Van Bishkoff takes the engine-belts off one of the chairs in
his office, puts them on top of some tires, then grabs a rag and
wipes the seat.
“Sit,” he invites.
As he writes my bill on the pull-out extension of his desk,
its only free surface, I scan the photographs of his grandchildren
for new ones. Some are framed, some just thumb-tacked to the walls,
mixed haphazardly with business cards of parts dealers and letters
of appreciation from customers.
“Too bad you can't stay,” he says, looking up at me. “We have
porgies today. My brothers and me, we catch 'em yesterday in Long
Island Sound.” Warm wrinkles radiate from the corners of the brown
eyes set beneath his wavy salt-and-pepper hair. The embroidery
above his shirt pocket says “A-1 All German,” for the car repair
business he owns. But 58-year-old Van is Greek. Make no mistake
I've been his customer for years, but until today, I never brought
my car in for service on a Wednesday in summer, so I never knew
about the Wednesday barbecues. Van says they're for his six mechanics
and anyone else who happens to be around at twelve o'clock: customers,
a trucker delivering parts, employees of neighboring businesses,
members of his family. Still, knowing Van, I'm not surprised.
“It's ten o'clock now,” I say. “I have a few things to do. But
can I come back?”
“Sure,” Van smiles as I hand him my credit card. “You know you're
always welcome. Twelve o'clock.”
Just then, there's a “PUSH!” shout. Van jumps up and
From the doorway, I watch a mechanic lower the hood of one of
the cars in the yard and begin pushing it toward the shop entrance.
Within seconds, eight people—all six mechanics plus Van and his
son, John—surround the car. In less than thirty seconds, it's in
the shop, positioned directly over one of the lifts. Just as instantly,
they all return to whatever they were doing.
“It's nice the way everyone helps,” I say to Van as he comes
back into the office.
“We're one team,” he says. “One hand wash the other. I don't
care how good you are, you need help.”
On the drive back to my parking garage on the Upper West Side
of Manhattan, I realize why I'm drawn to Van. There are other good
mechanics out there. But if you find one, that's all you'll get:
a good mechanic. With Van, you get a unique combination of old-world
ways and new-world technology. He is definitely running a business;
your bills tell you that. But you never feel like just a customer.
You feel like a member of his family.
I first met Van twenty-three years ago, on a May morning in 1980.
I had turned off 219th Street onto Ninth Avenue and pulled my 1976
Volkswagen Rabbit through the open gate in the chain-link fence,
expecting to leave my car with Willy, the stocky, balding German
with steely eyes and a spotless white lab coat. Willy usually barked
at me the way he did at his three mechanics—“Don't esk me did I do
everysing! Everysing it needed to be done, I did it!”—but he always
kept my car in perfect running order. Instead, sitting at Willy's
neater-than-neat desk that May morning was a man with brown hair
and an ordinary sweater who looked up at me and smiled.
“Where's Willy?” I asked, vaguely uneasy.
“Willy's not here any more,” he said with an accent I couldn't place. “I
bought the business from him. My name is Van.” He got up and extended
Oh, no, I thought. He's too friendly. And he's probably Hispanic.
What can he know about German cars?
“Nice to meet you,” I said as we shook hands. “My name is Vivian.
I made this appointment with Willy when I was here a few months ago.” Like
a dentist, Willy made you schedule your next checkup before you left.
“I know.” Van pointed to his book. “Oil change, right?”
“Yes,” I said, wondering whether it was safe to leave my car. How
much could he ruin with just an oil change? I handed him the keys. “Willy
never told me he was leaving.”
“He didn't plan it. But after heart attack, he decide to retire.”
“Oh. Well, good luck to you.”
It begins to drizzle while I'm driving back to the barbecue,
and as I pull my 2000 Volkswagen Golf through the gate, I wonder
whether it's been cancelled. At first glance, there are no signs
of anything other than business-as-usual. The small concrete yard
is lined with cars, some with their hoods up, and I just about
find room to squeeze in. The three outdoor lifts each support a
raised car; a mechanic is busy under one of them. I can barely
see into the open entrances of the two indoor shops—the new one
with eight lifts and the old one with two—or into the open office
door between them. But I hear the sound of a pneumatic tool, and
between its abrupt stop-starts, Van's booming telephone voice.
“Sir, I said ‘pamper the transmission.' I use the word ‘pamper.'
It may be two months, six months, a year.... There is no belt.... You have to replace the timing chain. It's on the top of the
engine and goes down to the crank shaft and comes up again....
John, Van's son and partner, walks out of the office. “Hi, Vivian.
Glad you could make it.” His smile is as warm as his father's but
his neatly trimmed hair and mustache are dark brown.
“Is the barbecue still on?”
“Of course! Every Wednesday until Labor Day. Rain or shine.”
I notice the small round charcoal grill off to the side of the
new shop entrance, tended by Van's brother, Jimmy. In each hand,
he holds a metal mesh clamp with six whole fish in it, three with
tails pointing out one side, three with tails pointing out the
other, twelve fish in all. I walk over to chat. He tells me that
when they came back from fishing yesterday, Van's other brother,
Peter, cleaned all sixty-four porgies, then washed them in the
salt water at the small beach across the street from Van's house
in New Rochelle.
A phone begins to ring. It doesn't stop. I excuse myself and
walk into the office to answer it. “Good morning, A-1.”
“Is Van or John there?” a man asks.
“They're around somewhere. If you hold on, I'll look for them.
I'm just a customer.”
“Thanks,” he says. “I've answered the phone there myself sometimes.”
One morning in February, 1981, when I arrived for my every-three-months
oil change, Van pointed to a plate on top of some papers on his desk,
already messier than when it had been Willy's. “Have a cookie,” he
I stared at the koulourakia , the hard donut-shaped treats
my grandmother used to bake when I was a child, and which I had never
been able to find in any store.
“Those aren't cookies,” I said. “They're Greek pastries. Koulourakia. Where
did you get them?”
“My wife make them.”
“Is your wife Greek?”
“Are you Greek?”
“ Ee yaya-mou eetaneh apo ta Ioannina,” I said in a rush.
My grandmother came from Ioannina (a city in Western Greece).
Van responded in Greek, but I interrupted, explaining in English
that my accent was good, because I grew up hearing the background
talk in my grandmother's kitchen in the forties and fifties, but
I didn't really understand much. I told him she was a Greek Jew who
had immigrated to America in 1903 along with my grandfather, a Turkish
Jew. Van told me he was born in Turkey, but his parents were Christian
Greeks. He came to America in 1967.
“You don't hear my accent?” he asked when I told him I thought he
“I couldn't place it.”
“Take some home.” He held out the plate.
“Are you sure you have enough?”
“Take,” he said. “Next time, you bring the cookies.”
“I can't make those.”
“So you make another kind.”
Though I now felt a kinship with Van, I still wondered about his
mechanical ability. So far, I hadn't needed any major repairs.
Then came the June morning four months later, when I arrived at
my parking garage to pick up my car for the drive to my job in Westchester
and found my battery was dead. I phoned the AAA, and after they jump-started
me, I drove to 219 th Street.
Three times in as many days, Van put in a new alternator. Three
times, my battery was dead the next morning. Van apologized profusely
and didn't charge me for the replacement alternators. The fourth
time, Friday afternoon when I got out of work and couldn't drive
home, I lost patience.
“My battery is dead again!” I said to Van on the phone. “I'm getting
the AAA to start me, and then I'm driving down to you. I know it's
five o'clock, but you better wait until I get there!”
“Sweetheart,” he said, “any other day, I wait. But my mother-in-law
is coming from Turkey tonight, and I have to go to the airport.”
“Fine!” I hissed. “Then you just tell me where you live, and I'll
drive to your house.”
“OK,” he said, and to my astonishment, gave me his home address.
It was in Elmsford, near White Plains, fifteen minutes from my job. “When
I get home, I try to fix your car. If I can't, I lend you a car for
How could I stay angry?
I found myself in a neighborhood with tree-lined streets and modest
single-family homes, each with a garden in front. It was hard to
picture him here. I knew him only in the shop, where his neighbors
were towing companies, a kosher chocolate factory, and the block-long
garage depots for the NYC busses and garbage trucks.
“I'm one of Van's customers,” I said to the short woman with auburn
hair who answered the door. “Are you his wife?”
“Yes,” she smiled. “I'm Sophia.”
“Did Van tell you I was coming?” I hoped I wouldn't have to explain.
“No. But please come in.”
“Thanks. But first, where would you like me to park?” I gestured
toward my still-running car. “Because once I turn off the motor,
it won't start again.”
She listened to my story, waited while I moved the car, then ushered
me into a kitchen full of people.
“My mother is coming tonight from Turkey,” she explained between
introductions to her children—John, thirteen; and Nancy, twelve—and
assorted relatives and neighbors. She led me into the living room. “You
can sit here. It's a little bit quiet.”
The front door kept admitting more people, and more food and wine,
all of which found its way onto the huge banquet table that ran the
length of the living room and dining room. Sophia introduced me to
each new person, whose name I promptly forgot. But I felt strangely
at home; all this activity reminded me of preparations for the Passover
seders we used to have in my grandmother's basement in Brooklyn.
Sophia invited me to stay for dinner. I accepted.
It was past eight when Van and his mother-in-law finally arrived,
and after effusive greetings, we all sat down at the long table.
Van, a genial host in a turtleneck shirt—I had never seen him out
of his mechanic clothes before—poured wine for everyone, while trays
of food made their way around the table and my neighbors on either
side made sure my plate stayed full. I felt completely comfortable
with people all around me talking loudly in a mixture of English
and Greek. I even managed to say a few things in Greek to Sophia's
mother. From the size of the celebration, I assumed they were welcoming
her to America for the first time and was surprised to learn she
had lived here for ten years and was only returning from a short
visit back to Turkey.
On 219 th Street the following Monday, Van sheepishly told me there
was nothing wrong with my alternator or my battery. It was simply
the connection between them that had become loose.
As smoke from the grill mixes with the light rain, Jimmy squeezes
fresh lime onto the sizzling fish. Several customers wander about—from
the yard, to the office, to the air-conditioned indoor waiting
area, where a life-size replica of the 110-inch, 175-pound striped
marlin John caught in 2001 hangs near the ceiling, like a Museum
of Natural History exhibit. Below it is a photograph of a grinning
John holding up the real thing on a dock in Mexico.
I stroll past the office door. Van is on two phones at once.
“Just one minute, Lenny,” he says into the phone in his left
hand, while he holds the one in his right a few inches off his
ear. “Let me check with the customer.”
He lifts the left and lowers the right. “Mrs. Lee, the part
will be sixty-three dollars. You want us to get it?”
He lifts the right and lowers the left. “OK, Lenny. Send it.... Thank you.”
He hangs up both phones, then walks into the yard.
“John!” he calls.
Wrench in hand, John comes out of the small shop. “Yes, Pa.”
“Mrs. Lee's part is coming this afternoon. Do we have a free
“We will. Mr. Young's car is almost done.”
At exactly twelve, the mechanics stop work, and, as if by magic,
a fully-set table appears, carried into the entrance of the big
shop by two mechanics. It's complete with plastic tablecloth, plastic
plates and utensils, paper napkins. Then, like the communal PUSH! ,
there's a thirty-second flurry of activity. When it's over, the
table is laden with a big pot of rice, an even bigger salad, a
basket of bread, and a plate of olives.
Where they all come from, I have no idea, but just as suddenly
as the feast appeared, about fifteen people materialize. We're
an assortment of Whites and Blacks; Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
Some wear business suits, some uniforms, some, like me, just casual
“I cook this last night,” Van says, pointing to the rice, “and
I make the salad this morning. We call it shepherd salad: small
tomatoes cut in half, cucumber, pepper, red onion, olive oil, vinegar.
And we have watermelon for dessert.” Everyone murmurs appreciation.
Van walks around the table spooning rice onto our plates. His
brother Peter follows with a platter of fish—Jimmy barbecued two
batches of twelve.
“We cook it with the scales on,” Peter explains as he slips
one onto my plate, “so you don't eat the skin. You slice around
here.” He shows me with his knife. “Then lift the whole skin off.
Good. Now you put the juice.” He points to a bowl of olive oil
and fresh lemon juice. I fill the small ladle and drizzle the white
We eat in companionable silence for a few minutes, bathed in
a mixture of fluorescent light from the shop and misty daylight
from outside. It's as peaceful as waiting out a summer rain in
a country barn, an illusion fostered by the small strip of garden,
3'x10', just a few yards from us that holds two fig trees and a
profusion of flowers.
“No one would believe this was happening right here in Manhattan,” says
a thirtyish man in a business suit as he reaches for more bread.
He tells me his name is Eric, and this is his first time at
the shop; his neighbor recommended Van. Another customer says he's
been coming for ten years, referred by a neighbor; another for
three, referred by the friend who sold him his Volkswagen.
I smile to myself as I recall Van's saying, “I never advertise.
Advertise means either you don't have enough business, or you don't
doing well and you want to do well. I believe if you're happy, you're
going to tell your friends, and this is the biggest advertise for
Van—Evangelos—was born in Istanbul on June 18, 1945. But according
to Turkish law, he wasn't a Turkish citizen because his parents,
who met and married in Turkey, weren't Turkish. They were ethnic
Greeks who had immigrated to Turkey for economic reasons, his father
from Bulgaria, his mother from Sparta. As his father was Bulgarian,
both Turkey and Bulgaria considered Van a Bulgarian citizen.
His father started out “selling vegetables on a horse,” then opened
a store. Soon he was “supplying French ships with vegetables, groceries,
and chopped raw fish, like hamburger meat but made of fish.” His
mother was a seamstress who worked from home. Van had four brothers
and one sister, but only his two older brothers survived infancy.
They were a middle class family, with a city home in Istanbul and
a country home on the Bosporus.
Turkey was good to them financially but never let them forget they
were aliens. “My father had a book,” Van says. “He had to go every
month to the government to stamp the book. Year after year. Because
he was a foreigner.” As a Christian, a minority in Muslim Turkey,
his father wasn't allowed to own a business. “You have to have a
Turkish guy behind you,” Van explains. “The Turk is the silent partner
who has the license.”
Van was ten on September 6, 1955, when Muslims “looted and broke” Christian
homes, churches, schools, and businesses. “In Istanbul, 80 churches
were burned to the ground,” he tells me almost matter-of-factly as
we sit in his office. “A few priests were lost or dead.” His voice
rises and he rushes on, his eyes holding me as firmly as if he were
gripping my arm. “They remove fresh dead people from the graves and
hang them. They drag living people by the beard. They say, ‘tomorrow
we gonna cut your heads'.” Van pantomimes slicing his neck.
“You hear your neighbors screaming,” he continues more softly, lowering
his eyes to his desk. “Scary. Scary.” He's silent for a moment, then
looks up. “My father, he give us pepper in our hands. In case somebody
comes, we throw it in their eyes.”
Their store was “completely destroyed,” but their house escaped
with only a few broken windows, because “one of the Turkish workers
[from the store] stood outside of the door and say, ‘This is Muslim
house; no Christians here'.”
“Everyone remembers Kristallnacht, ” Van says when I tell him I
never knew this happened, “but no one remembers this.” He says there
were 300,000 Christians in Istanbul; now there are 2,000.
Ten-year-old Van begged his parents to leave Turkey, but they chose
to stay and rebuild the store. So Van remained in Istanbul another
When he finished school at fifteen—private Bulgarian school, not
public Turkish school—his mother wouldn't let him fulfill his boyhood
dream of becoming a car mechanic because it was “dirty” and the bosses
were known to “curse and hit [the workers] in your head and ass.” Instead,
she got him a job selling fabrics. He hated it. She also sent him
for French lessons, but he didn't like the way French sounded and
got the tutor to teach him English. At a party in 1964, when he was
eighteen, Van met Sophia. “She was seventeen,” he recalls, “wearing
white bobby socks” and attending a French college.
Underneath the ordinariness of his daily life, Van's vivid memories
of September 6, 1955 were never far from the surface, and at nineteen,
he determined to leave Turkey. A friend's cousin had left Istanbul
to work in a factory in Vienna, and an acquaintance's “old lady relative” lived
in Vienna. On the strength of connections to those two people, neither
of whom he knew personally, Van decided to try Vienna.
A non-citizen who left Turkey was allowed to return any time within
ninety days. After that, “you lose rights.” Fearing they would never
see him again, Van's parents refused to finance the trip, but a sympathetic
uncle and some cousins helped him. Still, it wasn't easy to leave. “Your
family is there, crying like a child,” he says. And he didn't know
when he would see Sophia again.
Van boarded the train in March, 1965, with “two luggages” and a
plan: if he couldn't make a life for himself in ninety days, he would
return. To avoid being drafted into the Bulgarian army, he took the
long route—3½ days through Yugoslavia rather than 1½ days
through Bulgaria—though it meant losing two more of the ninety days.
The friend's cousin lived in factory housing and agreed to let Van
live with him on condition that, to avoid detection, they both keep
the same hours: leave at 5:00 am, return at 5:00 pm. And the “old
lady” got Van a job at John and Company Volkswagen, where he worked
as a mechanic four days a week and attended automotive school the
fifth. Van didn't start work until 7:00, so he spent two hours every
morning in the train station or walking up and down the aisles of
the supermarket. “If you ask me where is pignoli nuts, I know,” he
Within a year, Van was living with “seven guys in one-and-a-half
rooms” and attending school two evenings a week to learn German.
But though the Volkswagen owner liked him—“I never ask questions.
Overtime I did. I was straight, honest worker. If I find money in
the car, I never take it”—the foreman was “mean” and never addressed
him as anything but Ausl @ nder (Foreigner). “Vienna was beautiful,” Van
says, “but for Austrians only.”
He began looking for what he hoped would be a more welcoming country.
Canada rejected him. “Australia sent a ticket, but it was too far.” So
Van assessed the students in his German class—“You know who is American,
European, Asian, from the clothes, the dress, everything”—and approached
a woman with, “Excuse me, how can I go to America?” She happened
to work for the American embassy and put Van in touch with the International
Rescue Committee (IRC), an organization that helps refugees resettle;
as Bulgaria was Communist, Van was considered a political refugee.
Nine months later, the day Van got his papers for America, “I told
him [the foreman], ‘Who built your country after the war? Greeks.
Turks. Yugoslavs. Italians.' Because now I wasn't scared he would
fire me. I had a place to go.” But the foreman didn't fire him.
Van and Sophia had been “writing back and forth.” Now he wrote, “‘I
got my papers to come to America. If you want to marry me and go...
otherwise...'” They were married in a Greek Church in Vienna in March,
1967, with eleven people in attendance: his parents, her parents,
and a few relatives. “My daughter had 320,” Van tells me by way of
During the nine more months they waited for Sophia's papers, Van
took on a second job, as a waiter on weekends. Sophia worked alongside
him, clearing and setting tables, while at home, now a 1½-room
apartment “with a bathroom inside ,” she was hostess to
their houseguests: Van's parents, who had come for the wedding and
stayed for good, as well as the many members of their extended families
who visited back and forth from Istanbul.
“Tough 2½ years in Vienna,” Van says. “But I was young, and
when you're young, everything looks roses, you know? If you told
me to do it now, no way to do it now.”
On November 17, 1967, with their papers in order, Van and Sophia
left his parents behind in the Vienna apartment and boarded a plane
for New York. They wore their IRC buttons, to identify them to the
IRC representative who was to meet them.
As he looked out the window of the “long limousine car” at all the
roads leading from Kennedy airport to Manhattan, Van wondered, “how
in the world we will ever learn this place.”
They spent their first two weeks in America in a fourth-floor hotel
room on 31 st Street and Madison Avenue, with a “whore house on first
and second floors.” Within days of their arrival, Van began commuting
by subway and bus to Helms Brothers Mercedes Benz in Bayside, Queens,
a job arranged for him by the IRC.
During the twelve years from then until the day in 1980 that I found
him sitting at Willy's desk, Van worked as a car mechanic for Mercedes
Benz, superintendent of an apartment house on Manhattan's Upper East
Side, and owner-manager of a grocery store on Fordham Road and Jerome
Avenue in the Bronx. Though he never gave up his dream of owning
a car repair shop, he had taken on the grocery store so his parents
and brothers, who were now here, too, would have a place to work;
it was a business they all knew.
In the meantime, his family was growing. John was born in August,
1968, nine months after they landed at Kennedy; Nancy, in November,
1969. Still, there was always room in their home—first a studio in
Flushing, then the one-bedroom super's apartment, then the house
in Elmsford—for Van's parents, Sophia's parents, and the many relatives
who made their way, one by one, to America.
Sophia, who got fired from her first job—at Swingline—when they
found out she was pregnant, eventually took a home-study course and
became a certified travel agent. It was a co-worker at the travel
agency who told her about Willy's business. With his parents and
brothers now settled, Van no longer needed the grocery store. But
before he made Willy an offer, he and Sophia stood across the street
from the shop for a week, to see how many cars went in and out each
day. The average was six. Van didn't think he could support his family
on that, but Sophia convinced him to try.
“Go inside and look at the pictures from the Christmas party,” Van
says to Eric, the new customer.
“There was a Christmas party, too?” Eric asks, as if he just
can't believe this.
“We have a belly dancer and everything.” The phone rings. “Show
him,” Van says to me before he walks out to answer it.
“Where was this?” Eric asks as we flip through the album on
the end-table in the waiting area.
“Right here in the shop,” I say. “See the flags?” The flags
of all nations that hang like banners from the ceiling in the shop
match those in the photos. “They took out all the cars and used
the lifts to make a stage for the bands.”
“There were three. Doo-wop, African, and Greek.”
I tell him it was like a wedding, with dancing, catered food,
and an open bar, tended by one of the customers.
What I don't tell him is how wonderful it was to see customers
and their families—including children—socializing with mechanics
and their families. And how customers started conversations with
one another by trying to guess what country each flag was from
and ended up sharing Van stories. Lisa of how, when her car needed
repairs while she was on vacation in Vermont, Van talked to the
Vermont repair shop by phone to make sure what they told her was
correct. Tim of a used car with 200,000 miles he bought from Van
two years ago that's still running; he took a chance on it only
because Van knew the two previous owners. Ann of how she first
came in ten years ago, at the suggestion of the gas station attendant
around the corner who couldn't diagnose the loud rattle in her
car—“It was almost closing time, and Van said I should come back
the next day. I guess my face must have fallen, because he had
someone look at it. And it was just a loose screw. When he said
there was no charge, I couldn't believe it, and I've been coming
here ever since.”
Nor do I tell Eric that a photographer customer made this album,
which has duplicates in each sleeve, so customers can take copies.
But I do tell him how Van, standing on a car-lift podium with the
flags behind him began his speech to the assembled New York mix
with “Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Ramadan.”
Eric gets it. “This is amazing,” he keeps repeating as he turns
During his first 15 years at A-1, Van worked in the shop alongside
his three mechanics. Sophia was often in the office answering phones,
writing bills, stamping them paid with a smiley-face. On days when
Van had the flu and Sophia couldn't come, teenage Nancy would be
sitting at the desk in her miniskirt, calling home throughout the
day, relaying Van's instructions to the mechanics. For his annual
two-week vacation in August, with no one to leave in charge, Van
had to close the shop.
When John graduated third in his class from Alexander Hamilton High
School in Elmsford, Sophia wanted him to become a doctor. But John
wanted “to do what my father does.” So Van and Sophia sent him to
the “best school in the country” for automotive and diesel, in Denver.
He completed the 15-month course, then worked for 9½ years
at Mercedes Benz in Roslyn, Long Island. In 1995, Van thought John
was “ripe,” not only as a mechanic, “but ripe everywhere.” He brought
John to A-1 and changed his business card to read “VAN and Son JOHN.”
“Now as you see me,” Van says, “I'm sitting here and not doing much.
He does everything. I supervising now.... I work when we need hand
power. Otherwise, no. I order the parts. I spoke to the customers,
as you see.”
They're now open all year round and service 20-25 cars a day. The
relationship between father and son is easy. “If I have something
to ask him, I go ask him,” Van says. “And if he has something to
ask me, we ask each other before we do the decision. On any car.” It's
also respectful. One hot summer day, I brought them two containers
of ready-to-eat fruit—one honeydew, one watermelon. When I offered
the choice to John, he said, “Let my father pick first.”
2000 brought another big change. Until then, Van had been renting
the shop and yard from the owner of the next-door kosher chocolate
factory. He would have preferred to buy them, but the owner wasn't
The space was small: two indoor lifts, three outdoor lifts, which
they couldn't use in bad weather, and half the current yard. As the
business grew, they were spending more time than they liked moving
cars back and forth so they wouldn't tie up a lift while they waited
a few hours for a part to be delivered.
When the owner died in 1999, the entire property—the chocolate factory
and Van's space—were up for sale as one lot. After a few scary months
in which Van thought he would lose his bid to Time Warner—his customers
all worried with him—he purchased the property. In the chocolate
factory's place, he built the big shop with its eight lifts, the
customer waiting area, and, at Sophia's urging, the small garden
and the outdoor deck, where customers can sit in good weather (and
where Van sometimes plays backgammon with his brothers). When the
construction was complete, in 2001, Van instituted the barbecues
and parties; until then, he didn't have the space.
Yet long before the parties, Van created a sense of small-town community.
He introduces customers to one another while they wait: a judge,
a plumber, a retired schoolteacher, a stock broker. After that, you
can either sit quietly or let yourself be drawn into whatever conversation
is already in progress—about the high cost of coffins, the best place
to buy a leg of lamb on Arthur Avenue, whether Turkey should help
the United States in Iraq. “Politics, you can talk for hours, you
cannot fill a hazelnut shell,” Van says. One customer comes to sit
in the office even when nothing is wrong with his car; he just likes
The ambiance may be old-world, but the technology is modern. Van
has seen the business change “hundred percent” since he took it over
in 1980, mainly, he says, because carburetors have been replaced
by fuel injection and everything is now computerized.
It had been “really easy” to adjust a carburetor. “You put your
ear, you adjust the carburetor. You give 'em gas, let 'em go. You
don't like in your ear, you put a little bit more air.”
Now, “say the car comes with misfiring or running rough. You cannot
go and change parts, because if you start changing the parts” by
guesswork, you might change four parts when you need only one. You
have to “hook the computer to find out what's wrong. Computer shows
you the code. I give you example. P1001. We have a book. We open
the book. It says P1001 is fuel pressure regulator. We check another
one—if is another one, the computer will show. P2003, example. We
open the book. It says P2003 is cooling temperature sensor. We replace
those. We hook up again. We clear up. The car runs good. We charge
the customer. Everybody happy. Car is finished.”
I ask whether he likes the change to computers.
“As a business, yes,” Van says. “Brings you more revenue, because
breaks quicker, is more expensive, needs more repairs. Otherwise,
I don't like it.”
Though the business is still called A-1 All German Car Corp ,
Van and John now service all cars. They have two hand-held computers:
one compatible with Asian and American makes, the other with European.
Into these, they insert any of their many diagnostic discs, depending
on the car they're servicing; there's one disc, costing $5000, for
each car make.
Van says it's no accident that car repairs have gotten so expensive;
the dealers “don't make any big money” on car sales, so they have
to make it on repairs. “Most small repair shops, they don't have
these tools [computer discs]. They don't have the tools, they say ‘I
can't fix it.' Next thing, you don't have any other place, you go
I ask why he doesn't become a dealer.
“First of all, I don't have the money to buy a dealership.” He says
it costs over $2,000,000. “And second, they will control you: the
way you buy the parts, the way they want to fix the office, the way
they want to fix the showroom. Means they are partners with you.
Here, my son and me, if I like you, I buy [parts] from you. If I
don't like you, I go to somebody else.”
And indeed, Van spends much of his day on the phone buying parts.
Those for newer cars are readily available from local dealers, with
whom Van has good relationships. For older ones, he sometimes calls
all around the country—a supplier in New York doesn't have it but
says one in Virginia does; the one in Virginia says to call Illinois.
He loves negotiating for prices and quick delivery. “Has to be this
morning,” I once heard him lie for me. “Customer has a doctor appointment.”
Though John now knows more about car mechanics than Van does, he's
still learning from Van: how to supervise the mechanics, how to negotiate
with vendors, how to deal with customers.
When I ask about difficult customers, Van says, “I don't have difficult
customers. I straight them out very nicely. I don't care how difficult
they are. I'm very patient. I know customer always right. And I try
to keep 'em cool as possible. That's all. Because fighting doesn't
bring me no place. I gonna lose in the end. He understand later that
he's wrong. But will take time, you know.”
I had only one argument with Van, about 5 or 6 years ago, when I
came to pick up my car and he told me it was on a “test drive.” Twenty
minutes later, a mechanic drove it into the yard and began unloading
parts from the back seat. I screamed like a lunatic. Van apologized
and has never used my car for an errand since. Looking back, I realize
he would have thought nothing of letting me use one of his cars and
probably didn't think there was anything wrong in using mine. Now
we even joke about. “We're gonna drive your car to California,” John
laughs whenever I have to leave it.
The mechanics consider this a life-time job and usually don't leave
except to retire. Van gets them from the IRC. He speaks Greek, Turkish,
Bulgarian, Croatian, German, Spanish, and “a little English,” and
communicates easily with all of them. And he keeps their skills current
by sending them to school: week-long workshops in wheel alignment,
tools, electrical systems.
The business has been good to Van. In 1986, he moved into a 4-bedroom,
5-bathroom house he built in New Rochelle. It's currently home to
Van and Sophia; Sophia's mother; Nancy, her husband, and their three
children. Van wanted to build another house for John and his wife
on the adjacent lot, which he also owns, but they chose to buy a
house in Hawthorne, 25 minutes away.
Van and John work from 7:30-5:00, Monday-Friday (the shop officially
closes at 4:30). Evenings and weekends are for family and friends.
But Van's home and business orbits are not completely separate. For
his family's Greek Easter feasts, when he roasts a lamb in New Rochelle
for 30 relatives and friends, Van buys cakes from a customer who
has a baking business in her home. When one of his “old lady” neighbors
in New Rochelle has a problem with her car, Van drives her car to
work in the morning instead of his own, fixes it during the day,
then drives it back to her in the evening. And when eight-year-old
Jacqueline, Van's oldest granddaughter, has a day off from school,
she often comes to the shop to spend the day with him and answer
It's 12:45, and the mechanics are leaving the table. Their usual
lunch break is 30 minutes, but on barbecue days, Van is loose. “You
can't rush food,” he says. The rest of us linger over watermelon
and say hello to John's wife, Lucy, who just drove in with their
two daughters: Alexis, 14 months old; Corinna, only a week old.
John carries Alexis around, showing her off.
“It was wonderful,” I say as I prepare to leave. “Thanks so
“Come again next Wednesday,” Van says.
“I just might.”
As I get into my car, I hear Van on the phone. “Hello, Miss
Alexandra... Not too good news, my dear. The front and rear break
pads no good on the car. And the front and rear brake rotors not
the best. Now you have a choice....”