“The present contains the past,” writes the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. “The materials of the past which make up the present become clear when they express themselves in the present.”
A few months ago, I was reminded of Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, as I sat in the main room of Flint’s Auto Center in Almond, waiting for a new battery to be installed in my wife’s car.
All around me, the present made its presence felt. As I surveyed the room, I noticed the tall stacks of virgin tires, the bright green batteries on the racks, the factory-fresh fan belts hanging near the ceiling. The phone rang, and someone left a message. Moments later, a hurried young man came in, asking if his car could be inspected that very day. Over the next quarter of an hour, three more customers arrived.
Yet amidst these signs of a thriving business, the past was also expressing itself. High on a shelf lay a vintage copper washboard and a stash of antique toys—a model airplane, a red bus, a metal chicken. On the shelf below stood well-worn cans bearing their famous names: Boraxo, Prince Albert, Gilley’s Beer. Not far away were a Ranger fire extinguisher, a Woodman Bee Smoker, and one of John Flint’s family heirlooms: a manual, cast-iron meat grinder, with which many a sandwich was prepared.
Beyond these evocative relics, what caught and held my attention were the gas-pump signs on the far wall. Esso. White Star. Sky Chief. Fire Chief. Sinclair Dino. Some readers of this column may know that Fire Chief referred to Texaco Fire Chief, a gasoline with an octane high enough to be used in fire engines. A popular radio show of the thirties featured Ed Wynn, the Texaco Fire Chief. “Sinclair Dino” referred to the company’s hugely successful logo, a benign brontosaurus. As part of its imaginative promotion, Sinclair put out, in 1935, a dinosaur stamp album that could be filled only with Dino stamps issued at Sinclair stations. That the gas-guzzling cars of ensuing decades might themselves become dinosaurs was not on anyone’s mind.
“The car used to be greatly admired and desired,” remarks John Casesa, a leading automotive analyst, “but now some people see it as something that is not good for us, like tobacco. . . . The sound of a gas engine, the V8—those are going to be increasingly rare commodities. Maybe we’re going to have to give up that seven-tenths of a second from zero to sixty.”
Maybe so. But as Thich Nhat Hanh often says, the present is made up of the past, and we can learn from contemplating the materials of a bygone era. “If we observe these materials deeply,” he suggests, “we can arrive at a new understanding of them. That is called ‘looking again at something old in order to learn something new’.”*
If you would like to reflect on America’s long romance with the car and the culture of the open road, while also having your car or truck reliably serviced, you need look no further than Flint’s Auto Center in Almond, New York. And while you’re there, don’t overlook the rows of original license plates that line the walls or the roadsign that reads New Mexico, Route 66. Spanning the 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles and celebrated in Bobby Troup’s famous song, Route 66 was the trail of choice for migrants, dreamers, the Dust Bowl poor, and all those headed west. Some called it the Main Street of America. John Steinbeck called it the Mother Road.
*Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life (Parallax, 1990), 33.
The full text of John Casesa’s remarks may be found at http://www.onearth.org/article/motown-blues. Flint’s Auto Center is located at 63 Main Street in Almond, New York.