Something to Hold onto
Outside of Portland, Oregon, in a small town by the road to the coast, 61-year-old Bill Hawkins has a time machine in his garage. The machine is dark-green and curvy, smells like rubber and dirty motor oil and it’s a little dusty. Until recently, it was parked at Bill’s shop, standing among the ranks of many others like it, machines from another time that still hold the power of taking the driver to that time.
Forty-one years ago, 20-year-old Bill and his best friend got on a plane in Portland, Oregon and landed in London, England. From London they took a train to Coventry. The next day, the pair drove a 1972 Triumph GT 6 out of the factory and set out on a six-month road trip around Europe. They navigated British roads and Franco-controlled Spain, before putting the car on a boat back to the United States and drove it home to Oregon.
Time has moved on and so has he, Bill thinks. He has left behind the spirit of adventure as it can only be known by someone caught up in the transition between teenager and adult. Things that were once new like the car are now old, passé, maybe vintage, but for Bill the car is more than a car; it keeps the memories fresh. When he opens the car door, it still squeaks just the way it always has and the memories flood out and carry him away with them, if only for a moment.
Bill’s memories are of the first time he struck out on his own. He grew. He learned. He lived. He got scared and even wanted his parents once or twice. Perhaps he was too busy growing to notice he was doing it, but he was, and it mattered.
Today he owns a small repair shop, British sports cars only. His shop is full of customers with their own memories, as strong and powerful as his own. They bring him their treasured memories in the form of their cars and ask him to keep them alive.
On the other side of Portland from Bill’s garage, on the corner of Harold and SE 72nd Street in a rundown residential neighborhood sits an unadorned two-story building that extends part way down the first block of both streets. The air smells of apple cider and cigarette smoke. Here too, memories of another time drive much of the clientele.
Through the storefront windows of the Bantam Barbershop John Kracy, known as Johnny, is visible through reflections of sunlight, trees, the pink and green houses and brick building across the street. Johnny bends carefully to snip two stray hairs from the newly-shorn beard of a man who sits crooked forward in the chair, his face crumpled by wrinkles. Johnny’s face is solemn, blue eyes intent on his work, the hairs falling to the floor to join the clippings that flatten under his black wing tip shoes as he moves. He pulls a straight razor from a drawer and methodically runs the shiny blade over the man’s freshly lathered neck. Each pass of the blade leaves a new line of fresh pink skin exposed through the white suds of the shaving cream. For two seconds his expression changes, mouth half-open and lips pulled back tightly as he lifts his head to laugh at a story with the man.
“It’s like a time machine and you walk in there and the man makes you feel like you’re a man,” says one of Johnny’s regulars, Kyle Black.
It’s a place where men are supposed to hang out, just as they did for the first part of the 20th century, Kyle says. The shop reminds him of his dad and uncle, the only men he knew as a child.
The shop’s walls are covered with faded pictures and forgotten faces of stars from another time. Jazz artists, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison watch over Johnny’s customers as they bring their tennis shoes and smart phones into his time capsule.
Among the shop’s many photos of famous people are photos of the two men Johnny holds in highest regard, his grandpas. It is these two working-class men from whom Johnny draws inspiration. Much of Johnny’s philosophy about hair and always looking good comes from his grandpas, who never left the house without putting on slacks and combing their hair. Johnny’s grandpa Chet was a truck driver, but when he worked in the yard he wore slacks, a work shirt and slicked his hair back.
“Even though men had hard lives and stuff, they stayed well groomed. There’s no excuse for looking like bums, you know?” Johnny says.
His customers come for his commitment to looking classy, for the company, for the feeling and for the reminders of their own memories.
“It’s the America that’s no longer with us,” says another of Johnny’s regulars, Luke Burwell.
Luke drives a 1959 blue and white-Ford Edsel, and wears his greying hair slicked back. Visiting Johnny’s shop is a way to escape into his memories of being a young boy in a small American town and of a time when everyone dressed nicely.
Luke remembers a time when people respected each other more than they do now and when that respect was valued, he says.
Johnny’s elders raised him with that reverence for respect. They were poor people, Johnny says, but their classy style, their bouffants, pompadours and crisp clothes, and their senses of humor inspire him to keep their memory alive through the classic haircuts he does.
“And that’s the barbershop. That’s the nostalgia that I’m trying to reproduce. And the funny thing is, it’s easy for me. I don’t live everyday like it’s the 50s or 40s, but when I come into the barbershop, I wait. I keep thinking my uncle Donny’s going to show up, or my grandma,” he says.
Johnny holds onto the objects that remind him of his past and his upbringing and searches out sturdy old straight razors to restore. The razors are better made than anything he could find today, he says. They are invaluable vessels that with each slice can keep his memories fresh like the new pink skin of a shaved neck.
On Portland’s east Burnside, at the edge of the upscale Laurelhurst neighborhood, Terry Currier is drawn to a different vessel of memory. The rough brick of his store, Music Millennium, is a striking contrast to the large, bright houses around it. The store has stood in the same location since it opened in 1969. Its squat frame is broken up by nearly-black windows splashed with red, orange and yellow painted figures and invitations like “Explore the Electrifying Mysterious Vinyl Room.” Inside, the smell in the air is tinged with incense. It feels like the air in a used bookstore, calm and cool, laden with the memories and the scent of aged paper. One of the store’s four rooms is filled with records.
“Vinyl will be the salvation of the independent record store because vinyl is the greatest invention in the world,” Terry says.
Terry was 17 when he went to his first concert. Leon Russell. Two weeks later he was applying to work in a record store. He knew nothing about records, but his enthusiasm got him the job. Several months later when his high school counselor asked him about the music scholarship applications he was supposed to be filling out, Terry told him he wasn’t going to college. The pure joy of listening to records and working in a record store had changed Terry’s life and replaced his previous plan of attending college to study music.
“I was too busy enjoying what I was doing at the moment. I think most aspects of my life went on hold because music and listening to records and collecting records overtook my life,” he says. “If there was an extra hour in the day that I could give up for sleep, it went to listening to another record.”
Terry bought 665 records in his first year of listening to music and kept on going. Listening to music takes him somewhere else, sometimes to a different time, others to a different emotion. Today he owns 40 or 50 thousand records, each of which moves him differently. Each one means something different to him and to his customers who come to his store looking for feeling among the records.
“They are memories to people and they pick them up because there’s a memory associated with that. There’s some kind of thing that triggers off the memory and it’s a great feeling,” Terry says. “All of a sudden they’re reliving their past. Nostalgia happens because of great memories of doing something or interacting with something or owning something that you want to go back out there and reintroduce yourself to that again.”
As time goes by, each second gone becomes the past. Nostalgia lives in these fleeting moments, the moments when memories, recollections and stories come along and make us feel them again, transporting us out of the present and into the past. It seeps into our brains, transfixes us, squeezing our hearts, hard enough to pull on them, soft enough to comfort us with the memories.
"Nostalgia happens because of great memories"
~ Terry Currier
Walk through the front door of Bill’s British Auto Works in North Plains, Oregon and you are met by the smell of any other auto parts shop: strong, sharp, and slightly sweet, the smell of dirty motor oil, grit and rubber all mixed together. The walls are adorned with photos, names and auto parts: Triumph, MG, Aston Martin. Half-finished classic cars spill forth from the back and car decals and small parts take up equal space in a show case that appears to be used more for leaning tire-less wheels against than for show. Many of the car names and models in the shop are now defunct, all of them made between 1950 and 1980.
Peering under the hood of a red MGB GT, Bill loosens a bolt in the simple engine. The cars he works on often have names like Bugsy or Oscar. They have assumed personalities, like the family pet, and to his customers, they are part of the family.
“It literally represents something good that happened in their life, just like it did for me. It’s the same thing, it was a great part, a great era or time in their life and that’s what it represented. It’s a way to get back to it,” Bill says.
Two of Bill’s customers, Judy and Warren Schumacher owned a 1957 Triumph TR3, which Judy bought when she was 19. The couple drove it on their honeymoon road trip, but they traded the car soon after for Warren’s brother’s Ford because the Triumph did not start well in the Illinois winters. When his brother sold it, Warren kept track of the car, stayed in touch with the man who bought it, then with his wife and his daughter after she inherited it. Forty years after letting the car go, Warren and Judy bought it back. The day they went to pick the car up, Judy brought it champagne and starter fluid.
“It felt like a piece of the past was returned because we tried for so long to get it back and then all of a sudden there it was,” she says.
Judy and Warren don’t add up the receipts for the restoration process. The value is in the memories of the car, not the numbers. Although they can’t put a price on nostalgia, Bill says the restoration cost around $30,000.
"It literally represents something good that happened in their life"
~ Bill Hawkins
Inside Music Millennium, Terry springs into action, looking for one of his own memories. His fingers flip hurriedly through the worn 12 inch by 12 inch cases of records. This time he is looking for a Spirit record.
“There are times when I just go ‘I have to listen to this Spirit record over hear, a family that plays together.’ I have to do that because it might have been I’m not having a great day, things aren’t going right, I need something to go right. I can go get this and listen to it and it’ll make my day that much better,” he says.
Terry remembers when he first heard all of his favorite records, where he was, who he was dating and what his life was like. Listening to those records now brings the memories pouring back into his brain. He remembers the girlfriend who first took him to the record store where he later worked and the great Boz Scaggs show he walked out of because it couldn’t live up to the opening band, Wishbone Ash. Finding the record, he lifts it out from between two others, and stops a moment to stare at the cover.
“It’s almost like a time capsule to me. I’ve never gotten rid of my records at home and each one of them is a piece of my life, they’re a piece of me because in my case music is a major part of my life. And to give up anything in that collection is like giving up a piece of my life,” he says.
Songs make up the fragments of Terry’s life and when his life is gone he wants it to be remembered properly. Along with all his memories, he keeps in his head a list of the songs he wants played at his funeral. On that list is a song called “Celluloid Heroes” by The Kinks, Terry’s favorite band. The song is hauntingly beautiful, he says. It is told through the eyes of a man as he walks down Hollywood Boulevard reflecting on all of the stars whose names he sees etched in the side walk beneath his feet.
“The feeling I get when I hear the song, it’s a good feeling. You almost have tears in your eyes, but it’s tears of sadness and tears of joy at the same time. And that’s a good memorial to me. That’s the way it is. You’re really sad because you’re at that event, but a great memorial also is a time to celebrate the life of somebody,” he says. “Some of the best memorials I went to, somebody was telling a great story about a time in this person’s life that’s so funny; you’re sitting there, you’re laughing and crying at the same time because it’s such a great story.”
The great stories of Terry’s life make up the memories he holds close through his records and that he goes back to whenever he needs to change his mood.
Behind the wheel of a Triumph TR6, Bill settles in the seat, old leather letting out a guttural squeak as he moves. It’s not his car, but it’s similar. As he eases the car out of the parking lot, his face softens and relaxes, the engine speeds up and he shifts from first gear up into second and on into third.
When he was first shifting through the same gears with his own GT6, Bill was just 20, still growing into adulthood, and his GT6 spelled independence; it was a way to get away and to be free. Now, he’s older and the car represents a different kind of freedom, it’s a place where he is free to be with his memories.
His own car fits around him just the way it used to, comforting him with its familiarity. Forty-one years he’s known the car, longer than anyone but his brother and the friend he took with him to Europe.
As the speedometer hits 60 and the white RPM needle quivers above 4,000, Bill pulls the gearshift into fourth gear, changing the engine tone. It’s lower now as it settles into its highest gear.
“The value is not how much the parts cost to put the car into the condition that the car is in, the value is in the memories, how strong are the memories that these people have of this car, what did it mean to them? And that meaning is the value,” Bill says.
The meaning is there in Bill’s eyes as he cups the steering wheel in his left hand, clasping it the way his own car does his memories. His face is peaceful, blue eyes are fixed on the road in front of him. He’s okay with that, with living in the present as time moves forward, but every once in a while it’s nice to feel the past in the leather of the steering wheel, the cool of the door handle and the shudder of the engine as it propels the car forward into the future.
The GT6 is a kindred spirit. Without the GT6 to hold, to touch, to see, he might begin to lose the feeling of his memories; he can’t hold the moment, he can’t hold the memory, but he can hold the car and so doing helps him to remember.
Stepping out of his shop for a cigarette, 21st century noises surround Johnny. Smooth, quiet car engines and the hiss of a city bus as it comes to a stop, beeping and lowering its doors to the curb, take the place of the banter and jazz music of his shop. As he smokes, Johnny’s shoulders are relaxed as a woman strolls up the block with a young, blond-haired boy. The boy is four or five, as young as Johnny was when the haircuts of his uncles and grandpas, his father’s whiffle, his grandpa Chet’s 1940s sailor-style cut, were first imprinting in his mind, so young he didn’t yet get to choose his own haircut and had to be trapped into the barber chair with a board.
The boy falters, his feet catching on the pavement, he trips and his knee thuds on the pavement. Johnny quickly straightens, leaning a bit toward the boy.
“Oooh, oooh,” he commiserates. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
The boy’s cry stops in his throat, his eyes widen and stare at the man and his cigarette. Johnny’s voice rumbles lower than the hum of cars in the street as he looks back at the boy, eyes curled up the corners, crinkling as he almost smiles.
“Rub it, it’ll make it better,” Johnny says demonstrating the fast gesture on his own knee.
Hesitantly, the boy reaches for his knee, slowly rubbing, his tears nowhere to be seen.
The boy is already older now than Johnny was when one of the many elders he looks up to, his maternal grandma’s first husband, died.
“That’s it, it’ll make you stronger,” Johnny says to the boy.
When Johnny’s grandma remarried, her new husband became his grandpa Chet. When Johnny was 14, it was Chet who first let Johnny pick his own haircut. He asked for a sailor cut, just like his grandpa, but the barber gave him something different, all his own.
“He gave me more of a pompadour. I had a little bit of chops on the side like sideburns and slicked it up, he said I looked like Jimmy Dean,” Johnny says.
Outside Johnny’s shop, the boy has regained his composure. The woman half smiles at Johnny as she lifts the boy into her arms to carry him on their way down the sidewalk. Holding fast to her, the boy’s eyes are fixed on Johnny over the woman’s shoulder as Johnny returns to his cigarette, the encounter already fading into the past to join his many other memories. The ones he holds onto, looks back on and reaches for in his shop are the ones that matter most, they are of a time when he was growing and learning, just like the little boy.