Editor’s Note: It’s Saturday, April 27. We’re still in Treasure Island. We’ve been holed up all week at the Sunrise Motel, which is cheap and clean, just across Gulf Boulevard from the Gulf of Mexico. Max has thrown over the aquamarine bath of the Gulf for the cozy confines of the motel pool. He calls it the “giant drink,” as in, “Daddy, are you going to come into the giant drink with me?” He’s a little frustrated with me because I’ve had my nose in this laptop for most of the past two weeks. He says the gulf water is too cold. I am pretty sure it’s warmer than the water in the pool.
We’ve been getting a lot of work done. I’ve been writing, Becky’s been editing, and we are set to check out of here Monday morning and resume our journey. We have tentative plans to head north through Tallahassee in the direction of Tallapoosa, Georgia. We’ve been there before, and though our friend Clara Williams has since passed on, I want to return and look up some of her family.
Below I finally get around to wrapping up the long, twisted saga of our efforts to get the “check engine” light turned off and return the Behemoth to a smooth-running gas-guzzler. The saga began, more or less, at Durham Tire way back on March 25. It wound its way through Fairmont, N.C., St. Augustine Beach and the Working for Jesus 24/7 Garage before we sought refuge in the welcoming arms of our new friends at Rick’s Muffler shop at 210 Ponce de Leon Boulevard. A bit of the story below appeared earlier in this journal, and I hope you’ll forgive any redundancies.
April 10, St. Augustine – What day is it? Wednesday? I’m getting confused. We’re stuck in St. Augustine with the Behemoth Blues again. Last night we slept at Rick’s Muffler Shop, safe in the Fat Man’s genial glow. Our accommodations came courtesy of the good people at Rick’s. It is the Fat Man’s legacy.
It’s fair to say most people wouldn’t be thrilled about the prospect of camping at a muffler shop. It’s also fair to say we are not most people. Esther Molnar, who was married to the Fat Man for 27 years, showed us uncommon hospitality. She set us up with an electrical connection and access to the men’s room.
We were thrilled. Camping with a power hookup is like staying in a five-star hotel to us. The Behemoth being so prodigal in its use of gas, we skimp on lodgings whenever possible. It’s why we spend far too many nights at that ubiquitous blight on the economic landscape I like to call the Walton Family General Store. RV parks and state parks usually run $30 and more. Might as well get a motel.
Our thrill was short-lived. As we availed ourselves of the Behemoth’s convection oven for the first time, and as the jalapeno poppers were just about to pop, we lost power. A breaker tripped. The box being somewhere inside the garage, our power supply was gone for the rest of our stay at Rick’s Muffler and RV Park.
We uttered an expletive or two, took a collective breath and rolled with the shot. We’re good at this. We embrace simplicity. What really discomfited us was the occasional visit of a hell-bound freight train on the Florida East Coast Railway line on the tracks across Ponce de Leon Boulevard. At least they sounded as if they were bound for the nether regions.
We were engrossed in “Hitchcock” when the first train arrived. We had to pause the movie, for we couldn’t hear a thing. The sound was infernal. The freight train rumbled like thunder. It roared and it hissed and it squealed with the agony of a thousand tortured souls. And it took a good five minutes in the passing.
This is Americana. This is what we wanted. I guess we should be happy. We are happy.
Rick’s opens at 8 a.m. We got up early so we could get out of their way. I’ve always thought of 8 as early. Maybe you don’t. That’s OK.
I felt better about my world view when I encountered Rick’s usually engaging staff.
Poor Joe looked like he just rolled out of bed on the back end of a tequila bender. I said hi. He grunted. Lil’ Allen didn’t have a single black smear on his face. Esther managed a smile, though it took an effort. She handed me a folder of yellowing newspaper clippings. They offer fragmentary evidence of the history of Rick’s Muffler Shop.
Rick Molnar, aka The Fat Man, was born Enrico Leonardi E Fiew de Molinaro in Sicily on Jan. 3, 1936. His father, Esther said, had some connection to La Cosa Nostra.
He lived a vagabond’s existence. He spent time in Switzerland. His family came to the U.S. and settled for a time in Westmoreland County in western Pennsylvania.
By the time he was a teenager, the family had moved to Florida. The Fat Man attended Andrew Jackson High School in Jacksonville. He served with the Marines. He taught math and physics at Jacksonville Naval Air Station. He managed a Midas shop in Jacksonville before opening Rick’s Muffler on nearby Anastasia Island in 1975.
They called him “Muffler Man.” And “Papa Rick.” And, yes, the “Fat Man.” Twice he ran for St. John’s County Commissioner, first as a Republican and then as a Democrat. He seems by all accounts to have been an influential, beloved cog in St. Augustine. There’s a clipping from a forgotten journal called “The Traveler.” There’s no date, but it must be early 1976, since the story says he’d been open for six months. His trademark beard is absent. As are the overalls. He’s not even fat.
Asked why he liked muffler work so much, he said, “Because I’m weird.” Only the reporter transposed the “e” and the “i” and it all came out wierd. No one caught it. Then someone doubled down on the typo and inserted it right into the headline:
“Because I’m Wierd.” The Fat Man might’ve thought himself weird, or maybe he was employing a flair for self-deprecation. Nonetheless I’ll bet he thought the headline was very weird.
Rick Molnar died in a VA hospital in Gainesville on June 29, 2007. He was only 71. Diabetes hounded him. The heartbreak is etched into the creases around Esther’s blue eyes.
He was 17 years older, not that it ever seemed to matter.
“We were best friends,” Esther said. “Age doesn’t matter, if you’re of a like mind and have things in common. We worked together 24/7, year-round. We played together. We were buddies. It was awesome, I loved it, and I miss him. He’ll be gone six years in June. He was too young.”
The emotion is palpable when she talks about her husband. The pain is too near.
He was 46 when Ricky Jr. was born. Maybe I feel an invisible connection to the Fat Man and his shop. I’m 14 years older than Becky, and I was 44 when Max joined the family.
They first met when she was 16. She said she didn’t want me to write this, but I can’t see the harm in it. Their relationship was sweet. Anyway, nothing happened at first.
“I met him where the (St. Augustine Beach) pier is, there was a restaurant-bar,” she said. “I had gone there with a girl I worked with. Rick was at the bar with two of his friends. He keeps looking at me, and I keep looking at him because he was very gorgeous, and I told my girlfriend, ‘We need to get out of here ’cause I’m about to get in trouble.’ So we got up and left and then a few years later my sister had moved to Jacksonville and was managing apartments. Well, he had the gas station down the street. So again I ran into him. And then when we started drag racing. We were always around each other, and it just happened.
When he launched his business on 600 Anastasia Boulevard in August of 1975, she called for advice.
“I called him one day and said, ‘How do I, where do I start to take the manifold off my Dodge truck?'” she said. “He chuckled, said, ‘Bring it in.’ I said, ‘No, I’ll do it.’ It had a bad gasket.”
They hung out and did a lot of drag racing together. They shared an obsession with speed. Her dad, Doc Blantz, was a carpenter who built houses. She helped. She’s always been handy.
“When I was 3 years old, I was helping my Uncle Wayne put a transmission in a car,” she said. “He had put a cement block, put the tranny on one end and me on the other end, and he’d say, ‘Walk this way a little bit, walk that way.’ I was the ballast. It was funny.”
They were a natural pair, and everyone seemed to see it.
“The first time he met my dad, he shook his hand and said, ‘Hey, Sonny!’ ” Esther said. “My dad had dark hair, and he did look like a kid next to Rick, because Rick’s hair was white. It was funny. My dad just chuckled.”
Rick, she said, had an adventurous life. The experiences informed his business and personal philosophy.
“He was very humble,” she said. “He loved people. He was a POW in Korea for 18 months in a very small bamboo box. Fed rice with maggots in it. He was beaten and mistreated. And I guess through that experience you learn that you value people. We’re all people, we all make mistakes, we all have our own personal demons. And he, knowing that, just looked at people differently than most people. He loved them in spite of their faults. People in general are too quick to judge.
“He was running guns to Cuba for the governor. He got caught and wound up in a federal prison in Atlanta for five years. It wound up that he got a presidential pardon.”
Together, they also shared a belief in old-fashioned business principles. Do the job right, and don’t do anything unnecessary. Be straight with customers.
“We just tried to fix cars and make people happy,” she said. “Life’s too short to get all serious and nasty. I like sleeping at night. Like my husband, Ricky and I both, we like to help people. If you’re car is broke, it’s like, ‘oh my god’ How are you going to get to work? How are you going to get the kids to school? How are you going to get Grandma to the doctor? It’s transportation and they need it, and we like to see them have it. Everybody likes to make money, but sometimes helping people is worth more. But we can’t do it all for free.”
You hear a lot of business people say this sort of stuff. For most, it’s advertising boilerplate. Here, it seems genuine and heartfelt. And born out by experience.
And she says she holds her staff to the Fat Man’s standard.
“They’ve got to be respectful,” she said. “I won’t have them be ugly or disrespectful in a male-chauvinist way to female customers. They just better not. ‘Cause if I catch them, they’re down the road. I won’t tolerate it. And older people, they better open the door. Just be respectful, that more than anything. And don’t cheat people. If they don’t need the part, don’t sell it to them. If it’s iffy, give them the choice. If they do need it, show it to them, tell them the consequences of not doing it. It’s still they’re choice.
“There have been some very unscrupulous things done, but we don’t tolerate it. People deserve better.”
Our relationship with Rick’s began on Saturday morning, April 6. We’d been in St. Augustine since Monday night. On Thursday and Friday, we’d exposed the Behemoth to the hazards of the Working for Jesus 24/7 Garage across town.
By Friday night, it was running worse than it has in all the time we’ve had it. We lost our faith in Jesus’ automotive powers, cut our losses and thrown ourselves on the mercy of Rick’s. They were very nice from the start. Lil’ Allen looked under the hood.
They closed at noon, and wouldn’t have time to work on it until Monday.
Lil’ Allen said he was sorry.
I told him it wasn’t his fault.
“Sometimes it is,” he said.
I liked Lil’ Allen right away. He looks like Lil’ Ray Liotta,
We dropped it off Monday. We returned after touring St. Augustine and the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. My man Joe had fixed most of what poor Mark, the overwhelmed mechanic at the Working for Jesus 24/7 Garage, had screwed up. He tightened all the air-flow connections. He installed the O2 sensor so it, um, worked.
I think the total charge was $37.
I like Joe, too. His full name is Joseph Dovan. He’s 34, and he has a 16-year-old daughter. His 9-year-old, Skyler, was hanging around the shop on Monday. She gave Max some stickers.
He’s lived in the Philadelphia area, on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. His grandmother still lives there. She’s 93.
I nodded and said something about his genetic makeup.
Joe smiled uneasily and said he hopes he gets his longevity from his mom’s side. His dad died at 42, from hardening of the arteries.
Joe knows he should get a full-medical checkup, but he doesn’t like going to doctors.
I said nobody likes going to doctors, the same way nobody likes going to auto mechanics.
He thought this was funny.
Joe said we need to get the Behemoth’s motor mounts repaired. We didn’t necessarily need them replaced today, but at some point in the future, the job would have to be done.
And when what the manual described as a one-hour job turned into an eight-hour trial by wrench, we ended up sleeping at Rick’s for the second time in four nights.
I asked Esther about the Fat Man character on Rick’s logo. She said it was drawn by a 13-year-old girl who was waiting with her father for their car to be done. That was at least 20 years ago, and now the off-the-cuff drawing by an anonymous 30-something is practically a St. Augustine institution.
We were at the McDonald’s near the St. John’s County Public Library when Lil’ Allen called and said the Behemoth was ready. For the record, it was 1:17 p.m., Wednesday, April 10. The official ending point of the Behemoth saga in St. Augustine. It started on Tuesday morning, April 2, on St. Augustine Beach, where Mark Badgley, with unsolicited advice from a chorus of curious passers-by, tried to help us out.
An hour after getting the call, we made the half-mile stroll in the sunshine to Rick’s. Everything’s ready to go, and I’m strangely subdued when I should be relieved.
Oh, but wait!
Lil’ Allen says we need an oil change. He just completed a pain-in-the-ass job of replacing the Behemoth’s motor mounts, a job which was far more complicated than the repair manual had indicated, and now he wants to change my oil.
Says he can taste it. The oil. It has a metallic flavor.
I believe him, because he looks like he drinks oil by the quart. He’s a grease rat. He always looks like he just came off an eight-hour shift of cleaning chimneys.
I tell him to go ahead and change the oil, if that’s what he wants to do.
The estimate Joe prepared to replace our motor mounts was $327, or something close. It included a grand total of $75 for one hour of labor. The manual estimated it would take half an hour to replace each mount, of which there are two.
I’m pretty sure Lil’ Allen worked on it for at least eight hours if not more. We dropped it off around noon on Tuesday, and when I showed up a little after 5, it was ripped apart and not even close to being done. I felt bad. They put the whole thing back together so we would be able to drive it. I didn’t care. Long as we could sleep in it.
Instead of taking a half-hour per motor mount, it took four or five.
Now the Behemoth’s up in the air again, and Lil’ Allen’s back underneath it. Oil is pouring out of the pan, and predictably, he’s got a handful.
I ask if he ever tires of being called ‘Lil’ Allen. He says no.
“Hey, I know I’m small,” he said.
I asked Allen to explain why, exactly, replacing the motor mounts took so much work.
He laid it all out in one big, Faulkneresque sentence:
“I had to unbolt the lowers, and then I had to pull the motor out with the top jack, the hoist, and then actually I had to completely separate the motor from the frame, and then float the motor, and unbolt the transmission from the rear and take off all the torque plates and pull the starter out, and after that get a really big pry bar, and actually the whole motor and transmission moved about two inches forward, and that allowed me enough room to stick a 19 millimeter all the way up in there to bust one bolt out that held the whole thing together.”
All that for one bolt, I asked.
“All that for one bolt,” he said with a wry grin. “And that’s just one side. There were two sides.”
And then he had the chutzpah to thank us for our patience.
“That’s really nice of you,” he said.
I thought it was nice of Rick’s to work on our vehicle all week and charge us an hour and a half for their labor.
Everyone seems to get along well here, though I get the feeling Lil’ Allen is kind of the whipping boy. He’s 28, Joe Dovan is 34, and Rick Jr. is 30. Allen says him and “Little Ricky” are good friends. But there are limits to friendship.
“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, I’ve worked for him, I think this would be the fourth time now. We get sick of each other. He’s like, ‘All right, Allen, I’m done with you.’ And I say, ‘I’m done with you too, buddy. I’m going to take a little break.’ And I go on and do something else.”
He works as a disc jockey around St. Augustine, and his colleagues say he’s something of a computer wizard. Nobody’s quite sure why he’s working at Rick’s.
“I like to turn a wrench,” he said with a shrug. “And I like the people here and the routine.”
I figure he mostly likes to DJ so he can meet and impress all the pretty women who come to clubs after spending their days on the beach in their string bikinis and working diligently on their bronzed goddess look.
“That’s where most of my income comes from,” he said. “What I get here goes straight into an account and that gets pulled on. Everything else is just cash in hand to get me by.”
He recently helped spearhead a large computer roll-out for Duval County. He said he made as much during that two-month project as he does in six months of turning wrenches.
But he needs a steady job. He’s got a 6-year-old daughter named Melia, and he’s trying to get his life in shape so he can get a place and live with her.
“The nice man at the courthouse told me I have to have an on-the-books job, no more of this side-business crap,” Allen said. “He told me he’d let me keep my license if I got an on-the-books job, and I told that to Ricky, and he said, “Well, it looks like we’ve got to find you an on-the- books job to work at.’ And I said, ‘That’s what I’m telling you.'”
All he really wants out of life is to have a little house of his own where he can live with his daughter. Though I suspect he’d love to have the occasional beautiful woman around, too. And who could blame him?
Speaking of romantic entanglements, he’s got a girlfriend. Of course it was the girl he met at the bar last night he had on his mind today. Anyway, he said, his girlfriend is crazy.
I asked how the crazy girlfriend related to his daughter Melia.
“You know, I didn’t really fully grasp the word ‘narcissistic’ until I met Monica,” he said. “She had her iPhone turned on two months and she managed to take about 1,400 pictures of herself. She dropped her phone and it wouldn’t turn on anymore, and she cried. Because she couldn’t get on Facebook.”
I asked if she was, perhaps, 22 or 23.
“You would think so,” he said with a sigh.
She worked as a go-go dancer at one of the clubs where he DJ’d. They’d known each other for five, six years before they started dating.
“I went over to her house that evening and didn’t leave for two weeks,” he said. “I was like, it’s been fun, but I gotta get back to Jacksonville. She whined and whined and whined, and here I am. And now she can’t stand me. I don’t blame her, I’m terrible. I cook, clean, do laundry and go to work six days a week. It’s just ridiculous.”
I asked Rick Jr. about his father’s legacy, and what it means to him to perpetuate it.
“I’m working beside my father’s legacy, there’s no way to work with him in what he did,” he said. “This is like breathing, it’s what it is to me, it’s what I’ve always done. Most people go to work, I come here. I don’t go to work, I go where I live. It’s kind of weird. And being that I am the successor to my father, those are shoes that can’t be filled. I just do the best I can.”
Not that he always dreamed of following in his dad’s bootsteps. Quite the contrary.
“When I was a kid, my dad would ask, ‘So what do you want to do when you grow up?’ And I’d say, ‘Dad, if you do everything right, I won’t have to do anything.’ He’d just look at me,” he said. “I think I was about his (Max’s) age when I told him my dream job was being a couch potato. I didn’t want to have to work. I wanted to be wealthy enough that I could enjoy life, I didn’t want to work my butt off to have a free minute.”
He inherited a yen for speed. He also seems to have inherited his father’s gift for mechanical wizardry.
“When he was in his early 20s, late teens, we bought him a Lexus,” Esther said. “A respectable car. We’re respectable people. We told him to be respectful, no riding around like an idiot, you know. I get home one day and that car’s in a thousand pieces in the garage, and I think, ‘Oh my God! Oh, what is this going to cost to put back together?’ He put it back together like a Lego set. My kid! The Lexus dealer in Melbourne wanted to hire him because of his knowledge of those cars. It shocked me.”
Now he’s doing some work for St. John’s County, helping devise and implement an exhaust system for the generators that power cell-phone towers.
I ask how he handles irate customers, though my guess is they don’t get all that many, and if he has his father’s temperament.
“My dad wasn’t afraid to take somebody out in the parking lot and beat the crap out of them,” he said. “That was a different time, we’re going back a ways. And now, I just think of it as how he was when he was older. He was considerably older than me. With age comes wisdom and a tempering of spirits. I try to think like that. Try to remember that. I actually know what I’m talking about, so that when a customer is being belligerent or something, I try to educate them, bring them up to speed.”
He’s 30, and he’s got a son of his own due to arrive in a couple months. Rick the third.
Max walked up in the middle of our conversation. He asked me to lift him up.
I stood at the counter. Rick was behind it.
I lifted Max onto my shoulders.
I had not even considered the ceiling fan.
And immediately, a sickening THUNK echoed in the office.
The room fell silent.
What a proud father.
“OH!” Esther said. “OW!”
Max was stunned.
“I think you found the fan,” Rick said.
And then he let loose with a horrible wail.
Becky returned from the bathroom. I had to tell her what I’d done.
“Oh my gosh!” she said. “Let me see your eyes.”
Of course, I felt like a total moron. I am a total moron.
“There you go,” I said to Rick, trying to laugh off my idiocy, “a free lesson in fathering 101. What not to do.”
And there we stood. Becky consoled Max.
I couldn’t find a hole to disappear into.
I looked out the window. I saw Allen tearing around the Behemoth and dashing for the garage.
“OH SHIT!” Esther exclaimed. “FIRE! FIRE!”
Oh shit. Our engine was on fire.
Rick grabbed a fire extinguisher and met Allen under the hood. A two-mechanic blaze.
They quickly extinguished the blaze.
No damage incurred.
I felt bad for Lil’ Allen, and hoped he wouldn’t get yelled at. But I was thankful for the distraction.
“Max, look, our car’s on fire,” I said. “Does that make your head feel any better?”
He said it didn’t.