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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Finished Manuscript

I finished the first draft of my new novel today. Since tax time has slowed the auto repair part of my conglomerate down as it always does around this time of year, I’ve had a bit more time to write. My comic book shop will be open early today. Having learned the market, meaning agents (the first stumbling block on the way to publishing), are not real big on long manuscripts, I forced myself to show restraint on the new manuscript’s length. Although bowing to the wisdom of those who have something actually published (thanks Jordan), it was still tough to end a story with some thought to more parts. I understand the necessity, because you have to get the query letter past an agent’s slush pile. Having a word count above 150,000 words printed at the top will make the slush pile into quicksand, practically guaranteeing your query letter will be dumped. The reason behind this phenomena is agents don’t read anything other than bits and pieces. Even if they ask for pages, because you’ve managed to entice their interest with a few paragraphs, those pages you send better be like the first pages of ‘Jaws’ by Peter Benchly.

I’m not writing this from a bitter point of view, because I know there are more would be writers out there than ever. I also know most agents have to sift through piles of practically unreadable crap. It’s reality they may not want to spend time on themes they don’t like, so the new strategy will be ‘Jump The Shark’ literature. It may be possible to fool them into taking a look further into the book than the first thousand words. I keep reading good writing will get an agent’s attention, but where does good storytelling enter into the mix? There must be an agent out there who would like be drawn into a plot rather than blindsided by one. This means my last masterpiece of nearly 200,000 words will be heading for the vanity press with my other five novels. I’ll try the ‘Jump The Shark’ route with this new one. It will be rough getting one of my novel heroes eaten by a shark in the first few paragraphs though, and then what do I do with the shark? :) As always, I'm glad I have a day job.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Old Cars & Comics

A guy in his twenties drove an old 1967 Mercury Cougar into my repair shop today for a check out. He and I had already discussed the drawbacks of having bought it in the first place. Just from what he had told me, I figured only a mechanic with a lot of time on his hands should have the car. It turned out I found a couple of simple fixes to get his headlights and ignition working correctly, but the Cougar was going to run into the thousands of dollars to actually rewire and fix all the things wrong. At least this guy wasn’t like a lot of young men, who come by with some project car, and think I ought to work on it for nothing, just for the pleasure of fixing an old beater. He’s going to take my advice and sell it before he dives headlong into the Cougar black hole. :)

My little buddy, who bought the Ghost Rider comic, was back today with his older brother and two other girls about the same age. The older brother bought a Flash comic and another Ghost Rider comic, while the younger brother picked up a seventy-five cent one. I had found a couple of free Ghost Rider posters to give them, and the girls simply took some free sample comics. The brothers were real happy with the posters, and the girls seemed like suspicious, but potential customers. I’ve been in this East Oakland neighborhood for over thirty years, so quite a few parents and grandparents know me. If I had a little more energy, I’d come back and open up just the comic shop on Saturday.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Kids and Comics

Yesterday afternoon, I finished with the last car by three o’clock, so the comic shop opened fifteen minutes after. My opening caught the kids coming home from school, so I had a larger than average crowd looking around. Most don’t have enough for a comic even out of my quarter to fifty cent box let alone the average price of $2.99 for the new comics. I grew up in the fifties, but comics were only ten and twelve cents then. I could buy five or six every week with what I had from cutting yards with that ancient push mower. Now, a kid would have to practically have a full time job to afford buying five or six comics a week.

A boy about nine or ten years old came in and really wanted one of the Ghost Rider books. I explained the story line finished within a six part mini-series, and tried to steer him to some of the self-contained story books, but he was having none of it. He wanted one with the flaming skull, and nothing else would do. I gave him a bunch of the free promotional comics too, so he left happy.

My new manuscript is coming along real well, and I was able to do five pages while I ran the comic shop. It’s a heck of a lot more fun writing them than it is editing the finished script. One of these days maybe Word will come up with a robotic copy editor you can dial into whatever genre of literature you’re writing. If they ever invented it, they’d probably include some Snarky comment if you dial in Pulp Fiction. :)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Cold Memory

My shop has been in the thirties every day this week at opening time. Man, send some of that Global Warming my way, and get California back into at least the forties in the morning. Days like these in the winter, even us sissies out here on the West Coast have to get working in the morning to build up some BTU’s. When I need to remind myself of what it’s really like to work in the cold, I reminisce about my first job out of the service in 1972. I went to work in maintenance for Trumbull County, Ohio. About a month after I started, the two old guys in the Sheriff’s garage both took ill, and were gone on extended leaves. The County Supervisor started pressuring my boss to fill the slot; because the cold weather was moving in, and the Sheriff’s deputies cars had to be in good running shape. One of the deputies I knew by name couldn’t get his squad car started, and came into our maintenance shack for help. I went out and reset the ignition points. The squad car started right up, and when I closed the hood, my boss was looking at me with a big smile. I had just been volunteered to take over the County Sheriff’s garage in my hometown in Ohio.

When I walked into the Sheriff’s garage for the first time, I almost ran back out. You could barely walk around in the place. Automotive garbage and tools were strewn wall to wall, so much so, the three bays for working on cars had been cut down to one stall. My boss saw my face, and patted my shoulder with a laugh.

“Listen kid,” my boss Jim told me, “do what you can. Here’s the maintenance book on all the vehicles. It’s up to date, but the cars aren’t. They’re always behind on everything in here.”

“Jim, this place is a mess. Can I at least clean it up some so I can work?”

“You do anything you have to do, and when that jackass comes back who runs this pigsty, you send him to me if he has any complaints.”

“I promise I won’t throw any tools or anything important away. I’ll just clean and straighten stuff up and take care of the tools. I’d like to haul away those rusty engine blocks and junk laying under the benches though.”

“You know where the county truck is,” Jim nodded in agreement as he looked where I pointed. “Get the keys from Henry when he ain’t usin’ it, and get the kid we hired out of high school for the summer to help you. He’ll only be working a few hours a week anyhow now that schools started.”

My boss turned to walk out and leave me to it, but stopped at the door.

“Kid, if you can clean this place up so we can get our snowplow inside this winter, it’d make my life a hell of a lot easier.”

“Sure, Jim,” I agreed enthusiastically. “Henry told me I’d have to get up at five in the morning and come in after a night snowfall to shovel snow before the County building workers come in. Does this gig get me out of that?”

My boss busted up laughing for a few moments, pointing at me.

“Not a chance,” Jim said finally when he caught his breath. He left, shaking his head, still chuckling over my question.

I hated shoveling snow since I was old enough to be forced to do it. Taking a deep breath, I took a walk around the three bay garage, with the maintenance book under my arm. Planning my strategy while I cleaned and put away tools, I set out next to hunt down the Sheriff’s assistant, a real nice guy who walked around with an unlit cigar in his mouth. He and I worked out a schedule so I could do all the routine maintenance first, and then start in on the more heavy duty stuff after. Within a week, the garage was all cleaned up, and all the benches were cleared for action. I had all the routine maintenance on the Sheriff’s cars done. Next up was the tune-ups, cooling system services, and exhaust, brake, and light checks. Luckily for me at that time, I didn’t have to do any welding. The exhaust systems rust so badly back there, you just cut off all the pipes and muffler, replacing them with new. In the mean time, I practiced my welding, using the book I still had at home from shop class. They never cheaped out on anything, and when I did any service, I replaced everything having anything to do with the job. By the next month, when those first snow flurries hit, I only had to go out in the parking lot to help county workers whose cars and trucks wouldn’t start.

Then came the morning when Henry drove up in the old International maintenance truck at about seven. I’d been shoveling the walks for over an hour, and had sweated through my cotton stuff, even after throwing aside my coat after the first fifteen minutes. Did I mention I hate shoveling snow (and yes, this was prehistoric times before snow-blowers). The only good pieces of clothing I had was my Navy flight-deck coat, and my wool watch cap. The rest of the ensemble was all the cotton blends of the day, which were absolutely the pits. They made you sweat, summer or winter, and stayed damp, making you a candidate for frostbite in cold weather. I looked up from my shoveling and saluted. Henry laughed. He and I got along great. Although twice my age, Henry didn’t do the usual older guy assumptions. See, most guys when they get into their forties fall prey to selective memory, where they think they were knowledgeable about all things since birth, and us younger guys were idiots because we weren’t. Henry remembered young guys like me learned from experience and a wise word from an older guy like him.

“Hey, kid, havin’ fun?”

My name was kid, even though I’d done four years in the Navy, and was old enough to drink in a bar or vote. Compared to all of them, I was a kid. It was a term of endearment.

“As much fun as I can have with my clothes on,” I quipped, getting another laugh from Henry.

“Get in the truck, we’re going over to pick up the snowplow from where the County keeps it stored in the summer. Don’t worry, we’ll get back in plenty of time for you to finish your shoveling.”

“Oh good,” I said with some sarcasm seeping into my voice, “I wouldn’t want to miss out on any of this great weather outdoors.”

I slipped on my discarded coat and climbed into the International passenger seat, immediately noticing we had no heat.

“Henry, are you too hot or something? It’s freezing in this truck,” I complained, feeling the damp cotton clothing beginning to send me into hypothermia.

“It’s waiting on a heater core,” Henry replied, grinning over at me, while he used a towel to clear off moisture on the inside windshield.

“Waiting for what, next summer? Why didn’t you tell me? I’ll fix it for you.”

“The shop truck’s always on the back burner until the Sheriff’s stuff is done. Besides, I forgot.”

“Well, at least let me run alongside the truck so I can stay warm,” I mumbled discontentedly.

“I thought you Navy guys were used to foul weather,” Henry chuckled.

“We were in Southeast Asia, not the Arctic,” I retorted, pulling my watch cap down over my ears further. “First thing when we get back, I’m changing out your heater core. You must be nuts driving into work everyday in this icebox.”

“It’s amazing what you can get used to,” Henry sighed.
Next stop, some old barn with a huge parking lot out in the boondocks. A big, stocky guy wearing greasy coveralls meets us as Henry drives the International up into the parking lot entrance. He gestures us to follow him as he walks over to one side of the dirt parking lot with the wind and snow howling around us, and the sky just then casting some grayish light. We left the International to join the caretaker next to a beat up old orange snowplow with no cab. Mamma Mia, I was getting a bad feeling about this.

“Henry, there ain’t no cab on that thing,” I pointed out fearfully.

“Yea, ain’t she a beaut? Get up there in the seat, kid, and I’ll give you a few pointers on driving it back, and working the plow.”

“If I sit on that damn seat, we’ll have to have a crew meet us to detach my ass. C’mon, this is a joke, right? Screw with the kid, huh?”

“Quit foolin’ around, boy, and get up there while I choke her a little,” the caretaker ordered, grinning at my exchange with Henry. “I charged the battery, and the keys in the ignition. Just pump the gas, push in the clutch, and turn the key while I work the carb out here.”

I used my already wet glove to brush the fresh snow off the old upholstered seat, which had more cracks than a broken glass. A quick look, and I squirmed around on the seat while doing what he ordered. It started surprisingly easy after only ten minutes of coughing, hacking, and backfiring. Once it ran, I kept it running on high idle while Henry did a quick teaching job on the controls and the caretaker gave me a few quirks the shift had.

“Okay, I got it,” clenching my teeth together so as not to stutter like Porky Pig. “If we don’t get going soon, I won’t be able to move my arms enough to shift gears and steer.”

“I’ll follow you,” Henry said, jogging back to his enclosed cab, which would have been like heaven compared to my open air experience.

The caretaker gave me a little wave, and walked quickly toward the lighted and heated building he had journeyed from to meet us. I let out the clutch slowly, and the perky monster took right off. Only remembering the wind chill factor at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in January gave me any comfort at all, while I squinted into the wind, and increased the speed, steering the beast out onto the road. I blinked snowflakes and up-shifted to the plow’s top speed, about twenty miles per hour. Dredging up computations from my high school Algebra classes, I figured with X being the time factor, it should only take about six hours to get back to the County buildings. That may be a small exaggeration. It was probably only ten miles; but believe me when I tell you: it felt much longer.

Jim met us at the County building parking lot entrance. By then, every cell in my body was chattering. I slowed to a stop, looking by then like the Abominable Snowman.
“You got here just in time, kid,” Jim yelled up at me over the wind. “Did Henry show you how the plow works?”

I moved my lips, but not much came out, so I just nodded. I considered pretending I was passing out; but then I wouldn’t be ‘kid’ anymore, I’d be sissy-boy.

“Good, get this parking lot cleared before the workers get here. Do all the main drags first, and then work the spaces,” Jim directed, pointing out where to plow the snow to.

I finished about forty-five minutes later, the excitement of working the plow for the first time heating me up so I figured I wouldn’t lose more than a couple of toes and fingers to frostbite. Henry came out of the heated maintenance shack with a cup of coffee as I shut off the plow in front of the bay in the Sheriff’s garage.

“Coffee?” Henry asked, with a big smile, holding the cup up to me.

“Ju…just po…pour it on the seat,” I stuttered, gesturing down with my frozen left hand. “I…I think ma…my asshole has become one with the seat.”

Henry laughed so hard, he spilled half my coffee.

Yep, compared to that day long ago, today is like warm sunshine. :)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Day Off?

“Hello,” I greeted, holding the phone to my ear, while twisting to see Saturday morning had been interrupted already by only eight-thirty in the AM on my home wall clock.

“Bernie, I’m so glad I caught you at home,” a breathless woman’s voice informed me, which I did not recognize.

“Yea, my yacht’s in harbor for the weekend,” I joked, thinking I must know this woman from my wife’s long list of friends and co-workers, dopily forgetting I wear a name tag with Bernie on it every day at work.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m sorry,” I lied. “Joyce isn’t here right now, can I take a message.”

“Isn’t this Bernie Nilson?”

“No, I own Nilson Brothers Garage; but my last name isn’t Nilson, and I’m not there today. Did someone give you my home number by mistake?”

“I tried your business number,” she said, her voice raising an octave. “I’m stuck and I need help. You worked on my car, and now it’s not running.”

“Okay, you’re in luck, cause I’m at my desk, entering invoices in my database program,” I said, quickly switching to find in the Lotus Approach database worksheet section I was working on. “Give me your last name, and I’ll familiarize myself with what I’ve done to your vehicle.”

She gave me her last name, and in ten seconds I had all her records in front of me. My caller had an oil change and tune-up done three years ago. My, how time flies when we’re having fun. I explained her work record, and listened while she exclaimed that couldn’t be correct.

“Look, I’m sorry your Pontiac stuck you somewhere; but why not tell me what the conditions were when it shut down, and I’ll…”

“Pontiac?!” The lady cut me off like a fresh meat chop at the butcher’s. “I sold the Pontiac over a year ago. I own a 2002 Toyota Corolla. Don’t you ever update your records?”

Always, I thought to myself grimly, with the tedious attention to detail Scrooge would cry in envy over. First things first.

“Let’s start over,” I proceeded carefully, taking a deep breath. “You said you’re stuck. Are you on a freeway, or someplace dangerous? We need to get you somewhere safe first. Then we’ll deal with the work I’ve done or not done. Where are you?”

“I’m at home.”

Yea, me too, I reminded myself inwardly. “Okay, that’s good,” I said out loud. “Now, where’s your car?”

“It’s here at my house. It wouldn’t start at the grocery store this morning and Triple A sent a guy over to get me started. I made it back home; but when I tried to start it, it was dead again,” she explained. “I need you to come over and see what you can do to get me going.”

Boy, now there’s some good news. I have good news to give in return.

“Ma’am, I don’t do any repair work on vehicles unless they’re in my shop. Let me confirm your address, and I’ll make you an appointment to tow your Toyota in on Monday. I have to work MLK day, but I kept the schedule light, and I’ll get a look at yours after it arrives then.”

Silence reigned for long enough I thought she’d hung up on me.

“Hello?” I prompted in a quiet voice.

“Yes, I’m thinking… I don’t know what to do… I need my car.”

“I’ll do what I can on Monday, Ma’am,” I repeated.

“Fine, if that’s the best you can do,” she sighed discouragingly (I know how she felt).

The lady confirmed the last address I had for her and hung up. She did apologize for disturbing me on my day off; and hey, she could have continued the ‘you just worked on my car’ ploy for another fifteen minutes. The motoring public usually only tries that one on me when it’s been less than a year since I serviced their vehicles. Three’s a stretch; but hey, at least the Pontiac I actually worked on did just fine until she sold it. :)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


My motion detector went off and I looked up to see a 1997 Chevy Cavalier sputter into my shop. I peeled off my surgical gloves (mechanic style) and went to greet the driver. An extremely agitated young woman in her mid twenties exited the driver’s door, and slammed it shut. It was nearly nine o’clock in the morning, and her attire appeared to have been donned with an office work environment in mind: dress, high heels, nice coat.

“Hi, may I help you?” I asked in my best grandfatherly manner.

“Are you honest?” The young woman asked abruptly, staring intently at me, her right hand coming to rest on her hip.

Uh oh.

“I’m better at answering questions concerning your car, Ma’am. It really doesn’t matter if I’m honest or not, because you won’t know by me telling you I am anyway,” I explained without the slightest iota of the sarcasm welling up inside me, filtering into my voice.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” She asked defensively, her left hand finding its way to her other hip.

“It means I can’t prove I’m honest by saying so, and I’d be more likely to say I was honest if in reality I’m a dishonest crook. Now, why don’t you tell me what kind of problem you’re having, and I’ll…”

“My problem is you mechanics wanting to rip me off because I’m a woman,” she interrupted forcefully.

Oh boy, five minutes have passed, and I haven’t even made it to the problem.

“I’ll overlook for the moment your lumping me in with a multitude of real or imagined dishonest mechanics and simply say I don’t discriminate here. If I wanted to rip you off, it wouldn’t matter what DNA strands you’re carrying around, cause I could intelligently rip off any male customer just as expertly.”

The amusement hit her eyes first, and then made her mouth quiver. She laughed. I had her then. Once I know they can laugh, they’re mine. I won’t have to throw her out.

“Now, how may I rip you off today?”

More laughter.

I didn’t rip her off. I fixed her car. We ‘mechanics’ are looked on in about the same way people look at used car salesmen or lawyers. I imagine from the customer’s perspective, it may be deserved. Most of the time, I’ve understood the concept I will always be looked at askance until the job gets done, and matches the explanation of why I did what I did. It’s a lot like my novel writing. :)

Friday, January 5, 2007


Just a short one for a cold day. A nice gentleman drove in with an old Toyota pickup truck with manual transmission. I knew he had a stick shift before ever talking to him, because I could smell burnt clutch material twenty feet away from the truck. The man left the driver’s side seat to greet me with a smile.

“Hi, can you throw a clutch in this today?”

I could; but regrettably for both of us, I’m not going to. I have four vehicles in the shop, all of which must leave before five.

“No, but I can make you an appointment to leave your truck off on Monday for me to get started on it,” I offered.

“Next week?” The nice man chuckled as he started getting back in the truck. “I need this done today, thanks anyway.”

“No problem,” I replied amiably. “Good luck, come and see me if things don’t work out.”

“I will, thanks,” he said and left, leaving burnt clutch fumes in his wake.

This is a competitive business, and if you snooze, you lose; but I’ve learned over the years not to promise what I can’t deliver. My other customers depend on me repairing the vehicles they had appointments for on time. Since he came in at just before noon, everything would have had to go perfectly, and they seldom do.

I could have said sure, sign right here, and had the transmission out on the floor in less than an hour, leaving me enough time to finish my other jobs. A quick call to the Toyota owner, apologizing for delayed parts or delivery, (no, sorry, you can’t come get it, the transmission’s out on the floor) and I go home for the weekend. If I did my work like that, the stress would have killed me, or an irate customer, and then where would my not for profit writing career be? :)

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Little Blessings

Well I’m back to the business, which pays for my writing hobby. Owning a business means opening the doors after long weekends with your heart in your throat. Will there be emergencies unfixed because of the extra couple days? Did I miss out on a job which might have paid for the self-publishing of my new novel? At least my building sign hangs in the same place I anchored it after last week’s windstorm. In addition to writing some pages this past long weekend, I read some blog subjects dealing with resolutions to read and write more, with writers lashing themselves on to new plateaus of achievement. After reading a no-nonsense opinion from the Snark about what published writers can expect for money, in answer to a question on her website, I’m really feeling blessed I have a day job.

As luck would have it, the jobs for the day turn out to be a real mixed bunch of nuts: 2002 Honda for a 50,000 mile service, an old 1989 Jeep with a broken steering column (compliments of a thief), an oil change on a 1986 Lincoln Towncar, and starter job on a 1992 Mercury Tracer. Yes folks, the vehicles out here on the left coast do hang around longer without the snow and ice. A teenage kid rode up around noontime on one of those noisy pieces of crap that looks like a motorized skate board with handlebars on a steering stem. Sounding like a truck diesel engine without a muffler, and smelling even worse, the little junk-heap gave up the ghost inside my front door. I walk over, knowing if the kid needs anything more than his tires pumped up, I ain’t doing it.

“You tune these up?” The young man asks.

“No, I only work on cars and trucks,” I answer politely, secretly thinking one less noise generator like that would be a real blessing.

“I thought you did mechanic work here,” he says after rolling his eyes for my benefit.

I grin with the aforementioned knowledge my tools will never be coming into contact with his ying…ying…ying screaming machine.

“I can pump up the tires so it’ll be easier to push it home,” I offer, or I think to myself, I could cut it up with my cutting torch for scrap: free of charge.

“Man, I don’t need my tires pumped, I need this runnin’ so I can get home.”

He’s getting irate. These kids ying…ying…ying up and down the street in front of my shop without letup for hours sometimes, until that high pitched shriek their two stroke engine makes starts to blend in with my own inner screams. A construction business owner down the avenue, who has his fleet serviced at my shop, confided in me he wants to go out and throw a broom handle or something through their tiny wheel spokes, he’s so fed up with them. I don’t want to kill ‘em. I just want them to ying…ying elsewhere. The law of averages has finally come in the form of whatever runs mechanically eventually breaks down. Welcome to my world.

“Sorry.” I’m not, but I smile condescendingly anyhow. “Are you sure you don’t want some air in those tires?”

He glares at me with a look meant to frighten me into submission, while allowing his crap-cycle to fall on its side. He’s been bullying kids at school too long. We stood there like that for a few moments, him scowling, and me grinning. Good sense wins out. The young man rights the crap-cycle and walks it out, mumbling obscenities. It’s times like these I’m glad I invested in pull down metal doors over my windows and comic shop storefront. One less ying…ying. Life is good. :)