sedan de Ville. In a couple of minutes, the two will pull out of the lot, so Joe can replace Tony’s brake pads on an Eckington side street. “You get the same quality work done here that you get done in a shop,” Joe says, as he replaces Tony’s wheel.
“[Legitimate garages] take more guesses and more money,” Tony says. “I like these guys. They’re trustworthy.”CP