In the late 1980s, I dutifully subscribed to Esquire Magazine just like every other ambitious, budding Yuppie-wannabe. I think I carried that subscription for two years, right up until the point at which I realized its liberal-leaning editorial pretensions seemed to conflict with its free-spending, materialistic, kill-the-poor aspirations. Sure, I loved the photos of the beautiful women, but every month I received yet another reminder of my poverty and low social status.
Out of those twenty-four issues, I clearly remember only one article. In one of their annual “Man at His Best” issues, a Porsche mechanic wrote about his life. I wish I still had a copy of this issue, but generally this man told a tale that to me, thirty years later, sounds like career nirvana.
The Porsche mechanic arguably works on some of the finest cars in the world. The people who own them typically don’t worry about their cost. They only want them to work, and when they don’t, they depend upon their Porsche mechanic to make it right. These customers have no clue about the internal workings of the internal combustion engine, but they do know when something about it doesn’t sound or feel quite right.
They would never think to hover over their mechanic with suggestions about how much torque to apply to that bolt or whether or not he might try a different brand of brake pad. When they come back for their car, all they want is for the car to start when they turn the key, for it to move when they put it in gear, and for it to go fast when they step on the pedal. They don’t dicker about price and they don’t want it done yesterday. They do understand that a Porsche, though finely engineered, is still a rather delicate instrument that if treated properly, will thrill you greater than any sex act or amount of crack.
As a result, this guy enjoyed a rarified status within his community. He described a life where his wealthy customers invited him to their parties, where they treated him with more reverence than their own psychotherapists. He was The Man.
Reading this at the age of about 27, I found myself briefly tempted by the prospect of shifting career gears, pardon the pun. But I had only recently emerged from design school, and had just embarked on my plan for domination of the world via the drafting table. I knew something about cars, having owned an AMC Hornet for about four years. I often said that if it didn’t break down so often, I wouldn’t know how to fix it, but I considered a career in auto mechanics beneath me. Even if that meant working on Porsches.
Had I bailed on the whole graphic designer nonsense on the day I read that article and called up the local Porsche dealer to find out how I could start in the field of high performance automobile maintenance, I might today be that guy in the story. I’d have a small shop tucked away along the Main Line with a half-dozen of customers’ Porsche 911s parked in my lot. Behind my garage you’d find several older cars that I kept on hand to tinker with or to restore in my spare time.
Once a week or so, one of my customers would drive in “their baby” and tell me that they heard a funny noise somewhere in the engine, and if possible, could I have it done before the big polo tournament two months from now. Of course I would. The part would cost an arm, a leg, and probably several internal organs, and the labor would feed a family of four for six weeks, but there’d be no questions asked, because when I handed the car back, it’d drive like brand new.
And of course, I’d drive one myself, but not a new one. For myself, I’d claim a 911 from the 1980s or 1990s that naturally I fixed up for myself. As part of the community of Porsche owners, I’d always have a line on a good deal, which would come in handy for a loyal customer always in search of a particular model or vintage.
I didn’t take that path, but I haven’t exactly set the world on fire with my my talents — or my smile for that matter. I could cite many reasons for that, but having reached the mid-century mark in my life, I’ve come to learn what mostly matters. As a young man, I desired great wealth and a high-profile lifestyle filled with luxury. Now, I’d settle for just a little more time to myself to pursue the things I really love to do, surrounded by the people who actually make me happy.
Twenty-five years later, I can only imagine what’s become of that Porsche mechanic, but I have to think he’s led a pretty happy life. He found a secret to success that warranted closer scrutiny. I can only hope that anecdote conveys a lesson I can pass to my daughter, urging her to seek a low-pressure, high value vocation. Don’t reach for the brass ring when the stainless steel one will last just as long and require less maintenance.
I knew then as I do now that I always loved working with my hands. I think back with pride of how I kept that miserable Hornet on the road against all odds, and how satisfied I felt in a sweat-stained t-shirt with all that grease under my nails as I turned the key and started that engine.
To have something at the end of the day, after all your hard work that you can actually look at, that actually casts a shadow when the sun shines on it, and say that you built it or brought it to life, meant all the world to me then. How sad then that I turned my back on that to pursue something “better.”
I hope my kid doesn’t make the same mistake.