Friday, March 7, 2014

The Hurt

My father was an auto mechanic. More specifically a brake and front end guy with his own shop- Brake King -for 30 plus years down on 4th Street in St. Petersburg. Back then, long before gentrification turned the local color into a strip of upper end coffee bars and haute couture clothing shops it was mostly hookers, drug addicts, old drunks and bikers who lived in and crawled up and down the area.

His garage was a two bay affair, with a small office, a back room where the grinder and grease bucket were kept and a front end pit installed behind the building, dug and cemented as I recall without the benefit of the required city permits. The place was an oven in the summer and an ice tray in the winter. My father labored there 10 or 14 hours a day turning drums and rotors, grinding brake pads and aligning car front ends. His forearms were like cords of wood from his work and the creases in his hands permanently stained from the grease and oil and grime. He busted his ass for the family.

On Fridays around lunchtime the small office with begin to fill up. Jimmy, who’d retired from the Coca Cola bottling plant, was a permanent fixture there. The Clark boys - Bobby and Steve- would come around. Bobby was principal at a local high school and Steve worked for the power company. Bob Ulrich, St. Pete’s mayor would show up. Forrest Booth, vice president of a plumbing company would come around. There were many others who would attend more or less often.

They’d sit around and swap stories and jokes and eventually someone would run down to Coney Island and bring back brown paper bags full of chili dogs or over to whatever pizza place was currently opened up the street for boxes of pies. My father would unlock the office Coke machine and everyone would sit down to eat. These were the men my father played softball and golf with on the weekends, the men he had attended the Baptist church with since the late 50’s when he’d moved to town from Tennessee with my mother.

In 1978 when I turned 16 my father gifted me with my first car, a 1963 Plymouth Belvedere. He’d picked it up for $50 and some brake work. It was white, with pushbutton gears in the dashboard to the left of the steering wheel. He installed a new radiator and some blue strap on seat covers to hide the tortured, torn and sprung bench seats. He was proud as hell of the fact that his newly minted legal driver would have a car to drive to school.

I attended a private school. The pricey tuition was, like everything else in my life, a product of those front end jobs and turned rotors, of that sweat and grime. The student parking lot would fill up with BMW’s and Audi’s driven by the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers. I went to school with the rich kids.

My mother had taken me to my father's shop on a Friday at noon in early February. I was out of school for the day to get my driver's license. I was 16. I was excited about going to the shop because there had been hints and portends of what was coming.
My father rolled up the door on one of the shop’s bays and handed me a set of key. The car sat there, newly waxed.

I was mortified. To a 16-year old with visions of Mustangs and restored GTO’s the Belvedere was a heap. I stood and stared at it. How could I possibly park this thing next to Bob Tilka’s GTO or Laura's 65 Mustang in the school parking lot?

I’m sure I didn’t look at my father’s face and I’m equally sure that he was looking at mine. My father could read me like a book and not being a stupid man must have realized immediately that I was disappointed beyond words.

I eventually sulked to the door and sat in the driver’s seat, the dash’s original AM only radio screaming “low class loser” at me.

My father leaned his head in the door and told me to be careful. I started the car, pushed in the “drive” button and eased on the gas and out of the garage bay.

In retrospect I believe my ungrateful response on that day hurt my father more intensely than any of the subsequent college bullshit I got involved with. I had been a selfish, ungrateful little prick, something his grace and self containment kept him from calling me in front of the men, his friends, who'd gathered there that day.

Later, of course, when Bob and Laura and the others piled into the Belvedere on Friday evenings to go find beer and drink on the beach, that day simply disappeared from my memory. My father and I never spoke of it and to my regret I can remember ever telling him thanks.

I drove the Belvedere until I went off to college. My father sold it for $100 and I would like to think that it’s still running today.

The shop is gone now, replaced by a two story glass office building with an upscale seafood restaurant just down the street. My dad is gone too, four years now.

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