United Auto Stores featured tee-shirts with a “grease monkey” named Otto on it. I was not a grease monkey, but I was sorely in need of a cash infusion, after having moved up to San Jose in June of 1974, to attend school at San Jose State University. Why on Earth I went to work for an auto parts house is simply because, when I began looking for a job in the first week of September, there were three job openings that I figured I was qualified for, the first one being UA. I walked into the auto parts house on the corner of Story Road and King Road in East San Jose, for the first time to work on September 11, 1974. This was the second job in my life that I began on September 11, the other being in 1967, when I went to work for Augie at Sunrize Market.
Mike Emily, the manager, told me I had all three of the qualities they were looking for: I was a college student, I was a sophomore and I was a veteran of the military. Being a college student meant not so much that I was smart, but that I had initiative and drive, having made it through freshman year, and not giving up. Being a beginning sophomore meant there was a good chance that I would be in school a minimum of three more years, a further indication of stability. Finally, being a veteran of the Green Machine demonstrated the ultimate ability to withstand challenges in the work place.
Mike was a veteran, as was Booker Anderson, the assistant manager, who had retired after a twenty year career with the navy, and was still only forty-three, give or take a year. Andy was now drawing a full pension from the navy, plus his salary from UA. I was blown away, which is not hard, considering I was a guy who was just beginning a new field, and commanding a hefty two dollar and fifty cent an hour salary.
However, the good news is that only a month after I started, I earned a twenty-five cent an hour raise, which represents a ten percent increase. A month later, I earned another raise, and was making five dollars an hour less than two years after I began. The work was challenging, but so was attracting long-term help for a business with a demanding bank of information needed in order to function independently. Mike told me early on that the six-month point was a benchmark, as far as the auto parts industry was concerned, in that new employees often did well until that point, and then many ended up switching jobs abruptly.
He explained that the process of becoming proficient in this industry was daunting; there is just so much to assimilate, not only from the point of view of providing customers with the correct parts, but also understanding the intricacies of the automotive engine. I had told Mike from the outset that I was barely able to do anything beyond a basic tune-up, and maybe replace a water pump or a carburetor, but that I was not an automotive expert, by any stretch of the imagination. He told me that was perfect, because they preferred to train guys without prior knowledge, so that it was done correctly.
I remember the same logic being applied in the military, when it came to firing the M-16. The drill instructor told us that it was easier to teach someone who had never touched a weapon before (me) than someone who had been shooting all his life, because there were no bad habits to overcome. As much as I abhorred any contact with a weapon (I have never fired a weapon outside the military, other than a pellet rifle) I still shot “expert” because, I assume, I had no bad habits to correct, and I listened to the nice drill instructor, as he screamed in my ear.
At United Auto Stores, it quickly became apparent who was approachable for help, and who was not. Bruno, who spoke fluent Spanish, was awesome; Jaime, the soon-to-be San Jose cop, not so much. To Jaime, I was always Hippie or Dirty Hippie or any of a number of quaint references to my appearance. Jimmy had been there since the beginning of time, so he knew it all, but did not have quite the level of patience that the others did. Booker was great, as was Ziggy, a long-haired, gentle person, who was also good for me to seek out for help.
The beginning was overwhelming, because I had to be careful to NEVER tell someone we could not get the part, unless I was darn sure. That was a definite no-no, but it also required that I-or any new employee-be able to constantly bombard fellow employees for help. I had to walk a fine line, and I had to tread carefully on that fine line. It must have worked, because I eventually ran the delivery service, which kept two little trucks busy, picking up parts from local warehouses, and delivering them to customers all over the immediate vicinity.
There was even a time when my sister Laura drove one of those trucks. In fact, Ann’s brother Joe also drove a delivery truck, which is how I met her.
Though I was not a grease monkey, I wore those tee-shirts for eight years, while working at UA, before moving up here to Bell Springs Road. I still have one of those shirts, thirty years later, packaged in the same plastic bag that it was in when it was given to me. I’m saving it for the day when I visit All-Parts Auto Store in San Jose, and see Mike coming toward me. I want to see how long it takes him to react to Otto. He ought to recognize Otto, his old buddy from Story Road, though he may not recognize me. My flaming red beard is only a flowing mustache these days, and besides, it’s gray, and I have cut my hair. At least Jaime would be happy, though he’d have to come up with a new nick-name for me.