After seeing this story on ScoutingNY and then this one in the NYT, I decided to take the Baja to the post-apocalyptic, soon-to-be-demolished Willets Point to get a cracked wheel welded. It was as bizarre an outing as I’d had in the Bug.
The welding wasn’t as cheap as I’d hoped ($80), it ended up ugly as sin, and the wheel may still leak a bit. So in that sense, the trip was a bust.
But the place was perhaps even more unreal than I expected. I went with Jalopnik’s weekend editor Ballaban, we both drove around in there, and it was just third world. Potholes as deep as pasta pots, one after another. Huge ruts that caused at least one ’90s Honda Civic to turn around and go another way. Rain-filled holes that took up entire intersections. Full size garbage and shipping trucks blasting down two lane roads without even painted lane dividers. No stop lights, no nothing.
I should say that the Baja was in its element. We bounded through the water and over the ruts like it was meant to be, always to the smiles of the mechanics waiting outside their corrugated siding shops. They were probably laughing at us more than with us, but what’s the difference, really?
We got directed all over the place before we finally found a place shop that agreed to weld the wheel, since most people thought it was aluminum. The guy running the shop, Jose, was a surprisingly cool dude. He had a dirt bike in the back, and he said he planned to take the motor and build a tube-welded car around it. He said that everyone does that kind of thing back where he’s from, Ecuador. What he’s not sure is how he’ll get it registered. In Ecuador, that’s apparently not such a problem. Here’s he’s still researching how things work at the DMV.
Jose told me he has a 1994 Cadillac DeVille with a red interior and hydraulics at his house in New Jersey. He plans to paint a mural of his daughter’s face on the hood, at least after winter. He’s also got a 1964 Corvette he bought from California, which absolutely blew me away. This guy has a lowrider Cadillac, a classic Corvette, and is planning a home-built buggy of some kind? This is my kind of mechanic.
The NY Times made its piece principally about how the city will start tearing down Willets Point on Saturday (yes, this Saturday) for a new clean-cut, rather antiseptic development. What was going to happen to everyone making their living in the Willets Point shops? Jose, surprisingly, wasn’t particularly worried. He had papers, and proudly pointed to the legal signage on the entrance to his shop. He was a legal immigrant, his shop was on the level, and he told me the government would pay him for tearing down his place.
Jose wasn’t sure about all the other workers here who weren’t set up officially, like he and his coworker Jimmy were. I wish I could remember if Jose said that many of the people in Willets Point were “illegal” or if they “don’t have papers.” A homeless guy wandered into Jose’s shop not long after Ballaban and I pulled in. He asked about all the radiators, engines, and spare parts lying around the garage, hoping to pick up scrap for the shopping cart full of metal he pushed around the neighborhood. He and Jose laughed together and cracked jokes like regulars, but I got no sense that the city gave a shit about him. Once demolition started, that guy would be on his ass.
As to where Jose thought he would go after everything was torn down, he wasn’t sure. He thought about Brooklyn or the Bronx, but mentioned something about the government organizing the displaced mechanics of Willets Point in a new area, but he didn’t know any details, and he was sure it wouldn’t be anything as big as Willets Point is.
And the size of Willets Point is unbelievable. And when I say unbelievable, I mean it. Ballaban and I spent maybe two hours out there, a lot of it just tooling around the streets and there’s no way we saw everything. Ballaban was convinced that there was no way there was enough business proper to support all of these innumerable independent shops. He figured there must be some mob connection, or at least something. For sure we saw a lot of cars coming in and out, all getting repairs, but there was no way that everything was on the level. We saw black Hummers and ultra-clean V8 Dodge Chargers burbling through the neighborhood, stopping for talks at some of the shops.
I’ll be back on Friday to see if one guy I met can check and see if I have a problem with one of my carburetor jets, or if I have some kind of vacuum leak that’s making me lose power at high revs. I trust he’ll be able to, as he was working on a aircooled VW kit car when I met him. I may bring my dad along, as he speaks Spanish (and Quechua), and should help me get more stories out of everyone.
Until then, my memories of Willets Point are the perfect roads for a Baja Bug, laughing with Jose about his cars, and not getting a particularly good deal on a not particularly good welding job. What an unreal trip.