By Roger Repohl
THE BRONX, N.Y. - It’s always surprising to those west of the Hudson River that much of New York City has the feel of a small town. When I need a good cut of meat for a dinner party, I consult with the guys at Vincent’s Meat Market on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx’s Little Italy. When my 45-year-old Elgin windup wristwatch stops (every five years, like clockwork), I walk a block south of Vincent’s to Spinelli Jewelers, where this family store’s patriarch, not quite twice as old as my watch, takes it as a sentimental challenge: With a still-steady hand and a keen eye, he changes the mainspring and cleans the works and delivers it to me in a couple days. I’m good for another five years.
When I need a haircut, I drop in to Saverio’s Unisex Hair Styling, a block north of Vincent’s, as I’ve done for 15 years. Saverio is from that era when barbers, alarmed by the long-hair look and falling business, became hair-stylists, at least on their signs. As for the “unisex” part, that’s true: In all the years I’ve passed his window, I’ve seen only one gender on his chair. Gray-haired and full-bearded, he’s the kind of barber I like - the silent type. With the soccer game buzzing on the radio in Italian, he gives a decent cut in ten minutes for twelve bucks. I recommend him to John Edwards.
Twice a year I visit Dr. Tanzilli, the singing dentist, whose two-chair, one-man office is on the first floor of an apartment building near Westchester Square. With Sinatra, Peggy Lee, or Pavarotti playing in the background, he croons or hums along, occasionally stopping to ask you a question just when your mouth is full of gauze and suction tubes. He’s interested in you as a person, he’s unfailingly good-humored, and most importantly, he’s gentle, calming the most panicky patient. I endured years of ghoulish dentists in assembly-line offices, treating me like a specimen while making time with their cute assistants, before someone suggested Tanzilli. I almost like going to the dentist now.
It’s the same way with that other bane of life, auto repair. Finding a mechanic you trust is like finding a dentist that doesn’t scare you; it’s a miracle of good fortune. Frank was that man. I hold on to cars like I do watches, as long as they’ll run, and Frank kept them running. I first came to him on a recommendation over a decade ago, and it changed my automotive life. I used to do regular maintenance and minor repairs myself, but Frank was such a pleasure to deal with and so good to my car that I developed a dependency on him and eventually surrendered even the routine stuff into his hands.
Frank was an old-time generalist. He did everything under the hood and outside, including mufflers and windows. An Italian-American native of the Bronx with an accent to match, he opened his place on Jerome Avenue in 1963 after returning from military service. The South Bronx at that time was still prosperous, but verging on its steep decline. Unlike many businessmen who cleared out when the borough went up in flames in the 1970’s, Frank stuck around. He did take his family out of the city, buying property in Putnam County 50 miles to the north, where he could breathe fresh air and be closer to the state parks and forests where he liked to hunt and fish.
His love of nature backfired on him in the mid-1990’s, when a deer tick gave him lyme disease. It left him ungainly and sometimes spasmodic, but with the help of several personally-trained employees he carried on. His diagnoses were always accurate, his work meticulous, his prices fair.
He had the Bronx attitude, too. When my previous car, then on its last leg, failed the state emissions test, he shrugged and said, “Stay here a minute. I’ll be right back.” He walked to the shop across the street and soon returned with a valid inspection sticker. “How did you do that?” I asked. “We cheat,” he said.
Last summer I had some problem with the rear suspension and called Frank, but the number had been changed to one with an upstate area code. Wondering if he’d decided to retire, I drove over to his shop. It was closed. “Where’s Frank?” I asked the auto-body guy next door.
“He died,” the man replied. “He was killed in a car crash near his home about two weeks ago.”
All I could think of saying was, “What a way for a mechanic to go.”
“Yeah, I know. It was terrible. I miss him.”
I miss him too. We were never friends; the relationship was strictly business, and yet it was the humane way he conducted his business, his friendliness, patience, competence, and honesty that made him indispensable and irreplaceable. I’d never trusted a mechanic before.
Good professionals like these occupy a unique place in our lives. Seldom our friends, they are just as essential to our well-being. They support our personal infrastructure, and like our infrastructure, we never think about them until we need them. Only when they’re gone do we realize just how important they are.
Now I’m vetting mechanics, an occupational group with a reputation only slightly higher than politicians. Frank, why did you leave? I need you!