beauty and excellence

The guy turns my direction, looks at me, but his eyes are cast down to the floor. The floor is a river of oil and grease, old transmissions, brake…

The guy turns my direction, looks at me, but his eyes are cast down to the floor.

The floor is a river of oil and grease, old transmissions, brake shoes, tailpipes. Dark, heavy stuff, heaped up, all out of order.

The guy says to me, “Just a quirk of brake pads, I guess.”

Heck, the right rear wheel is almost glowing. I just paid you $500 for a brake job. I drive two blocks and the whole car smells red-hot. A quirk of brake shoes, I would hope to tell you.

Boss comes around the lift, a pneumatic tool in each hand, his arms mimicking his teardrop mustache.

Even when he is standing tall and in command he seems to be leaning into the world. He orders my car back on the hoist. I think the place gets quiet.

I take a walk along the shore of the lake.

Bright fall. Yellow and red leaves are already coming down from the chestnut trees. Many of the rose petals have already fallen to the ground. Geese are taking off and landing in waves. This is my favourite time of the year.

In an hour I am back in the shop. The place still smells of burning metal. Nobody looks in my direction.

Avoiding most of the grease I work my way to the office.

The owner is happy faced.

In his right hand he holds a small bent wire.

With the other he hands me a coiled spring that is completely rusted. These small springs hold the brake pads in place. The spring on the right rear pad gave out.

In the time I was gone, he had managed to make another spring out of twisted something-or-other, and he boasts, “It should work.”

Should work. Those words fall far short of giving me great confidence. All of a sudden, I don’t feel so good.

He reaches for what is left of the spring. I pour it back into his big hand like it was some injured bird.

“I ordered the right spring from the dealer in Vancouver at my expense,” he tells me.

“Bring the car in Thursday morning and I will put it on. The spring I made should hold, but it ain’t pretty.”

He hands me back the spring.

In a flash the place comes alive. I feel better.

A welder crackles away in the far bay, and I watch a young man beat a hot metal band around a tailpipe. A customer drops his car off out front and whistles as he heads for the office.

In an instant, when the owner tells me he is not satisfied sending me out on the road with a spring that does not look pretty, I am lifted.

Driving through town I flash on something Einstein once said:

“When I am working on a problem, I never think of beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

I just may have had the good fortune to run into the Einstein of the brake and muffler business.

Mode — that’s the guy who owns the brake and muffler shop —solved the problem by fashioning a make-do spring. But he knew full well he had done it wrong. What he did would have probably worked, may have even outlived the car, but it was not a work of beauty.

Apply the old test of beauty and you can’t go wrong.

Mode had one other enviable characteristic.

I had to go all the way back to Aristotle to dig this one out.

Aristotle once observed that “we are what we repeatedly do, excellence then is not an act but a habit.”

I get the feeling Mode has made excellence a habit.

Just before heading onto the bridge that spans the lake, it dawns on me I have left my notebook at the shop.

I park on the side of the building and kind of creep around to the front. The place is still bustling.

Mode is behind the counter and when I come through the door he has my notebook in hand. He smiles and hands it over.

I notice for the first time that his eyes are a royal blue and are soft. I notice his moustache is perfectly trimmed. I watch his hands and his fingers are long and narrow, much like a pianist’s.

And he does lean when he stands. What I am aware of now is that he is leaning toward me. Gently tipped in my direction he tells me to enjoy the fall weather.

I back out of the shop and I give it all one last glance.

As I drive away, I see the old spring on the seat next to me. In that simple spring there is a lesson on beauty and excellence. I am reminded just how important both of these qualities are to me.

Back on the bridge I reach over and zip the rusty spring in my briefcase. I look out into the traffic and mesh with the rush of cars heading for the left lane. I catch the morning weather on the radio and I begin to schedule my day.

When the traffic begins to thin out, I unconsciously lay my hand on my briefcase. I lean out the window and breath in the heavy marsh.

It really is a beautiful morning.

Gregory Heming is a writer and optimist living in Nelson, British Columbia.