March 21, 2012

The Highs and Lows of Charlie's Hi-Lo

My first paid job was stocking the warehouse of the busiest auto-parts store in Harris County.

A yellow-fronted throwback to the era of independent parts retailers, Charlie’s Hi-Lo Auto Supply occupied most of a strip mall behind a grocery store in the little West Loop city of Bellaire.

As a 14-year-old, my qualifications lagged, although I had more-than-average experience fixing cars. Technically, I was too young to be employed at all, but the manager knew my father as a regular customer, and being underage was the sort of technicality that people in small communities, such as Bellaire, casually agreed to overlook.

I would certainly never have been hired to work the Charlie's sales counter. That would have meant helping customers diagnose their cars' troubles. Of course, I wanted more than anything to work the counter. I’d accompanied Dad to Charlie’s dozens of times, watching in awe as the fast-moving young men quizzed him about his problem, flipped through their rack of parts catalogs, and sped off into the stockroom to fetch whatever he needed. They also advised him on installation as they handwrote a carbon-copy receipt and punched up the total on the store's sole cash register. All the while, they bantered with each other and even found time to tease me about how much of the work I would be doing after we'd taken our parts home.

I started at Charlie's the week after I finished eighth grade, and my mother even embroidered the company’s name onto a couple of blue work shirts so I could fit in with the counter guys. Unfortunately they’d all gone to polo shirts that year and I stuck out like a wannabe, the kid with his ball cap on sideways insisting he could play with the big boys. But as long as I showed up on time and kept moving while on the clock, I was tolerated. At least, in the stockroom.

said stockroom stretched across several storefronts whose glass had been obscured with a thick coat of auto-parts yellow paint. Behind them, dozens of library-style stacks held thousands of boxed parts and no small amount of dust, oil, and grease, all of it dimly lit by buzzing fluorescent tubes.

Like all the auto-parts stores, Charlie's accepted used parts ("cores”) for rebuild, which lent the place an old-oil smell and contributed to a layer of black gunk on the stockroom floor that could not be removed even if someone had cared to try. I shudder to recall that we sometimes ate lunch back there.

It never occurred to me to wear gloves
Eight huge plastic trash cans stood inside near the freight entrance, to be rotated with others behind the counter as they filled throughout the day with failed parts, packaging, cigarette butts, soda cans, and the greasy rags in which customers carried their used parts for match-up.

As the most junior employee, I got trash-can rotation duty, along with all the other filthy jobs. Taking the garbage out actually wasn’t the worst of them, as I simply set the cans on a cart, wheeled them out to the dumpster, and turned them over. Even packing the trash down inside the dumpster wasn’t entirely unpleasant because I could just lay flattened cardboard boxes across the top and jump on them.

No, the grubbiest job was sorting the cores: water pumps, alternators, starters, and other oily, grit-caked parts that customers brought in for exchange. The counter guys were too busy even to tote them off the sales floor. Instead, they flung them into a shopping cart, which I would empty every few hours. Each week the rebuild shops picked them up from wooden bins in our warehouse, but I wasn’t allowed to toss the parts into the bins, as there was risk of breakage when, say, one cast-iron water pump struck another. So I had to set them one at a time into the bins, grease, oil, antifreeze, grit, and all.

It never occurred to me to wear gloves. So I made good use of the wall-mounted Go-Jo dispenser, especially before lunch.

despite its obscure location, everybody in Bellaire who had ever raised his car’s hood knew Charlie’s. The store had rivals, but you always went to Charlie’s first.

This had everything to do with "kickin' ass," as the manager, Glen, described the speed and enthusiasm with which his dozen or so wildly motivated countermen moved auto parts. "Kickin' ass," he emphasized at the monthly staff meetings, "is what makes us the best parts store in town." Glen modeled this behavior every time he appeared on the floor, walking fast and barking orders, always on a mission, commanding attention and respect from the salesmen despite being the shortest male on the premises.

I don't know who introduced the word "shammer” to the employee lexicon—I never heard Glen say it—but all the guys used it to warn one another against feigning work. "You shammin’?” they’d accuse one of their own as they passed in the stockroom, when the poor guy was just quietly scanning a stack of parts for something his customer needed. "Can’t find a Victor VS-1039,” came the reply, in frustration that we might not have the valve-cover gasket that a customer would have to seek from a rival store.

We tolerated one of those stores directly across Spruce St., mainly because he didn’t do nearly the volume we did. His sales floor was polished and he sold fancy stuff like chrome wheels. Charlie's was all about 5-gallon drums of axle grease and floor jacks. Pretty parts were for special-order.

There was also no shortage of hazing
Rival stores also lacked Charlie's motivated sales force. The guys competed fiercely to see who could work the fastest. It wasn't uncommon to hear them bragging and challenging each other over status.

"I can handle three on the counter and two on the phone."

"Bullshit."

"Jimmy can't talk on the phone same time he's looking up for a customer. He gets all messed up and gives 'em the wrong answers."

When the phone rang, it didn’t matter if customers were lined up three deep and out the door; all the guys reached for the nearest handset. They'd karate-chop one side of it, popping it up off the receiver where they’d catch it and clamp it to their ear: "Charlie's Hi-Lo!" they barked, and you knew they would find whatever you needed, even if you didn't yet know what it was.

These guys knew their parts. When a stumped customer told how his late-model Pontiac wouldn't start or even run for long without a jump, the guys would blurt "7127" without even cracking the yard-thick catalogs before them. (That was the model number of the rebuilt alternator that fit most GM cars from 1971-1980.)

Dashing to fetch parts from the stockroom, they’d kick open the swinging doors — rather than push them — because they believed that helped them get through faster. (When the doors broke from time to time, Glen didn't bother telling his guys to stop with the kicking. He just patched up the doors.) But before leaving the counter, they’d assess the needs of at least two customers, saving themselves a second trip to the stockroom.

Although they competed with each other on speed, they would also ask one another questions to avoid selling the wrong part. After all, if a customer had to return to the store, that meant more work for everybody plus a mountain of embarrassment for whoever had sent the poor sap out the door with parts that wouldn’t fit.

They took personal risks, too. One of our in-house services involved a bearing press. That meant lining up a hardened steel axle with a 6-ton hydraulic press, adding pressure gradually until the bearing separated; then re-installing the new bearing on the same axle. The tolerance between those parts was "press fit"; it took tons of pressure to unite them. The guys worked the machine standing behind a sheet of plywood that had an eyehole cut in it, in case all that pressure suddenly made shrapnel.

At mid-shift the guys only got 30 minutes for lunch, which was just enough time to race to Taco Bell, or to Britton's for a burger. In between, they fortified themselves with Coke and Dr. Pepper from a machine I stocked twice a day. If they ran completely out of glucose, they could raid our Lance dispenser for a Moon Pie or cheese-and-crackers. They'd pay for it later with heartburn, but it was worth the pain, to them, to keep on selling parts.

business varied day-to-day at Charlie's. Saturdays were the most high-spirited and busiest, precisely because Bellaire's husbands and fathers had that day as their one opportunity to fix an ailing car. All day long, they trudged through Charlie's door in V-neck T-shirts or coveralls, toting a greasy engine part and/or a child that Mom needed out from underfoot for an hour.

On occasion—rain or playoffs, mainly—the customer flow eased, and the countermen's enthusiasm seemed to build, as if behind a dam. When that happened, they stunned the next customer walking in by himself, with every salesman on the 60-foot counter suddenly bellowing

"Hey, come on in!"
"How can we help you?"
"How are you, sir?"
"What can we do for you?"

His stunned look always prompted a round of laughter, and each of the guys automatically drew his pencil from behind his ear, ready to take down make, model, and year, for another dive into the catalogs before them.

In their shared sense of mission, the staff comprised a fraternity of sorts, establishing a hierarchy of merit based on who knew the most and could help the most customers in a day. There was also no shortage of hazing.

They could communicate with the people they served
One favorite was trash-can stuffing. In his first week, the new guy always found himself cornered near the big plastic trash cans and ended up dropped into one of them butt-first. The can would stretch, enveloping the victim up to his armpits and knees. The sticky residue inside kept him flailing like a rolled-over turtle until someone stopped laughing long enough to pull him out.

Another ritual, the WD-40 hose-down, required one employee to hold the newbie in a full nelson while another sprayed his groin with WD-40—a solvent that didn't hurt skin but burned membrane until it was flushed away with soapy water.

These rites went on amid a day-long exchange of homosexual innuendo. This ranged from outrageous statements designed to test one's reaction ("I'll give you a [sex act] if you'll work my Sunday") to random vulgarities. All the guys were militantly heterosexual, of course. The locker-room banter went on just to show who could be the rudest—yet another contest.

This being Bellaire, Texas, in the 1970s, however, the young men still had an unwritten knowledge of propriety: Four-letter words ceased when they entered the sales floor. Our churchgoing, suburban-dad demographic wouldn't have tolerated it.

any businessman would wonder what on earth motivated these employees to take such a proprietary role in a business whose stock they couldn’t even own. Countermen were paid by the hour, not by how much they sold. No benefits, no bonuses, and if they came back one minute late from lunch it would show on their time card and nick into their paycheck. Nobody could take more than one day off per week, aside from vacation. Our grubby workplace was decorated with nothing more eye-pleasing than boxes of auto parts. And, as I have noted, the store smelled like old oil, plus cigarette smoke from the half-dozen ashtrays set out for customers and countermen. Why did these guys love the place, the customers, the work, and the boss so much?

The answer is manifold. For one, they were working with things they cared about. All of them drove hopped-up cars and spent their wages on racing parts. Because they were customers themselves, no one had to coach them on how to treat other customers. They were the equivalent of computer nerds for the 1970s generation, but the knowledge gap between them and the customers wasn't so vast. They could communicate with the people they served.

You always felt that way about someone who had helped you
Second, their boss understood them and led with enthusiasm. As I mentioned, he always walked fast and talked bluntly with his people, showing them he was serious about getting work done. Occasionally, he manned the counter himself, and when he did he greeted customers heartily and showed genuine interest in whatever problem they were trying to solve. After hours, he occasionally hosted "store meetings," which the guys attended enthusiastically, not least for the free beer and pizza, even though they were off the clock.

Third, the countermen also competed and bonded with one another in accordance with their masculine nature. Because no one could know everything about every car, they learned to rely on each other for help: Rick was the electrical whiz; Blanchard knew Fords better than anyone else; Dennis was the go-to guy for transmissions, having rebuilt his own in his father's garage. They felt free to hone their skills and knowledge against each other every day; getting paid for it probably seemed like a perk.

Fourth, they were helping their own neighbors. All the guys lived within a couple of miles of Charlie's. The next customer to walk in could turn out to be their former scoutmaster, baseball coach, or algebra teacher. They got to know their customers by name—preceded by "Mr.," of course—and those customers returned the courtesy by learning the guys' names. You always felt that way about someone who had helped you solve a problem you couldn't solve by yourself.

I never heard of employee theft problems (with one exception, below) even though all the guys worked from the same cash register with no individual accountability. I guess they just regarded the money as Charlie’s, and wouldn’t dream of disrupting the good relationship they all had by stealing.

into all this camaraderie, and during the same summer I worked there, Glen dropped a bomb: a female counterman.

Susan’s femininity was never in question. Her slender build and straight blond hair made her attractive from all angles except straight-on, where an unfortunate case of pubescent acne had left her scarred in a way that makeup couldn't cover. What compelled her to seek a job in this male-dominated business, no one knew. She just showed up one day with Glen's blessing, and to my knowledge nobody was given any guidance on how to deal with her.

This presented the two assistant managers with a conundrum. To sustain the level of intra-staff competition that fostered Charlie's phenomenal customer service, all the men would have to compete with Susan as if she were one of them.

Problem was, men don't like to compete with women; rather, they are hard-wired to compete with other men. Furthermore, it was unthinkable to expect Susan to compete as one of them, with all the door-kicking, backstage language, and beer-drinking at the after-hours store meetings. And there certainly wouldn't be any ritual hazing or routine homoerotic taunting of this new recruit.

At the least, the situation would require the guys to pre-evaluate every word spoken to ensure they weren't committing a foul. Because even in the 1970s in Bellaire, Texas, men didn't swear in front of women.

The EEOC-approved solution to this conundrum would have been for all 15 or so of Charlie's male employees to alter their psychological make-up.

This did not happen.

their uniform and immediate reaction to Susan was to treat her as an undesired element.

If she approached two countermen talking, their conversation would suddenly stop. She never got asked along on a Taco Bell run. Any suggestion she made in store meetings got shot down by the guys, regardless of its merit.

A new female on the counter began with two strikes against her
One standout incident was Susan's posting of a party invitation on the door of the break room, hoping the guys would come tap a keg at the apartment she shared with her boyfriend, as they had always done at each other’s places on weekends. Within hours, the invite bore various, demeaning inscriptions, including: "I would rather eat razor blades and Drano than go to this party." Others referred to STDs and assorted, unappetizing sex acts. Susan's party, needless to say, went ignored.

One day, the guys' antics reduced her to tears. I’ve never seen anything so sad as a grown woman bawling alone amid stacks of auto parts, with no one to console her.

The manager simply couldn't shadow Susan every minute to prevent the guys from abusing her, and there was little he could do to make the guys control themselves. Susan left after four months, and should've gotten a bonus for lasting that long.

I can't defend the guys' actions, but I understand their resentment. This was a boys' club that also happened to be a place of employment.

Most times the guys could talk freely about whatever crude matter crossed their mind. Off the sales floor, they never had to self-censor, as they did at home.

They also competed, sometimes viciously, for status, and to drop a female into the middle of their party was not unlike adding a girl to a boys' sports team. If she bested one of them, he'd never hear the end of it; if they kept her at the bottom of the lineup, they’d look like brutes. There was no middle ground.

And the fact was, the guys did bury Susan sales-wise, but not necessarily on merit: The do-it-yourselfers walking into the store on a Saturday morning always gravitated toward the men, particularly if they knew one of them. A new female on the counter began with two strikes against her.

in my years since working at Charlie's, I haven't seen a workplace that didn't have similar tensions, at least under the surface. At a high-end investment-management company—the kind that doesn't advertise, because its customers just "know" where to trust their millions—I heard the young, male analysts openly disparage their sole female rival with misogynistic innuendo at every opportunity. She couldn't fight back because she just didn't have that kind of ugliness in her. And she couldn't tell the boss because his intervention would trigger a freeze-out—losing her access to the unwritten knowledge that distinguishes a successful analyst from a mediocrity. So she just took the abuse. In an eerie echo of my Charlie's experience, I once found her crying in her office after everyone else had left. She blamed family problems, but I'd overheard the guys earlier that day. She just wasn't welcome in a club she badly wanted to join.

that exclusive bond had its nobler aspects, at least at Charlie's. One was the guys' unspoken reverence for company property. Nobody ever thought about pilfering any of the expensive auto parts they handled every day.

Only one of the countermen I knew didn’t subscribe to this ethic, and he didn't mesh in other ways as well. Jimmy was cute, for one thing. Most of the other guys couldn’t get far on their looks, but Jimmy looked like Shaun Cassidy and was often taking "chick calls" on the phone. That was burr No. 1 under the saddle of resentment the other guys bore regarding Jimmy; that he didn't work as hard because he was "always" on personal calls.

By the time I started work, the animus between Jimmy and the rest of the guys had boiled over into a low-level war of conspiracy and mean pranks. The worst occurred when Richard, a generally likable Chrysler expert, left his new pair of boots in the warehouse one morning because they chafed him; he worked the rest of his shift in tube socks. When he retrieved his boots at closing time, he found that someone had planted a leaky can of transmission fluid in one of them. The smelly red liquid had wicked into the leather all the way to the top.

Jimmy never set foot behind the counter again
All eyes searched for for Jimmy, who'd had some sort of dispute with Richard days earlier, but Jimmy had already left for the day. Of course, with no witnesses, there was no proof. But nobody would stick up for Jimmy, so by default the accusation stuck.

Over the next few days, Glen intervened to keep the peace, but Jimmy soon found himself a constant victim. For example, if he left a can of soda unattended, it would promptly become someone's ashtray.

The troubles came to a head one day when Jimmy approached me alone in the warehouse and asked, "Are you cool?"

"What do you mean?"

"Cool," he implored, "Are you cool?"

I had no idea what he meant, but I played along; what teenager didn't want to be "cool"? He handed me a small box of tools wrapped in a towel and told me to place it under the front seat of a certain car in the parking lot. I did as instructed.

The next morning Glen summoned me to his office. He sat at his desk, staring out onto the sales floor through a one-way mirror.

"Did you steal something the other day?"

"No, sir."

"Did you take something out of the store?"

The realization of what I'd done hit me.

"Jimmy told me to put something in a car for him."

"Thank you."

I never heard any more about it, and Jimmy never set foot behind the counter again. He came in later that week to pick up his last check, and the guys baited him viciously as he stood, grinning defiantly, on the sales floor by himself.

"What's it like being a FORMER employee?" they taunted, to which Jimmy responded with a denial no one bothered to hear. They kept at him, spoiling for a fight, until Glen's assistant rushed out with his check. Had this occurred after hours, he might not have escaped the premises without a beating.

unfortunately, I, too, left Charlie's on a low note. I'd given two weeks' notice before school started, and by the last few days Glen had already recruited a couple of other youngsters to replace me. On my last afternoon, the three of us were sweeping up deep in the stockroom when we paused a while to trade stories. One of the countermen passed by and, unbeknownst to us, took offense at our laxity and reported us to the assistant manager, who arrived seconds later and sent us all home. The newbies got by with reprimands; I was, however, branded a "shammer" and not welcomed back the next summer.

I never told Dad about this. Charlie's Auto had such a reputation that to have been rejected by its staff would have left an enduring mark on me.

See below for random notes, and see this entry for more on growing up in Bellaire, Texas.

In the 1970s, there was a much more casual attitude toward underage drinking. Everybody knew it was not legal, but it wasn't the sort of offense that would make the papers. So when the guys got together once a month for a "store meeting" in Glen's office, pizza and beer flowed freely, and I was simply handed a can of Miller High Life as if I were one of the guys. (The drinking age was 18 then, which just felt more accommodating to teenagers.) As long as I played it cool and didn't act up, I'd get another one. Naturally, by the time the hour-long meeting ended, I was listing 15 degrees and ready to ride home in someone's trunk.

This carried over into a staff party at someone's apartment complex, for which the pool house had been rented for the occasion. I stood behind the bar and served myself into a stupor. At one point the guys threatened to throw me into the pool, but I fought so hard they realized they'd end up hurting me, so they quit. I still don't know why my father, who picked me up hours later, didn't confront me about the smell of beer that must have been radiating from me like heat waves on a desert road.

These are the employees I remember:

Clyde drove a '75 Monte Carlo, mostly in circles. His favorite sport was finding a wet, empty street on which he could fling his two-ton coupe into a full 360. He did this after one of the store meetings right out on Spruce St., with the staff cheering him on as his headlights swept across nearby buildings.

Kenny had nearly gotten himself killed by filling his motorcycle's fuel tank with a fuel even more flammable than gasoline, then going for a fast, off-road ride. The resulting explosion hospitalized him for weeks. Years later, in a trash-talk battle with Glen, the manager asserted that "All's I'd have to do to kick your ass is run 'round you with a magnet." Kenny thought about that, then nodded. His legs were about half titanium, by weight.

Richard wore his hair down to his shoulders and long ago missed an opportunity for some needed orthodontia. He loved Chryslers and could diagnose them by sound, or even the sound a customer made in imitation. At one point Richard lived in a mini-warehouse, sleeping on a cot alongside his cars, until the property manager caught him. At work he took time to help me along when he sensed I was struggling. For reasons unknown, Richard had mastered the skill of knife-throwing, which he demonstrated on a plywood wall in the warehouse. The secret, he shared, was to allow six feet per revolution. If you paced it off, the knife would always hit point-first, and from there it was just a matter of marksmanship.

Greg wasn't the only stoner, but he was the only one who would smoke pot with me on lunch break. We had to work fast. One day we went driving in his GTO with a joint spiked with hashish. By the time we got to Taco Bell, we were seeing in Steadicam and our syllables stacked up in our mouths like gibberish. Greg kept calling tostadas "tostitos," confusing the help. On the way back to work, I laughed for 10 minutes straight.

Milton was into his 20s, but dated a girl my age. "If they bleed, I butch 'em," was his credo. I have no idea how he avoided prosecution.

Dave's sole weakness was that his brother had walked in on him masturbating and told all his friends about it. You couldn't look at Dave without picturing him in the act, and he never could escape that.

Joey's father was a sergeant with the Bellaire Police Department. I think Glen gave him the delivery job because he could drive faster than anyone else and never get a ticket.


In case the significance of the parts counterman is lost on you, consider the plight of the 1970s middle-class father. He has at least two cars in the family, and in a period of high inflation his wages haven't caught up to the point where he can trade them in every few years. He knows the local repair shop will fleece him if his wife takes the car in by herself. So the auto-parts counterman becomes his savior, the font of free advice that enables him to keep an aging car alive with just a few hours invested on a Saturday morning.

This was long before the national chains moved in and squeezed out independent stores with volume buying and low-wage help that relied on computers to look up part numbers.

Today, the Charlie's space is owned by a major auto-parts chain. I assume the business was sold at some point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The guys behind the counter now are mostly Spanish-speaking, because that's what the customers need. It wasn't so at Charlie's. To my recollection, we had only one bilingual employee, and most of our customers were white, middle-class, suburban fathers and youths. Fixing your own car was just something you did. You weren't afraid to open the hood and poke around, because your father had done the same thing back on the farm with his own father's tractors and trucks.

Also, the cars of the 1960s-70s had wide-open engine bays and very few problems that couldn't be diagnosed by sight, feel, or sound. If your intuition couldn't tell you what was wrong, you could just ask your neighbor to have a look, or check with the counter guys at Charlie's. They'd seen it all.

As cars have gotten more complex, DIY repair efforts have moved downscale to the people who simply can't afford to pay someone to fix their cars for them, or to buy new ones. And in Texas, downscale usually means Spanish-speaking.

Or, they're just more in touch with their physical world. Your typical software engineer or marketing director does all his work in his head.

And the corporate drive to lower wages means countermen can no longer rattle off part numbers while a customer describes his problem; they keypunch the make, model, and year into a computer, then fetch the part and hand it off to a cashier.

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