The men saunter up and down a littered block in the Bronx, casting sidelong glances at passing cars. When the cars slow, the men mouth silent promises of a cheap fix. When the drivers pull...

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NEW YORK — The men saunter up and down a littered block in the Bronx, casting sidelong glances at passing cars. When the cars slow, the men mouth silent promises of a cheap fix. When the drivers pull over, the men scan for cops before sliding up to the curb.

It is a singular hustle. There are no drugs or sex. Instead, the hoods of the cars fly open and the men begin to work, pulling out greasy tools to perform every mechanical remedy from oil changes to hair-raising tuneups and axle replacements, right on the street.

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In the vast underground of New York’s economy, street mechanics hold a peculiar, if utilitarian, place. For people who balk at a $30 oil change, there is Country, a Virginia native, 41, who charges one-third of that, jacking up his clients’ cars as rush-hour traffic creeps by. In the expert hands of Chino and Heavy, a $200 brake job costs half as much, parts included.

Mobile and on call

On busy days, cars line Third Avenue like sick patients, propped up by metal jacks, worn-out tires flung to the side. The mechanics disappear underneath, their boots peeking out, their tools splayed on asphalt outside the neon blink of auto-parts shops.

Sometimes ingenious, sometimes deceptive, they form a blue-collar rung in the city’s freelance work ladder. They are mobile, carrying tools in rollaway suitcases, on call by cellphone or pager. Some even wear uniforms, and the best ones travel on distant missions, reviving broken-down cars on roadsides from Boston to Atlantic City, N.J.

“I’m like an ambulance,” said Luis Mares, 40, who installs rebuilt alternators for as little as $85. “Where there’s trouble, I go.”

The flourishing, although illegal, street business blends comical improvisation with corporate savvy. But as it does in any profession, the talent varies. Some mechanics leave customers careering away brakeless.

Many make a mess, with discarded oil and strewn parts. And hovering over them all is the constant threat of the police, who ticket the men tirelessly, leading to hundreds of dollars in fines and repeated stays in jail. Yet, the mechanics stubbornly return to the same street to eke out a living on their terms.

“This is New York,” said Country, who would give only his street name and who has been issued, he said, 42 summonses in the past two years. “If you’re not on your feet, you’re on your butt.”

Street mechanics ply their trade all over the city. But perhaps nowhere are they more brazenly visible than on Third Avenue from East 161st to 163rd streets, in the Melrose Commons section of the South Bronx.

Some earn $400 a day

On any given day, up to 15 mechanics work the street, competing for clients. Repairs begin after noon (the late hours are among the perks of the job) and pick up around 5 p.m., when customers leave their jobs and stop by for a timing-belt change or a brake adjustment.

Paydays are the peak. Saturdays are prime: The best mechanics can pocket $400 in one day, saving clients the steeper prices charged by Pep Boys or Jiffy Lube.

“I can’t afford to go to the shop,” said Howard Dawson, 66, a retired Amtrak repairman who regularly takes his ’93 Cadillac Fleetwood to the street. “One hand’s got to wash the other.”

The Third Avenue mechanics, like most workers, operate in a hierarchy. At the top are the owners of the auto-parts stores, who moved to the street starting in the early 1970s. The mechanics came uninvited around the same time, like weeds in a garden.

They formed a symbiotic relationship with the stores’ employees. The stores sell parts to customers who often need a mechanic to install them, and the mechanics will send their clients to the stores.

At the bottom of the ladder are the “helpers” — mechanics in training who earn much of their pay by luring clients. They, too, have street names that in the mores of the South Bronx are assigned more than chosen.

There is Little Mexico, Dominica and Mouse. Not by coincidence, they share several traits: They are small in build, move quickly and seem to have an outsized view of their mechanical abilities.

“Every time I see them doing something heavy, they look stuck in it,” said Luis Martinez, who goes by Chino and is among the street’s veterans.

Tales abound of jobs the helpers started and botched, only to be saved by the street’s experts. But unlike other would-be street mechanics, whose bad reputations result in swift excommunication, these helpers have clung to their place on the street. They tend to live off of small jobs, not always involving cars.

“I walk this dog for $2,” said Little Mexico, stabbing two fingers in the air as a pit bull named Puppy yanked him away.

Some mechanics admit they work to support drug habits. Others say they are “clean” and look upon their entrepreneurship as a career choice. Two Third Avenue mechanics — Pernell Dingle and Elliot Rodriguez — claim they graduated “Mechanic of the Year” from Alfred E. Smith High School, two decades ago. (An official at the school, Jeff Block, confirmed that both men received mostly A’s. “Dingle owes us $8,” he added, for an automotive encyclopedia he never returned.)

Chino, who has dozens of regular clients, takes his job especially seriously, arriving promptly at noon with a yellow plastic tool case. He wears one of his six navy-blue uniforms, washed and pressed by his wife. “Who would you hire: a guy who looked like a bum or me?” he asked.

The biggest nuisance are the tickets and occasional trips to jail. Martinez, 40, has been locked up twice, for two days each time. Some mechanics pay their tickets as dutifully as other people pay taxes. Dingle, on the other hand, has not paid one of his 50 tickets and has been jailed 17 times.

“I tell them to put me in my regular cell,” Dingle, 44, said as he stood on the street one early evening. “The cops know me by name.”

The street-mechanic world is organic to South Bronx life, but like other underground trades, it increasingly is at odds with the borough’s evolving self-image. The Melrose Commons area is awash in new development: stately town houses, a gleaming BP gas station and a $250 million criminal courthouse close to completion. Even the three-block stretch where the mechanics work is destined to become part of a new $30 million campus for Boricua College.

The mechanics shrug it off, doubtful that new buildings will extinguish the need for bargain car repairs. Some of their clients, they laugh, are off-duty police officers. One, Edward Sanchez, dropped by recently to have the alternator changed on his 1993 Nissan Maxima.

“For me, it’s better if I see somebody working on the street than making problems, stealing in stores,” said Sanchez, 29, who flashed his badge to prove he is an auxiliary police officer. “Maybe it’s not legal, but I give them credit. They’re trying to survive.”