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Night Cap II

The Gimme The Keys Philosophy of Papa Vic

I’m driving somewhere on Big Beaver Road when Vic tells me to turn left and park in front of a rundown hardware store. I wait as he exerts the effort to climb out of my car. I proceed to follow Vic inside the store to sell some paint.

Vic, my wife’s 97-year-old grandfather, has been selling paint supplies in and around Detroit for the past 80 years. For the first 79, he drove himself, putting upward of 50,000 miles a year on his cars. But recently, Vic’s vision worsened, and he now needs family members to drive him. Today is my turn.

I follow Vic into the hardware store, where a stocky guy with a thick mustache yells out, “Who the hell let Vic in? I thought he took all our money last month.”

“I came for the rest of it,” Vic shoots back. He’s got a running joke with all his customers. They bust each other’s chops, ask about each other’s families, and then Vic gets down to business and makes his pitch.

“Things aren’t like they used to be,” Vic says, as we climb back into the car without having made a sale. Big box stores have driven most of the mom-and-pop hardware stores out of business, and Detroit’s economy is, well, Detroit’s economy. We spend the rest of the day driving to parts of the city I don’t know — Warren, Eastpointe, Sterling Heights — and Vic passes the time by telling me about the old days.

He graduated from high school during the Depression at age 16 and found a job delivering 50-pound blocks of ice — sometimes up five or six flights of stairs — for people’s iceboxes. Vic tells me about the time he worked for a butcher in Detroit’s Eastern Market making $5 a week, not enough to support his family.

When his boss said the only way he could get a raise was by learning to drive the company’s semi-truck, Vic replied, “Gimme the keys.” He learned to drive the truck on the job. At 17, Vic got his start in the paint business, mixing varnish for 20 hours a day. Over the next 80 years, he worked his way up to partner and helped build the company into a regional powerhouse that competed with Sears and the other big boys.

As I drop Vic off at home and say goodbye, I can’t help but think back to when I was 16: My biggest worries included what to wear to the BBYO dance and what I’d score on the next geometry test.

Sure, I mowed a few lawns and babysat so that I’d have pocket change to spend at Tel-Twelve Mall on the weekends, but I never hauled 50-pound blocks of ice to put food on the table. I grew up with luxuries that my grandparents could only dream of and almost none of their struggles. So why can’t I shake the feeling that the old days weren’t just older but … also better?

Maybe it’s the pride in Vic’s voice when he talks about building a company from the ground up. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s never used a credit card or taken out a mortgage because “if you don’t have the money, don’t spend it.”

Maybe it’s Vic’s bewilderment as to why people today choose to spend their leisure time in front of computer screens instead of bowling leagues or sing-alongs on the front porch. Or, maybe it’s the fact that my generation grew up believing that we could become “whatever we want” instead of taking the first available job — and yet seem to be on a perpetual quest for career “fulfillment” that continues to prove illusory.

Maybe it’s that our country, once again, faces a severe economic depression but — instead of pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps — it seems like my generation is just trying to hold on for dear life.

As I look at my own children, I wonder what is best. Part of me wants to help with every book report and hire a tutor every time they get a B+ so that, one day, they’ll be able to compete in the increasingly competitive marketplace of the future.

But the other part of me knows that for every “advantage” we provide, and every struggle we eliminate, we decrease our children’s ability to take pride in their accomplishments. It’s not that I wish hardship on my kids, but I do hope they each have a “gimme the keys” moment in life — just like their Papa Vic. RT



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