by David Edgerley Gates
I thought I'd lighten it up a little, and get away from all that deep thinking, wading around in shallow waters.
My dad got me my first real job when I was fifteen. It wasn't my idea, but he obviously thought it was high time I didn't spend my summer idle, and I was getting too old for camp. I was going to start boarding school in the fall. Boy needed some life lessons. So he cooked it up with Mrs. McCartney to hire me at her garage.
Some back story. Hazel McCartney and her husband Sewell left a small town in Maine and came down to Cambridge, Mass., during the Depression. They started their business on a shoestring, but made out. Then, a few years later, from what I hear, he decided he didn't like it in the city, and went back upcountry. She stayed.
S.H. McCartney's was a fixture, outside of Harvard Square. Everybody used it for car repair, and I remember getting air for my bike tires there from the time I was off training wheels. It wasn't an unfamiliar work environment. What was unfamiliar was work.
The shop floor itself was guys, entirely guys, and tough working-class guys, Irish, Italians, Polacks. [Years later, I wrote a story called "The Blue Mirror," and used one of my personal heroes, Stanley Kosciusko, who survived the bombing raids over the Ploesti oil fields in WWII, but cancer killed him, in the end. He was the body man, not a mechanic. It's a special skill set.] They didn't treat me too rough, even though I was the FNG, and just a kid, but they didn't baby me along, either. Nobody sent me to find a left-handed wrench, or some other tom-fool errand, but they expected me to sink or swim, and get up to speed. I thought they were awesome. It was the first time I'd been put in a situation where everybody knew their business back to front. They were professionals. They could lean down and listen to an engine running, and tell you all it needed was a new set of points. To me, it was a different world.
Now. Mrs. McCartney. I think, by then, she must have been into her early sixties. And here in her shop, you have this overwhelmingly male presence, all of them people who knew their stuff, but I never heard a disrespectful word from any of them, in or out of her hearing. She came to work at 7 AM, and slipped into a white duster. We had a uniform service, so all the guys wore coveralls with their name over the pockets. I got a set of my own, too, after a month on the job. The boss had her name stitched to her uniform. It read MRS. MAC, and that's what we all called her. She was, maybe, the iron hand in the velvet glove, or more to the point, the iron hand in the iron glove. I admired her beyond words. If you asked me who my first and strongest role model was, I'd have to say it was her.
Now, a digression. Or not. Anybody who's ever run a small business knows that it stays afloat on endless paperwork, invoicing and payroll, tax liabilities, all that crap. So aside from the mechanics working on the floor, and the body shop, and the parts department, the nuts and bolts, no pun intended, there was an office upstairs, and it was run by a gal who was the first true Butch I'd ever consciously met. Not that I snapped to it, then. She was a chain-smoker, Camels or Luckies, and she smoked them down until the ashes fell behind her teeth. She was an intimidating figure. I didn't know at the time that she and Mrs. Mac owned a house together. What used to be called a Boston marriage. I have no idea what went on between the two of them, outside of work, and it's none of my business. The point is that Mrs. Mac trusted this woman absolutely, to handle the money end. Their relationship, in that sense, was transparent.
So we fast-forward about ten years. I'd dropped out of college, I'd been in the military, I'd had my heart broken. I slink back to my hometown, Cambridge, Mass., licking my wounds. I take my mom's car into Mrs. Mac's, and the first thing, she offers me a job. She needs a front-end guy. I say yes, don't even think about it. She wants somebody who knows their ass from a hole in the ground, and I need a comfort zone. I start the next day.
Here's the deal. Every morning I come in at 7, and take over from the night guy, Harry Truman, who's there to keep things safe. ('Mr. Truman.' she calls him, carefully formal. The only black guy on the payroll. Not somebody who tugs his forelock, either. Along with Stanley, another of my private heroes.) Then the shop foreman hands me the day's tickets. Out front, we got maybe fifty cars, stacked up with only enough room to get to the gas pumps. My job is to rearrange those cars. Which ones go to the tire station, who's in for an oil change, who has to get on the lift for a muffler job. You know that little hand-held puzzle, from when we were kids? It's a plastic pad, with thirty-five tiles, and thirty-six spaces, so you've only got one empty space, and you have to shuffle the tiles around and get 'em in order. Sort of a two-dimensional Rubik. Not all that hard. But that's what I did in the parking lot, first thing in the morning, shift the cars and line up the customers for the shop, by work order. Who's on First? Not rocket science, but attention to detail. If a hole opened up on the shop floor, you wanted to fill it.
Mind you, this place was right on Mass. Ave., and there were gas pumps, so I'm the gas jockey, too, and basically your first point of contact. I'm representing, not my strong point, I admit. I caught some odd details. There was a grocery store, right next door, for example, and this woman comes, threading between the cars, and she's got a three-year-old boy in tow, baffled, and a girl, six or seven, who's scrubbing her eyes and collapsing in tears. Not hysterics, although the mom's near crazy. "I think she must have touched a pepper in the supermarket, and rubbed her eyes." I reach over a car and scoop the kid up and get her into the bathroom, and have her splash water in her face. The mom is right behind me, wringing her hands. It passes. I give the little girl some soap, to clean up. Everybody takes a deep breath. The kid, her face red, a little embarrassed, I guess, thanks me. Her brother is looking at me with enormous eyes, like, What just happened? Their mom is of course relieved. Not that serious. The kids are okay, nobody's delinquent, she's not a bad mother, her daughter's not going to go blind. Today's good deed.
Then there was the bum.
Because we were on the main drag, there was a lot of foot traffic, as well as cars going by. College kids, hippies, street musicians, office workers, stoners, who knows? Jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts the fashion. It was a parade. Hell, it was a zoo. I mean, come on, this was back in the day, everybody smoking dope and careless of the future. We thought we were the heroes of the Revolution.
And this one particular morning, a guy shows up, somewhere past fifty, but hard to tell, the mileage on his tires. Burned brown as walnut, clothes worn but clean, not walking wounded. You get a read on people. He might have been down on his luck, but he had self-respect. He asks me if he can use the Men's Room.
Well, okay. I hesitated. And then I thought, gimme a break. He's just a guy on his uppers. I say sure.
Goes in, takes a leak, cleans up after himself, washes his face, doesn't piss on the seat. We're cool. He comes out, thanks me for the kindness, and then as he's going out the door, he turns back and flashes me this enormous grin.
"It's a great life if you don't weaken," he says.
I think about that encounter. I think about it a lot. What if you didn't have a pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out of? And what if some kid in a gas station paid you the courtesy of treating you like you weren't some piece of gum on his shoe? You could be there.
It's a great life if you don't weaken.