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Ode to the smog check hut dude

1) The smog check hut dude is difficult to classify. He’s not an auto mechanic, obviously, but not merely a smog-themed 7-Eleven clerk, either. Of course, I afford all occupations a baseline level of dignity but, beyond that, I’m uncertain about how much professional deference to allot to the practitioner of the smog test arts. Is he a skilled professional, perhaps a graduate of some emissions-testing academy? And if so, was it an online academy or a physical campus? And, also if so, is his certificate merely laser-printed, or embossed? Are his black T-shirt and shorts an actual uniform bespeaking some level of professional comportment (there’s no visible logo), or is it just what he wore to the Slipknot concert last night?

2) Which reminds me: He always looks like he hasn’t slept much the night before. Does smog check hut dude live in the hut, like a hobbit, a creature spiritually and temperamentally tied to a place? Inasmuch as the smog hut check dude — slightly sunburned, laconic but not unfriendly, functionally pleasant but not necessarily friendly, wearing sunglasses or, if not wearing sunglasses, oddly relucant to make eye contact, puffy skater shoes, triggering some faint intimation that he knows someone who knows how to acquire meth  — partakes of a type, this is not hard to imagine.

3) But I guess the most curious thing about the smog check hut dude is how through him we (or at least I) ascribe agency and causality to a process that is, by all accounts, purely diagnostic.

4) Suspense was mounting at the smog hut. It was September 2015, and I had taken my car to a smog check service on Sahara and Eastern. To most, the annual smog check is an inconvenient ritual of the car-registration renewal process — and yeah, also something something doing your part for cleaner air, etc. But my car is a 1986 Nissan 300zx. Pro: With some charitable squinting, it kind of looks like the DeLorean from Back to the Future. Con: There’s nothing futuristic about its emissions control system. It’s not uncommon for Nissans of this make and vintage to fail the smog test and, in some cases, get scarlet-lettered with (yes, this is a thing) “Gross Polluter” status.

The smog tech had been at it for a good 20 minutes. There were wires and probes stuck into various ports and orifices in my car, all hooked up to the smog test machine, which I suspect was a Commodore 64 on casters. The tech would rev the engine, then go and stare at the computer screen, then rev the engine again, then get into a push-up position and peer under my car, then rev the car again, then check the screen, then (did he just shake his head, did I just see him shake his head?) rev the engine again, check screen, push-up, rev, possibly shake head, check, rev, push-up, check, possibly shake head. Other cars and trucks were forming a line behind me, and a few drivers got out of their vehicles. I’m playing out all the grim and troublesome storylines that follow my failed smog test: fix the damn car, sell the damn car, rent a damn car in the meantime, kick myself for buying this dumb damn car in the first place.

The guy immediately behind me had a big, shiny, new, no-doubt-gonna-easily-pass-smog-inspection truck, and he squatted down next to my car, sort of fake-authoritatively half-peering underneath. 

“Looks like a fail,” the guy with the truck said — almost with vengeful satisfaction, as though I’d deserved to fail for making him wait. I was going to vaporize his feeble psyche with a devastating comeback, but I was too busy nervously chewing the last bit of my thumbnail off.

I looked at smog check hut dude for some response, some hint — but no, he was still stoically doing what was becoming a sort of an increasingly rapid aerobic circuit of rev engine, check screen, push-up, rev, possibly shake head, check, rev, push-up, check, possibly shake head (was he shaking his head?). I found myself silently rooting for him, cheering him on, as though the seriousness of his ministrations could magically affect the outcome: Go, smog check hut dude, go! Then, without ceremony, he began plucking the probes and wires from my car. I half-expected to hear the steady beeeeeep of a flatlining patient that was, alas, beyond help.

And then smog check guy simply said, “Passed. You’re good to go.”

I was florid with thanks and praise: Oh my god! Right on! Great! Sweet! You’re the greatest! Thanks for working so hard. So, uh, why’d it take so long? Not that I’m complaining! Again, thanks! So, seriously, what’d you have to do? 

“Nothing. These older cars just take a little longer.” 

It would take far too long to explain how he is nonetheless a shining avatar for my immense relief. No, seriously man, keep the change!

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