Ernie’s Garage: A Mechanic, An Amazing Car, and What Really Matters


Ernie and I agreed on two things:  We were committed to getting my car to 300K miles and he would tell me when it was time.

It was time.

My relationship with Ernie’s Garage began when my family moved to Essex four years ago, having driven our beloved 2004 Honda CRV with 200,000 miles on it from California to Massachusetts with, as my daughter put it, seven heartbeats (four people, two dogs, and a cat). 

My children have never known another car.  “Frau Blau” arrived in our lives after a five-year stint in Germany, where the kids were born, during which time we did not own a car.  Her name was the result of the German connection and her being cookie monster blue.  This is the car where it all happened — the magical books on tape the kids and I listened to every day to and from school, camping trips, fishing trips, ski trips, you-need-to-take-a-nap trips.  She delivered us to every soccer game, basketball game, softball game, school play, and piano recital.  She was like Mary Poppin’s magic carpet bag in that it seemed you could fit impossibly large objects in her.  I once floored a man on Craigslist who made the grave mistake of telling me I “would never” get his enormous wooden hammock stand in her.  We put an eight-foot farm table on top of her.  I even managed to get three ocean kayaks and three people in her once.  My kids found out about Santa in that car.  She was a star.  And she never failed us.

Entering Ernie’s garage for the first time, I felt as though I had time warped my way back to 1945; it’s awesome. There is a fantastic old cash register. Yellowed photographs of men catching enormous sea fish, newspaper articles, images of attractive women, family photos, and various notes paper the walls.  There is an actual phone book.  Behind the desk is a handwritten sign explaining “Men working, if you need help (underlined) with something YELL (underlined)”.  Best of all is the series of eight photographs of Ernie himself, on the beach, in a speedo, in the same pose, from age 48 to age 53.  Needless to say, I was curious meet him.

Ernie is a third-generation mechanic.  His grandparents came to the United States from Germany in 1949.  Ernie’s grandfather worked on tanks during WWII and was a prisoner of war.  In 1964, Ernie’s father and grandfather opened the garage at 8 Main Street in Essex, called Ernie’s after the name shared by all three generations.  At the age of five Ernie was already bumping around the shop and began working full-time by fourteen while attending the North Shore Vocational High School in Beverly.  And, like his father, and all of his friends’ fathers, he joined the Essex Volunteer Fire Department at 18; he has been volunteering for 37 years. The shop is always bustling with people who seem to all know Ernie and each other.  Dave, who works with Ernie, has been there for 20 years. Little seems to change. 

Over the past three years, consistently, some horrible noise would occur while I was driving, the car would buck on the highway, or some other very expensive sounding problem would arrive unexpectedly.  I would take it to Ernie, he would have a look, I would hold my breath — and then a text would arrive: “It was (insert mechanical problem that I do not understand) and it will be (insert a dollar amount that was far less than what I imagined).”  How often is this the case? With Ernie, this was how it went, over and over again. 

We pressed on.  I began teaching my son to drive.  He learned some less common driving skills like how to completely ignore warning lights.  At any given time there were a minimum of two and, often, three warning lights illuminated and ignored; the engine light had been on for over a year.  As it made little sense to fix small things, we bootstrapped along with broken power locks, non-working interior lights, deteriorating plastic, and so much rust. This is how much we loved this car. 

But woven in between bigger mechanical problems, were little things.  A flat in the driveway when I needed to pick up the kids.  Ernie was there within 15 minutes to fix it.  A visit for something small when, instead of having me wait he would have someone drive you home, and pick you up again when the car was ready.  Ernie became the master of small fixes to keep me going.  He gave me a schedule to check and refill the oil as Frau Blau was burning through it unusually quickly (the beginning of the end).  He was honest about what was worth fixing, and what was not. I trusted him completely.

Then, just as she was within a mere 200 miles of her 300K miracle, Frau Blau began stalling, and, worse, smoking. For a plethora of reasons, the timing could not have been worse. Knowing this, Ernie proceeded through a series of remarkably valiant efforts including, early morning visits to my driveway, hauling her off, bringing her back, more stalling, more trying.  He could not have done more.  But then, he did what he had to, Ernie finally made the call:  It was time. It was over. 

Just today as I was taking photographs of Ernie, and getting a little sad about letting this beloved car go, it hit me:  I get to keep the memories.  I get to keep the gratitude.  And, I get to keep this relationship with my friend and mechanic.  What is there really to be sad about?

If Ernie’s grandfather and father were alive today, they would be so very proud.  Whether it be through his service, work, or community, Ernie is a person with honor and integrity who understands the value of relationships.  This is the big deal.  This is everything.

Yes, Ernie looked out for my car.  But he also looked out for me.  I am so very grateful.

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