The wrenches would come skidding across the floor like a flat rock on a smooth lake, clanging on the concrete to make a noise not unlike the sound of ice cubes rattling in an empty class, only with a metallic tone to it. When they came to rest, they rang for another second or two.
Delmar Ferguson hated seeing the work pile up, the cluster of cars angled into his small parking lot in downtown Hutchinson, Kansas, indicating that either business was up, or efficiency was down. It was always hard to say.
Delmar, a quick-walking, quiet man in his early 70s, would walk into his shop in his white Amoco shirt — the owner was the only one who wore white — and blue trousers that never quite reached his ankles. The mechanic, Carl Zwyckl, he of the rare all-consonant last name, would invariably be at one stage or another in burning a Marlboro Red — lighting, dangling or flicking — with grease up to his elbows, sweat beading on his shiny forehead and dripping down the chest he always left exposed by one extra button’s worth. His blue, short-sleeved uniform shirt would be smeared with the carnage of a head gasket on a Chrysler, a U-joint on a Silverado, maybe a CV shaft on a Nissan. Sometimes, the cigarette butts littering the shop floor would have little greasy fingerprints on them.
I’d be in the back, fixing a tire. Once a tire was off the rim, and before I put on the glue and patch, I would reach inside the tire and grind away the smoothness of the rubber. Tiny burned specs of warm rubber would fly onto my arms, sticking to the leftover oil from the last water pump job, and I would squint and turn my head to shield my eyes from the spattering gore. Occasionally, a drop of sweat would drip off my nose and land inside the tire. That back room got awfully hot.
On days like this, there was no way we were getting everything done by 6 p.m., which was the kind of thing that irritated Delmar. You could just tell, even though he never said much. So he would walk into his shop, probably after a round of golf he’d played in his white shirt and blue trousers, and without saying a word, would take matters into his own hands.
He would grab a handful of wrenches — he always knew which ones he’d need before he even started — and crawl under one of the injured cars littering the drive. That’s when the wrenches started skidding. Each tool he was finished using, he discarded with an irritated fling, sending them 30, 40 feet across the floor. Getting the car fixed and the customer on its way immediately was the only mission. Let the tools rest where they may. He got this way when he didn’t think Carl and I had accomplished enough that day.
These days were dirty. They were July in southern Kansas. They were busting open a knuckle and wrapping it with a shop rag. They were leaving oily residue on the invoices because you didn’t have time to wash your hands before you signed one and moved on to the next job.
I loved them.
Starting when I was 18 and ending when I was 20, I was a grease monkey, a pump jockey, a quasi-mechanic for a full-service gas station and mechanic shop called Ferguson Service in Hutchinson. I learned a lot about cars, a little about business, and a lot about life in those two years.
One of our customers was Rexann. She had been a single mother most of her adult life; her ex-husband was in jail most of that time. She lived in a little apartment with her teenage daughter. Rexann loved chocolate and cats. She hated driving and was afraid to go as far as Wichita. She worked two or three jobs most of the time. When she came to buy gas — $10 every two weeks — she brought chocolate for Carl and me, and wanted to make sure all her fluids were full and tires aired up.
She knew we’d make sure she was OK. Seemed like there weren’t too many people that did.
Another customer was Rosemary. She drove a 1974 LTD as big as a parade float, and about as fast. It had a hole rusted in the roof, so Rosemary never drove on rainy days. When she did drive, it was to the grocery store or Taco Tico. Rosemary was too old for much else. She had a son, but she said he never called. Rosemary was sad and angry, and sometimes she would take it out on us. She would curse and blame us for what went wrong with her calcifying car. She would accuse us of overcharging her. She was awful.
But she kept coming back. She kept calling to have us come to her house to jumpstart her (damn) Ford (that we were supposed to fix the last time). Maybe she just wanted to see a familiar face.
There was Kendi. She was a hairdresser who owned her own salon. She wore trendy glasses and drove this huge SUV that hauled her young kids to (no joke) soccer tournaments.
One time, after a particularly disastrous chopping of my bangs, I removed my hat and asked her for advice.
“You’d better just stick with the hat for a while,” she said.
She was always in a hurry and never got her oil changed on time. Maybe she liked that when she came in for gas, we’d remind her. We always knew who’d been around and who hadn’t.
There were the high school girls, too. I think they came because college guys in uniform worked there.
Ferguson Service is gone now. Delmar sold it a couple years after I left and the new owner stopped fixing cars and started selling cigarettes and candy bars. I don’t know who checks Rexann’s coolant or who Rosemary calls for a jump or who reminds Kendi to get her oil changed. The high school girls have probably adjusted just fine.
Those two years were in many ways a coming-of-age time for me. And while I was only 20 when I left to become a journalist in Topeka, I don’t have that same type of relationship with journalism, or the newspaper where I work. It’s not better or worse, just different. I was a different person when I started at both places.
But I think some things hold true for both the full-service gas station and the newspaper. Both offer an experience, a relationship.
Think about all the reasons you’ve ever heard someone give for subscribing to a newspaper. They like to sit down and read with with their coffee. They like the feel of the newspaper in their hands. It reminds them of their fathers. It’s about sitting and feeling and experiencing more than it is about the actual words on the page.Yeah, it’s 50 cents a day they don’t have to pay, but they want to.
I think, to some degree, the full-service gas station was like that. I think people like seeing the same faces, liked knowing that the washer fluid was getting topped off, even if it didn’t need it, liked to chat with the pump jockey (or get flirted with by the pump jockey). Yeah, the gas was 10 or 20 cents more per gallon than it was anywhere else, but that wasn’t the point.
Sadly, both are dying out, often as their customer base does. The newspaper’s fate is much less certain — a lot of people who should know will tell you it’s not as bad as it looks — but a lot of newspapers have closed their doors for good. Maybe the experience wasn’t good enough anymore. Maybe people just want different experiences.
I don’t know why I tell you all this, exactly. I’ve been thinking about my life and my work a lot recently, I guess. Maybe that’s just something you do in your mid-20s, maybe not. I don’t know. It struck me that all of the work I’ve done since I graduated for high school has been for businesses that have been making less and less money almost that whole time. Maybe it’s all my fault.
I began all this describing what were some of the worst days being a grease monkey, and how when I look back, they were kind of the best days. I feel that same way about journalism. The nights on deadline, cranking out a 22-inch lead and a 12-inch sidebar with no good quotes in 45 minutes aren’t all that unlike grinding out a tire in the 110-degree back room at Ferguson Service while intermittently sweet talking old ladies on the 102-degree drive. You get to look back and say, “Yeah, I did that” and feel proud of the work.
You just hope there are enough Rexanns and Rosemarys and Kendis out there who appreciate it.