Tire changing in Back-of-the-Yards, old school

June 4, 2010


(Photo by Achy Obejas)

The tire’s so flat, the lower edge makes a straight line across the pavement.

There’s not even any pretense of taking it off yourself. It was stuck on there with an air gun. So you pull out your bike pump – yes, your bike pump – and you piston up and down, your knees bending like an archer’s bow each time.

Then you drive, very carefully, very slowly, avoiding all the potholes, the uneven swerves, the speed bumps, west on 47th, past the Harold Washington Cultural Center and the green line station, the vacant lots and the interstate and so many currency exchanges, you lose count.

When you pull into M-Ojeda tire shop in Back-of-the-Yards, it’s almost like they’re waiting for you. The nose of your car is barely peeking into the lot and squat and tough Mike Abarca is already signaling you to turn the wheel, to park it right there.

“It’s my …”

“Back passenger side tire,” he says in sweetly accented English.

You switch to Spanish because it’s just easier. Abarca, whose uniform is streaked with grease, drops to the ground and another guy brings the jack over to lift the car’s backside. The other guy – much cleaner, leaner and wearing a uniform from Stampede Meats rather than M-Ojeda’s – insists on removing the tire but he struggles to get the air gun right. Abarca gently instructs.

You start to say something but Abarca signals you to be cool.

When the tire bounces off, he practically dribbles it to the little shack of a shop.

“It’s got a nail in it,” says the Stampede Meats guy.

Abarca lifts the tire, points to the little cross on the nail’s embedded head and dunks the whole thing into a murky tub. In a matter of seconds, the telltale bubbles tell him everything he needs to know. The tire’s strapped to a rim clamp changer, where a large spoon like instrument peels the rubber right off the metal. Abarca’s intensely focused expression doesn’t change; he never takes his eyes off the tire.


(Photo by Achy Obejas)

 Turns out the Stampede Meats guy is Mario Ojeda, the proprietor. “I’m an electrician by trade, heating and cooling. I used to come here and fix the compressor. One day I asked the owner what it took to make a go of this place as a business. He said, ‘I’ll sell it to you’. He was losing money so he just wanted out. First year, we had days we made $30, $60. I had one employee. I kept telling him, if we made his salary, we were good.”

A few years later, he bought out the currency exchange next door and expanded the lot. Then he built a separate office with a waiting room for customers.

“We’ve got competition on east and west of us,” says Ojeda modestly. “But we try to be gentlemen, and people come back.”

Certainly you do. You like the old school efficiency, the way the men there – it’s always men – say “usted” and “señorita” and, in hot or cold weather, insist you wait in the back office.

But if you want to watch, they let you. They make a little room in the shop, step back so you won’t accidentally bump into them. They are inevitably quiet.

Mostly, you like the way such a simple but necessary job is elevated to such a solemn task. “In Mexico, I worked at a car wash, but car washes are different there. You change the oil too. You put the car up on the lift, oil, whoosh, wash, done!”

Abarca works six days at M-Ojeda’s and one day at another place. “You can get this done anywhere but not like we Mexicans do it.” He sprays the inside of the rubber, sealing it, then adheres the rubber back on the rim and dunks the whole thing in the tub again. “You know why? ‘Cuz I love my job, I do this gladly. I’m grateful to work, you understand?”

The wet, glistening tire’s back on your car, ready to go in less than 5 minutes.

“It’s $7,” says Ojeda, “same price it’s been for 15 years.”