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.
“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.
Tom Magliozzi died on Monday, November 3, 2014 at the age of 77 of complications related to Alzheimer’s disease.