Via AoSHQ, a great story, ought to make a film out of it. Excerpts with major plot twist spoiler below:
There are a few streets in Chicago that are affectionately known to the working class locals as “raper’s row.” These are places one goes to get a used car when one is short on cash, credit, and hope. Places like this are the border towns of the capitalist miracle; where the national character shines most intensely, where regulation is lax, and where everyone seems to either be fleeing to or from something.
I hired on for what I thought at the time was going to be a bookkeeper job; taking inventories, keeping the ledger, and filling out the mountains of paperwork. The staff was more or less typical for the that street: a semi-reformed bar-brawling alcoholic called Fast Eddie, who ran the place; a “deal closer” named George with a whiskey blown James Coburn voice who had once been a very big name in the new-car trade but who had since slid all the way down the mountain to Cicero Avenue on an avalanche of white powder; a washed up ex-professional wrestler who went by the name of “Zeus”; an old debauched jailbird whom we called “Blackie” after he woke up one morning in his apartment following a night of very hard drinking and discovered that the woman he had picked up and brought back, who he could not otherwise remember, had dyed his hair black with something that wouldn’t come off before she left; a 22-year-old semi-literate street person who acted as our “gopher” and who was allowed to live in one of the junked cars in the back lot and was known as “Ratso”; and the staff of our body shop one block over on Belmont–three guys known to all as the Chinese Chung Brothers, even though they weren’t Chinese, weren’t brothers, and weren’t really named Chung.
What an interesting moral order this turned out to be.The Chung Brothers were the true heart of the operation (whatever the salesmen thought). Maestros of Bondo and Buffing, they were expert body and fender men whose job it was to reanimate the corpses we dragged in from the auto auctions for sale at the front lot. The Chung Brothers were actually Cambodian refugees, the last survivors of a money making scheme that Fast Eddie and some of his car dealer pals had been involved in several years earlier. At that time, the US Government has found itself with more Cambodian refugees than it knew what to do with. So they had offered a subsidy to schools that would teach them a trade. Fast Eddie and his pals had somehow found out about this and when they saw the size of the subsidy, they had quickly set up an “Auto Body College”. The first and only class had fifteen people in it, who worked, ate, and slept in the garage where the Chung Brothers lived now. (How all these people slept there I never knew. The Chung Brothers slept in a Three Stooges style bunk bed they had built later.)
“The school was a great set-up,” Fast Eddie later told me. “Fifteen slaves and all paid for by the US Government.”
In this laboratory of free enterprise, the Cambodians did, in fact, manage to teach themselves body and fender work. The Cicero Avenue boys had shown them the rudiments of Bondo, spray paint, and buff outs and then turned them loose for a practicum on the junked cars in our weed choked back lot. The moment that any Cambodian gained a minimum amount of confidence in his work and English skills, he would graduate by slipping out the back door one night. In about 18 months, the college was down to the three Chung Brothers. Somehow it didn’t surprise me that no one had bothered to learn their real names. We rarely went over to the garage except to drop off a wreck or pick up a debutante. When anyone needed to distinguish between the Brothers, they would just refer to them as Chung One, Chung Two, and Chung Three.
What did surprise me was that the Brothers didn’t seem to mind. They were always working and always smiling. Naive in the ways of the free enterprise system, I couldn’t understand why the Chung Brothers stuck around. They hardly ever seemed to get paid anything and their work was really, really good. They were so skilled, that had they been physicians they could have botoxed a fifty year old into a high school prom queen.
Was this operation profitable? The basic auction house price for the car plus the Chung Brother’s magic was mostly covered by the down payment. Between rolling over the repos and the occasional person who actually made their payments, there was also the occasional person whose credit rating was not so terrible that we couldn’t sell the contract at a discount to an “acceptance company”. We made a living. The salesmen only ate what they killed. The Chung Brothers were only paid peanuts. The only other salaried people were Ratso, who took in $50 a week for a seven day week plus whatever change we forgot to get back when we sent him out for cheeseburgers, and your truly, the old Professor.
In a way, the whole thing rested on top of the Chung Brothers, who in their dream engineering at least produced something tangible. Given what kind of wrecks we were feeding them (and I knew how wrecked these cars really were, because I had to shepherd many a sick puppy home from the auction house) they seemed to perform cost efficient miracles turning these junkers into sparkling lumps of valuable cubic zirconium. They always seemed to be willing to work any number of hours and to turn out a car no matter how fast we said we needed it. With their perpetual smiles, they were the perfect image of the cheap Third World labor force that just loves to work for substandard wages under appalling conditions.
It was Ratso who turned out to be the weak link in the Chung Brothers’ operation and he was the one who brought down the whole house of cards.
As our gopher, Ratso’s main job was to fetch car parts, buckets of Bondo, barrels of STP, bags of cheeseburgers, piles of dirty magazines, and all of the other things that a modern used car lot needed to operate. He seemed quite content to be living in the wheeless ’63 Pontiac Catalina in the back. And while we didn’t particularly trust him, he really did look like a guy who was living on only $50 a week.
But Ratso got busted when a questionable item appeared on a car parts bill. It was a hub cab, something that we would have never under any circumstances purchased new. Ratso was skimming off a portion of what he got on our tab at the car parts dealer and then was selling it at a discount to our competitors. Between the inventory we found in the trunk of the Pontiac and what we could gather from a long overdue audit of all the bills going back several years, we soon got the impression that he was more or less doubling every order and was therefore skimming about 50 percent. He had been doing it so long (and apparently so had his predecessor) that Fast Eddie had long since simply priced it into his overhead and had never really noticed it, since we rightly assumed that all the wrecks we dragged over to the Chung Brothers needed extensive restoration.
But a more shocking truth was revealed when Fast Eddie, George, and Zeus took Ratso out to the back lot for his “exit interview”. It turned out that the Chung Brothers were far and away his best customer. They would pay him a flat $100 in cash a week to pick up whatever they ordered, which was double what they actually needed for us. Ratso had actually been skimming off the Chung Brothers, who in fact were running a very profitable body and fender shop in our garage, using our tools and parts. The Chung Brothers had such a good reputation in their community that they had even opened up a satellite garage a few blocks away staffed with Mexican illegal aliens. The fact was, they had learned our ways all too well at the Body Shop College and had turned into even more ruthless businessmen than we were.
The was a very bitter pill for Fast Eddie to swallow. The smiling slave façade had been in fact a cruel hoax. Knowing what I know now about business, the smart thing for Fast Eddie to have done would have been to write off his losses and cut a new deal with the Chung Brothers. But Fast Eddie hadn’t gotten to where he was in the world for nothing. He instead fired them on the spot and kicked them out of the garage.
This rash and thoughtless act spelled the beginning of the end for the dealership. New slaves turned out to be rather hard to find, and Fast Eddie had to start paying something much closer to retail for his body work; work that never seemed to rise to Chung Brothers’ standards. Our stock began to look as shabby as everyone else’s on the street and we began to lose our edge on Cicero Avenue.