How to start a car service

The cobbler I go to isn’t a great cobbler, but he’s gentle and sheepish and very nice, so in spite of the fact that pretty much every pair of shoes I’ve brought to him has been returned to me fixed in superficial ways, but still fundamentally broken, I keep going. Also, the only other cobbler in the neighborhood is a complete asshole.

A few weeks ago I picked up a pair of shoes and once I got home realized he hadn’t finishing fixing them. So I took them back a few days later. “Oh yeah,” he said softly in his untraceable accent, patiently fingering the loose soles that he’d forgotten to glue down, “I remember this. I can fix it while you wait.”

A friend of his was sitting in a cracked leather chair in the corner—I’d broken up their conversation when I came in—and we talked while I waited. He was wearing a Yankees hat and a thick black overcoat and he had that Brooklyn accent full of ‘y’s and dropped ‘h’s that people always try to copy when they’re mimicking someone from New York. He’d been born down the street, he said, back before the neighborhood changed.

Along the way he’d come into a building or two for a few thousand dollars, and now he was a millionaire, on paper, at least, because he didn’t see any reason to sell. “It used to be there were lots of Eye-talians around here,” he said. “And a little further north was real Spanish.” He shook his head. “You know what that means.” In fact, I had no idea, the prejudice so outdated it was reduced to a set of hard-to-follow assumptions. “It was violent?” I asked. “Oh no,” he said. “Nothing like that.”

He’d owned bagel shops before he retired, but when he was young he’d had a gentlemen’s club of sorts where he ran card games in the back. Eventually he’d shut the club down, but since he wanted to keep the gambling going he decided to make like the space was a car service—he had three phone lines put in and advertised around the neighborhood. “I can still remember those numbers,” he said, and then he rattled them off. “People would call, and we’d just let the phones ring and ring, until this one night. We’re all sitting in the back and my friends are losing their money, losing their money and the phones are ringing off the hook. Finally one slams his fist down and yells, ‘Can you SHUT OFF the damn PHONES?” He stopped here for a moment to let this sink in. “I go home that night and I tell this to my wife. She says to me, ‘You’re crazy! You should just shut down that bad gambling business and open up a car service.’ “

The next day he hired the drivers. “I made a ton of money off that car service,” he said. “Kept it for a whole bunch of years.” He could still remember those three numbers, he said, again, and then, again, he rattled them off.