Readers often ask me how I know so much about so many different things—tobacco-rolling, for example, or trumpet-playing or coal-mining or Cuban politics or Canon law or plumbing. I always say the same thing: “I don’t. I borrow knowledge from those who do.”
There’s a long list of extraordinarily generous crackerjacks who have shared their time and expertise with me over the course of four novels. These are friends, or friends of friends, or total strangers, all willing to speak to me on the phone or in person to answer whatever question seems essential to the story I’m writing. What motivates them to push pause on a busy day and brainstorm with me a solution to an imaginary problem, I can’t say. But I’m very, very grateful that they do.
Over the weekend I went down the street to interview the mechanic to whom we’ve taken our cars ever since we moved into the neighborhood. The Georgalos family has owned their full-line auto shop for twenty-five years, and they’re colloquially known around the area as “the Greek guys”—as in, “My car needs an oil change so I’m going down to the Greek guys.”
When I decided that Clara, the protagonist of my work-in-progress The Weight of a Piano, was a mechanic, I imagined her working for the Greek guys. So I told them what I was working on, and asked them if I could follow them around the shop, ask some questions. John, the owner, walked by and said, “Yassou, Chris!” and his wife, Anna, sat down with me and gave me the run-down of a typical day and even taught me a few phrases in Greek. Peter helped me decide that Clara should be in charge of oil changes and tire repairs, and even let me go down into the slippery hole in the bay known as “the pit” for instruction on performing an oil change. (The last time I changed my own car’s oil was about 25 years ago.)
Then Pete said, “You want me to do your inspection? You’re due this month.” He doesn’t know it, but Pete inspired the strong and sweet character John, who showed up on the first page of the book, unrequitedly in love with Clara.
Anna showed me around the rest of the shop, pointing out the scan tools and diagnostic equipment, the computer programs they use for pricing, explaining how things have changed over the years. There were racks of tires, stacks of air filters, enormous red tool chests, bookshelves filled with old Chilton service manuals from the 1980s, an ancient-looking Snap-on Tools key rack that held keys for the cars they were working on. Customers came and went at a steady clip, and it seems that the Greek guys know most of them by name.
They all seemed rather amused by my interest, my desire to capture some of what they consider routine, even banal. But they gave me just what I needed, and I’m grateful. They’re also really good at what they do, so if your car needs some work, give them a call:
John’s Xpress Lube