We've all had crappy jobs, but some are more memorable than others. For me, the most memorable — and really the most enjoyable — minimum wage job I've ever had was also the most brief. A Volkswagen shop owner in Virginia Beach hired me to strip a bunch of derelict Beetles and chop up their rusted carcasses with a Sawzall.
He was looking for a second mechanic, and although I had some experience fixing wretched beaters at Pep Boys, I lacked the ASE certifications he was looking for. Plus, I was moving out of state in three weeks, which he knew because I was a regular customer who spent plenty of time standing around his counter bullshitting whenever I needed parts for my yellow '73 Beetle.
Here's how I talked the owner of the Bughouse — arguably Southeastern Virginia's air-cooled VW mecca — into hiring me for a few weeks.
[Disclaimer: This story focuses on air-cooled Volkswagens, but I should point out that the Bughouse will work on any type of VW. Y'know, should you be in the area.]
Air-cooled Volkswagens are a dying breed, but particularly on the East Coast, where winter road salt and salty sea air have done a number on all but a few survivors of the original horde of bug-eyed cars that used to be everywhere. But even when they were ubiquitous, owning one of the quirky Teutonic cars has always been akin to belonging to a cult.
Frank Yaconiello undoubtedly knew this when he opened the Bughouse in Virginia Beach in 1983. Back then, air-cooled Volkswagens were still pretty common — and so were air-cooled Volkswagen repair shops — but the notion that driving a noisy, funny looking German car was like some sort of club membership was definitely present.
By the time I began frequenting the Bughouse, it was the only real VW shop left in town. The ranks of air-cooled VW ownership had dwindled to a hard core cadre of young guys with funky beater Bugs, grizzled VW veterans, and people wealthy enough to justify dropping nearly ten grand into restoring a car that cost a fifth of that new. Clearly, I fell into the first category, and kept my $800 Beetle alive with junkyard parts and pointers from Frank and his mechanics. Sometimes I'd have no choice but to splurge on new parts, and became a fairly regular paying customer there.
Located on paved lot next to a defunct rail line, the Bughouse was — and still is — a nondescript block building clad in tan corrugated aluminum and belted with a saggy brown tar shingle awning. Aside from the yellow block letters spelling its name across part of the frieze, there was little about the building itself to distinguish it from the automotive repair shops, bulk fuel stations, and the other über-industrial outfits that make up the landscape in that section of town. It was the row of colorful Volkswagens lined up side by side in front of the gleaming neon "OPEN" sign that made it an instant curiosity. Typically, the buses were all parked on one side of the lot, with the Beetles, Squarebacks, and other cars by the door.
As much as I loved spending my time and money at the Bughouse and whiling away my non-working, non-car parts buying hours on Virginia Beach's sandy shoreline, the time had come for me to move on. The West Coast and its arid, old car-friendly climate (not to mention its scores of beaches and surfable breaks) was calling. The problem: I faced a gap of several weeks between the summer job I'd just finished and a new position I was going to start once I got to California. That meant no money coming in for a little while. Not a good idea when you're young and poor and about to drive a moving van 3,000 miles across the continent.
But Frank was always keen to bend an ear, listening to mechanical and life problems with equal interest. As I mentioned earlier, he didn't have a mechanic position for someone with my sparse experience. But when I asked him if there was anything I could do around the shop to help out for a short time, a slight smile creased the corners of is mouth and he said he'd cook something up.
And that's how I became his junk man for a few weeks. Sure the job only paid $7 per hour, but hanging out at the VW shop all day and doing what I did for free at the junkyard on a regular basis was a blast. When I wasn't pulling parts off of rusted out bugs and chopping whatever was left into heaveable bits, I stood around shooting the shit with Frank, his dredlocked Caribbean mechanic, Warren, or whichever of Frank's six children happened to be doing something in the office on any given day.
It wasn't long before I had Volkswagen-chopping down to a science, and could methodically destroy an entire car in a matter of a few hours. First, I cut all the wiring and took out the gas tank. Then, the glass, seats, and anything else that might get in the way of pushing a bubble top from a flat floorpan went by the wayside. Finally, I used an air ratchet to remove the bolts holding the body to the floor pan.
After that, it was chopping time. A slice across the roof between the two doors, one down the middle of the firewall, another to take the roof off completely, and a few more in the back made it possible to fling Beetle chunks off of the pan and kind of roll them over to the dumpster. Have you ever thrown pieces of something that was an actual car only moments before into a huge, jagged pile? It might sound stupid, but I challenge anyone not to feel empowered by such a thrill.
The last part to tackle was the rolling floor pan with the engine, transmission, steering column, and wheels still attached. I always got a kick out of seeing the chassis in this condition, plus it made removing the rest of the guts super easy (although the collapse of the McPherson struts on the Super Beetles made taking the body off of those cars less novel). Perhaps the only part of the process I didn't like was cutting through transmission tunnels to cut floorpans in half. I can't tell you how many sawzall blades that chewed up.
By the end of my time there, I'd dispatched nearly a dozen Bugs, a few of which Frank said customers had abandoned a decade before. He pointed out that sometimes, people lay grand plans without the resources or drive to realize them. And often, they had no idea such was the case.
My grand plan was to become a writer.
"If those guys who write my favorite truck magazine can crank on old trucks and write articles about it, why can't I?" I mused one day as Frank and I stood sweating beneath the late summer sun by one of the open bay doors. A couple of torn seats and a moldy headliner sat in a disheveled heap at my feet near more organized stacks of window regulators and wheels.
He looked at me from beneath the brim of his sweat soaked baseball cap, and that faint smile again creased the corners of his mouth. His eyes danced behind his little spectacles.
"Y'know, a lot of people come through here, and there was this lady a while back who said she wanted to write a children's book," he said. "So I said, well, ya just gotta do it. And y'know, she came back a few years later and she'd written that book. So that's what ya gotta do. Just go out there and do it."
I though about it for a moment, mulling over what he'd said but unable to contribute anything useful to the conversation.
I never forgot what Frank had told me as I stood before him dressed in grease-stained green coveralls, chopping up old Bugs for $7 an hour. I moved to California and the years slipped by, but I still remembered. Eventually, after enough newsletter writing and internship finagling, I got a job as a reporter at a weekly.
Just last week, I had to travel to Norfolk, and decided to stop by the Bughouse to say hello. It had been nearly eight years. Both of Frank's mechanics are new, and all but one of his six children have grown up and moved out. But there he was — Frank, the Volkswagen man, wearing the same spectacles and amused half smile behind his counter, framed by chromed parts and fading pictures of customized Bugs.
He smiled when I filled him in on my professional metamorphosis; how I'd gone to California with nothing but a rusty VW and a van full of worthless crap and had come back with a career that, even if it's not the best paying gig in the world, gives me something to write home about, so to speak.
Things haven't gone as well for Frank. A sluggish economy has been hard on him and the customers he serves. He'd never figured on getting rich as the town Volkswagen guy, but of the many budget minded car enthusiasts who patronize his business, it must be assumed that more than a few are feeling the lasting pinch of the global economic crisis. Not to mention that with every passing year, a handful more air-cooled Volkswagens end up in recycling yards, diminishing Frank's pool of customers. He's had to mortgage his house to keep the lights on, and the rising cost of healthcare has made it difficult to justify continuing to pay the premiums. But he's held on. He's still there.
"Y'know, when you've been doing something like this for 30 years, your natural instinct is to just keep on doing it until you just can't anymore," he said, "We're still working."
He gazed at a project car he'd bought on a whim, which is now sitting idle at the back of the shop. It's a replica of a 1927 Bugatti; or what one would look like if its master coach builders had plopped the body they'd just built on a Volkswagen floorpan and put Buick wire wheel covers on its black steel wheels. He'd hoped to make a quick profit on it, but admitted with a wide, sheepish grin that those schemes rarely work out. One of these days, he'll try his luck selling it on eBay.
If the gleaming restoration projects in the shop's three back bays — a '66 1300, a lime green convertible, and another really expensive bolt-by-bolt redo — or the line of bugs and buses crowding its tiny parking lot are any indication, he's still the kingpin of the area's VW community. Even the inventory of decrepit rustbuckets I'd expunged several years ago has begun to grow again. Times are tough, but Frank's Bughouse is alive after all.
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston