YOU CAN CHANGE doctors and keep breathing, change dentists and keep your teeth, but when your favorite car mechanic hangs up his wrenches, it rocks your world.
That happened to me recently when John Possidente told me that after 45 years of fixing cars at various shops in and around Baltimore, he was retiring. He had sold J&M; Auto Specialists Inc., the garage at 1811 Maryland Ave. that has been caring for my aging autos.
Possidente, who is 63 years old, told me his last day in the shop will be Friday. After that, he said, he planned to make wine, travel and fish.
Possidente also introduced me to the new owner, who seemed like a real nice fellow. I think I heard something about him operating an auto-repair operation in Harford County before buying J&M.; I can't be sure. I was in a fog, shaken by the realization that one of life's greatest treasures, a trusted mechanic, was leaving me to chase fish.
Possidente is the kind of mechanic who, when my car door interior came loose from the frame, remedied the situation not by ordering a new car door, but by applying a strategically placed screw. He is the kind of mechanic who, when I told him I was determined to buy new brakes, popped off a wheel, inspected the brake pads and told me to keep my money - the brakes were fine. He is the kind of mechanic who, when a dent appeared in the rear panel of the car, told me it could be fixed one of two ways, the expensive way, replacing the entire panel, or the frugal way, painting over the dent.
"If a customer tells me his car is making strange noises, I tell him 'turn up the radio,'" Possidente joked.
This minimalist approach has carried over to the cars he drives, most of them used vehicles that he picked up from his customers.
"My favorite car was a 1966 Pontiac Grand Prix, a four-speed, standard transmission with a V-8. I bought it from a dentist who had got it for his son, but his son didn't want it," he told me.
His most troubled car, he said, was one he had when he was young and poor: a 1955 Chevy that had seen hard duty as a taxi. "It smoked so bad, burned so much oil, that I used to save the old oil that I had drained from oil changes in the shop and pour it in the Chevy." The only new car he's ever owned is a Toyota Avalon he bought four years ago.
"Cars have changed so much over the years," Possidente told me a few days later, when the news of his departure had sunk in and I had calmed down. "They went from something fairly easy and fun to work on, cars you could sit on the fender and bend down into the engine, to something high-tech."
A constant part of the car-repair business, he said, is customer apprehension. Many people don't understand how cars work and are afraid they are being taken advantage of.
There is no easy way around that situation, he said. The only answer is time and trust. "You just have to bite the bullet and tell the truth," Possidente said.
His shop, an unimposing two-story structure, sits in a section of town where Possidente grew up, a neighborhood he calls SS. Philip and James. This is a reference to the Catholic church at 28th and Charles that he and his family members attended.
The family has strong roots in the neighborhood. One of his sisters, Eleanor, lives in the family home a few blocks away from the shop on West 23rd Street. He lives a few doors down. His brother Jim worked for Equitable Trust Bank on 20th Street before joining John at the shop. The business was named J&M; in honor of their parents, John and Mary, who had run a tavern and then a small grocery store at 23rd near Howard street.
I asked Possidente to retrace the steps in his auto repair career. As I listened, I felt like I was replaying a chapter of the city's history.
In the mid-1950s he was a student at Mervo, Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School. He had a notion that he wanted to be an electrician, but those classes were full, so he signed up for auto mechanics course work. He graduated in 1958 and, after working for a year as a helper at a motor shop on Deepdene Road, eventually landed a job at Bill & Earl's, a multishop operation that specialized in transmission repairs.
Much of his training, he said, was on the job and after hours. At the end of the workday, he and another apprentice, the owner's brother, would take transmissions apart and reassemble them as a training exercise. Only after successfully rebuilding 10 transmissions, he said, was he eligible for pay.
In 1965, Uncle Sam came calling. After a stint in the Army in Vietnam, Possidente returned to the Baltimore area and to Bill & Earl's, working as a manager at various locations, including Frederick. That's where he met his wife, Elizabeth, on a blind date.
In 1972 he went into business for himself, first working out of his pickup truck, then renting a space behind the old Merendino's restaurant at 20th and Maryland. Later, he moved the shop to the Maryland Avenue building, first renting the bottom floor from Talbot Smith, who ran Reliable Body and Fender there, then buying Smith out.
Like many owners of small business, he built up a clientele by word of mouth and advertising in neighborhood publications. Along the way he was able to attract a core of workers, auto body repairmen Walt Stowers and Charles Dates, mechanics Joe Samelia and Nelson Allen, and, for a while, Roy Gertzendanner.
One day in 1972 his brother Jim quit his job at the bank. "He just showed up and said, 'I am going to help you,' " Possidente recalled. He stayed 32 years, working in the office before retiring in April at age 62. His replacement, Valerie Vallonga, is married to a relative of the Possidentes. This is a family operation.
There are no fancy waiting rooms at J&M;, just a couple of plastic chairs in a corner of the dim garage. But there is a sense of place, a pride in workmanship and casual fringe benefits, such as the free tomatoes Samelia brought in one recent morning, picked from his Cecil County garden and offered to co-workers and customers alike.
It is a small operation, a half-dozen cars make the parking lot crowded, there are some repairs that are beyond its reach, but under Possidente's tenure it had the feeling of a place where men did an honest day's work.
As he prepared for his last week on the job, Possidente summed up his career with typical understatement. "I made a decent living, I enjoyed what I was doing," he said. "I am not the type of guy who likes to sit at a desk."