Hanging out at an auto repair shop might not be the most scientific way to study the economy, but it's far more interesting than reading the latest poll on consumer confidence or government report on job creation.
I got the idea after watching a man lift the hood of a beat-up car that had died on him. He poked and fiddled, removed a fluid cap and jumped back to watch the volcanic eruption. His shoulders sagged the way my father's always did when another in a long line of his used cars — with rebuilt parts and coat-hanger antennas — was on the fritz. For my dad, getting the car fixed meant cutting something out of a tight budget.
Arnold's Independent Service has been performing triage on such vehicles for 40 years at the intersection of Chevy Chase and Broadway in Glendale. Arnold Badano, a native of Argentina, got it started in 1975 and handed the business over to his son, Ruben, in 1989. And Ruben's son Luke, 19, also has grease under his fingernails.
On Thursday, all three generations of Badanos were on hand to watch the daily parade of customers. For some clients, who drive Mercedes-Benzes and Alfa Romeos, the economy is humming along just fine. For others, the hope is that Ruben Badano can work his magic and keep their Ford or Chevy on the road a couple more years. It's Los Angeles, and you gotta have wheels.
From Badano's vantage point, the economy is better than it has been over the last few years but not terrific. He can tell, he said, because at his place, business is bountiful.
"I'm in a service industry, so I survive these kinds of times because I don't have to sell anybody anything," said Badano. "They already know they have an issue when they come to me, and I tell them this is what it's going to cost. They need the vehicle to get to work or get their kids to school ... and a lot of them can't afford to buy a new car."
Or maybe they can, but it won't happen because their credit rating is lower than their oil pan. New-car sales are OK but not great nationally, and Badano said a lot of his customers are still digging out from the time when "the bubble thing happened and banks stretched themselves and made people think they had things they didn't have."
On Thursday, a man named Donaldo drove up in a 1998 Chevy Blazer with 256,000 miles on the odometer and a trail of drippings in his wake. While Ruben's crew diagnosed the problem, Donaldo, 45, told me he's a live-in caretaker for a senior citizen. He said he makes about $2,000 a month, which is enough to live on because he uses the "Guatemalan economy."
"If I need a carpenter, I call Jaime. If I need a plumber, I call my brother. If I need a car, I call Lionel. If I need an electrician, I call Luis, my buddy. There's a network of Guatemalans, and we can squeeze in an Argentinian," he said, nodding toward Badano, who came highly recommended by the network.
Donaldo told me he paid $1,000 for the Blazer three weeks ago — he got hooked up by the network, of course — and thinks he got a terrific deal, even though the Blazer has already blown a hose.
A new hose, with labor and taxes, came to $48.27, with no charge for recycled coolant. Badano threw in some transmission fluid for free, and Donaldo drove away a firm believer in the Guatemalan/Argentinian economy.
It's this part of his business that's growing, Badano said. Many customers come to him with half a dozen repair issues on older cars and ask him to prioritize them because they can pay for only one or two. Badano said a $500 repair estimate might get a response like this:
"Oh, no. I can't pay that. Why don't we do it for $400?"
Badano, who resembles the actor Benicio del Toro, told me he's growing his hair and beard for the role of Jesus in a church play. He said that when he was younger, a female customer wondered if he'd take payment other than money. I can't go into details here, but Badano said the proffer was a specific sex act as payment for a brake job.
He's been offered food stamps, too, and it's not uncommon for people to use two credit cards for a bill to avoid maxing out either one. If a customer is treading water and can't afford a replacement part, Badano will get creative.
"I'll say look, we're going to take that out and glue it back together, weld it, whatever. Something to reduce the price. I'll tell him it might not work, but in your condition, you can't afford to buy a $500 part."
Longtime customer Mike Griffith, 56, came in when the alternator on his 2005 Ford Focus conked out on him while he was driving his son to community college. He hasn't had full-time work since he got laid off 15 years ago as a driver at one of the studios, and he knows his age is working against him. His wife's accounting job is their only steady income, and the rent on their two-bedroom apartment eats up the first of her two monthly paychecks.
Griffith said his family puts away $20 every two weeks in anticipation of car trouble. That kitty was up to about $210, which he gave Badano as a down payment on a $500 repair bill.
"He knows our situation, and he's letting us pay him so much a month with our second paycheck of each month, until it's paid off," said Griffith.
Badano told me he's not qualified to analyze macroeconomics, but he knows his own family's story. His father did well by coming to this country, and Badano has done well, too. But he's worried about the next generation.
"I don't think my kids will be able to live as well because there's just not the money for it," Badano said. "The money is only floating around a certain group."
Namely, a small group at the top.
But despite growing income inequality, Badano said, he wonders if too many of us got spoiled in good times and developed irrational expectations. To put it in perspective, he said, millions of people in the world don't even have safe drinking water. In Glendale, someone might be living in an apartment but still have a $50,000 car parked out front.
At the moment, though, Badano had to focus on what was in front of him.
A commercial pilot had decided against buying a new car because of economic instability and USC tuition costs for his son, so he instead brought in his 1999 Chevy Suburban for a tuneup and brake job. And a single mother whose 2003 Toyota Avalon had flunked a smog test was hoping Badano could find a way around a $1,500 repair.
The economy is still sputtering in some quarters, but at Arnold's Independent Service, business is good and the work never ends.