Saturday, July 23, 2011

NoCal Snippets

The first day at the shop was as exciting to me as a candy store to a child. Lots of beautiful cars, forged so many decades ago, ready to be taken apart by the expert hands of my coworkers and (occasionally mine). I do not have any distinctive memories other than hovering around looking for things to do, from cleaning oil stains on the floor to talking about the dot-com domain search for the shop's website.

For those willing to pay me a visit in my workshop-museum, I am currently working Monday through Friday at Burligame Motors. Feel free to stop by and say hi, especially in the mornings!

Burlingame Motors is a cocktail of different peoples, all of them equally interesting. We have Al, a Chilean gentleman who adopted me as soon as I got in the shop, very polite and contained; Gregorio, an oldtimer of the shop: the most easygoing man on Earth, always with a Newport cigarette or a vague smile of content in his face; Peter, an older, very seasoned, hardcore SL-head, who does the most minute restorations I have ever seen –down to the Bosch tags on each and every single component-; Jeff, my new buddy, who is a good friend of Burlingame Motors and loves to talk about his crazy travels around the world, and Roy, in our sister bodyshop, a big fan of S-Class coupes of the 60's and 70's. René, my boss, deserves a paragraph all for himself. He is a Swiss immigrant who started as an apprentice at the age of 16, went to business school, and took one of his relative's repair shop. Much like any other older European, he smokes; his manners are gentle, and his tone of voice is always calm. He is an expert on finding simple, logical solutions that everyone else overlooks. He personally drives a yellow 240D with more than 300,000 miles, still running great after thirty years of service.

About two or three weeks ago, I received my first paycheck. With the subtraction of the wonderful pile of CA taxes, it amounted to $330 for forty hours of work. I would say it is fair for someone who has ZERO experience on on to work on an automobile, but still I felt worried. That night I made a spreadsheet on Excel to calculate my cost of living, and how much I could take each month to the bank. To my surprise, I could not even make it to the end of the month! Rent –outrageous in the Bay Area–, groceries, Newport and some other miscellaneous expenses would take me to red numbers at a small –but steady– rate over the next months.

What I felt was a deep feeling of emptiness, very close to the area of the stomach. Was $10 an hour what my time, what I was worth? Would I have to quit a job that I loved because it was not sustainable? To what extent was it worth to enter a whole new profession with such clumsiness? Should I just dedicate myself to an apparently "creative" cubicle job?

Yes, a very cheesy title. But it is true... upward mobility resides on your personal ethics and credibility. It is just a matter of knowing how to fetch an opportunity... or just being very, very lucky.

The day after my paycheck –and demoralization– René came up to me. This time the floor did not need sweeping, or the Fiat 2300s did not need to get its gauges fixed, or any errands needed to be run. Here's what happened:

- - - - - - - -
RENÉ: Miguel?
ME: Yes!
RENÉ: I have a customer, a very good customer, who needs help in his shop. Maybe... you could help him, and make some extra money? You know, move boxes, move cars... he is an older man.
ME: Sure!
RENÉ (handing me a post-it): His name is XXX. He is Italian, and a loyal customer to the shop. Very good customer, so don't screw up!
ME: I am aware, I know the reputation of the shop resides on my shoulder. I will do my best.
RENÉ: Good. You can give him a call, see when he needs you?
- - - - - - - -

I took the post-it and called XXX (name to be revealed eventually). He gave me a time to show up in an industrial complex in San Carlos, to start helping him as soon as I could. René let me out early to talk to this gentleman, to see what kind of assistance he needed.

Under the scorching sun of the Bay Area, my solitary wagon waited for 10 minutes in a barren location full of weeds, travel trailers, Land Rovers and empty extensions of concrete.

A while Dodge Magnum roared into the parking lot, and XXX greeted me with an energetic handshake. Upon talking a little bit, we find out that we are almost neighbors up in fancy Woodside, and that he was a racecar driver. Opening the garage's door solved all my questions.

My expectations of a garage have never been so ground-up, smashed, crushed, pulverized and shattered as it happened with his shop. A lift and full array of tools, ranging from a full-sized sandblaster of several cabinets of goodies, a 1936 Packard limousine, a Model T, an original military Jeep, several hot rods, a 300SL, a Dodge Viper, a racing trailer and a huge motorhome were some of his few personal toys. The walls were plastered with vintage gas station neon signs, and lubricant advertisements; rows of cabinets display trophies, racing souvenirs or miscellaneous, pristine automotive memorabilia ranging from the early days of the motor to the sixties. In short, I was about to work in a museum... again!

So far, I have done jobs in the "Toy Box" requiring the most varied skills... from restoring a 15' damaged billboard by hand -for display in an automotive meetup in the planning-, to using a flamethrower to kill weeds... just because Round Up alone won't do.

My worries about money were dissolving; hopefully now, if I work hard enough, I can get to positive numbers at the end of the month, and, as I demonstrate my worth in both my jobs, become closer with the world of vintage racing and concours d'elegance... never before my dreams of hosting a TV show on automotive travel have looked so feasible. For now, I will consider my experience working with cars as a long-term internship, and part of my formation as a human being. Much unlike before, I am getting to know automotive systems, how they work, and, very importantly, losing the common man's fear of the wrench.

Hopefully, as soon as I return to Spain to see the family, I will ask if one of the major channels there is interested on demonstrating Europeans how wonderful this country and its people are, tearing down the old stereotypes that many presidents, companies and their foreign policies have perpetuated. And not just in any way; in the way the US is meant to be seen: by road, cutting across spiritual landscapes and feeling the pulse of the nation.

The dream continues.

(Photos will be available soon. I do not have any of the Toy Box out of respect, but I took 53 pictures of the shop. I left the camera in my locker, so stay tuned for a complete set of how my workplace looks like!)

Newport is doing well. I "cheated" on him a couple times, doing a couple errands in Palo Alto, in René's 240D... wonderful little car, and not as slow as people say the automatic is. Life cannot go wrong listening to country music in a car so brightly colored, so ridiculously basic, in the sunny CA-101, at 55mph.

One of my favourite moments, at the end of the day, is when I get off the freeway after a long day at Burlingame and the Toy Box. I leave by dusk, when the weather cools down; hop on my wagon, roll down the window and chug along up the hills to find, a while later and hidden amongst aromatic eucalyptus and pine, my little cottage, a shrine of serenity and peace. On my way to it, on a dark rural road surrounded by trees, I stick my head out of the window and look up at the starry dome; listening to the gravel beneath, the purr of the motor, and the crickets singing in the shadows.

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