Paul Vlachos is a New Yorker who understands The West. And he is a New Yorker who understands New York. Wherever Paul goes, he finds signs of life…
Most of the photos included in this issue – and I’m including more than usual – were taken in either southwest Texas or the Bronx – two distinct geographical locations that share much in common. Both areas can induce a sense of alienation. Both contain warm and friendly people, despite reputations that might suggest otherwise. Both are known for spectacular and unique local cuisine. And, most importantly, both areas seem to be epicenters of tire punctures.
Not to minimize the dangers of flat tires all over this country. In fact, there is one dirt road, in particular, that comes to mind, from Gerlach to Sulphur, in norther Nevada, that is famous for being a “two spare” road. I’m sure there are many places that can rival the Bronx or Texas for flat frequency, but that’s beside the point. The point is – most of the photos here are from those two areas. Maybe people are just more vocal about fixing their flats in Southwest Texas and the Bronx.
All of these photos were taken between 2012 and 2014.
1. Not too far east of El Paso. This trailer is right off the interstate. I don’t recall seeing the actual place, but it may have been at the next exit. I like the wording on this one: “We Fix Flats.” I also like how big the trailer is compared to the sign.
2. “Chris Flats” is in Brooklyn, New York. Urban flat fix joints tend to be storefront operations, but they inevitably spill over into the sidewalk and street. They also tend to be open late. Chris keeps a traffic cone handy in order to reserve that crucial space in front, which is part of the work area, even though it’s a public street.
3. These doors close on a large shed in an abandoned truck stop in Texas. It keeps getting more lonely-looking each time I pass through. It’s an empty and lopsided kind of place, with an abandoned steakhouse restaurant sharing the same lot. I always stop here, even if it’s just to grab something from the cooler.
4. From Texas to Mexico. Mexico Tire Shop, that is. This is near the Gowanus Canal, also in Brooklyn. Did I mention Brooklyn in the opening paragraph? I probably should have, as the rivalries between the Bronx and Brooklyn are as fierce and distinct as those between east and west Texas. There are lots of tire places in Brooklyn and Queens but, out of fairness, the number of flat fix places in the Bronx outdoes them.
6. Another shot from Brooklyn. Okay, call me a liar – I’ll get to the Bronx soon enough. This place may or may not still fix flats. At some point, they flipped the sheet metal on one side of the gate and all hell broke loose. Who knows what goes on here any more? It’s on a block of wrecking yards and the street, itself, is dirt and gravel. I was amazed I came out of that single block with my tires intact. Then again, I may think too much about tires.
7. Utah, on the edge of Bonneville Salt Flats. There’s a tire place out back of the diner/mini mart here, which is the main establishment on this exit for the salt flats. The tire place is never open when I pass by, but it looks to be a going concern, so either they or I keep odd hours. One day, I’ll see a sign of life here. I don’t know why I’m always drawn to this exit, not far from Wendover, but I cannot ever pass by without stopping here.
8. Austin, Nevada. Now, here’s a place I could tell some stories about, but I’ll try to keep it brief and save the details for another day. In short, the old gentleman who lives and works here, just at the bottom of the treacherous Austin Summit, is a volunteer fireman in his spare time. As such, he has seen his share of wrecks, which is why he used to post a “Speed Trap Ahead” sign at the driveway of his establishment. He mainly wanted people to slow down as they rolled through Austin. The subject of Austin is for another day. This is one place I actually got a flat fixed once, after a glorious day of soaking in the back country at a secret hot spring.
10. Texas again. What I like about this is the pure visual message. Nowhere do you see the words “tire” or “flat fix” displayed on this sign, for Rael’s Diesel. Just a simple pictograph. It could mean “donut,” but my money is on “tire.”
11. The Bronx, last winter, when the snow stayed on the ground for months. They should have told the artist to put actual tires on the car, in addition to the grossly oversized rims. This is on a block filled with flat fix places. How does one choose?
12. Texas, not far east of El Paso. A lot of love went into this sign. My favorite things here are the massive wooden blocks, chopped at an angle. for cars to drive up on so that they can get an oil change. That’s a solid low-tech solution that I favor.
13. The Bronx at night. This place never closes. I have been trying to get a shot from the front entrance, but there is always a bunch of guys – mechanics and their friends – standing around and I don’t feel comfortable pulling up and pointing a camera in their direction. I could ask them, yes, but I’m not that sociable. My solution will be to wait until it goes below 20 degrees, then head up late and grab a shot. Check back with me in January. Of course, everybody I know is quoting the Farmer’s Almanac and telling me that this January is going to be unseasonably warm. To all of these dear souls I say “good luck with that.” I plan to be shooting deserted storefronts while the temperatures are low.
14. Texas, outskirts of El Paso. Whether it’s in the city or the rural areas, the painted tire on a stick seems to be the universal symbol for flat fix places. I have many more such signs, but I’m choosing to hold them in reserve at the moment while I continue to work on my magnum opus of flat fix photographs.
16. Heading west along the southern tire. Texas in winter, 2009. This place raised their sign up high so that you could see it from the interstate. They have not repainted it in years and, since I saw no physical sign of “On the Spot Tire,” I can only assume that they are out of business. As is often the case, their sign persists.
17. Brooklyn. Simple and to the point. Not big enough to spot easily from the avenue, but it will catch your eye when you pull in for gas and maybe, just maybe, you’ll remember the flat tire that you keep hauling around in your trunk. Now is finally the time to get it patched or plugged.
18. Under the elevated subway train in Brooklyn. This is another place that never closes. They do their work in the parking lane. What looks like a cut curb is actually for pedestrians, but the police always seem to look the other way when it comes to flat fix places. They recognize that these enterprises perform a civic function. At some garages in Manhattan, the mechanics and their helpers go into a kind of synchronized routine at certain points in the day, when unfriendly parking enforcement people or street cleaners go by, and they all run out and temporarily move the cars around at the same time. It’s a frenzy that takes about 10 minutes – I almost think some of them look forward to the break – and then they all get back to work.
19. Texas again. My love of deserted truck stops, corrugated metal buildings and fading paint all converge on this lonely place, not far from a local road junction where I was stopped and reading my road atlas one day earlier this year when a guy pulled up and asked me if I knew where the nearest gas station was. I told him it was probably 70 miles west or 50 miles east. He looked miserable at that, so I offered him the one spare gallon that I keep on me, for my portable generator. I’m not sure I would have trusted this guy if he had stopped me in the Bronx, and I’m not sure it’s a good idea to trust somebody on a lonely back road in Texas, either, but I trusted him this time and gave him my gas. When he offered to pay me for the gallon, I told him to give it away to somebody else one day. He told me all about his wife and son, then some guys drove by in a pickup and I waved, hooked my gas can back onto my bumper and drove away, heading back east and home.
20. This place is not that far from where the previous photo was taken. I like how the owner of this establishment stressed “reliable.” All of the tools and equipment are gone. It looks like a newer sign was pulled down, as well. Just an old, open structure and some bald tires baking in the Texas sun.
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