What do you want to be when you grow up? Adults have been asking me this question ever since I moved to America. It’s like the most important thing in the world for kids to have a plan for the future. I want to be a doctor. A fireman. A soldier like G.I. Joe. And of course, you change your mind every month or so, because when you’re a kid, everything seems possible.
So there I was, a kid in the park, with no real plans for the future – only vague ideas about finding some way out of the ghetto, or heading into the woods like Thoreau, or seeking a Great Perhaps, like Rabelais. And the next thing I knew, high school was over. With a cardboard hat on my head, dressed in a polyester gown, I celebrated the end of my childhood, and the end of dreams of possibility.
For the first few months after high school, I lazed around, reading books, watching TV, or hanging out with other slacker friends who, like me, hadn’t gone off to college or gotten a job or made any efforts to get out of the city.
But as the summer days crept by, my tio grew impatient. “Look,” he said, “working a few hours a week at the laundromat was okay when you were in school. But you’re a man now. It’s time to start looking for a real job.”
So off I went, scouring the city for Help Wanted signs, looking for something that would put more than just a little change in my pockets. After weeks of searching with no luck, I wandered into Frank’s Garage.
“Yeah, we can use an assistant,” said the head mechanic. “Because I’m about two seconds away from firing this birdbrain!” He shot an icy look at his assistant mechanic, who gave a sheepish shrug.
“Man, don’t even listen to him,” the assistant, Keith, told me as the head mechanic stormed off. “D.J. gets mad about everything. You’ll see.” He tossed a grease-stained uniform in my direction and showed me around the garage. And just like that, I became a mechanic. It wasn’t bad work. I was pretty good at fixing things, so it didn’t take long to figure things out. Plus, I got to spend eight hours a day around cars, one of my favorite things in life.
D.J., the head mechanic, knew pretty much everything about everything. Not just cars, but history, politics, even literature. He hadn’t heard of Walden, so I loaned him my copy to read. He was a pretty cool guy, except for one thing – he had some serious anger issues. Even when talking to customers, his face would grow redder and redder, the mercury rising. Then, the moment the customers left, he would explode, unleashing a tirade toward poor Keith, who just stood there and took it all. A couple of times, D.J. tried to take out his anger on me, but I wasn’t quite so passive.
“Look,” I said, my own temper rising to match his, “you point your finger in my face one more time, and I’ll break it off.” Okay fine, so I said it in Spanish. But I think he got the point, because he left me alone and started kicking the innocent tires of the truck he’d been working on.
Sometimes, D.J., Keith, and I liked to hang out after work, too, grabbing a beer or two and throwing darts or whatever. Away from the garage, we were much more relaxed, swapping stories and jokes like we’d been best friends for years.
“I’ve finished reading Walden,” D.J. told me one day when the three of us were playing foosball. “And I decided it’s time to do it.”
“Do what?” I asked.
“Leave this cesspool of a city,” said D.J. “Live deliberately. Suck the marrow out of life.” His eyes shone with a light I hadn’t seen before.
“Is he okay?” asked Keith, looking at D.J. in alarm.
“He’ll be fine,” I said. “But I think we just lost our head mechanic.”
Suddenly, D.J. clapped a hand on each of our shoulders. “Come with me!” he said. “All three of us. We can take my van and leave together. Tonight!”
I blinked. Every rational cell in my body was screaming at me to refuse. Think of your job! Think of Tio Jaime, Tia Karina. This is an insane idea. But something stirred deeper inside me. Something passed on to me by parents who were as brave as Thoreau – brave enough to leave behind everyone and everything they knew in order to seek something greater. I didn’t know what was out there for me. Not yet. But I was certain that I wasn’t going to find it by staying still.
“I’m in,” I said. We headed over to lock up the garage, which was empty of cars.
“But…where will we go?” Keith’s voice rose with anxiety. “What will we do for money?”
“I have a little saved,” I said, thinking of the shoebox of cash under my bed.
“Me too,” said D.J. “It’s settled then. Let’s go!”
“Road trip!” I slapped him some skin.
I raced home and announced to my startled family that I was leaving. Then I threw my belongings into a cardboard box and exchanged teary hugs with my tio and tia. An hour later, I was sitting in a car with D.J. and Keith, watching the city where I’d lived for the past ten years slip away, growing smaller and smaller as we headed out into the great unknown.
Your Adventurous Friend,