A Visit From the Urethane Man

I paced the floor, my breathing very shallow.  I tumbled the iPhone in my sweaty hands.  I checked my watch, for no reason in particular.  I discovered that I wasn’t wearing a watch.

I stopped and raised the screen to my face.  We used to smoke but now we do this.  To give us comfort.  Voicemails, e-mails, text messages.  Facebook.  Twitter.  But there was nothing new.  Just like a minute ago.

I scrolled through my contact list and found his name.  How long had it been — a year?  And what did I tell him, at the time — that I’d need just a few more weeks?  A month, maybe?  I’d been so naive, then.  Would he remember me?  I hoped he would.  Then I hoped he wouldn’t.  I rehearsed what I might say.

I sat on the old red stool, checked the screen, got up again, and started a new round of pacing.

The whole charade was an awful lot like asking for that first date.

One key difference, back then, was that we didn’t have cell phones.  There wasn’t even such a thing as “caller ID” — the feature that would soon take all the fun out of prank calls.  So if you let it ring once, twice, and then lost your nerve, you could simply hang up with no worries about anyone calling you right back.  They’d never know.  You could even wait until she answered — to make sure that yes, indeed, the phone book was right — before hanging up.  All she’d hear was a moment of heavy breathing, followed by a click.  She’d be none the wiser.  Naturally, you couldn’t call back to follow through — at least right off the bat — and expect positive results.  Better to wait a few minutes.  Maybe even an hour.

Finally, when the stress was too much to bear, you’d go for it:

“Lisa?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“Lisa Moran?”

“Yes.  Who is this?”

“It’s, uh, Bruce.  So . . . howzit goin’?”

“Bruce.  Bruce who?”

“Jacobs.  I’m, like, in your study hall.”

[Awkward silence.]

“Uh, Bruce. Right.  The guy with the hat,” Lisa said, not sounding at all certain.  Actually, she was thinking of Brian, who had a penchant pushing the edge, fashion-wise.  One exceptionally hot day in late September, Brian had gotten himself sent home for wearing a denim skirt to class.  His reasoning was thus: hot day.  Shorts not permitted.  Skirts (below the knee) permitted.  Ergo: wear skirt.

That Brian borrowed the skirt from his twin sister (and that, truth be told, he looked only slightly worse in it than she did) made it all the more outrageous.  Some of the management may have secretly admired Brian’s chutzpah, but in their official capacities had little choice but to send him home.  Lately, though, Brian had taken to the less-controversial habit of wearing a bowler hat to class.

Unlike Brian, Bruce’s goal in life was to make himself as small and unobtrusive as humanly possible.  He would have liked to disappear completely if the ramifications of doing so hadn’t been so darn onerous (not to mention permanent).  This made it easier to stay out of trouble, but virtually impossible to get a date.

“No, I think you’re thinking of Brian.  I’m Bruce.  I sit in the back.  Next to the window.”

[More awkward silence — the worse kind of silence.]

“Oh,” said Lisa, suddenly illuminated.  “I know you!”  Bruce’s adolescent heart leapt in anxious joy (she knows me!).  “You’re the guy with the hair.”

The way Lisa said it, Bruce’s hair was even more preposterous than Brian’s hat, or his borrowed skirt.  At least, Brian could give the skirt back to his sister, put on a pair of pants, and go about his business as any other normal, happy, carefree American teenager, if he chose to do so.

If such a path of least resistance were available to young Bruce he would have surely taken it.  Such as it was, in his youth, Bruce often imagined that things would have been far more simpler if had he been terminally bald.  Instead, he was gifted with a very thick mat of dark brown hair that was virtually waterproof, and stubbornly impervious to comb, brush, curling iron, flat iron, bobby pins, lead weights, Dippity-Do, Dapper Dan, or men’s hair spray (the latter being distinguishable from its women’s formula only in its being redolent of gear oil instead of lilacs).  When kept short, no matter what Bruce (or his mother) attempted to do, his hair would look like he’d just been rousted from a dead slumber.  Some sections would be as straight as a Chinaman’s; but there might be a rooster-tail sticking straight up the back, for example, or a particularly stubborn tuft sprouting from just above his right ear.  It was always something.

Of course, this made Bruce fair game for taunting.

“Hey Jacobs — ever heard of a comb?”

[Harharharhar-fuckin’-har.]

Sometimes Bruce would simply wear a hat.  This was okay until the inevitable point at which he’d have to remove said hat, thereby presenting the world with a full head of hair in the exact shape of the hat, Yankees logo and all.  Plus, Bruce didn’t like hats.  Wear a hat?  He just didn’t wanna.

The other alternative was to let his hair grow out.  This did have the effect of evening things out a bit.  The standouts were less noticeable with a big bushy do.  An added bonus was that with a free-flowing and wild mane, observers would not infrequently remark upon Bruce’s striking resemblance to the late Jim Morrison.  Being a great fan of The Lizard King, Bruce seemed to have found his solution.

The one big problem here was his rather conservative parental units, who — just as his hair was “getting good,” as Bruce saw it — would in no uncertain terms remind him that he needed to get that hair cut.  (Later in life, it would be Bruce’s job — with its ludicrously outmoded “grooming standards” — that would prevent his bushy mane from running halfway down his back.)  But his parents were otherwise pretty cool, so if Bruce protested it was just to make a point (the whole “You are not the boss of me!” bit) and off he’d go to the hair control expert.

So yeah, Bruce was the guy with the hair.

“Did you call and hang up, like, five minutes ago?” Lisa wanted to know.

“Nope.”

“Four times?”

“Wasn’t me.”

“Okay . . .”

Bruce wanted to change the subject, but not knowing much more about Lisa than what she looked like (from behind, mostly) and her phone number, he couldn’t think of anything to say.  So, he figured, he might as well get it over with.

“So, like, I was wondering.  Um, do you wanna, you know — go out with me some time?”

How do you think this conversation (if you could call it that) ended?

Good.  Then you have spared me the indignity of have to recount it.  Suffice it to say, Bruce hung up the phone, pulled the gnawed #2 pencil out from behind his ear, and placed an “x” in the phone book next to “Moran, Clarence P. and Catherine M.”

It was starting to get late, but Bruce figured he might at least get through the N ’s and O ’s tonight.  Right off the bat, he knew of several N ’s, but could only think of two, maybe three girls whose last names began with O.  He was, thank you very much, dimly aware of what those two letters spelled when joined together; but since he was now officially halfway through the alphabet with nothing to show for it, he already knew whose side luck was on.  Definitely, though, the P ’s would have to wait.  Even with the D he was getting in algebra (maybe especially with the D he was getting in algebra), Bruce could say with confidence that P (along with its sinister sidekick, Q) represented that frightful state of limbo called the unknown.

At least I had a game plan.  It wasn’t a very good one.  But at least it was a plan.

Back in January, in my State of the Volksie address (see sidebar for link) I said, “I am hellbent on having the body in paint by the end of spring.  So June, roughly, at the latest.  I won’t even mind if, by mid-June, the body is done and I’m simply waiting for a slot on the paint man’s schedule.”

Late on the afternoon of May 31st, I put the sanding blocks down and pulled off my mask.  With compressed air I blew clouds of dust from the surface and out into the driveway, where they were whisked away by the springtime breeze from the west.  I ran my hands along the warm metal quickly, slowly, left to right, right to left, back and forth.  I crouched down and looked along the surface at a low angle, then backed away to assess it from a distance.  I walked a few circles around the car, sunwise and widdershins.

Nothing in particular told me it was done; but on the other hand, nothing told me it wasn’t.  It was somewhat anticlimactic, really.  I seemed to have arrived at an ambiguous, neutral state.  There were no glaring flaws, nothing keeping me awake at night anymore.  But it wasn’t especially impressive to behold, either.  It presented itself simply as it was: a very nice Beetle body, completely naked except for a splotched coating of cheap spray-can primer.

Somehow, I knew it was time.  My work was done here (for now).  I stripped my latex gloves off and went in the house to get a beer and my phone.  Then I came back out to the garage, pulled the old red stool out from under the bench, and had a sit-down.

I can’t remember when or why I painted it red, but I must have at some point.  It was black before, I think.  Yes, you can see it here and there, where the red is starting to wear off.  Before that it was white, and before that it had a dark natural stain.  When I was kid, I remember my grandfather sawing the legs a little shorter, six inches maybe.  But I can’t say why he would have done that.  Probably something my mother put him up to.  I remember we had four of those stools.  This one is the only survivor.  I believe it will last forever.  I should paint it again soon.

A one-eyed coon dog I’d never seen before trotted into the garage and just stood there for a moment, panting, like he’d come from a great distance to give me an urgent message.  For all I knew he might have been one of those hounds that can sniff out cancer, imminent earthquakes, or stock market crashes.  But if he was trying to tell me something, I don’t know what it was.  He just stared at me with his one eye — a watery blue orb like the home planet we share, but in miniature.  Then he left.

Finally I touched the name on the screen and put the phone to my ear.  He did not answer but I left a message on his voicemail.  I reminded him who I was, and that I was very interested in (finally) having him come out to have a look.  I left my phone number — once fast, and then a second time, slower, to make sure he got it.

I decided from the get-go not to be an obnoxious Yankee about it.  I would not get frustrated if he didn’t call me back within an hour, or even a day.  This is the South.  Things take time.  I could simply enjoy a break during the interim, to obsess about something else for a change.

But I wasn’t going to play any games.  Honestly, I was quite nervous about the whole affair, as this was one of the very few things I would be “outsourcing” (the others being machine work, media-blasting, and powder-coating).  It was also the first time a professional would see my work.  When the car is clad in shiny new urethane, people will not ask who did the body work.  They will ask who did the paint.  Reputable paint men know this and will not touch a car that doesn’t meet their own standards for this very reason.  I had visions of the would-be paint man, upon seeing what I’ve created, politely (or not-so-politely) declining, retreating to whatever bar it is that after-hours paint men frequent, and regaling his fellow isocyanate huffers with gut-busting tales of incompetence and ignorance.

If this explains my reasoning, it should also explain why I didn’t call Contender #1 a second time.  After over a week with no word, I called Contender #2.  Who also never bothered to call back.

So my patience was already wearing thin when I called Contender #3.  As usual, I got a voicemail.  That’s fine — I hardly expect a highly-regarded painter to be sitting around his office sharpening pencils and waiting for the phone to ring.  So I left a message, but wasn’t optimistic.

Lo and behold, “James” called me back within an hour, and we talked for twenty minutes, at least.  Like Contender #1, I’d spoken with James some time ago, and he said he remembered me.  In fact, he had come recommended by a guy in the local VW club.  Why I didn’t call James first, I can’t really say.  I’m just slow like that sometimes.  Anyhow, James sounded interested in my project, and he was personable on the phone.  Also, he was older, without being old.  (Another decision I’d made was that since auto painting is an art, and there being no substitute for experience, I didn’t want some over-medicated, Red Bull-chugging, post-pubescent with the attention span of a gnat mackin’ on my Volksie!)

James said he’d love to have a look, and would call me back by the end of the week to arrange something.  At that, I saw no reason to mention, by the way, that I would be out of the country for the two weeks after that.  I was hoping, actually, that the car would be in the lucky winner’s shop during that time.

When I boarded that plane for Barcelona, I was excited to be going; but there was a bit of a sour note in that I had not heard back from James.  But I’m not one to be glued to my smartphone while I’m on vacation.  I feel sorry for those who can’t forsake being “connected” long enough to pay attention to the world around them.  This may sound cruel, but it’s all about choices, isn’t it?

We spent the first week in a small village on the Costa Brava, in a stone cottage amongst the olive trees.  I just enjoyed life for a while and didn’t give much thought to the ever-important calls I might be missing or e-mails I wasn’t reading.  When we returned to Barcelona, however, we stayed at a chic hotel that my wife found online.  There was a rooftop bar with a first-rate view of La Sagrada Familia, the cathedral-in-progress that’s pretty trippy even without the booze.  And of course they had Wi-Fi in the hotel.  As we lounged in the room one night after a whirlwind day of sightseeing, satiated by too many tapas and Estrellas, the temptation to borrow my wife’s iPad was too great.

Virtually all of the e-mails were junk, or somehow not as important as they otherwise might seem.  There was one that got my attention, however: a note that said a private message was waiting for me on the website of the VW club back home.  What could that be?  Being quite shy about my work, I’m not exactly the most active member of the club.  Come to think of it, I’m not even an official member of the club.  That is, I pay no dues. I’m not aware of a secret handshake.  And — far as I can remember — I’ve never been hazed.  But sure enough, the message was from one of the club members (the one who recommended James to begin with), who explained that James called him and said he was trying to reach me and thought that maybe he had my number wrong.  I sent a message back, saying that I was out of the country but would get in touch with James when I returned.

I powered up my iPhone as we stepped off the plane in Miami.  The fact that there were only two voicemails (both from James) after two weeks without my phone could be indicative of either (1) my being a free-and-easy, rolling stone kind of guy, who shuns modern contrivances in exchange for an enlightened, unencumbered lifestyle, or (2) my being a complete loser with no friends and no important roll to play in life.  I choose the first interpretation, but you can make your own assumptions and to hell with you.

I called James the next day, and that afternoon he stood in my garage, assessing things with a professional eye.  A compact man with salt-and-pepper hair and crows feet bracketing his eyes, I found James easy to talk to, with a good sense of humor (he’s gonna need it!).  Best of all, I am pleased to report that he had (mostly) complimentary things to say about my work!  Of course, he noticed some minor flaws that I was going to mention anyway — small things, really, that I have no idea how to address.  But he expressed a carefully measured confidence that those were indeed trivial things that he could easily handle.

James is a two-stage man, something I had not originally been too keen on.  Maybe that was why I didn’t call him first.  A modern, two-stage urethane paint job (base coat/clear coat), if done properly, is way nicer than what a Volkswagen would have left the factory with.  As a matter of fact, I think it makes most “stockers” look over-restored.  But James convinced me that the two-stage deal would be far more durable; also, many of the inevitable minor scratches that accrue over time can often be buffed out.  These were strong selling points.  Plus, I sincerely doubt anyone will ever accuse my Beetle — no matter how well it comes out — of being overdone.  Paint aside, it will still be the product of a rank amateur.

Of course we talked about color (the details of which you are simply going to have to wait for).  Then, inevitably, we talked about price.

As good as I was feeling about James and the work of which he seemed confidently capable, the new dread that descended was that, with this unexpected discussion of a real, bonafide, fancy-pants two-stage paint job, the price would be way out of my league.  It was true that, over time, I’d stuffed the coffee can with well over what I thought I might need for paint.  But that didn’t mean I wanted to spend it all on that.

As the discussion came around to this, I could feel my knees getting all springy-like, as if steadying myself for the crushing blow that his price tag would levy upon my person.  The suspense was threatening to topple me over as he hemmed and hawed, answering my questions with more questions.

“How much?  Well, how much are you willing to put into it?”

I mumbled and confessed my ignorance.  The only other time I’d had a car painted was at the local Earl Scheib back in ’86 or ’87.  If I recall, the one-day scuff-and-squirt special that was inflicted upon my 1975 Beetle was something like $300.  Nowadays, the primers, sealers, surfacers, reducers, bases, clears, and God-knows-what-else would cost at least that much.

“What were you planning on spending?” he wanted to know.

Really, I don’t think he was trying to milk more money out of me.  He seemed like an honest guy.  A family man (as a matter of fact, his grandkids were waiting patiently in the car).  Maybe he could sense the tension I must have been emanating, and was genuinely concerned that I might actually collapse in a pathetic heap on the concrete floor.  Maybe he could tell that, for me, this was a matter of love.

Come to think of it, maybe the whole thing was like getting that first date in more than one way.  Not only had there been the stress of the nervous and clumsy phone calls.  Now, I would find myself in a role similar to the father of the (obviously quite desperate) girl who actually said yes.

Just when I thought I (literally) couldn’t stand it anymore, James gave me his bottom line.  Surprisingly, it was a bit lower than I’d expected.  Why?  Setting aside humility for a moment, I like to think that his price reflected the fact that, in his professional estimation, very little body work would have to be done.  Lord knows I put enough time, sweat, and lost sleep into it.  Other than that, I can’t really say (was he going to let the grandkids have a go at it?).  The price tag is not, in my admittedly inexperienced opinion, suspiciously low.  But the margin might come in handy, I thought.  There might be nasty surprises.  This way, I’d be ready for them.

All I had to do for the next several minutes was to start breathing again, and wear the best poker face I could muster.  I asked him to recount, one more time, what all he’d do, what kind of products he’d use (PPG Deltron, mostly), and what his time frame was (about a month).  And he patiently explained it all again, adding that I could drop by his shop anytime, and that he’d even trailer the car himself.  And when he’d covered everything, and finally fell silent, I said, “Okay.”

On Friday, June 29th, James and his son came with a trailer.  I cut James a check for half of his quote.  Then they took my Beetle away.  One minute it was there — where it had been sitting, in the very same spot, since October 2009 — and then it was gone.

In the meantime, I’ll be peering from behind the curtains, keeping an eye on the street, watching to ensure that he brings her back safe and on time.

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