On a cold morning in the middle of November just north of downtown Minneapolis, I waited in my car at the end of a short driveway that led to a windowless two-car garage.
Soon, a rusty Chevy pickup pulled up and two men got out. The passenger was a lean, fair-haired man with a faded Carhartt jacket and tattoos on his neck. The driver was Tom Nelson, a tall and hefty bald man with salt-and-pepper beard and a friendly face. Tom had placed an ad on craigslist looking for help and, after a pleasant phone conversation, he asked me to come down and meet him at his shop the next day. After short introductions, Tom went up to a door at the side of the garage and unlocked a pair of deadbolts. Once inside, he threw a few light switches and the cold room took shape.
Two vehicles were crammed into the dark space: closest was a mid-nineties pickup, its wheelless front end jacked-up on cinder blocks; on the far end was a project car, a nineteen forties Ford Deluxe Coupe, covered in a layer of dust. Dollar store table lamps, stripped of their shades, lit up the place. A couple of lamps sat on the floor, their lonely bulbs painfully bright. One lamp was stuck under the fender of the pickup while another was tucked inside the engine compartment. Extension cords and multi-connectors hung from the rafters like ivy and there was a sour smell in the air.
My wife and I had been married almost a year when we moved from Seattle to the Twin Cities. We'd come here to try something new and to be closer to our extended families -- she grew up on Long Island; I in southeast Wisconsin. I wasn’t overly concerned about finding a job once we arrived. I had a good education and a solid work history. I'd worked the past ten years in Seattle as a mechanic and service manager at a shop that specialized in SAABs. Prior to that, I'd worked for five years as a tile setter and stone slab fabricator and installer. Farther back, I had taught a couple of university-level courses, and a little farther back still I worked as a contractor for a business-consulting firm. I had my mechanic’s tools, reliable transportation, a couple of good suits, a few nice ties, and a healthy dose of optimism.
My wife, too, was confident she could find work. Having just received her MA in counseling, she was ready to accrue hours toward licensure. With good timing, she found a position at a mental health crisis center, and this job, it turned out, would be the key to our survival over the next several months.
Back at the shop, it wasn’t long before I had the belt and pulley installed in Tom’s pickup. After I tidied up the garage a bit, Tom took me out to the driveway, pulled out a roll of bills and peeled off the sixty bucks that he owed me—ten bucks an hour with an extra ten dollar bill on top.
“It isn’t much, I’ll admit,” he said, “but you know what you’re getting and you get paid at the end of every day.”
We talked about the next day’s work and then I left, the acrid smell of Tom’s garage glued to my clothes. I was excited to show my wife some cash and I was happy to see that Tom was a decent guy.
The next day, Tom put me to work installing a suspension kit in the front springs of the truck. I hadn’t done this before, but the instructions were straightforward and it didn’t take long. Next we mounted the front wheels, took away the cinder blocks and dropped the pickup to the ground. We took the truck out for a test drive and that’s when Tom began to talk about the work he had in mind for me.
He asked me how I felt about driving a snowplow. (Tom did lawn care for a list of clients in the summer, and during the winter he put blades on his pickups and plowed snow.) I shrugged a bit and confessed that I’d never driven a snowplow before.
A little later on our drive, we pulled up to a small grocery store lot where Tom had constructed a steel gate for the owner’s dumpster bay. It was a strong gate, painted brown, and Tom was proud of it. That’s when it hit me: the smell from Tom’s shop was the smell of welding sticks. He had welded the sections of gate on the floor of the garage and put them together here. When we got back, Tom got out his money wad, paid me for the day’s work and told me he would text me that night with specifics for tomorrow.
On the drive home, I started to wonder what I was getting myself into.
I was a little worried about operating a snowplow. I didn't have my Minnesota driver’s license yet, nor did I have snowplowing insurance (if there was such a thing), and I envisioned myself taking out a mailbox or a flowerpot or backing into someone’s car, all of which conjured images of police lights, screaming property owners and accumulating legal fees.
Also, my heart sank a bit when Tom showed me the gate he built. It wasn't that I couldn't help with that sort of thing—I had done a bit of welding in the past—but the thought of spending hours in that dark garage fitting together steel bars on an ice-cold floor seemed daunting.
Lastly, working under a pickup without jack stands was a professional no-no where I came from. If my old boss caught me crawling under a truck balanced on a stack of cinder blocks, he would have me filleted with a socket wrench.
On top of these concerns was the bathroom arrangement at Tom’s shop: a “pee bucket” sitting in the trunk of the coupe. When you had to go, you got the bucket, did your business and then took it behind the garage and tossed its contents into the bushes. There was a gas station down the street for bigger projects.
Of course, none of this information would reach my wife. If she had any idea that I was up to something questionable or unsafe, she would pull the curtain on the show. But we were getting desperate for income. Our savings was evaporating and my wife wouldn’t see her first paycheck for a couple of weeks. In the seven weeks we had been here, I must have sent out at least 25 job applications for all kinds of work—cover letters and resumes, the whole nine yards—and I hadn’t heard so much as a peep. Working for Tom was the only positive thing I had going and I was reluctant to jump ship just yet.
When Tom texted that night, he said he wasn’t feeling well and he would let me know the next day how things were going. I waited a couple of days and then texted him; then I texted him again later that weekend. No response. When I finally called him the following Sunday, he told me about how sick he’d been and that he probably should have gone to the hospital. He also told me that he suffered from depression and that sometimes took its toll. I told him his health should be his first concern and that he should call me when he was feeling better. A few days slipped by and no word. By the end of the next week there was still no communication, so I let the situation go.
Before our move to the Midwest, I had never used craigslist to find a job. In fact, I had never used any kind of job board to find employment. All the work I've ever had was found through personal connections.
My first job out of college was with a consulting firm for which my sister had given me a referral. She was my “in.” After that, a roommate in Seattle connected me with his boss and that got me into the tile and stone business. A few years later, a good friend of my then-girlfriend helped me land a decent job at one of the Washington State universities. Finally, in about 2003 (after the relationship was over and I was back in Seattle installing stone countertops), I bought a used SAAB through craigslist and the owner recommended that I bring the car to her mechanic. The mechanic saw my name on the check I gave him and it turned out that he had been an old college classmate of two of my cousins back in Minnesota. I asked if he needed help and in a couple of weeks I was turning wrenches in his shop just south of downtown Seattle. This connection turned into a 10-year job and one of my better life experiences.
My wife and I hardly knew anyone in the Twin Cities when we arrived. I was forty-four, and as we contemplated starting a family, I was trying to steer away from blue-collar work and find something more physically sustainable. I quickly learned, however, that being employed as a mechanic for ten years was a glowing heap of plutonium when it came to getting a job working, as a friend of mine would say, “from the neck up” (working with your head and not your hands.) Trying to land a low-tier university administrative job was a tough sell when a prospective employer pictured you in greasy overalls and a wrench in your hand. My work as a mechanic seemed to have me pegged.
“You’re lucky,” my friends often reminded me before we left Seattle. “You can always fall back on your skills as a mechanic.”
And fall back I would...
After my short stint with Tom, I was back on craigslist looking for work. I had a couple of interviews that didn’t lead anywhere and a number of email exchanges that dropped off. I worked one weekend on as a location sound recorder for a short film (I found this opportunity under the “gig” listing on craigslist), but it wasn’t paid. By the end of January, I was getting desperate and I started considering going back into the auto repair business. I found an ad on craigslist under the “skilled trade/craft” heading looking for a mechanic “that could assist the lead and become a part of a great team.” It was at one of those franchised quick-lube businesses, but it was close to home. After the interview, the owner hired me on the spot.
I knew SAABs well enough that I could work on them with a blindfold on. I knew all about the quirks and idiosyncrasies that made me an efficient SAAB mechanic, but put me in front of a 98’ Honda Accord and it might be twenty minutes before I find the fuse box.
I made this all clear to my new boss before he hired me, but he said had faith in my skills. He would pay me twenty-five dollars an hour, flat rate, which means that compensation was determined by book time. If the book (this is fairly standardized in repair shops) says a job should take X number of hours, then when the job is done I get paid X hours of work, even if the job runs shorter or longer. This makes things predictable for both employer and employee, but in January, when I started, business was slow--dead slow. There were a couple of days when I was in at seven in the morning and out at four and I only put fifty bucks in my pocket. Anyway, that’s how it goes.
I got along well with the lead mechanic, Omar, and the other fellow, Flynn, who was doing most of the “non-mechanical” lube services. I spent a lot of time learning where things were and getting to know the rhythm of the shop. The owner was rarely in, so I was taking de facto orders from the service manager…a different guy who sat up front and did all the customer relations stuff. His name was Barney.
Sometimes your hair stands on end when you meet someone for the first time. Your instincts are telling you to watch out for this guy. Well, this was what happened when I first met Barney. One of the things Barney said right off the bat was, “I hear SAABs are the s#*tiest cars ever made. I guess if you can fix a SAAB, you can fix anything, right?” Some people I mentioned this too took this as an underhanded complement. I didn’t. To me it was a sucker punch—a way to get under my skin. Usually, when a guy goes after you like that, it’s because you've made him nervous. You’re a threat, in some way. I was the new guy, so I let it slide. But if Barney wanted to lock horns, I wouldn’t back off.
About two weeks into the job, when the owner wasn’t there, Flynn called in sick, so they shuffled me over to the lube bay: the bay close to the customer lobby and close to Barney.
The “quick lube” area is the busiest section of the shop, and I was doing what I could to get the oil changes in and out as efficiently as possible. I changed the oil on a Honda and then a Toyota after that. Then a small pickup came in and Barney handed me the work order and it included a couple of punch list items beyond the oil change. Earlier, I could hear him in the background huffing about how slow I was moving, but I tried not to let it bother me. (My default speed is slow when it comes to working on something new. My policy is to do it right rather than do it fast.) When the pickup was in the air and I was draining the oil, Barney came by and asked if I had lubed the chassis yet. “Lube the chassis?” I said. “Yeah,” he said. “I wrote it right here,” he said has he hammered his thick finger down on the work order. “I thought you could read?” he said to me before stomping off to his office.
I was already flustered with my new situation, and now Barney was raising his voice at me. After that, Omar came over and guided me through the work order, and after he went back to what he’d been doing, I waited for Barney to come around. When he came by I motioned him over and said, “Listen, this isn’t going to work. You’re loud. You’re aggressive. You’re insulting me. I’m not going to be treated like this.”
Barney went red. His eyes bugged out and steam was ready to shoot from his ears. “Well, why don’t you go, then?” he said, trying to keep from blowing up.
“All right,” I said. “I will.” I put my tools away and then went about disassembling my toolbox. I took out all the drawers and all the heavy tools from the base, and then I backed up my car to one of the empty bays and hauled out all my gear…undoing everything I’d done two weeks before. Omar gave me a hand every now and then, but mostly he stayed out of my way. He was quiet. My troubles weren’t his.
Three trips over the February snow-packed roads and I was completely pulled out of the shop. After the first trip, I called my wife to tell her what had happened, and she was supportive. Then I called the owner and explained the situation. “Nothing much I can do now, I guess,” he said. I told him that I didn’t think there was. He was understanding and there were no hard feelings in the end.
I suppose I could have handled things differently. I suppose I could have been less confrontational with Barney, or I could have waited till the end of the day and taken it up with the owner. But hindsight provides all kinds of sensible solutions. At the time, I felt like a dog that was getting kicked around. Someone needed to stand up to Barney, I thought. I had the opportunity, and I did.
Another reason why I wasn’t too scared to put my foot down when it came to Barney was that I had other things cooking on the employment end of things. A couple of days earlier I got a call from the owner of another shop not far away. He was offering me a job as a tech at twenty-five dollars an hour—not flat rate—and that was way more than I was getting at the lube shop. It seemed like the perfect time to make my exit.
The owner of this new shop (let’s call him Phil) ran an ad on craigslist in late December and I had interviewed with him in early January. Phil had offered me a job at the time, and then retracted it: something about needing to find the right time to “release” the guy that was currently in the position. (I thought this was a little weird. I didn’t like the thought of a boss looking to replace an employee before the employee had gone. But I didn’t have all the facts, so I didn’t worry about it.) Then Phil started a series of emails detailing what he wanted me to do if I were to be hired. I was to start off mostly as the desk guy, or service writer, (“80% at the front desk,” he said, or something to that effect) with a little bit of oil change work when the floor mechanics needed help.
I liked this idea. I wasn’t excited about getting into heavy mechanical work any more. I was getting old! And the idea of being parked at the front desk, ordering parts and dealing with customers, seemed like a good alternative for the kind of “above the neck” work I had been seeking. Unfortunately, this proposition changed over a course of emails. In his last phone message—the message I got while working at the lube shop—was that he wanted me to come on as more or less a full-time tech, with only a little bit of work at the front desk. The deal was still too good to pass up.
I dropped by Phil’s shop for a tour of the place about a week after leaving the lube shop. It was an old brick building; a business he had inherited from his father, and the place seemed frozen in time. Old dusty signs of discontinued products hung on the wall; old boxes full of vintage tools were pressed against dirty brown walls. Past-dated calendars hung here and there above worn and oil-infused shelving. There were ghosts here, I could tell. But they were keeping to themselves.
Within a week I had my shop uniform with my name tag stitched over the left breast. I carved out a little corner of the shop and set up my toolbox and things were good. The two other mechanics were more or less friendly and I got to work up at the front desk when Phil went on vacation. After Phil returned from his Gulf cruise, though, I was relegated to the garage again. And that’s where I stayed. Day after day, as I cut out exhaust pipes and hammered away at rusty rotors, I listened to the obligatory Steve Miller and Van Halen blaring on the radio from the far corner. I had to bother the other mechanics for tools I didn’t have and I sought their advice on makes of American cars and trucks I’d never worked on before. I listened to them while they talked about Fords and Chevys and gun collections, and over time they seemed less and less interested in me. Then came the whispered conversations that dispersed the moment I approached. If I had any sense, I would have seen what was coming.
I was forty-four years old, and I had never been fired in my life. I was stunned. In the six weeks I’d been there, there had been no indication by Phil that things were amiss—no lead up—just a “We’re making some changes here…” and that was it. I called my wife on the drive home and told her what happened. “It’s all right,” she said in her comforting way. “We’ll be okay.”
I turned in my uniforms and had my box out of Phil’s shop the next day. He said he had another guy coming in the day after to replace me, and I saw the grim irony of it all. I felt sorry, now, for the guy I had replaced. He had probably gone through similar humiliation.
I left my toolbox in the back of my car for a few days after that. In order to get the box into our apartment, I had to take it apart and carry it up a couple of flights of stairs, and I didn’t want to go through that cursed dance again. When I finally got the box out of the car, I dragged it to the back yard and disassembled every last screw until I could dump the whole thing, all hundred pieces of it, in our storage area. I swore to myself (with my wife’s blessing, of course) that I would never work as a mechanic again.
It was almost May. Rent was coming up and my wife had student loan payments that were coming due. With a heavy heart, I started looking for jobs again. Eventually, I wound up back at craigslist.
(Part 1 of 3)