I kiss my kids goodnight, and gently close their doors. It’s nearly eight o’clock. I’ve spent the past hour with them, giving them baths, putting pyjamas on, and reading stories. Hopefully, they remember these times when they’re older.
It’s a clear summer evening, and the sun has already set. The sky glows blue and orange. Night hasn’t fallen yet, but the birds have stopped singing and the crickets have just begun to chirp. As I step outside, I can hear the ticking of sprinklers down the street as they water the lawns.
I open my garage door. Inside waits Greta, my ’71 Super Beetle. I don’t get to drive her as often as I would like. The evening cruises, organized for summer evenings like these, have already departed-- so the only other option is to cruise alone. Sometimes, I’ll hop into Greta and let her take me along tree-lined farm roads, but not tonight. I have work to do. At least, that’s what I tell myself. That’s what I call it.
I roll Greta out past the garage door and toward the bottom of my driveway. I pull the brake and park her there. She’s not in perfect condition. Her window gaskets are tired and cracking, and she has a couple of small dents and scrapes in her finish. Auto wax is no longer able to coax much of a shine from her gray paint. She looks beautiful in the twilight, though—the evening helps to cloak these imperfections, so that her appearance now matches what I always see in my mind’s eye— the curved rear windows, the oblique shape of the rear engine compartment as it stretches for the ground, the twin tailpipes that belch gray smoke for an instant before the engine settles into its steady roar.
I’m not going to take Greta for a ride. Not yet.
I walk into my narrow garage. It is a marvel that Greta can fit inside, even while I use it to store so many other things. The walls on the right are hung with bicycles, power cords, shovels, brooms, various garden tools. To my left are two rows of shelves that extend the entire length of the garage. They are filled with boxes and crates of paint, soil, planting pots, fertilizer and more garden tools. My workbench rests against the rear wall. An old desk lamp illuminates the scene. There is precious little space left. The tabletop is filled with paint cans, bottles of thinner, a forgotten coffee mug from last night, a beer bottle or two, dirty rags, paint brushes, hammers, pliers, a dismantled speedometer, rolls of tape and a few license plates. The wall above my bench is lined with more full shelves. There’s a radio and a dusty rotary phone, among many other small items. A disorganized pegboard rests on the wall between the shelves and my benchtop. Sometimes I hang tools there, and sometimes they’re strewn about.
I turn on the radio. It is already tuned to 1310 on the AM dial, in anticipation of the evening’s Toronto Blue Jays game. Jerry Howarth pleasantly informs me that Brett Lawrie has just hit a double as the sound of the radio crackles from my garage out into the summer evening. As Jerry might say, it’s twenty-three glorious Celsius degrees, and a beautiful night for some baseball. I clear some space for my freshly-brewed coffee, which will keep me awake until well after the Jays have lost the game. And with that, my work station is ready.
I pull some flattened cardboard boxes toward the mouth of my garage, and lay them flat. There is a light breeze, which is ideal for encouraging spray paint to dry. I don my work apron and my solvent mask. I never used to wear a mask for spraying, but I do now. Restoring plates can be a dirty exercise. I lay out a few plates that have already been primed. The years are 1950, 1959, and 1963. These plates need to be painted black, so I shake my spray paint and apply it quickly. I save the nozzle and drop it in a jar of paint thinner, to try and keep it from clogging with congealed paint.
The wind disperses the excess paint mist. I’ll keep my mask on for a little while longer. I move over to the left side of my garage and pull a pair of plates down from my hanging line. They have been sprayed, but the numbers need to be painted. I bring them over to my bench.
These 1962 plates have a white background and need black paint on the raised edges. I dab some paint onto my palette and run my brush through it. I must be careful not to apply too much paint at once, or it will run. I push and drag the paint along the raised edge of the first number. It takes time, and I do not hurry. On a good night, I could be finished this single digit in three or four minutes. On a clumsy night, it might take fifteen minutes. People ask me how I paint the numbers. I don’t want to tell or show them the exact technique. Nobody helped me when I first started, and I have figured it all out on my own. It has taken me many years, and quite a few expenses, to become good enough that I can sell some of the plates that I paint. I have even restored a few for my own collection. I have developed a unique skill, and people now find me when they want this unique skill performed. I have reached the point where I can use this skill to make my plate-collecting hobby self-funding. That’s harder than it sounds, because my collecting tastes have become expensive. I painted my first plate in 1996. It’s in my collection, and I’m still happy with it. I have worked hard over the ensuing seventeen years to become better, and my exact technique is a somewhat of a trade secret. Sometimes, I’ll tell people that it’s a bunch of finger-painting. That’s a truth—I used my fingers to apply paint for quite some time. But that’s generally as far as I want to discuss it.
I have long since removed my paint mask. I finish up the first 1962 plate and hang it to dry on my line. Then I inspect my recently-sprayed plates, which are still lying on the cardboard. The paint is very tacky, but it has solidified such that it won’t run if I hang the plates to dry. I collect the sprayed plates and they join the 1962 plate on the drying line.
The sky has darkened to indigo all around. Brett Lawrie was stranded on second base to end the fourth inning, and now we’re in the top of the sixth. Greta waits patiently at the bottom of the driveway. A moth, making a fatal error, lands in a blob of paint on my palette. It has hopelessly soiled its wings. I scoop it out and end its misery, and begin work on the second 1962 plate without a second thought.
I allow my mind to wander while I paint. It’s therapeutic. Often, I think about the students I teach at work. Sometimes they do great things; sometimes they take senseless steps backward. It’s summer vacation now, so I focus my thoughts on a couple of them and wonder how they’re doing. Then, my mind shifts to the game. Jose Bautista has hit a solo homer, and the booming naval horn at the Jays’ home field crackles out through my radio like an alto saxophone. The Jays have taken the lead. I wonder how long it will last.
My wife steps into the garage. I put down my plate and we admire the garden in the front yard. She’s heading off to bed soon, after an evening of digital scrapbooking. We chat for a little while before she gives me a kiss and retires for the night.
By the time the Jays’ game concludes, it’s a bit after ten o’clock and I’m on my third pair of plates. The moon, a thick crescent, is orange and setting in the now-black western sky. I’m enjoying myself. I might take Greta out for a late drive, or I might just begin the numbering on a fourth pair of plates, once I’m done the third pair. It depends on how I’m feeling.
The post-game show finishes, and I switch the radio band from AM to FM and turn the dial so I can listen to the latest episode of Randy’s Vinyl Tap on CBC. When the Jays aren’t playing, I enjoy listening to some oldies and hearing Randy’s stories about them. As a practicing Mormon, Randy was not only there for some big events, but he was sober and remembers them all. I’m glad that CBC streams the old shows now—the show only airs on the weekends over the open radio, but now I can listen to pretty much any episode, any time I wish. Tonight, over the radio, Randy goes through some Lieber and Stoller-penned songs as I finish up the details on my last plate. I am becoming clumsy, so this will be the last pair.
I hang the final plate to dry and look at the hanging tin on the line. Tonight’s total is six pairs' work—three pairs sprayed with background paint, and three pairs detailed. It’s all by hand. There is no automatic painting press to make the task faster or easier, and I’m not mechanically inclined enough to design one. Besides, many of the plates that I paint have slight dents or warps, so I would have to detail the most difficult areas by hand anyway.
I clean off my brush and cap my paint cans. I hang my apron on its hook and pull the plug on Vinyl Tap. I step outside, close the garage door and look westward. The moon has become blurry and is biting into the horizon. I climb into Greta, and with a single pump of the gas pedal and the turn of a key, her engine comes to life. I turn the lights on, and we drive off.