Mike “Lala” Jankovic stood less than 5 feet tall with dark wavy hair and thick sideburns and continual 3-day beard growth it seemed. He was sort of a mix of Louie DePalma and Latka Gravas from the sitcom Taxi that was on television about the first time I met Lala. He was somewhat cantankerous but also a somewhat goofy and likable mechanic. He owned Lala’s Body Shop which during the winter months I could see from our house across the Des Plaines River in the Western suburbs of Chicago. The neighborhood itself was not all that great and the building that housed the shop and the upstairs apartment occupied by Lala and his family seemed to lean towards the river.
When I was 11 I asked my father for an allowance. At the time I had a paper route delivering the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times primarily to about 55 homes on my bike route. I was paid 2 cents a newspaper assuming no one complained about getting their paper late, a broken light or screen door if the paper did get delivered on time. Instead of an allowance my father got me a job at the body shop.
I was paid $3 an hour in cash and started going after school and before hockey practice to sweep the floors, put the tools away and get equipment, paint, parts & supplies ready for the next day. Over time I learned how to pull dents, replace bumpers, quarter panels, use Bondo®, sand, prime and paint entire cars in some cases. Replacing alternators, starters, gaskets, brakes and operating the frame machine for alignments would come over time. By now I think I was still making below minimum wage but I was learning a lot and it beat sweeping, cleaning out paint cans and arranging pinstripe rolls on the wall.
By the time I had my first car years after working there I could do whatever repairs were needed including a transmission when the time came for the 1982 Pontiac J2000.
Lala’s name came from an area of Serbia he grew up in and that was his nickname among his other Serbian friends in their new country. Many chose not to learn English and Lala was the man they would go to if they were being threatened with an eviction notice, late utility bill or of course, needed body work or car repairs. He was the “go to” guy to fix your problems or your car. Everyone needs a guy like that. In those days everyone had their favorite “fixer” and Lala was favored by many over dealerships and franchise operations.
Lala would like you too, although you may not have always appreciated that during your first meeting. Between his outer cantankerous shell and broken English, it was hard to know if he could help you if you didn’t know him. He liked you more if you paid cash. A pack of unfiltered Pall Malls was never too far from his heart, neatly packed in his left breast shirt pocket where about 4 packs a day would reside and be consumed from on any given day. Sometimes more on weekends when he wasn’t “working”. The local convenience store would sell me cartons to bring back if Lala wrote “For Mike” on the $20 bill.
Within a few months of working in the body shop I think I knew all the swear words in Serbian and perhaps a few other languages – I was yelled at enough in those languages to know over time when those words were spoken something I did or didn’t do was quite right. Properly translated they are pretty vile and to the point, well beyond what we have in English.
One of my first instructions was to “put the tools in the way”. So, I laid out tools all over floor I had just swept. Hammers, dent pullers, screwdrivers, ratchets, you name it. After a few choice words I figured out Lala meant “put the tools away”. And so it went. Perhaps the best and worst part of the job was going to one of the many local junkyards Lala preferred south of the city. Here we would find doors, seats, fenders, engine parts, tail lights, wheels, you name it, to put on a similar make and model in the shop. I don’t know how they did it but the guys at the junkyard could always tell you where there was a decent rear quarter panel for an ’85 Monte Carlo or a headlight assembly for an ’86 Oldsmobile Cutlass. Out of thousands of cars and heaping piles of “junk” you could not only find it but it would be good or good enough to transplant back in the shop. Temperatures and windchills could be well below zero and you were laying on frozen rock, grease, oil, dirt, snow and ice with a 9/16 socket trying to remove a radiator you thought would work elsewhere.
For my senior project on interviewing someone who has been a “mentor”, I chose Lala. His life story was compelling. Coming to America with little money or know how and running his own business, starting a family and being a valued member of his community. Many of the details I have forgotten but his was a story of persistence and preservation intermixed with growing up in a tumultuous geopolitical environment in the former Yugoslavia. I am sure he took me on initially to sweep the floors and put the tools in the way as a favor to my father but hanging around the body shop long enough led to other mutually beneficial opportunities.
My 7-years-long “apprenticeship” in the body shop before leaving for college taught me several valuable life lessons I keep with me today:
- Never argue with a Serbian. You will not win that argument even if you are 100% right.
- Never ask a Serbian for a raise. This will not happen.
- Serbians do not like Albanians.
- The importance of being able to work with your hands and take pride in what you do, in everything you do.
- Doing the right thing, even when no one is watching or would notice otherwise.
- Do not be deceived by the plum pictures on Slivovitz bottles. It tastes like plum for a millisecond before it feels like you are drinking paint thinner as it slides down your entire esophagus feeling the mucosa being eroded the entire way.
- If you do run out of paint thinner, you can use Slivovitz.
- Do try the cevapcici though, particularly if you like spicy meats. Lala made his own along the river as it appeared the shop might fall on us.
- Junkyards are really cool places but better visited in the summer.
- Working in the body shop was far better than any allowance for bringing in the garbage cans and picking up after the dog.