The memories of childhood I most cherish are all of work. Sure, I went to school, had a friend or two, and had older brothers to chase me about with power tools. But the best parts of my life were spent with my father in, what I shall forever recall as “The Shop.”
In the early 1980’s the best days always began with buying a fistful of tootsie rolls at the sweet shop and running all the way up New Dorp Lane. Along the way, I would pass the theater, the butcher, the shoemaker, the garden store, the vacuum store, the ice cream parlor, and dozens of other small, independent businesses all of which have now receded into the folds of time.
I ran with no adult supervision. No hand to hold. No warnings of “stranger danger.” The capacity of my lungs and the tread under my Zips were the only factors limiting the expanse of my world.
I would always find the store locked and dark when I got there. So I would sit on the steps and eat my candy. Occasionally, I would cross the street and press my fingers against the fence to watch a train pull into the station and then vanish into the perspective as it made its way to parts of the Island that were, of yet, unexplored mysteries.
Sometimes, in my eagerness, I would arrive so early that all the candy would be eaten before the shop opened. Then I would have nothing to do but pace up and down the street, skipping over the cracks in the sidewalk. The block is etched into my mind’s eye with no detail overlooked, except for the names of the stores. The signs above the doors might as well have read, “Place that sells communion dresses,” “Office that sells nothing,” and “Sometimes gives me cookies.”
Sooner or later Smitty would come plodding down the street with his lunchbox and his newspaper folded under his arm. Then the door would open with a jingle and I would charge into the front office, a bunker composed of wood paneling, towering filing cabinets, shelves of binders, and bales of yellow paper covering a massive metal desk. The wall behind the desk was covered with letters, signs, and notices, which I assumed were there to make the place look important. The first order of business would be to leap into the gray and green swivel chair and spin myself around. Then I would break a piece of tape from the incredibly weighty Scotch tape dispenser. This would remain stuck to my finger for the next several hours, only to wind up adhering to some random surface.
I remember the desk being dominated by an overlarge, obsolete computer. But no, that couldn’t have been there for many years yet. It’s funny how the mind combines images from different times.
In the window was a pyramid of three televisions under an illuminated sign flashing “Zenith,” which for a long time I thought was the shop’s proper name.
Past the front office was the tunnel of screens. In my memory, it was about a mile long, walled with abandoned televisions no one was willing to pay for. They lingered there, making the walk down the hall an eerie experience, full of hundreds of distorted reflections of myself. The reflection-me’s seemed to follow at different speeds, standing at grotesque heights, and slipping from one silvery screen to another as if through some hidden doorway.
Sime “Smitty” Kekich was my father’s sole paid employee, who basically ran the entire shop by himself. Smitty was a thoughtful man, who spoke with what I mistook for an Italian accent—I didn’t know there was any other kind. He was older than my father, a short, squat, balding man in a plaid shirt and suspenders with overlarge glasses that made his eyes appear huge.
After hanging up his coat and cap, Smitty would consult a handwritten note he had left for himself in his meticulous printing. Then he would settle into the flow of his work. I feel as though I spent years next to him, watching eagerly. He was easy to learn from because everything he did was done with deliberate slowness and precision.
I can still see him now, turning the screwdriver with uniform speed. Then he would hand me his tool to hold for him. I would gaze down at it reverently, tracing the letters of “S.Kek” he wrote on all his tools to distinguish them from my father’s inferior pieces. He would place each part removed in a dedicated spot; there was a place for everything in his world. Then he would slowly, meticulously check over every small fuse, diode, and transistor with the delicate metal fingers of his voltmeter as he chased the elusive short through the labyrinth of circuitry. Inevitably he would turn to me with a look of glee and show me the results of his hunt. “See?” he would say pointing at a number on the voltmeter or the slight bulge in the crown of a capacitor.
When the work was done he would close the TV up carefully, putting every screw back in its proper place. Then he would turn to me and say, “You do the honors.”
I pushed the power button and watched with pride as life came to what before was dead and silent. The light would expand to fill the screen, illuminating the wide lenses that covered his eyes, and bringing a broad smile to his face.
The day would progress with clockwork predictability as we waited for my father to arrive. Though he left the house before I did, he would not arrive at the shop until well after the morning passed. Smitty would eat his lunch out of his silver lunch pail, generously giving me one of his Yankee-doodles as I waited for my father (and my lunch) to arrive. And then as if blown in by a storm, he would be there with his denim jacket, unshaven face and his Jet’s hat; his very presence changing the whole nature of the shop.
Almost immediately he would be yelling, and Smitty would be transformed into a harried man on the verge of exasperated collapse. I can’t even say what they argued about exactly. “Quicksilver!” my father would call him sarcastically, “You spent all morning on one set? You’re a real Speedy Gonzalez!” Then they would argue about Smitty’s tendency to order new parts when, “We had it in inventory!” Years later I would realize that Smitty was opposed to repairing a TV with used parts passed off as new.
The thing they argued about most, however, was the placement of the yellow papers that littered the office. My father was always changing the organizational scheme of bills, receipts, orders, and invoices. But no matter how diligently Smitty tried to comply, the yellow papers were always strewn about in disarray.
After this discussion, my father would launch into what he considered a day’s work, furiously executed over a handful of hours. TV’s flew apart and he seemed to zoom in on the problem with a combination of intuition, impatience, and luck. Then, his work complete, he would spend thirty minutes yelling and searching for the screws he lost before he sealed up the TV, inevitably leaving one of his tools inside. The whole process was done in a fraction of what it would take Smitty, and it only had to be redone two out of three times, amid much cursing. Despite the theatrics, he did get through all of the repairs remaining. Then he would stand silhouetted in the doorway and tell me, “Go home for dinner,” before heading off to his next adventure, which I would not be a party to.
It always seems to rain on the worst days of my life. It was the first cold, dreary, day in September as I sat waiting on the Shop’s steps. I kept a watch for Smitty, eager to get to work. He had been granting me much more of a role in the repairs. I was now using the voltmeter, looking for shorts, ordering materials, and even assembling working TVs from the excess parts littering the store. Though the rain surged and subsided, Smitty never appeared. This was a thing unheard of. He had never missed a single day of work in my life. I was trapped by some short-circuit of my own reasoning. I couldn’t go and yet it made no sense to stay. So on I waited. Finally, my father pulled up in his battered, green Dodge Colt. He paused in the rain in front of the store and waited for me. I ran to the car, getting soaked thoroughly.
He pulled away from the curb. “Smitty’s not coming back to work.”
I shivered. “Why not?”
“Because he went and had himself a heart attack and died. Now on top of every other goddamn thing I have to do, I need to hire a new worker.” The windshield wipers screeched out their wailing. The cold seemed to be seeping into my bones. I knew better than to cry in front of him, but my wheezing nose betrayed me as I inhaled a shaky breath.
“Now don’t go getting all emotional. It’s not like he was the picture of health.” I looked away to the houses that rolled passed. The rain was sweeping down roofs and surging over the gutters. Finally he pulled into the driveway. I looked at him, in disbelief that he could be so calm.
He lit a cigarette. “What are you now? Eleven?”
“Twelve.” My voice was a weak thing.
“Well, that’s old enough to know the truth. We all die kid. Some of us sooner. Some of us later. I’m gonna die. Your ma’s going to die. And you are going to die. Sooner you make your peace with that, the better, ‘cause before that happens, there is a shit load of work to do.” He took a long drag on his cigarette. I hated him in that moment for calling Smitty a worker. I hated him for acting like Smitty didn’t mean anything to him. I hated him for yelling at Smitty and making him upset every day. Maybe if he treated him better…
I got out of the car and ran through the rain to the front door.
“For what?” my father demanded when I asked to go to the wake.
“To pay my respects to Smitty,” I replied, trying to sound like an adult.
He laughed at that. “That’s not even his name. You don’t even know the man.”
“I do too!” My voice rose to that dangerous volume that invited parental wrath. But he was right; I hadn’t yet learned his real name.
“What’s his wife’s name?” I didn’t know. “What country is he from?” It never occurred to me to ask. “How many kids does he have?” He never mentioned his children. “He wasn’t your friend. He worked for us. You need to make friends with kids. You know what kids are, don’t you? Go play some stickball or ride that bike I bought you.” I was left speechless and felt incredibly guilty. Why had I never gotten to know the man despite spending countless hours with him? It was as if it never occurred to me that he had a life outside the shop. He was the shop.
At my mother’s insistence, my father finally agreed to take me to the wake. So that evening I sat on the couch wearing my church clothes next to my older brothers. They hardly knew Smitty and seemed immune to my grief as they laughed hysterically while watching “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes.” I waited until I realized my father was not really coming. I fled to my room and cried into the night.
I didn’t speak to my father for days afterward, and as far as I was concerned, I was never going to the shop again. Weeks later he came into my room. I ignored him, continuing to repair my long-neglected Lego moon base. He put his rough hands on my shoulders. They were heavy. For a moment he watched me as I seated astronauts in their spacecraft.
“I’m sorry your friend died. He was a good man.”
“You said he was just a worker.”
“I was wrong to say that. He was one of us. We’re different from other people Christopher. We have a skill. And when you have a skill no one can ever take that away from you. You will always be needed. You will always have food on the table and gas in the tank. I want you to come back to help me out at the shop. Someday the shop is going to be yours you know, so you should learn as much about it as you can.
“Mine?” the word seemed to sparkle as I uttered it. And so, I went back to work. My father never hired another repairman, but he was at the shop much more often afterward. And he gave me more and more to do. But there was a troubling reality pressing upon me. Fewer TVs were coming into the shop. My father tried to adapt, telling me that “VCRs” were going to be the new “cash cow”, but he never could get the hang of fixing them.
He took to gathering metals to sell for scrap. He even had me break up vacuum tubes to pull out their metal innards. These, of course, had not been used in televisions for decades, but they seemed to have been hoarded in the dark recesses of the shop’s basement. There was something satisfying about breaking the glass. Occasionally I would come across one that was unusual or was in pristine condition, and I would show it to my father. They were the only things in the world he seemed to regard with any sort of nostalgia or sentimentality.
Once I asked him why he kept them.
He held one to the light, admiring it like a fine crystal. “I like the idea that there are at least a few places in this world where nothing changes.”
In the dim light of an autumn dawn, the train pulled into Grant City station. I was the first one out the door, charging up the steps. I took them three at a time, and then at the top, bounded off the railing, landing on my skateboard and cruising into the street. Free of Catholic school oppression, my long hair floated around my eyes as I pumped the board to faster speeds. Rush’s ‘Power Windows’ was fed to my headphones from the Walkman stowed in the inside pocket of my denim jacket. First period’s bell was still far off; there was still time to put a few hours in before school.
I would have been far better off with the extra sleep, I knew. It wasn’t like the classes I was taking were easy. I had a programming test and a Russian quiz I still had to study for. But the survival of the store was the single most important thing in the world to me.
By now I was making all the repairs (though these had drastically fallen in number). I computerized the inventory of parts, the bills, the expenses, and the receipts. I restored every TV that had been sitting around the shop—and even sold a few. My mind was constantly plotting a new marketing strategy—a gradual transition to computer repairs and in-home consultations.
I kicked the board up when I got to the shop and unlocked the door. I turned on the lights, the signs, and all the TV’s in the window. Then I smelled the alcohol.
“Dad?” He was slumped in the chair at the desk. An empty bottle was propped up next to the monitor. He only switched from beer to gin when things were getting really bad. “Dad!” I kicked the side of the desk. He rose with a start, the image of the keyboard pressed into his face. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
“What are you doin’ here?”
“I’m here to work.”
“Work,” he laughed. “I should have told you not to waste your time. It’s pointless.” His words were garbled. He was unsteady as he rose.
“What do you mean it’s pointless?”
“I mean there ain’t no goddamn point.” He pushed past me, reeking. He staggered through the front door and paused, looking back at me over his shoulder. “We lost the lease. The shop’s done. Take whatever you want and lock it up when you go.”
The door closed slowly behind my father. I don’t know how long I stood, dumbstruck, mouth agape waiting for the emotion to crest. But in my numbness, no tears came. I turned slowly and looked over the shop—every inch of it familiar. Leaving seemed an impossibility. It was home. My refuge. My only sanctuary.
I walked through the shop, running my hand over the TV’s, trying to create a memory that would endure the perils of time. Then I came upon the box of vacuum tubes and picked it up, realizing my father would probably want them. I walked towards the front office but paused. “…at least a few places left in the world where nothing changes,” he had said. It was a lie. Nothing was constant. Nothing could endure the constantly rising wave of change. I spun, launching the box down the hallway, its contents falling free like a row of tiny glass bombs. They shattered, bounced and rolled away. I was a fool for thinking I could change the shop’s fate by myself. More than anything I felt alone.
Then my hand reached, seemingly of its own accord, for a cabinet door. Inside was Smitty’s orange toolbox and a pair of his safety glasses. I put the goggles on over my own spectacles. Then I picked up the toolbox, glancing down to read “SKek” painted across the top of it in neatly stenciled letters. Having all that was needed, I locked the door behind me.
I watched her as she dipped the last of her California roll into the soy sauce and deftly popped it into her mouth.
She smiled coyly and raised her eyebrow. “I told you this place would be good! And you didn’t want to come here. What was it? Afraid of the toxic mercury?” Then her hand drifted effortlessly to her slender phone. While her lightning-fast thumbs typed out her cryptic messages, I scanned the room one last time. The wood floors were polished. There were oriental screens, grand Buddha statues, stone coy fountains, and above it all, a flat panel television presiding from the wall.
After the check was paid she held out her hand expectantly. “Come my darling, let us away!”
I took her hand and trailed behind her as she wove between the tables and out the front door. From across the street, I looked back at the sushi place. Under the illuminated lanterns was the same old window. The heavy glass front door had been spared as well. But otherwise, there was no indication that there ever was a television repair shop there.
“Are you coming?” she asked, oblivious to the force of nostalgia that rooted me to the spot. I realized then that if I had saved the shop, I might still be a slave to it, desperately hanging on to an antique dream while the advancing wave of technology changed the world around me. But I have long since let that dream go.
I have new dreams now. I don’t fear the ever-advancing wave of technology. I ride it.