Enrique, the Highway Bandit

We had been walking around San Miguel de Allende on Good Friday. Cars had been excluded, and the streets were filled with happy strollers. When we got back to the car, on the north side, near Vía Orgánica—a good organic restaurant and produce market—and got in, the car’s engine did not catch, even though the battery was strong and the Honda CR-V had shown no sign of ailing.

Something had happened that I could not explain.

I got out of the car and headed to a car shop not a hundred feet kitty corner from where the car stood. A man intercepted me.

“Puedo ayudar?” he asked. Can I help?

He was unshaven, wearing a soiled shirt, dirty shorts and worn out running shoes. A simple canvas bag hung over one shoulder. I dismissed him with a curt, probably classist “No, gracias.”

I continued on to the workshop. I explained that my car that had mysteriously decided it couldn’t start. The man in charge pointed behind me. I turned to see the raggedly man that had offered to help me.

“He’s a car electrician.”

I apologized to the man in the dirty shorts, and accepted his help and the mechanic’s implicit recommendation. We also have our own saying about Mexico: when you’re in trouble, especially with cars, help seems to materialize out of thin air.

I remembered the electrician had been sitting on the curb with his back against the corner building, when we returned to the car. Strange things happen in Mexico, so I accepted his position as within the range of normal or different.

I lifted the car’s hood. He took tools out of his satchel. He took the lid off the black casing that held all the Honda’s relay switches. He touched each relay with a current tester and the tester’s light lit up, except for one. He announced that there was a sensor problem. I had no idea what that was, but he seemed to be experienced, plus the shop had said he was a car electrician.

I asked whether he could fix the problem. He said he could, but he would need three hours. I asked whether he could get parts. He said he could. I said it was the first of three days of holiday. Would the parts store be open? He said it would. I accepted that, as well.

He had certain irregularities, limbs a little out of line. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. A neighbor came out of a door ten paces away to offer any advice that might be needed. Sotto voce I asked whether he knew Enrique. “Very reliable,” he said.

After poking at this and that, Enrique mumbled something about a sensor that impulsaba something. That was already too technical for me. Three hours is what he needed. We exchanged cell phone numbers and tested them, getting a reassuring ring out of his. We said our goodbyes. He assured us everything would be fine. We withdrew to Vía Orgánica, went up onto their azotea, their roof, and ordered soup and salad. Then it was the siesta hour and, in the shade of nearby trees, two of us stretched out on wooden benches and slept a wink or two.

Sitting up again, I remarked that we were conducting an experiment in trust. A complete stranger had our car keys and our phone number. We began to compare observations, and the questions that arose from them. Why, for example, had Enrique been sitting on the curb at the corner? I began to remember that he had already been sitting there before we set off on our stroll hours earlier. Why this satchel of tools? Worry began to override trust. I gave my mouth a final wipe for signs of soup and said I was going to go check.

The Mexican owner of Vía Orgánica was sitting at one of the tables downstairs with—I learned later—the store’s accountant. I said I was sorry to bother them but did they know a certain Enrique that appeared where cars mysteriously refused to start. They didn’t know Enrique, but they knew about other incidents. The owner got up and said she would go back to Enrique with me. He was sitting on the curb again, across from the car, enjoying the shadow cast by an east-facing wall. He saw us coming and got up and went to attend to the car again, as if there were still much to do.

The owner of the store asked him what was wrong with the car. She said there had been other incidents. She asked him whether it might be a good idea to call the police. I asked him where the new part was. He said it was coming.

“But why is it taking so long?” my new supporter asked.

He replied that the store was some distance away. Five blocks, she said. She brought up the topic of the police again.

I asked to see the old part. He showed it to me. It was a metal plug with a plastic hat that had broken off. He handed it to me in two pieces. Maybe a rock had done it, he said, because it came from an area under the engine supposedly exposed to the road.

There were three connector holes in it. The piece meant nothing to me, except for the fact that it could be plugged and unplugged into the car’s electrical system.

My supporter went off.

A couple and their two Swedish visitors came out of a door that was nine paces away. The woman in the couple was also Swedish. She and her American husband had lived there forever and swore by Enrique’s dependability. They had never heard anything negative about him. A representative from the car shop—that was now serving mainly as a parking area for the Easter weekend—approached. A short interrogation ensued. Enrique explained the problem. I watched the representative’s face. I could not read it.

The Swedes left, showering me with reassurances.

Enrique walked off and turned a corner, perhaps to meet the person that was bringing the new part.

I stayed and chatted with Jovani, who said he was Enrique’s son. He was a likeable kid of eighteen or twenty. He had turned up about when I began asking doubting questions. I wasn’t sure what his purpose was. My partner and a writer friend from California came to check on me. They had been talking with the owner of Vía Orgánica. They asked a few questions. I caught them up on what appeared to be happening or not happening. They went on a few doors and began talking with an American friend that runs a fine boutique for women’s clothing. I went to join them. For a moment of two I was out of sight of the car. When I emerged from that woman’s courtyard door, I saw movement around the car. I approached. Enrique was already under the car, clanking with a small wrench.

“I want to see the part before you put it in,” I said.

He continued clanking.

I repeated my request. “I have to see the new part first,” I said.

“Okay, just a moment,” he said.

I was looking down through the engine. He was bolting something to the engine. I repeated my request. This time it was more like a demand. I told him I couldn’t confide in him if he wasn’t going to show me the clean part. I may have mentioned the idea of calling the police, if that was the way it was going to be.

“Okay, you want to put it in yourself?” he said

“No,” I said. We needed to get home. There seemed to be no one else that was going to get the car going again at the beginning of a three-day holiday.

Again I said I needed to see the part. He started unbolting the same part—the one I wanted to see in its pristine state. It had a metal plug and a cap with wire leads. The metal plug was covered in oil, so that I could not tell whether it was new or not. I told him so. He tossed a small box out from under the car—presumably the box the part had come in. It box was dirty and battered, as if it had kicked around in his satchel for a year or two. The broken part he had given me earlier would not fit in it. I said as much. He said the plastic hat came off. I could not detach the plastic hat.

He asked Jovani to start the car. It sprang to life, as good as new. He crawled out from underneath. He asked Jovani to test the headlights and the turn signals—as if they might have been affected by the defective part. Inside, Enrique clipped the plastic cover back over the wiring behind the steering wheel, as if he had been trying to trace the problem there with his current meter.

He removed an old t-shirt he had been sitting on to protect the driver’s seat while he worked there. Just the way the dealership removes the paper protectors from the front seat of your car when they pass it over to you after servicing.

I asked him how much he wanted. He said one thousand one hundred pesos for the new part, four hundred pesos for his labor. I handed him fifteen hundred pesos, or roughly $120. He said I should call him if I had any problems in the future; that he was there for us if we needed him. I even shook his hand. His hand and arm were deformed by large swollen bumps, possibly from gout. He gripped my hand awkwardly.

He and Jovani left quickly. The owners of Vía Orgánica approached. They asked me how much Enrique had charged me. I told them. I also told them he had refused to show me the new part, the box hadn’t fit the broken part he had originally given me, the box was dirty and there was no receipt. I said I thought he had disconnected something and then simply reconnected it. They said I should come back to the store, they were going to reimburse me for the 1,500 and that we were good customers and that we shouldn’t have pay this kind of penalty for parking and shopping at Vía Orgánica. I said they weren’t responsible. They said, okay, how about we pay half. I said okay. They said they were going to do something about Enrique. They said they had learned that Enrique had been dismissed from the nearby automobile shop four months earlier—for irregularities.

There are three reasons a modern car doesn’t start, I have since found out through the world of Google.

First, if there is no spark. Enrique had had no access to the under-the hood part of the engine, hence to the spark plugs.

Second, no fuel is getting to the engine. The fuel pump has to be functioning. What I saw Enrique moving his wrench around was not a fuel pump.

Third, if the timing has been disabled. Enrique had had access underneath the engine to the Camshaft Position Sensor.

When he showed me the loosened the Camshaft Position Sensor, it was fairly dripping with dark engine oil. If the broken part he had originally given me had come from my engine, then there would have been at least the smell of fresh oil on it and perhaps traces of oil on the ground underneath the engine. There was neither. He had unbolted the real Camshaft Position Sensor probably for the first time when I asked to see the new part.

There had never been a new part, and the old part he handed me, I realized later, could not have come from my car, because it was badly damaged, with broken wire connections. The engine would have stopped running long before we arrived in San Miguel de Allende. Rather, what he had done was simply unplug Camshaft Position Sensor’s electrical connectors, a condition impossible to ascertain without a technical knowledge of cars and a clear view of what happens underneath the engine. It had never occurred to me to crawl under the car and get as soiled as Enrique.

Enrique had diagnosed the problem from the very start. He had said it was a sensor before even getting under the car. He had also correctly diagnosed me as the unwary traveler and technical idiot. Also as a man more privileged than he was. He had chosen the beginning of a three-day holiday when there would be no other recourse for getting the Honda going again, and had profited nicely. What is remarkable is how hard I had tried to believe that he was not lying to us, how hard I had tried to behave in a non-classist way and be respectful of his knowledge—and not as the suspicious type my partner sometimes accuses me of being.

Enrique is part of a long tradition of Mexican banditry and shows the bandit’s sense of entitlement to share some of what those with more money have. He had correctly chosen us as the people with more—people who were going to shop at an organic food market and restaurant where things are not cheap—and he had played me well the whole way. I had gotten away at half price, thanks to the impressive responsibility assumed by the owners of Vía Orgánica. In the end, I still felt grateful to be the victim of a bandit in Mexico, rather than, for example, in the U.S., because it seemed more culturally interesting and comprehensible to me here south of the border.

Well done, Enrique, but beware, my friend. The concerned people at the store are on to you—even if the rest of the street retains their unshakable faith in you.

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