Friday, January 1, 2016

Ashland U-Haul: An Ode

The U-Haul office at the south end of Ashland has finally shut down. I’m surprised at how sad that makes me.

I only rented a truck there once, and to be honest, the place was perplexing and a little scary. For starters, I couldn’t tell how to get into it. Did you go through the auto-repair shop to the right? Its bays were stuffed with dismantled cars, and there didn’t seem to be a safe way to get in there. So maybe the entrance was that unmarked, dirty glass door on the left that led to some sort of bygone showroom, its plate-glass windows so silvered with grime that you could barely see through them. And what was going on with that asymmetrical overhang out front, the giant, uptilted, Jetsons-type wing that signified a gas station from the Eisenhower era, or maybe a car dealership? In its youth, it must have been so futuristic.

But I had a truck to rent, so I pushed through the heavy glass door that squealed on its hinges. I could see a counter at the far end of the showroom, but to get there I had to sidle past teetering piles of cardboard boxes, some assembled, some flat, and a few battered filing cabinets, and a wheelchair, and an old dining room table with two clear plastic cups standing on it, half-full of green liquid. I couldn’t help eyeing the ceiling that was spectacularly disintegrating overhead, long strips of vinyl hanging down, exposing dark recesses of wood beams and bent nails, lighting fixtures askew and dangling. It looked like some apocalyptic way station in The Stand or The Road Warrior, a place where the hero might find a life-saving, ancient jar of peanut butter.

At the counter stood Ron, a businesslike, elderly man whose hands shook a bit. But he still could walk, slowly, out to the parking lot to retrieve a truck for me. I watched him through the hazy windows as he climbed stiffly into the cab of a 17-footer and drove it a few yards to the front of the lot, checked the gas gauge and odometer, then climbed out just as slowly, clipboard in hand. When he came back in, I followed him through a door next to the counter and into his office, a cramped little room with a ceiling so high that it receded up into shadows. A second door on the other side of the room opened out onto the repair shop crowded with oily equipment, four or five mechanics busy in there with their hands in the engines and undersides of cars.

I sat in a plastic chair as Ron punched my info into his computer on a scratched, once-beautiful oak desk with nice dovetail construction on the drawers, most of which weren’t quite pushed in all the way. On the top of the desk was a large dark patch where Ron’s hands and those, no doubt, of countless mechanics had touched it over the years. All the way up to the ceiling, the walls were lined with shelf after shelf of parts manuals and auto-repair guides, mostly Chiltons, some of them looking as old as the shop itself. On the wall was a new calendar featuring splashy photos of racecars. On one dusty shelf, a bright turquoise Hot Wheels, a Vette or something, pulsed its little beacon of color.

It was almost too much to take in. I sat there, reeling with sensory overload, happy to my core that such a place existed, so alive and well used and smelling like my dad’s garage. He did all our family’s auto repairs; I never needed a mechanic until I was well into my 30s and Dad got too forgetful to trust himself with an arc welder or the critical steps of a brake job. He spent his life hanging out in places like this, buying parts and chatting with men whose names were embroidered on their blue shirts, at home with all those Chilton manuals and echoes of a distant conversation about a leaking clutch. When Ron handed me the keys to the truck, I walked out of there giddy, like I’d just stepped out of a time machine.

And now the place stands there empty, a new and hasty hurricane fence keeping out the curious. Whoever buys it will surely knock it down; maybe we’ll get a square new paint store or another gas station, this one shining yellow and red and selling Slim Jims and Cokes to tourists. Perhaps Ron still drives by, shaking his head at the complete irretrievability of the past. Or perhaps he’s joined my dad where all the old mechanics go, talking about bleeding lines and valve timing and metric versus English while here on Earth we go on inventing and repairing and building what, at the time, we think will be the future.