Leo’s Muffler

Ranger Tim’s notes from Silicon Valley:

I have been rumbling around with a broken exhaust pipe for a week now,
so after lunch today I took the Honda around to Leo’s Muffler, a
nondescript garage at the end of a grubby industrial cul de sac near the
office.Leo, the owner and sole employee, is a ruddy-faced sixty-something
Albuquerque native. While his cutting torch blazed, we talked about the
vacation he and his wife had taken in Canada last fall.

“Ottawa and Montreal, you know, they really impressed me. But those
winters … I think I’ll stick with San Jose.”

He asked me how my French was, and I said, rusty like my car.

“I’m pretty good with languages, but then, I practise.” He had begun
crafting a fine new flanged connector from scratch, and without taking
his eyes off the work, recited a long poem in Portuguese. In soft
musical Brazilian dialect.

“Did you understand any of it”? he asked me, eyes gleaming.

I said I recognized the words “heart” and “lover“.

“Elegy. Guy wrote that on the death of his wife.”

Turning back to the pipe bender, he started into a repertoire of Italian
folksongs.

He took a break at one point to introduce me in proper Castilian to the
Chilean deliveryman. “!Mira, un Canadiense que habla español!”

Leo had majored in Romance Language Literature at the University of New
Mexico but when his young family came to California years ago he decided
to apply himself to an honest trade.

“People think that because I know all these languages, and poems, and
books, I should have been something more than a mechanic. But if I
worked in my academic field, I’d be fighting to make twenty or thirty
thousand a year. And guess what? Last year I took home over two hundred
grand from this little shop.”

As I backed my car off the hoist he was belting out a Puccini aria.

My muffler man does good work, and is easily the happiest person I’ve
met so far in California.

11 thoughts on “Leo’s Muffler”

  1. Obviously, the guy has an active life of the mind, which is great, but I tend to agree with the lawyer who said “I’d rather be a barrister on a miner’s pay, than a miner on a barrister’s”. It ain’t all about the green homes. Anyway, I’m sure an enthusiastic fellow like the muffler man would make a quite a success of any line of country to which he turned his hand.

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  2. I’d be muffler guy on a muffler guy’s pay before I’d pick either lecturing or a lawyering, but mining’s a whole other ball of wax.

    Seems very rewarding to make things and fix things while you chat to people, not to mention supporting yourself independently. I’d rather do that than push dead words around for money, but unfortunately, like most liberal arts graduates and lawywers, I don’t have the skills.

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  3. I don’t want to be harsh, but the skills aren’t exactly onerous to acquire. That argument reminds me of those people who are wont to say of those who’ve worked abroad or travelled or otherwise diverted themselves during their formative (I accept that these are ongoing) years, “I’d love to do that, but (insert fatuous reason to stay at home and earn money to acquire plasticky consumer goods and get stupidly drunk at the weekend)”.

    In fact, I saw on 60 mins or something a report on all these white collar guys who are retraining to take advantage of the blue collar skills shortage in the States. Same is happening in the UK. I admit it’s tempting when one imagines a life of handicraft, but glamorous as the blue collar life is from afar, its realities involve coping with the tabloid sensibilities of macho, horribly sentimental dickheads. If you liked secondary school, you’ll love the shop floor.

    And while a lawyer is paid by the hour to talk to you, the muffler guy seems to have increased the hours for which is paid by doing the same thing. Not saying that was deliberate in this case despite his hefty take home wedge. Happily in this instance, he was a charming individual and made fine subject matter for a well-written penseé. But what if he’d been, as is vastly more likely, of the Dublin taxi driver mentality and decided to regale you with his balanced, considered opinions on asylum seekers and their Government sponsored conveyances? Would we have a similar ballad of the working man – see At-Swim-Two-Birds for details?

    So, I’m not criticising the instinct to write the piece, I just think it’s facile to infer from it – as it’s all too easy to do – the nobility of the blue over the white collar. Obviously, it behooves someone making my argument to do something more constructive with middle-class privileges than push dead paper around, which I don’t necessarily do. I’ve been meaning to try though.

    I can’t imagine how annoying this post must appear.

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  4. Dude, the story was a bit of a deliberate class war grenade lob, so your comments are completely a propos 🙂

    I’m surely tainted by the epidemic of white-collar backlash I’m seeing in the post-boom Valley. A bit of it’s due to shifting skill demand, as you note: as we’ve transitioned from stock bubble to housing bubble, drywallers DO earn more than software engineers. But particularly among young people, there is active rejection of the life choices that saw their parents sacrificing friends, family, and pastimes for 70 hour workweeks at companies that laid them off anyway when the tech economy went south.

    Reinforcing this is the dawning realization that even a decent professional income will not buy you new admission into the Bay Area’s overheated home equity market. The _average_ house in Santa Clara County (where I live) sold for $535,000 last year. So twenty-somethings evaluating career choices perceive very little marginal return on work ambition. What’s the point, if you’re shut out of the asset accumulation game your Boomer parents coasted through by dint of generational timing?

    There ought to be a good magazine piece in analyzing this little-heralded millennial California value shift, but somebody else will have to write it. It’s 7:20pm, and I still haven’t started this damn sales report.

    – T

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  5. Interesting debate this on blue collar nobility. My father built buses for a pittance and my childhood ambition was to do anything but that. Hence my selection of the life affirming, humanity benefiting, er..mmm accounting profession.
    That said, most males have a powerful respect for skilled tradsmen. In the West of Ireland where my parents hail from, and in Australia, where I spent some years, there is infinite respect for anyone with a trade. The happiest men I have found have been expert tradesmen or engineers working on complex, interesting physical work (from aircraft mechanics to tunnel builders).
    I suspect that, (to generalise excessively), the same would not be true of most women. Many men can work for years building The Ultimate Sprocket, but women need people.

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  6. There is, of course, the sense of failing that accompanies not being able to change your own tire. Once, while driving cross-country, we helped a lawyer change his Jeep’s tire. While we were cold and dirty, he was embarrassed. I think one of the deepest divides lies between those who are able and those who are not, and nowhere is this more evident than when your car breaks down. Living in Asia, I routinely have my scooter fixed by twelve year olds, and wish them a better life despite their exorbitant attempts to overcharge me. Yet in a country driven by the scooter, their knowledge and mine are of equal value. Sitting yesterday with a Polish Buddhist and realizing that neither of us could build a house, it became hard to see the value of selling real estate. While my best friends argue that if you learn c it simply means you can pay someone else to do a and b, I have met few happier men than my friend Chris, who will never read this. Upon graduation, everyone asking plans, he quietly smiled and said “I’m going to live in the woods with an amazing man who makes violins and learn how.” Some times it isn’t romanticizing, some times it is simply watching happiness.

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  7. He was dead right to have been embarrassed. Changing a tyre is hardly the most complicated of tasks, and one that any able-bodied driver should know how to do, whether they are a high court judge or a mechanic. It’s not a fitting analogy to the differences between a blue-collar trade and a white-collar profession.

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  8. I’m not a snob. I’m as cynical about white-collar punters and careers as I am about a sentimental, romanticised view of working class occupations and people.

    To connect dots among Ranger Tim’s points to suit my own ends, the fact that the average 20something gets into a major existential funk because he or she can’t break into an upper-middle income housing market with a half a million dollar threshold says a lot about how unrealistic people’s aspirations have become. I’m 30 so it’s ok for me. One can build one’s equity somewhere else and stay in Santa Clara while renting the property out.

    I’m not sure it’s any more meaningful to repair a muffler than it is to sit in a cubicle and peer at lines of accountancy software code. While I understand how one might feel the sacrifice of meaning and an heroic view of one’s self to be ill rewarded if life in the cubicle was failing to produce enough green to acquire a surfiet of consumer durables, it’s a category error to reach for a pair of plumber’s dungarees.

    Self-employment a la the muffler man is the ideal. Not only is it the only way to get rich, but you can avoid the horribly bonhomous alpha-aspirant male bonders of merchant banking and the hospitalising practical jokes of your friendly neighbourhood bricklayer. It’s a question of what sort of skills it would give you most satisfaction to employ in your working life I suppose.

    The key to not stressing about all this stuff is education because education helps you to keep things in perspective. So I haven’t got granite surfaces in my kitchen, but I have Dickens on my shelves and a second-hand upright piano in my bedroom. That perspective is also what allows one to reject the idea that one should bring one’s work home every night or grow an ulcer because of a looming deadline. And you don’t get that by doing an apprenticeship at 16.

    I reject claims about these “happiest” men because I’m quite sure working class men suffer disproportionately from heart disease, depression, alcoholism etc.

    Employers, advertisers et al conspire to terrify like the Wizard behind his furious, firebreathing mask, but as you approach the boss’s door it pays to remember you’re not a schoolboy any more and it’s not as if you’re about to be beaten with a rubber hose. Perhaps the discord is between the difficulty of attaining the lifestyle to which the mags and tv contend one should aspire and the utter banality of failure, if failure is the opposite of being a movie star.

    It’s a complicated matter. The only thing I advise is to buy a house above the potential global warming flooding threshold and away from any extreme weather events and make sure your kids can support you when you retire by brainwashing them to be overachieving lawyer or doctor. As Ogden Nash so succinctly put it:

    Professional men, they have no cares; whatever happens, they get theirs.

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  9. What I took from the original post (and several comments) is that one should find a life’s work that makes one happy. All the other trappings are meaningless if you are unhappy in your daily grind! No matter the salary, prestige or location. There also must be a balance in your life between work and leisure and other pursuits…such as family and community! Not an easy task! Can I give a plug for better career education/exploration in our school systems?

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  10. I note on page 6 of business section of today’s Irish Times a reference to this blog. Unfortunately, it’s preceded by a reference to irritatingly blinkered reactionary eamonn of eamonn.com.

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  11. Last word on the subject from the notorious Rick Vosper, who emailed today:

    “I loved your singing mechanic vignette and the ensuing debate. Do you know the story of the gynecologist who retrained as an auto mechanic?

    “For his final exam, he was required to completely dismantle a… hmmmm …Volvo, yeah a volvo engine and reassemble it. His final mark was 120 out of a possible 100.

    “He received bonus marks for doing the whole job through the tail pipe.”

    – T

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