My father was a heating and air-conditioning serviceman and a mechanic’s mechanic. We lived in southwest Detroit, and when he got home from work he’d spend the rest of the evening fixing anything mechanical, even turning out replacement parts on his lathe. He loved working with his hands, and a lot of the time he spent working in the garage was really pure mechanical engineering: he’d experiment with everything, whether it was building a new suspension system for his ’58 Olds or designing an electric mixer for my mom.
If my dad wasn’t at work, he was puttering in his garage workshop. His garage was stocked from floor to ceiling with electric motors, spare parts, tools of every sort, welding equipment, boxes of World War II surplus items, and apples and beer. It was a treasure trove for a young kid like me to explore when my dad wasn’t home. There was no end to all the stuff he had crammed on every shelf. He even had jars of mercury he accumulated from taking apart hundreds of old thermostats. Nobody knew that the weird, silvery liquid metal was dangerous—or that car keys left under the seat might be discovered. They were, and I nearly died running the engine in the garage with the doors closed.
But one garage can fascinate a kid only so long. By the time I was 14, all of southwest Detroit was my turf, and I was getting into bigger sorts of trouble, sometimes the sort that involved the police.
And that’s when I came up with an idea. My friend Ron was restoring a twelve-foot wooden boat in his garage, directly behind my dad’s. While helping Ron one night, I said, “My dad’s in his garage. We need to show him how the cops are screwing with us.”
“How you gonna do that, A-rab?”
“Simple. We’re doing nothing wrong. We’ll just call the cops on ourselves, and he’ll see that they’re messing with us.”
“Sounds good,” Ron said, “but we’re gonna have to get rid of some of this stuff.” We had two stolen folding metal chairs and a push broom marked “Detroit Parks and Recreation.”
After stashing that stuff behind his garage, we ran to the corner store just a block away and dropped a dime in the public phone.
“There’s two guys breaking into the garage behind us!”
“Where do you live?”
“Twenty-four fifty-seven Woodmere!” Click.
We ran laughing back to Ron’s garage. The timing was perfect: my dad was still in his garage, and any minute now our alley was about to get lively.
Moments later, two scout cars came flying down the alley and screeched to a halt beneath the light. A cloud of dust rose from the gravel into the night air, and four officers leaped out. My dad heard it all and stepped into the alley and watched.
The officers rushed into Ron’s garage but quickly realized it wasn’t a burglary. So one said, “Let’s get outta here!” And just like that, they were gone.
My dad walked over. “See, Dad!” I said. “The cops do this all the time!”
He didn’t say a word. He just studied everything as he walked into Ron’s garage. He had been in there many times, but this time he turned and walked behind Ron’s garage.
“Why are the chairs and broom back here, Robert?”
“Uh . . . sometimes we just store ’em here, Dad. You know . . . keep ’em out of the way while we’re working on the boat.”
He stared right through me and walked back to his garage.
“Well, that sure didn’t work, A-rab!” Ron said.
“No, it didn't,” I said. “Guess maybe my dad's a better cop than those guys.”