The Outside Rail

Can you hang black bunting on an auto-repair shop? That's what I think about every time I drive past Fair Hill Auto, the local place where cars get fixed and stories get told.

It's owned by the Green family, and looks just like you'd imagine - two buildings, five lifts, three or four mechanics doing mechanic stuff, a small office with a high countertop, lots of parking on pristine asphalt. There are vintage signs, old license plates, some family photos that'll make you smile, a bulletin board full of photos of customers' vehicles (lawnmowers and airplanes in addition to the usual cars and trucks). Thank-you notes are taped to the wall above the hourly rates sign: one price to get it done, a higher one if you want to watch, even more if you tried to do it yourself before you brought it in.

Over by the computer - connected to a dot-matrix printer before you think the place is modern - a sign cautions, "If you don't take the time to do it right, how are you going to find the time to do it again?" Something like that anyway. I can never tell who that sign is meant for, but it speaks to me.

That's Fair Hill Auto, a place where cars get fixed in the same sense that the Cheers bar was a place where drinks got consumed. There's way more to it, even if the place feels as empty as an upside-down coffee mug this week. Dave Green Sr., founder of Fair Hill Auto and master of all that went on there, died Thursday after a two-year fight with cancer. He died a week before he turned 69. Mr. Green hasn't been in the shop for a while, but it didn't feel final until now. He won't ever be there again. His sons Dave Jr. and Steven are more than capable of carrying on the tradition, but it won't ever be the same and my world is a little sadder because of it.

Not that I'm alone.

Flowers sit on the counter by the door. Customers drop off sympathy cards with their checks. A month ago, a neighbor/customer sent around an email asking people for contributions to a "memory book" for Dave Sr. We wrote down our memories, our tales of woe related to the internal combustion engine, and sent them along. His family read them to him and he wondered why everyone was being so nice.

Because Mr. Green mattered. His shop still does. Someone from Fair Hill Auto will pick up your car, fix it and return it to your driveway with a, "Key's over the visor, bill's on the floor" policy. Nothing in my life is that convenient. That won't change, I hope, but I (and a lot of other people) will miss the conversations with Dave Sr., the "I don't know what this world is coming to" opinions, the wisdom about all things automotive and all things in general. He grew up in a crazy, roundabout way between Tennessee, California, Florida, Delaware and a few places in between. He never graduated high school, but succeeded in a way no school could ever teach - as a businessman, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a great-grandfather. He told himself he'd be a millionaire by 1990, then changed the date to 2000. I don't know if he ever made it, but that's not the point. He was one of the richest guys I ever met.

This week, the Fair Hill Auto phone rings, frequently. When it's not someone with car trouble, it's a guy who worked with Dave Sr. 30 years ago at Smith Volkswagen or some other stop along the way. Dave Jr. just listens.

Tuesday night, I stood in the shop office with Dave Jr. and helped him write a eulogy for his father's memorial service scheduled for Saturday. Mostly, we told stories and drank beer. Dave talked, I typed - standing at that high counter. Dave talked some more, I typed some more.

"I wish this was a misfiring engine, I'd know exactly what to do," he told me. "I know what I want to say, I'm just not sure I can say it." I countered by telling him a misfiring engine might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphics to me. He kept talking, I kept typing and deleting. 

We came up with a 720-word tribute and Dave's going to say it as best he can Saturday. There's really no pressure - the event is not a somber funeral, it's not at a church and I don't think there are any other scheduled speakers. It's a party, planned down to the last detail by Dave Sr. (steel-drum band, no portable toilets, a big tent, loads of food and drink and a huge turnout I'm sure...). Call it one final task completed the right way.

Dave just wants to tell everyone thanks, and explain a little bit about what his father meant to him and the family.

I get it, but he doesn't have to say anything. We already know.