A Place For My Mediocrity

Everybody should be more like me.  That way the standards would be lower and the competition less intimidating.  We would have to redefine what “average” means.  Instead of a bell-curve there would be single vertical line at the fiftieth percentile, running straight up to the top.  It would drive the statisticians crazy.  But if everybody were more like me, there would be no statisticians.

If everybody were more like me, the population of this world would not replace itself and would subsequently die out after a few decades.  It might not take even that long because there would be no more doctors, if everybody were more like me.  There would be no more full-page ads in the paper for the latest pharmaceutical creations, followed by full-page disclaimers.  There would be no more pharmaceutical corporations; nor corporations of any other sort.  There would be no more advertisements for anything.  Or disclaimers.  Or lawyers.  Or laws.

There would be no more war if everybody were more like me.  Either that or there would be never-ending war – pretty much like we’ve already got.  It all depends upon what mood I was in when the higher power(s) decided that everybody should be more like me.  Sometimes you get the smiley teeth.  Sometimes you get the fangs.

Which serves to remind me that I should be more like me.

One thing’s for sure, though – the noxious stew we’ve created of the atmosphere would simmer down after a while.  Eventually, everything we ever created would be erased.  Forever.  Except, of course, for all of that cheap plastic crap we keep buying.  That would take a little longer than “eventually” to disappear.

It occurs to me that there might be no more beer, if everybody were more like me.  I don’t know how to make beer.  But I could probably learn.  “Good” beer would no doubt take a while to perfect.  At first, I’d have to settle for “effective” beer.  And I’d need it, badly, in copious amounts, if everybody were more like me.

There would be no more inventions, which would suit me (and therefore us) fine.  We would have no interest in, say, a colonoscopy-performing robot.

[He pauses and mulls, as is his wont.  His gaze wonders to a blank space on the wall about a foot from the ceiling.  The house of mirrors that is his mind’s eye casts upon the wall an image of a small, sunken theater.  The stage is set with Klieg lights.  A half-dozen scrub-clad figures surround another, prostrate figure upon an operating table, his exposed skin pasty and as pale as the sterile white sheets.  Med-school students furiously scribble notes behind one-way mirrors in the walls above.]

Scratch that, now that I consider it.  We’ll take the robot.  One of the few occasions when minimal human contact would be preferential.  You walk into a tiny, sterile, and empty office at the time pre-arranged online.  You swipe your card on the keypad (Debit?  Credit?  Cash back?  Receipt?).  A solenoid clicks and a second door springs open, revealing a dimly lit, soundproof chamber, a paper-covered chaise-lounge-in-reverse, and a device that looks something like an industrial Hobart mixer without the bowl.  Plastic flowers in a plastic vase.  Kenny G. on the Musak.  If you can stand that, they figure, you can stand anything.

In and out (in more ways than one) in five minutes.  Results sent to your inbox, unless your spam filter blocks it.

I’m not quite old enough, really, to be overly concerned about this.  But a man’s gotta think in terms of the future sometimes.  So maybe everybody could be more like me after someone invents a colonoscopy-performing robot.

Oh, wait.  I see now that it’s already been done.  Go ahead, Google “colonoscopy-performing robot,” if you dare.  It’s not quite what I envisioned.  I’m reminded more of the remote-control racecars we used to get from Santa.  Never did seem to work right.  Steering seemed bass-ackwards.  Thing would shudder, randomly change direction, then conk out.  Fun for about a week.  Then fair game for the BB gun.

In this particular application, it occurs to me that something Beetle-shaped would be about right.  Better yet, perhaps patients should be required to accept a robot in the shape of the car they drove to the appointment.  Make you think twice about taking the Hummer for a spin, eh?

The only thing I ever invented was a Taser-like device in the form of a cuff, to be worn around the appendage of the consumer’s preference, and designed to take the place of an actual conscience.  It could recognize insidious brainwaves and activate an electric shock accordingly, in proportion to the nefariousness of ones unchaste urges.  Different programs were available for different believe systems.  I even offered a bulk discount for members of congress.  Special government rate.  The only problem was that my patent application was rejected.  It turns out the church already has a device used for a similar purpose.  They call it a “Bible.”

If everybody were more like me, mediocrity would not be what we settle for, but what we strive for.  And I might actually be driving my Beetle by now, if everybody were more like me.

On the other hand, if everybody were more like me, parts would be even harder to find.  Everyone would have an off-site secret cache of old Volkswagen parts – castoffs too nice to take to the dump, yet too crumpled, rusty, or Bondo-becrudded to salvage with only a semblance of actual skill.

The townhouse we live in is hardly cramped, especially with just the two of us.  But last month she finally put her foot down, she did, and I said fair enough.  Can’t say I blame her.  Nossir.  Not with (at last count): two decklids, four hoods, five doors, ten (yes, 10) fenders, and eight wheels.  Nine, if you count the spare (still wearing a bias-ply tire!), which matches neither complete set of wheels.  Three carburetors.  Plus the stuff that I don’t (yet) possess in multiples: front seats, rear bench seat, window glass, engine tin.  Original towel-bar style bumpers.  Brand spankin’ new dome-style wheel covers.  Speedometer, now seeing duty as a bookend.  A crusty, cracked steering wheel that seems too wander about the house of its own accord, yet is good enough not to appear on the dining room table.  Ever again.  Horn ring awaiting rechroming.  Gas tank awaiting thorough cleaning and resealing.

Oh, and I almost forgot: the complete forty-horse engine that was running just fine and dandy when I yanked it and shoved it under the workbench, back before I lost my innocence and sanity.

I haven’t priced a good (or not-so-good) divorce lawyer lately, but I’m willing to bet he’d charge a wee bit more than the forty bucks a month I’m paying for a five-by-ten storage locker a mile down the highway.  Cheap insurance, the way I see it, for continued and never-ending domestic bliss.

And a place, as Mr. Carlin observed, for more stuff!

You could call it The Goldilocks Syndrome.  For example, until recently I had (only) three hoods.  Consulting the detailed notes that I keep on every bit of work I’ve done on the car, I spent a total of 23 days working on the same six-by-eight-inch area of the original hood.  I coddled and I cajoled.  I used fire and I used water.  I hammered and slapped and stretched and shrunk.  For all my efforts, I may as well have formed it into a skiff, and become the first man to launch himself over Niagara Falls in a Volkswagen hood.  No actual skill required – just insanity, and I seem to have a surfeit of that.  It might also be handy the next time I want to dress like a turtle.

The second hood – not to put too fine a point upon it – is a piece of shit.  I bought it cheap, when my opinion of my own skills as a body-man was much higher than it is now – before I suffered the big smack-down.  Not only that, the fit is so poor I can’t help but suspect the guy sold me a hood from a ’65 Citroen instead.

I’m onto you, you Volksscheister!

The third hood is simply too nice.  What I mean is that it is original German steel and fits beautifully.  It even wears an authentic patina of original L456 Ruby cellulose paint.  Thing is, there are just a few ripples, noticeable mainly by feel, that would need to be straightened out before I felt comfortable putting fresh new paint on it.  Basically, it’s in a similar shape as the original one was.  Like a siren, it calls to me.  So close to perfect.  Just a touch here and a caress here.

But I’d fallen for that before.  Now I’m trying my best to adhere to an important element of what might be called “The Rookie’s Credo.”  To wit: in all endeavors relating to original parts, if you have no idea what you’re doing, and professional help is not forthcoming (or beyond your means), do not fuck with it.

Questions about priorities in life aside, it cannot truly be said that professional help is beyond my means.  As a matter of fact, before I began this whole comedy of errors, I got a quote from a reputable expert.  To do the whole body, paint included, would have taken his team of professionals three or four months and run me about $8000.  That would have also included the installation of a brand-new wiring harness, headliner, and restoration-quality window seals.  The rest of the interior and mechanicals would still remain up to me.  Which would have been fine, because that’s the stuff I’m really looking forward to.

For $8000, you can buy a very, very nice – likely close to show quality – 1965 Volkswagen sedan.  My car is very special, especially to me; but it is not a convertible, nor does it have a sunroof.  There are no rare accessories that came with it.  In short, it’s just like a million or so other Beetles made that year.  Which, to me, is part of why it’s so cool.  One cannot make an economic justification for a rookie like me to restore a car like that.  In purely economic terms, it’s much more “cost-effective” to buy a car that’s already been restored.  Or to skip it altogether and be content with your late-model Honda.  But what’s the fun in that?

Also, I do not have $8000 lying around.  I figure that kind of money could cover the cost of a college student’s books for a least a semester or two.  But we’re never having kids.  I probably could have scrimped and saved, sold some plasma, and maybe even (perish the thought!) worked extra hours to come up with it.  But that’s no fun either.

I can drool over concourse-quality work like anyone else.  I posit that there are few objects in this world that illustrate better the perfect harmony of form and function than a beautifully restored classic Volkswagen.  But I give an extra helping of respect for the owner who does the vast majority of the work himself.  As a matter of fact, I admire far more the weekend duffer who creates, through his own sweat, hard work, and wits, a decent-looking (but far from perfect), smooth-running, fun car; than the wealthy neer-do-well who, on a lark, buys an old Volksie and pays someone else to bring it to better-than-new shape.  You see the latter type often in the magazines, elbow resting jauntily on the shimmering, clear-coated urethane surface of that perfect Beetle, Bus, Notch, or Karmann Ghia.  The best that can be said is that he has good taste.

I’m not opposed outright to soliciting the help of professionals on a limited basis.  But as I’ve said elsewhere, this is not the type of work your average commercial collision center can undertake.  I was having a hard time, as a matter of fact, getting anyone to return my calls.  Surely there would be someone willing to take on the job of perfecting a hood that was already almost perfect?

About then I noticed my forum inquiries were also going unanswered; or answered in such a way as to show how clever the replier was without addressing the actual question.  Paranoia set in, and self-doubt.  Is this normal?

Of course it is.  All of this has been done before.  Nothing is new here.

At some point while I wallowed, rudderless, in these horse latitudes of frustration and doubt, a neighbor walked by as I was wrenching in the garage.  Not on the car, mind – I was giving one of my bicycles a tune-up.  The Beetle just sat there, watching and listening.  My neighbor’s intentions were friendly, but he asked the deadly question: when will it be finished?

Of course, this question is a sure sign of somebody who has never attempted this sort of thing before.  I have only recently given up asking myself the same question.  I tried to consider this, I tried to smile.  I sighed.

“Oh, I dunno.  Someday . . .”

And here I trailed off, mumbling something about the weather, or the economy, or how good-looking that mange-riddled, flea-bitten, shit-eating mongrel he’s always dragging around is.  I really shouldn’t talk about a man’s dog that way, but he had, however unintentionally, stumbled upon the hornet’s nest of my own insecurities.

He walked on, but I was haunted by one word: someday.

The word is like a baseball cap worn backwards.  It might work in your 20’s, but is downright depressing in your 40’s.  It is a word born from aspiration – from inspiration – that has only a limited shelf-life before it morphs into a word of desperation.

Clearly, I was stuck in a big way.

Which is how I ended up at the old man’s shop in a small town about an hour west of the ATL, contemplating hood contender number four.

I can’t recall the exact wording of the ad that flashed across the screen of my smart phone.  Something to the effect of an original hood in perfect condition.  I believe the term “NOS” was used.  I usually take “new, old-stock” to mean an original German piece, manufactured by Volkswagen, and kept as a spare somewhere for all of the intervening years, collecting dust but never installed in or on a car.  The asking price was not cheap, but not quite as high as I’d expect for a true NOS component.  I was lounging around a hotel room and had nothing better to do, so I gave the guy a ring.

An elderly woman with a deep Southern accent answered the phone.  I stated the purpose of my call and she said I’d need to talk to her husband.  He’d just gotten out of the hospital that morning, she explained.  Back surgery.  But here he is.

A moment later I was talking with a kind-sounding gentleman who apologized for being a little loopy due to the pain medication he was taking.  In spite of my protests, he said he was fine to talk, and that there was no need to call him back later.  He told me about the item in question.  It sounded like a possible contender.  I said I would be passing  through Atlanta next Tuesday around lunchtime; could I come see it?  He said with his back the way it was I’d have to deal with his nephew Jimmy, but he didn’t think that would be a problem.

My twenty-plus years of living in the South notwithstanding, I’m still a Yankee and am not in the habit of over-polite niceties.  (Being a Yankee, it is my innate believe that all niceties are superfluous.  Unless I want something.  In which case, it’s not really superfluous.)  Still, I can recognize when a “Sir” or “Ma’am” is warranted, so I sir-ed him from time to time as he gave me detailed directions to his shop.

“Say you’re coming from the airport?”

“Yes, Sir.”  Like that.

He described the railroad tracks, the restored storefronts across the street, and the big RV parked in front of the shop.  But all he would have had to say was “Get ye to Broad Street.  You’ll see it right off the bat.”

There was no mistaking the place.  The building used to be, most likely, a filling station of the old-tyme variety.  Like when a man in a crisp uniform and cap sauntered up gaily and asked how he could he’p you.  Two service bays to the right, plate-glass office windows with corner entryway on the left.  Pump island.  Maybe a dog.  Maybe two dogs.

Back in the day when you could, conceivably, saunter gaily and it wouldn’t become a political issue.

Today it’s all boarded up.  The pumps are long gone.  No dogs.  Just spiders.  If you stood there on the corner and watched for a while, you would see no activity whatsoever.  The river of time just rolls on by.  It might lead you to believe the place has been effectively abandoned.  Except there’s that large motor home parked right in front, almost overshadowing the building itself.  And the motley collection of old Volkswagens loitering about.

I got there early but didn’t mind waiting a little while.  Out front was a white 1970 Beetle, shiny and complete, that appeared to be someone’s daily driver.  Over there a mostly complete ’65.  Off to one side were two more Beetles in somewhat lesser degrees of wholeness.  Next to them, a ratty, rusty single-cab bay-window on alloys; remarkable mainly because of its rarity.  Peeking from behind the other corner of the building was a modified Baja Bug body.  Beyond that, camouflaged amongst the kudzu and bamboo on the embankment leading up to the tracks, was the carcass of another Beetle, of indeterminate vintage.

(Note: I took many photographs with my smart phone, but shortly thereafter the device died an untimely, violent death.  You could say it was an assisted suicide.  This happened, unfortunately, before I could upload the photos into my computer, and thence deliver them to you.  Apologies.)

Still waiting, I walked around the other side of the building.  I was astounded by some of the parts that were just lying about – a Volkwagen nut with a pickup and a felonious bent would have a field day.  Hub cabs, wheel sets, engine cases, and deck lids were there for the taking.  I got on tippy-toes and peered over a rickety picket fence enclosing an area on the side.  No ferocious junkyard Rottweiler there; just mountains and mountains of more parts.  Beyond that I thought I could make out two or three Things (remember those?) huddled shoulder-to-shoulder, but between the piles of stuff and standing on my toes, it was hard to be sure.

Presently I heard a motorcycle approach; a moment later a black Harley-Davidson pulled into the shop yard, the chrome pipes purple from the heat.  The rider cut the motor and leaned the bike on its stand while removing his helmet.  I was suddenly aware of my boots scrunching the dirt as I walked toward him.  Funny how quiet the world seems after a Harley is shut off.

As he fumbled for the right key to open the padlock on the corner office door, Jimmy explained how his uncle was no longer able to keep up the shop as he had for the better part of thirty years.  Jimmy was in the process of trying to buy it from him, but in the meantime, things were basically a mess.

He wasn’t kidding.  But what a glorious mess it was!

I stood just inside the threshold, letting my eyes adjust to the dim.  The only source of light, with the windows boarded up, was the door that we had just entered through.  Jimmy disappeared into the bowels of the shop, feeling his way to the garage bay, so as to get one of the big doors open.  But even before the light came, I began to sense that I was standing in a candy-store of precious Volkswagen parts.

How can I describe it?  It was almost as if, in medias res, someone hollered, “Quick!  The ghost o’Sherman’s a’comin’!  Som’ bitch is in ‘Lanta, and a’ headin’ this a’way!”  All hands were summarily dispatched to collect all classic Volkswagen parts within a thirty-mile radius, double-quickstep like, and bring them back here for safe-keeping.  In no time at all of the shelves were crammed high to the rafters with parts galore.  There was no time to catalog or itemize.  Just enough time to shove the last of it in before boarding the place up and making tracks to the armory.

I’d probably make a lousy journalist because in those times that demand paying attention I fail miserably.  I think I get over-stimulated or something – there’s probably a disorder or even a syndrome involved.  I even tell myself PAY ATTENTION – LOTS TO REMEMBER HERE.  But it just doesn’t work.

I’ll call it a warren because that’s the word that came to me, instantly.  I did not have to reach for that one.  I did not call it a cave, because you might think of dark space and nothingness, which is furthest from the truth.  I did not say it was a maze, because that would imply a certain geometric order where there was none.

It was more like a human brain, with all of its convoluted passages.  I might have been walking through a model of the old man’s brain, writ in large scale and constructed from parts stamped with the VW symbol.  A peculiar manic madness suspended only when the body would go no further.

As the overhead door swung open and the springtime sun re-rose upon this afternoon in West Georgia, and I beheld cylinder heads, manifolds, beautifully painted fenders, seat frames, Sapphire radios, fan belts, heater boxes, piston sets, master cylinders, carpet sets – in short, the closest thing Georgia has seen to an official classic Volkswagen parts department in decades – I mumbled something succinctly observant, like, “Umph!  Wow.  Okay.  I mean WOW!”

“Yeah,” Jimmy said with a sheepish smile, “he’s got a lot of stuff in here.”

Understatement of the year.

I wondered aloud how many complete Beetles one could build from the parts on hand.

“Probably a few,” Jimmy figured.  He pointed to some complete engines, exhaust and all, ready to go.  Plug and play.

“All this one needs is a new top,” Jimmy said from somewhere behind all of the shelves.  I followed the voice and there in one of the bays sat a stunning late 60’s convertible Beetle.  Although the fresh red paint (L30 Royal Red, I believe) was covered in dust, I suspected it had never seen daylight as part of a complete car.  If this fine example is to be the old man’s last hurrah, I don’t think it’s too much to ask from the powers above that he be permitted to see it finished.  But the Lord works in mysterious ways.  Just like me.

By this point I had almost forgotten the initial purpose of my visit.  The unpainted hood was suspended by a wire from the ceiling, and was coated in enough dust to convince me that it had been there for quite some time.  Together we lowered it to terra firma and I had a gander.

This being my third time hood shopping, I was beginning to come up with a system.  I knew that what I wanted to avoid at all costs was yet another case of the wavies.  This is something that is not immediately apparent on sight – it is subtle and it is something that I do not have the skill to contend with.  It is a deal-breaker.  So before looking too closely at the item, I checked for the wavies: I ran my hand across the two main surface sections, quickly, from front to back, back to front.  Perfectly smooth and tight!  A couple of dings (one of which we may have created getting the thing down from the rafters, when we managed to only partially block it with our bodies before it came crashing down on a pile of exhaust parts); but I can handle that.

The second thing I was thinking was, okay, is this thing really “NOS?”

I flipped it on its back, while Jimmy stood over me.  My understanding (correct me, please, if I’m wrong) is that an original hood would have had no stampings whatsoever.  Aftermarket items may or may not have stampings.  This one?  Clear as day: MEXICO.

Yeah, it was New when he bought it.  It was Old, as the layer of dust would suggest.  But NOS?

In our country we hate to admit it, but many (most?) white people still have a thing about brown people.  Although complete Volkswagens have been made in Mexico since I-don’t-know-when, everyone on the forums says aftermarket = made by brown people = shitty.  No, they don’t put it that way, but the general gist of things is that Mexican is shitty; Brazilian is somewhat less shitty; Italian is a little better; Danish is pretty damn good; and German, of course, is perfect.  There’s even an ad in a popular VW magazine contrasting a domestic company’s expertise (with a photograph of a parts counter staffed by white males of the proper American girth) with that of a purported competitor (scrawny little brown people in a far-off land scurrying around a shipping container.  People who look, to me, Indian or Pakistani.  Curious, since I know of no VW parts made in Pakistan or India.  I wonder if the average American can even make this distinction).  I have resolved not to buy a damn thing from that company.

Naturally, being of German extraction, I’ll go with the German-as-perfect mentality.  But the thing is, Volkswagen AG no longer makes body panels for classic Volkswagens.  Yeah, they ain’t too proud to have used “Max,” the sixties-era Beetle, in their commercials in recent memory; but if Max ever needed a new fender, forget it.  Can anyone tell me why?

On the forums I asked what my options were if I simply could not find a decent original German (“OG”) hood.  They said OG or nothing.  I said okay, of all the aftermarket options, who makes the best hoods?  Answer: nobody.  OG.  Look hard enough and you’ll find it.

I say bullshit.  I’ve been looking for almost a year and have found squat.  Sure, I can pay big bucks to have a sight-unseen hood shipped from California, but who knows what will actually show up?

So I said, again, alright.  I know it won’t be perfect.  I know it won’t meet whatever ideal standards you armchair experts aspire to.  You don’t even have to look at my car if you don’t want to.  But my question is: out of all of the aftermarket options, which is the least shitty?

The answer?

“OG.”

Whatever.

I bought that hood from the old man’s nephew, and paid what he was asking.  When I got home I fitted it up.  It’s easy enough and I’ve done it too many times: balance the thing on my head like a giant baseball cap (worn backwards), whilst locking down the four 13-millimeter bolts that attach it to the hinges.

First impression?  Slight disappointment.  Which is a step up from the last couple of hoods I’ve brought home.  It looked good, but had a pretty sizeable “peak,” and therefore a gap, up near where the windshield washer head is.

One benefit of an aftermarket piece is that I feel no compunction about forcing it to comply, brutally if necessary, with whatever whim I have in mind.  I unbolted the mother, laid it on its back across a two-by-four, and proceeded to do pushups on it, with the locus of attention being about where the VW logo goes.  Sure enough, when I fitted it up (again), it was drastically better.  There are some other areas that need similar persuasion and that it my next assignment.

I suspect that many people buy an aftermarket piece of body metal, bolt it on, and expect it to fit perfectly.  This is one of those rare instances in which I actually have some experience in the matter.  On the ’75 I had many years ago, I bought aftermarket fenders.  I think the front ones were made in Mexico, and the rear ones were from Italy.  Maybe I’ve got that backwards.  Maybe Brazil was involved too.  Or Denmark.  A real international, multilateral effort.  But Machts nichts.  It took quite a bit of coaxing before I got them to fit right.  But once that was done, nobody ever – not once – noticed.  The car looked great.  It was probably not show-quality, but really I didn’t give a damn.

Don’t get me wrong.  I would love to find an “OG” hood, and I would pay more than a sane man would to have it.  But at this point, I’m on a mission.  A mission to prove them wrong.  A mission to overwhelm them with my own mediocrity.

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