Tales of an accidental grease monkey

How the recession gave me an appreciation for hot rods, power tools and manual labor

Published July 13, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

It was only because of the recession that I moved in with a roommate, after more than a decade of living on my own. And it was only because of the roommate situation that I began renting a cramped office space in the garage of a hot rod and auto shop in Austin, Texas. There was a desk, a chair, Internet access. I’m a freelance writer. It was all that I needed.

My office came with other things: a dirty brown carpet, drum sets and car parts, a pit bull, a vintage record player, old issues of Playboy, Hot Rod, Super Chevy and Motor Trend magazines. It also came with the Guys.

"The Guys" is my collective name for Kenny, the owner of the shop, which is known as the International House of Hot Rods, and the three other men who work there: Miles the Brit and Oliver and Olivier, both French. The window in front of my desk looks out onto the smaller of the shop’s two car lifts, and on any given day, when I look up from my computer, I can stare out at the underbelly, for example, of a '59 Dodge, a '63 Lincoln Continental, a classic Pontiac Bonneville or a Chevelle SS. (Five months ago, I didn’t know the difference between any of them.) And at an assortment of regal motorcycles -- Triumphs, Harleys and BSAs -- parked below.

When I should be writing, I watch the Guys work. I marvel at their aptitude, their patience and ambition, especially when tackling the shell of the light blue Skoda that’s currently without an engine or a floor. Mine is a good office because it’s inherently collaborative, a noisy and friendly place where people can actually see the results of their work at the end of the day. It’s a good office because it couldn’t be more different than my last one, in New York, where I lived for 10 years.

Back then, every weekday morning I arrived at the same building in SoHo, said goodbye to the sun, then stepped into an elevator filled with nubile waifs and stunning young men. They got paid to be pretty -- a modeling company two floors above mine -- and I got paid to be an editor at an online literary sex magazine.

It may sound glamorous, the stuff of boom-time fantasy. But like many "offices," mine was just a desk with a computer and a phone situated among a dozen similar workstations. Presumably, the floor plan was open to foster dialogue and democracy. In reality, it was oppressively quiet, and all of us -- the editors, assistants, interns, designer and office manager who sat a few feet apart -- would IM each other rather than converse.

Whether this silent discourse was efficient or misanthropic, I’m still not sure. I do know that I felt alone in a roomful of people who were all working on a magazine devoted to intimate relationships. In fact, the isolation was a driving force behind my decision, in 2005, to pack up my desk and head back to Austin, my hometown.

But after a few years in Texas and myriad odd jobs, the economy went to hell, and I discovered I could no longer afford to live on my own. I tried to find a full-time job, but there weren’t any. So, I moved in with a roommate, also a freelance writer, who works in the quiet of a library, surrounded by erudite homeless people and unemployed CPAs. For me, that wasn’t an option. In the near silence of a library, I become autistic in my aversion to particular sounds, namely pen-clicking, gum chewing and sniffling. But because our house was a small two-bedroom with minimal air-conditioning, minimal workspace, a yappy mini-poodle (hers), and an ornery old feline prone to violence (mine), I needed to rent an office. And I needed it to be cheap.

I heard about the shop from a good friend, who was dating Kenny. The garage was cash-strapped, too, and looking for a little unconventional income boost. It was a match made in, well, the recession.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

During my first few weeks at the shop, I was tentative about being an interloper. I was 33, single, in a total state of professional and economic flux, and I couldn’t identify an intake manifold to save my life. The guys have all known each other for more than two decades. They are all 40-something, three out of four are musicians by night and gearheads by day, all are married or in a serious relationship, and all are beautiful in different ways, with taut arms and calf muscles from years of being in perpetual motion. They also all have respective glory days of bad behavior -- on the road with a band, as a roadie, a traveler -- evident in scars, worn tattoos, and lines rippling away from their eyes and across their foreheads.

In short, I was the sole female in a garage full of guys’ guys. I wore flip-flops and summer dresses. The guys wore work boots and grease-stained jumpsuits. They had a shop dog and now, it seemed, a shop girl: me. (One customer even asked if I was an intern.) But the guys made it easy for me to fit in.

"Tobeeeeen!" is how I was greeted by the Frenchies, along with a double-cheek kiss, on Day One. Miles gave me a slap on the back. Kenny gave me a single, innocuous kiss on the lips. It’s how I’ve been greeted every day since.

The guys never knew exactly what I was working on, but they were quick to empathize with my anxiety when my first story deadline rolled around at the shop.

Oliver, who works nights as a bartender, was the first to notice it. "You OK?" he asked, stepping gingerly into my office while I struggled to finish a story. I wasn't OK. I’ve never been good with deadlines. I stress and panic and curse and swear that, after this assignment is over, I’ll change careers. "You can do eeeet," he said. His accent is still thick even though he’s been in the states for 20 years. "When you do, come by the restaurant, and I’ll buy you a martini."

I made my deadline. And his was the best martini I’ve ever had.

With each deadline came a series of similar exchanges with all of the guys. They supported my work. So, when they needed to haul cumbersome car parts, I lent them my politically incorrect -- but invaluable when I spend time in West Texas -- black, four-door Chevrolet Silverado named Black Jesus (I’m a Jew) with an "I ♥ Bacon" bumper sticker (I’m a bad Jew).

After a month at the shop, I was finally comfortable enough to start asking questions: "Kenny, why is a workbench called a workbench, when really it’s just a table?" I asked.

"It’s an imprecise name," he said. "You’re right, a bench is something you sit on."

"Kenny, what’s a carburetor do?"

"It’s like a mouth," he said, patiently, not patronizing. "It blends air and fuel."

Then came my first lesson in car maintenance. I needed an oil change, so Kenny put Black Jesus on a lift and began the tutorial, first pointing out the muffler and the drive shaft and all the other under parts of my truck that I’d never seen before. Then, with one turn of a bolt, oil began spilling out into the oil pan. It was so much simpler than I thought.

"How long does it take to drain?" I asked, remembering the $75 I’d spent on my last oil change, assuming this would be a long, arduous process.

"Forty-five seconds," said Kenny. Then, with a tool that looked like a jar opener, he loosened the blue filter.

"Can I try?" I asked.

"Sure," he said, a natural teacher. I twisted the filter off using my hands. Soon, I looked like an extremely happy Pig Pen. Kenny handed me the new filter and showed me how to fill it with oil and then rub oil around the rim before screwing it back on, which I did. And then it was done.

"That was it?" I said, beaming.

"Yep," he said. "Don’t hit your head on the ..."

I jumped up and hit my head on the lift. "Crap!" But I was excited. We put in the new oil and changed my engine’s air filter. Then I called my mother and my father and my roommate to give them each a play-by-play.

"Next week, I’ll teach you how to weld if you’d like," said Kenny.

"It will be like 'Flashdance!'"

"Not really."

When I’m at the shop, and under my truck, I think about my grandpa, Harry Levy, who emigrated from Poland when he was a child and ended up in Dallas. He was a plumber who never went to school and who worked with his hands his whole life so that his son, my father, wouldn’t have to. Grandpa took pride in his work, in being able to fix anything -- his cars, a light fixture, a radio, a toilet -- and in sending his granddaughters showerheads when we first moved away from home, talking us through the installation over the phone. Even during the last years of his life, when his work was hampered by his loss of sight due to macular degeneration, Grandpa renewed his plumbing license every year. He was a certified plumber when he died, in 2005, at the age of 94.

But my grandfather’s determination to catapult his son into a white-collar career had the deleterious effect of making him too white-collar, the anti-plumber, if you will. My father is an excellent magazine publisher, but possibly the least handy person on the planet.

I always wanted to learn how to fix things, to spend time with my grandfather where he seemed happiest: at his plumbing company and in his garage, under the hood of his car. But my grandfather’s tutorials for his granddaughters stopped at showerheads. When it came to plumbing and car maintenance, he had an "it’s not for girls, you were made for better" attitude. Grandpa wanted me to be married and have babies. I wanted those things too. My fictional husband would kill spiders, assemble IKEA furniture, deal with our plumbing issues, and work on my car. But my husband hasn’t shown up yet. In fact, he may never show up. And I miss my grandpa.

A few months after I changed my oil, the toilet tank at my house cracked. I turned off the water and for days afterward, my roommate and I lived with what we referred to as a "Cambodian style" bathroom. In order to flush, we had to pour a bucket of water into the bowl.

"I do not know how to deal with this," my roommate said, shielding her eyes every time she walked by the bathroom. "So I’m going to ignore it." I appreciated her candor.

"My grandpa was a plumber, I can do this!" I finally said one day. I wrote down the tank’s model number and tracked down a new one.

"Ma’am, no offense, but we don’t get many women in here," said the guy at the toilet shop. I was wearing a dress and heels, having come straight from a job interview that had not gone well. I needed something to work in my favor. I needed to be able to make something work.

"No offense taken," I said. "Does the tank come with all the inside parts and with the flusher?"

It took me three hours, but I installed the new tank and called it a very good day.

Later that week, Kenny lent me one of his power drills to install towel rods and hang pictures. He calls it his "uncircumcised drill" because a conical piece of metal slides up and over the bit and the screw, guiding the screw into the wall. I felt like a dude. I felt like Bob freakin’ Vila.

The truth is, if I had more money, I’d still be working at home, spending my days in contented seclusion that melted into anxiety, only running into people when I went to the grocery store. That’s how I’d lived for years after leaving New York, and it wouldn’t be sad because I wouldn’t know the difference.

Instead, I know these brilliant men. I know their wives and girlfriends. And I'm learning things at my office -- and not just how to name classic cars or fix things (I have a long way to go in both departments). I'm learning that what I thought of as success, back in New York, is very different than what I want now. It's is no longer equated with business cards, mastheads and an annual pay raise but on work that is good because it is challenging, quantifiable and collaborative.

My idea of what makes a good life has changed, too. The guys at the shop all have good lives -- not because they involve a lot of money, but because they are chosen and unusual, lives that include youthful misadventures fondly remembered rather than lamented.

At the end of the day, usually over a cold beer purchased at the Shell Station next door, the guys talk openly and honestly about their lives and the women and cars and bikes that they love.

"Did you see that ‘67 Rally Sport Camaro?" says Kenny. "She was beautiful. What tears my heart out about that car is the black interior with the white insert all the way around the seat, like a tuxedo."

"Gigi made all A’s," beams Olivier, talking about his 8-year-old daughter.

"I wonder how much she’ll go for on the black market," jokes Miles, talking about the baby girl he and his girlfriend are about to have.

These aren't Oprah moments but they are hopeful ones, in which I’m fully included, and during which I have no regrets about this good, strange life I’ve chosen.

A couple months ago, my date and I went to see "Wolverine," the latest "X-Men" movie. In an early scene, Hugh Jackman is driving a brown vintage car.

"That’s a pretty El Camino," I whispered to my date.

"That’s not an El Camino," he whispered back. "It’s a Ford Ranchero. It’s Ford’s version of the El Camino."

I nodded, embarrassed and confused because the car looked almost exactly like Elmore, Kenny’s white El Camino. I’d been saying hello to Elmore every morning for months. Then the camera zoomed in to the back of the car, to CHEVROLET in silver block letters. Then it zoomed in to the side of the car, to the silver, cursive El Camino. My date was silent. I smiled; life was good.

I couldn’t wait to tell the guys.

By Tobin Levy

Tobin Levy is a freelance writer living in Austin, TX.

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