Round Man Motors and the Drive to the Atomic Junk Yard
The first thing you see when you walk into the shack we call an office is a mural, fifteen feet long and five feet high. It fills the back wall, overpowering everything else in the room. The mural shows a horrific crash scene: cars at crazy angles, bodies spilled out onto the pavement, blood everywhere. Don’t ask why it’s there. I have no idea. I never did.
The office is Round Man Motors, a shyster’s paradise of a used car lot, bright flags flying over rows of dying metal. It is the dream of two small time Las Vegas comedians, portly guys with pinky rings and shark skin suits who hit a jackpot one night and used it to finance this outpost of lost hopes and rotten cars. They bought the castoffs of legitimate dealers — the valueless trade-ins, the old wrecks ready for their final rest and sold them to the credit damaged and the penniless. It is my job to patch these clunkers up just enough to get them back on the road.
On Wednesday morning the tire regrooving guy comes in. He would pull the bald tires off this week's heaps and mount them to a machine in the back of his truck. The machine spun the tires and cut new grooves into the thin layer of rubber that still covered the cord. Then he would paint the sidewalls with a black rubbery compound that made them shiny and new looking for a week or two. Next the seat guy would arrive. He stretched chintzy fabric across the bench and the back, secured it with clips underneath and in a few minutes transformed the torn sagging reality into an illusion of new seats. Finally there was an old black guy named Maurice who took buffer to the faded paint and chrome and me with a set of spark plugs and some points to make sure the cars would start and roll out of the lot.
And if that was all I did it would be kind of ok. But of course there was more. These were junk cars, the lowest of the low. The Round Men taught me to put sawdust in the noisy rear ends to quiet the grinding for a few miles, to patch their dripping radiators with cans of stop leak and wads of thick gluey stuff guaranteed to fall out after a few hundred miles. I filled crankcases with impossibly heavy oil to hide the smoking engines and did a hundred other crappy things to get these shitboxes out the door. I was the mechanic.
I was sixteen; the system had finally agreed with me I was not a good candidate for school so I was doing my last mandatory year at Logan, a continuation school. Theoretically I went there a day a week but I seldom showed up. Instead I had my job at Round Man. When I went to work there they asked me if I could drive and I said yes, leaving out the fact that I had only driven motorcycles. So the first week there when I walked into the office and told them some old Chevy needed a generator. Al, one of the round men, tossed me a set of keys, handed me a few bucks and said “go down to Atomic and get one.” Atomic was a giant wrecking yard filled with old cars, their final sad appearance. Piled high in aisles, the ground between them soaked with grease, you wandered till you found the car you were looking for, then took the part you needed from it. It was a lot cheaper than buying new parts from the dealer.
I found my appointed ride, a hulking great pig of a Packard, started her up and let the motor idle. In theory, I knew how to do this driving thing. I understood clutch and gears, steering wheel, all the bits, but the reality was different. After a minute I pushed in the clutch, ground my way to reverse and jerked my way back out of the line. Then in fits and starts I got the car into the alley behind the lot. Alleys were an important part of my driving in Chicago. I had learned to ride my first motorbike, a stolen Whizzer, in an alley, and I had learned to use alleys as conduits from place to place to avoid traffic and cops. This was important because I didn’t have a driver’s license.
The car was a mile wide and all of it over there on the right. It was long and ponderous too and the driver’s seat sat low behind the steering wheel. Trapped and tiny in the middle of the beast I drove a block or two in first gear, creeping along at five or ten miles an hour. Then I got up the nerve to shift into second. Looking down at the shift lever I drifted towards the wall, looked up to see it in front of me, jerked the wheel right, slammed on the brakes, stalled the motor and sat there shaking. Then I started it up and tried again.
It took me about a half hour but eventually I got the shifting thing down. Good thing because I had run out of alleys and I had been heading the wrong way to avoid the streets. I turned onto a side street and crept down to the end of the block where the big streets waited. At the intersection I watched all the traffic go by for a while and then, heart pounding, I pulled out. I drove terrified trying to process traffic and red lights and other drivers and the monster I was in. Somehow I didn’t crash it and no one tried to kill me for being in their way.
After a sweaty five mile eternity of driving I saw the sign of my delivery, Atomic Auto Wrecking. I pulled her in, shut off the motor and sat there staring and spent. Eventually though I took out my tools, paid the two bucks entrance fee and walked into the yard to find a generator. When I found the one we needed I pulled it out, carried it back to the office and paid the five bucks they wanted for it. Then I got into the car and drove it back to the lot. It was easier this time, she was my baby and I was a driver.