OPINION: An era of fear in 1940, at work and in the world

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If a metaphor for my life were a ladder, each rung a foot apart, and each rung representing a job, however briefly I held it, the ladder would be 14 feet high. One work experience I have not written about was a year I spent working in an automotive repair garage (Spartan Automotive) writing up orders for the mechanics and selling automotive parts and tires.

The year was 1940, America swirling in a virulent debate about whether to join Great Britain and France in the war against Hitler. Charles Lindbergh spoke for the isolationists while President Franklin Roosevelt urged we join our Allies or risk battling Hitler alone later.

My own stake in the debate was significant since I was 17, a ripening age for any draft. I was skewered between a fear of being maimed or killed and my desire to become a soldier and do something heroic for my family and country. In this time of uncertainty, apprehensive at what lay ahead, I went to work for Spartan Automotive.

The garage and shop were located in Chicago’s South Loop, the entrance through an alley off Wabash Avenue. Elevated trains ran on tracks overhead so every 10 minutes a train would rattle by, its noise muffling voices and any other sounds until it passed.

The owner Sam Blekas was dyspeptic, ill-tempered, devoid of any ability to utter the words “good job.” He made the lives of the two mechanics he employed, Virgil, a burly Italian and Vasili, a small-framed Greek, miserable. Sam could be counted on to interrupt their work a number of times a day snarling, “You gonna work on that transmission all day?” or “You repairing that damn car or rebuilding it?”

Sam made my life wretched, as well. “When you gonna sell something bigger than a spark plug?” and “You think you’ll maybe sell a tire in my lifetime?” I have never known an unhappier man whose apparent mission on Earth was to make everyone around him just as miserable as he was.

Sam had never married. I suspected the reason was no woman would have him, and he didn’t seem to have any friends. He lived in a small apartment above the garage from where he came down in the morning and went up to at night.

During my first six months of employment with Spartan Automotive, while I had written work orders and sold spark plugs and batteries, I had yet to sell a set of tires. I tried zealously, but the buyers always seemed to find a better price elsewhere.

Sam continued to berate me.

“Boy, you been here for months now and you haven’t sold a single tire.” His voice seethed with sarcasm. “Maybe you should get a job peddling newspapers.”

One afternoon near the end of my first year with Spartan Automotive, an older Greek man came in looking to replace the sorely worn tires on his 10-year-old Ford. He was shopping for used tires, but I made a strong pitch for him to buy new ones at the sensational sale price we were offering.

Antonis Gatsis (the man’s name) spent several hours with me while I emphasized the merits of our tires, the incredibly low price we were asking and throwing in several reminders about our mutual Greek heritage.

Gatsis made the rounds of other garages. Believing I had lost him, I was in despair but the next day he returned and I renewed my efforts.

A week passed, Gatsis returning every day, listening expressionless while I repeated my arguments for his buying our tires. He listened, continued to frown, asked endless questions, poked and prodded the tires. Then he’d leave to look at tires elsewhere.

My effort to sell Gatsis tires became one of the labors of Hercules. I pleaded, cajoled, and praised his ancestors and the village in Greece where he was born. I listened patiently to his inane opinions on politics, took him to lunch three times, offered him the maximum discount on the tires that Sam would allow. Finally, in desperation, I lamented that my mother required heart surgery and that I needed my commission on the tires to pay for saving her life.

Finally, my frantic efforts bore fruit. One Saturday, I think the 13th or 14th time Gatsis returned to the garage, he bought the tires. After Virgil had installed and balanced them and Gatsis drove away, I went into the small toilet in the rear of the garage, locked the door, and wept tears of gratitude and relief.

Sam was away when the tire sale took place and I waited impatiently for him to return. When he entered the garage, barely containing my jubilation, I proudly showed him the sale’s receipt for the tires.

“You shouldn’t have given the guy that much of a discount,” Sam scowled. “A better salesman would have allowed only half the discount you gave him.”

At that moment, if I had a gun available. I swear I would have shot Sam through his iron-crusted heart.

Not long after that, I left Spartan Automotive. While Virgil and Vasili were sorry to see me go, Sam showed no regrets. As I left the garage for the final time, Sam was lashing the two of them for some nameless infraction until a passing elevated train drowned out his harangues. Their suffering faces were the last thing I saw as I walked out of the garage for the final time.

A few decades later, driving from my home in Indiana into Chicago, I decided to drive toward the site Spartan Automotive had occupied. From Wabash Avenue, I turned into the alley. When I reached the location, I parked and got out of my car.

The garage was still there, but in wrecked condition. Part of the roof had collapsed; the windows were all broken, the movable repair equipment hauled away. On one wall the faded poster of a pretty girl with a sparkling smile showed off a set of shiny premium tires.

In that moment, the phantoms of memory came surging back. I heard Virgil and Vasili chatting as they worked on cars. In the small office, through the broken glass, I saw Sam at his desk scowling, eager to unleash his bile and bite on whoever caught his eye.

I wondered then where that crew had gone. Were Virgil and Vasili working in some other garage, still repairing cars? Was Sam directing automotive repairs at another location, still snarling and bedeviling everyone around him? Or had that despot departed from the Earth, assuming a position as foreman in one of Lucifer’s steaming repair shops?

After a few more minutes, I got into my car and drove away.

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