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First Person Singular: Mechanic James Sullivan

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

My little brother and I were always covered in grease. My dad and grandfather were both intensely into classic cars. Since age 6, I've been working on Fords from the teens and '20s, Model T's and Model A's.

As a teenager, I used to go to flea markets and buy up all the broken electric fans just to take them apart and put them back together. My mother, who is a professional artist, would watch me and say, "You need to be a restorer. You can work at the Smithsonian." But I just couldn't see this clear path between tinkering around and actually making that a career. I remember taking one of those aptitude tests, and, based on my skills with my hands and love of the outdoors, it said to become a tugboat captain. Not a lot of help in Arlington, Virginia.

In 2003, I had started selling interest-only loans, and I was good at it until I realized the damage it would eventually do to the families whose living rooms I was sitting in. At this point, my wife had the wherewithal to say: "You're not even a nice guy anymore. You need to start thinking about things that make you happy." I'd bought, restored and sold, like, 150 classic cars in 10 years, so there was no arguing that it made me happy, but I was adamantly opposed to her suggestion of being a mechanic. You can't take my hobby and turn it into my profession. You're going to take something I find fun and enjoyable and turn it into hell.

A few months later, I was the wind, noise and water-leak guy at the same Ford dealership where I'd [once] sold cars. I was who you see when you buy a new car, take it home, it rains and the next morning you have two inches of water on the floorboards, or when you get out on the highway and it starts to make this whiz, whiz noise. Nobody wants this job. There's no real training. No one is happy to see you. They just spent $15,000 on a car. The service manager is telling them it's going to be fixed in a day, and I'm standing there with a garden hose, ready to take out the carpet, maybe even the dashboard, to find this leak, no matter how long it takes.

I joined an independent garage not long after that. This has forced me to face some fears. We get all models, all makes -- and there is no passing it off to another shift or department. It's just me and this broken BMW and the clock. I'm forced to figure it out. It feels absolutely great when I do: to take something apart piece by piece and make it whole again, without one leftover bolt. That is an art. I'm still trying to convince my mom of that.

Interview by Amanda Long


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