Sacked by the "downturn", an unemployed architect touring the country in a bus...

I used to live in New York City. I designed homes for the tycoons of Wall Street; Park Avenue, Scarsdale, Greenwich. It was great fun. And, after years of saving up for a down payment, I was just about to buy my own little place in Fleetwood, half an hour north of the city, when the economy fell apart. Architects are like canaries in a coal mine when the economy slows, and true to form, there were massive layoffs in firms all over the country. Devastation of the profession. So, I decided to try to find something else to do for a while. I bought a 23' school bus and I'm on the road to see if I can figure out what that might be.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

How my Wheel Didn't Fall Off and I Didn't get Killed

Clinch County, GA

I'm not sure of the name of the town anymore, I could look on the repair bill.  I do remember it was fairly small as I passed through.  A few miles further down the road, I noticed that the front end rumbling that started recently, was now getting much worse.  I figured a tire had never been balanced, and it's uneven wear was now just running away  compoundingly.  I debated whether I should press on to the next town, but caution and the desolate looking road ahead persuaded me I should go back to the nameless junction I had just left behind.

I circled back and found a shiny gas station complete with convenience store, which told me there would be no mechanic.  Fortunately the man behind the counter, an educated Pakistani I think, very articulately directed me to a wheel and brake place less than a mile away.  "They also do everything" he called after me, letting me know that their knowledge went beyond wheels.

I found Bo working on a truck, and despite his slack jaw, young age, and general roundness, he conveyed an air of authority, and I knew he was in charge.  I described the rumbling and wobbling I thought was coming from the front right wheel, and offered that he could drive it a bit and see.  Half a mile later he said, pointing at the left rear view mirror, "It's the left rear, see?"  I peered over his shoulder and could clearly see the left rear wheel gyrating so dramatically that it came in and out of view from behind the wheelwell below the side of the truck.  "Oh, yeah!" I hear myself exclaim, somewhat dazed...
Back at Clinch Wheel Alignment and Brakes, I jump out and have a look.  The wheel should be held on by 8 lugs.  5 were gone, with their studs sheared off flush with the plate of the rim.  The wheel was held on, in a canted way, only by the three remaining.  I knew that 1) this was serious, b) it would be expensive and Third) I could have been killed to death.  Bo knew almost immediately that they could fix it, that it would take rebuilding the hub, and that they might not have all the lugs and studs needed.

In the ensuing hours, (4 total) I next met Mike, a fellow customer who was a regular at this garage.  Mike cradled a little dog in his left arm, Doodle ("Because I cain't call him Sheeit!), who was completely incongruous with Mike's macho camo dress, complete with cartridges rattling in his bulging pockets.  He and Skipper, who appeared soon after, bantered on fondly about army life and the hardships endured, and simple pleasures too, like particular brands of cigarettes they can't get here in the States.  I never did find out what Skipper's job responsibilities were, but he seemed to belong there.  Very soon, Willie appeared.  He did not socialize at all; he seemed to be working before he arrived.  It was clear that because of his race, and perhaps the era in which he was raised, but also now still enforced by subtle cues from the others, Willie knew that his lot was to do all the work, which he did with an energy and conscientiousness made more impressive by his lower status in the group.  I, of course, made a point of asking him his name and, confident that I had previously befriended the other fellows, offered Willie a hand shake, and when he seemed a little awkward about his' being covered in grease, I pulled off an Obama fist bump, and we were friends.

And it turns out he is an excellent mechanic.  The job he did, though efficient, took hours, and at any step, when he wasn't satisfied with the fit of a part, he removed and replaced it.  (See the picture "Willie Fixes My Bus" in the right hand column, and click it for a Flickr show of the process.)  While he worked for the first two hours, another fellow from inside the shop hunted down the needed lugs and studs from another garage.  The mounting holes in my rims had been ripped into roughly egg shaped cut outs and Willie said that if he had to, he would reinstall them, but he wouldn't like it.  Another hour later, two used rims were found, one of which was a perfect fit, but the other, from a Chrysler, had a center mounting hole that was too small for my Ford axle hub.  It would need to be reamed out to fit, a task Willie accomplished in yet another hour using a diamond surfaced 3" grinding wheel.  There were many unsuccessful trial fittings of the heavy wheel almost onto the axle, and when it finally seemed that Willie's patience might be exhausted, I got close to him and said I wanted to ask a question, and paused until he made eye contact, which was not his usual habit.  But when he did, I asked if he was about done because he had to be, or because he "liked it?", my emphasis letting him know that I was intentionally borrowing his phrase to refer to a job of which he could be proud.  He immediately said he didn't like it yet, and I said "Please, don't stop until you like it."  He later repeated to the others that I had asked him not to stop until he liked it, and it was clear that I had given him something  and I felt good about the exchange.  I also tipped Willie $20 in the end, a detail I include in this post a little reluctantly, the most noble gestures being ones which remain confidential, except for what also happened, next...

I was afraid the job would be a thousand dollars, as it would certainly be back home, so when Angie, the enormous but still pretty faced woman in the office, handed me a bill for $153, I paid it quietly and left quickly.  A few miles down the road, I stopped and looked and saw that she had only charged for one hour of labor.  I called back to the garage, and explained that I had told her that it took four hours, but I was only charged for one.  Angie said, "Oh thank you.  We'll charge you another hour, because that's all it should be for what we did."  I said "Thanks, I'm out of work myself, so I appreciate it."  "You know, not that many people would have called back" she added.  "Well you guys were great and you saved me, and it just didn't feel right."  I didn't add that also, I wouldn't want them to think badly of that Yankee.  But, though I am an atheist, I did add "God bless you"; when in Rome...  And I'm glad I tipped Willie, because it doesn't seem possible that they could pay him fairly out of that small fee.

There is so much more interesting detail to this story, particularly the banter with the others in the garage, but I'm missing the day here, now in Carrabelle, Fl....  OK, a little more Bloggin'

Carrabelle and Apalachicola: photographer's paradise, see pics below and click 'em to enlarge..  Oh, yeah, now I remember why I thought this trip might be fun :-)


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