“A Piece of Crap” — How I Met Tom & Ray Magliozzi

Ray & Tom Magliozzi

The Good News Garage

About thirty-two years ago, I decided I needed to find a reliable auto mechanic. I was still in my twenties, but I had finally gotten tired of relying on my dad and his local mechanics out in the ‘burbs to service my car. I was by then a card-carrying citizen of the city of Boston, in a neighborhood called Jamaica Plain. I worked across the Charles River in Cambridge, at MIT. Much of the time, I took the subway to work. Across the street from my apartment, I’d hop on the T at Forest Hills Station on the Orange Line, take it to Downtown Crossing, switch to the Red Line, ride to Kendall Square, and walk to 77 Massachusetts Avenue. There I would enter the huge, iconic main building of the MIT campus, and stroll down the infinite corridor to my first-floor office in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, where I was a secretary to a small group of faculty members.

New England weather being what it is, however, I found myself driving to work more often. And when I drove, I listened to the radio, often tuning to WBUR, a radio station housed at the campus of my previous employer, Boston University, and one of the two NPR stations in the city. On Saturdays, WBUR broadcast this local, call-in radio show called Car Talk, moderated by a pair of MIT grads who were brothers and who happened to run a garage near their alma mater. Inevitably, my poor, tired old Toyota Corolla needed another oil change, and maybe a prayer or two, so I decided to take it to the Good News Garage and see if these dudes were as helpful in person as they were on the radio.

My first visit was straight-forward enough. I was greeted by Tom, who looked much as he did in the photo above, sort of an aging hippie type dressed in oil-stained work clothes. I knew from the show that he was a wise-ass. But though he took down my info with a certain wry efficiency, he was mostly all business that morning, and told me to come back after work, and to ask for Ray if he wasn’t there.

This was back in the early eighties, when my musical tastes ran to the Pretenders, the Clash, the Ramones, Elvis Costello, and some former, local RISD art students known as the Talking Heads. My hair was asymmetrical, clipped close to my head on one side, with a longish sweep on the other. I was known to wear a small, red, enameled safety pin in one ear. I was not known to wear tasteful business suits to work with sensible pumps. My MIT office was across the hall from a materials science facility identified as the “Creep Testing Laboratory,” the source of much sniggering humor among myself and the several graduate students who wandered into my office, looking for a professor.

While my car spent the day at the garage, I passed what was no doubt a typical eight hours, generally consisting of typing up arcane research reports or grant applications. Our department didn’t run to the new, dedicated word-processors that had recently come on the market, so I had to type on an IBM Correcting Selectric typewriter. Which was okay, except that I had to keep switching out the element ball to a Greek character one, so I could fill in the correct symbols for the calculus equations that were often liberally sprinkled throughout these documents. One of the professors wasn’t too careful about proofing his equations. Since I’d had a year of getting A’s in calculus in my thus-far unfinished college career, I used to correct them, thinking that I should get some kind of bonus for having such a skill, which was certainly not in my job description. Eventually, I wandered back to the Good News Garage to pick up my car. Tom wasn’t around, so I was greeted by Ray.

“Well,” he said, “we changed the oil. But you might want to think about getting a new car in the not-too-distant future.”

“Why? What’s wrong with it?” I asked.

Ray seemed to have to ponder this question carefully before answering. “Let me put it this way,” he finally said. “Your car is a piece of crap.”

It was only a car, after all, but still, my feelings were a little hurt. I swallowed, took a deep breath, and said, “Well, can you fix it?”

“We can probably keep it running for a while. But you are rapidly approaching that point where spending any significant cash on this thing will just be throwing good money after bad.”

“Shit,” I said. “I can’t afford a new car.”

“Where do you work?” he asked.

“At MIT.”

“Figures. Where do you live?”

“In Jamaica Plain.”

“Oh, good!” he said. “My advice is, take the T and start saving up.”

I drove home that day in a state of mild despair and not a little irritation at Ray’s bluntness. Still, I did let the Car Guys keep my car going for a while, but was ultimately forced to take their advice and junk the thing for a newer model. I also finally finished my bachelor’s degree, got a new job, and had to find a new mechanic closer to that job. I called the show a few years later, looking forward to reminding Ray of how he insulted my old car, and to reminding Tom that I spelled ‘Kathi’ with a ‘K’ and an ‘I.’ I got accepted into the call queue, but I didn’t end up getting on the air.

After that, I used to run into them occasionally. By then, their show had been picked up by NPR, which increased their celebrity status. They often served as MC’s for some of the local concerts and events I attended, like the fundraiser for the non-profit Passim’s Coffee House, held at the Somerville Theatre. The program featured several musicians who had played at Passim’s, including the then not-yet-famous Shawn Colvin, who played a poignant, acoustic version of a Talking Heads song that eventually made it onto one of her later albums. The song was called “This Must Be the Place,” but most of us just referred to it as “Home.”

Which brings me to a fitting way to end this remembrance. Tom and Ray may have come to be loved and enjoyed internationally once Car Talk made it onto the NPR program list, even earning a Peabody Award in 1992. But to us natives of metropolitan Boston or of Cambridge (“Our fair city,” as Ray & Tom called it), the Magliozzi Brothers have been always and ever our local boys. As MIT alums, their fame earned them an invitation to deliver the 1999 MIT commencement address. But long before that, they brought their sterling credentials and intelligence to a blue-collar profession that has come more and more to need the likes of MIT grads to do it properly. They came from an essentially urban, ethnic background, like so many of us, whose parents wanted us all to make something of ourselves. Their particular brand of smart-ass but affectionate humor is as familiar to us as Fenway Park, because our families had it, too. Consequently, listening to Tom’s laughter and errant silliness over the years has always been like coming home. Tommy, I know I speak for a lot of your original, long-time fans and friends when I say that we’ll miss you like a brother.
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Tom Magliozzi died on Monday, November 3, 2014 at the age of 77 of complications related to Alzheimer’s disease.


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This entry was written by Kathi, posted on Sunday, November 09, 2014 at 10:11 am, filed under My Work Life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

15 Responses to ““A Piece of Crap” — How I Met Tom & Ray Magliozzi”

  1. Kathi,

    What a wonderful post. I went down memory lane with you and remembered everything — the Ramones, IBM selectrics, taking a train to work and a piece of crap first car. I didn’t have the privilege though, of meeting Click & Clack. I loved listening to them for years.

    Thanks for telling this story —
    Jody

  2. Thanks, Jode. It’s so shitty that Tommy, of all people, had to die of Alzheimer’s. I’ve been so sad since I heard this news, but glad I knew him in my own small way. xo

  3. Kathi,

    What a gem this post is – as always your writing never dissapoints, but this was particularly beautiful – such a lovely story. My first job as an “adult” was as a typist (back when there was such a job). I remember dressing up to go to that first office job (which I took so very seriously lol). It’s funny how much has changed in the world since then, but many things have not changed – for example: my love of the Ramones. I will be listening to them today because of you, thank you for the reminder and for sharing such a wonderful post.

    Much love,

    Lisa

  4. Thank you, Lisa. It’s a little spooky that I just saw Chrissie Hynde last weekend at the Orpheum in Boston. Wow. It all brings me back…

  5. Hi Kathi, I feel I know both them and a younger version of you after this.

    And because they’re not known over here, of course, I had no idea that Tommy had died until the last sentence. Now I can picture him pushing himself out from under your car singing ‘Brass in Pocket’ and telling you to save up for a new one! Great story.

  6. Ronnie!! So nice to see you here. Well, listen, I was about as surprised & shocked when I first heard that news as you must have been to get to the end of this post. You can click on one of the links to the CarTalk website, and you will be able to listen to some clips for yourself. They were hilarious, and Tommy’s laughter is completely contagious. xoxo

  7. what a great remberance! I listened to them all the time and loved them. They made sense too….they once nearly eviscerated a woman from NC who wanted to buy her 16 year old daughter a Bmw z4 because it was cute. They advised an old beat up volvo as safe.

    Sometimes listening to them could be a driving hazard – they were just so funny! And you’re right….Tommy’s laughter was absolutely contagious!

    I’m really curious about the safety pin in your ear, too!

  8. Elaine, I spent a fair bit of time in my driveway listening to the end of the show, because I didn’t want to miss anything while I was walking into the house. I think that safety pin is still around somewhere. It was tiny, but just big enough to thread through my earring hole. And I did file down the pointy tip so I didn’t stick myself. 🙂

  9. KAK, what a great tribute you’ve given to someone who sounds like he was a great man.

    Your trip down memory lane was nostalgic for me even though our memories take us down different lanes.

    Hugs,
    Sharon.

  10. Thanks, Sharon. xoxo 🙂

  11. Oh Kathi,

    I absolutely loved this piece!!!!!

    What a wonderful tribute to Tom and a great insight into your younger life!

    I actually took an Auto Service and Maintenance class my senior year of high school in suburban Detroit where we learned how to change the oil, radiator hoses, etc. I think that class was a direct result of Tom and Ray’s influence. The funny thing was that my little Datsun B210 (that got from my aunt with 100,000 miles on it) survived my junior and senior years but blew a cylinder on the way to my Auto Serv. and Maintenance final exam. I had to walk the rest of the way to school! 🙂

    Thanks for the quick tears and the lasting smile. 🙂
    JoAnn

    JoAnn

  12. Thanks, JoAnn. Yes, I do think that was one of the things that Tom & Ray advocated for over the years, to teach everyone some basic maintenance for their cars. I wish I’d had that in high school, too. Now, you can find classes everywhere, adult ed, our local recreation department, online, it’s really helpful.

    Nice to hear from you. xo

  13. Kathi, this is a beautiful remembrance. I so enjoyed reading about Tom and Ray. Recollections like this are how we should all be remembered, in my opinion. I can just imagine the scene of you learning your car was not so great! 🙂

  14. Thanks, Catherine. I was really wounded at first, I can tell you, when Ray first said that. But they were right, and they saved me spending a lot of money for no good reason. LOL

  15. Hi Kathi (see, I spelled your name correctly!),

    Ray and Tom sure sound like a couple of interesting fellows, for sure. It’s great you got to meet them and see them on occasion. Your tribute is a great one.

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