Service With A Smile

 Stand back across the street from LaMonda’s Garage in Milford, Ky., and take a good look at the place.

 The flat roof that reaches out to cover the two gasoline pumps is supported by metal poles that have been there for 60 years and are still holding.  Purple Martin houses jut above the roof like CB antennas.  There is just barely enough room between the two gasoline pumps and the station’s red-and-white cinderblock walls to accommodate a Volkswagen, but that doesn’t matter anyway; there’s so much stuff littered across the drive that you couldn’t get a moped in there.

 There is a visual feat of ancient signs attached to the outer walls of LaMonda’s Garage: Coca-Cola, Goodyear, Delco, and Ashland among them.  None of them are for sale.  Don’t even waste your gas driving up there to try to buy them.

 The truck used most often at LaMonda’s for repair runs is a noisy (well, OK, it’s actually without mufflers) 1952 flathead Ford.  Parked at the edge of the road about 50 feet north of the garage is a 1941 Chevrolet Special Deluxe automobile and the 1941 Chevrolet truck that serves as the LaMonda Garage wrecker, complete with hand-cranked winch.

 Both vehicles look a though they’ve been parked outside for roughly 48 years, and they have.  There’s no an ounce of paint left on either.  They drip rust like a dog drips water.  The wrecker still runs.  The Special Deluxe hasn’t started in three years, but the management of LaMonda’s Garage insists it wouldn’t take much to get it moving.

 Oh, yeah.  The management of LaMonda’s Garage.  That would be Louis LaMonda, 66, and Ruby LaMonda, 63.  He is French and she is Irish.  He is a member of the Christian Church, and she is Catholic.  He is a registered Republican and she is a Democrat.  They have been married for 43 years.  They live in a small apartment built directly above the garage.  She calls him Louis.  He often calls here “Rube,” and he calls for her early and often.

 “We’ve been side by side in this garage since ’46,” Ruby said. “I bet he hadn’t done a dozen jobs by himself since I’ve been here.  I might not have helped him, but I sat and watched him.”

 “One thing about Ruby,” said Louis, whose voice tends to slide to a higher pitch the further along with a sentence he gets, “she’s always been mechanically inclined.”

 Ruby is a caution.  She was found early one morning sweeping the highway dirt off the station drive with a less than adequate broom.  Her gray hair is hanging down beneath a blue baseball cap that has “Goodyear” written across the front.  She’s wearing a faded blue sweater over a yellow plaid shirt, blue jeans and work shoes.  She has the busy air, if not the appearance, of a veteran third-base softball coach.  She was, in fact, one of the better women softball players around Northern Kentucky for a long time, finally giving up the game in her mid-forties.

 “It was time to hang up the ol’ glove,” she said.

 “Ruby,” said Lewis, who is prone to finishing a sentence his wife begins, “could play softball.”

 Louis is a bit of a character himself.  His hair, once red, has turned mostly gray, with nearly muttonchop sideburns hanging from beneath whatever hat he wears, and the hats range from baseball to cowboy.  Louis looks like a pre-occupied, forgetful elf.  His manner is so direct it takes a few hours to pick up on the subtlety of his humor and the depth of his sentiment for the station.  He has about 40 projects around his home and garage that he could and should be doing, but he is no longer in a large hurry to get any of them done.

 Roughly 15 years ago, for example, he bought new tires and tubes to repair the bicycle he had as a boy, a bicycle that, like every other antique in the place, may never get fixed, but may never be for sale, either.

 “Suuurrre, that bicycle will run,” said Louis, gazing up into the dark interior of his garage loft where the replacement tube and tires still hang in their original packaging.  “But as I get older, I’m slowing down a little bit.”

 It wasn’t always that way.  When Louis’s father came to town in about 1923, Milford, whose population now barely reaches 50, was thriving enough to support an undertaker.

 “Our first station was in an old blacksmith shop at the other end of town,” Louis said, “About 1929 Dad decided to move down here and build this place.”

 Louis LaMonda was born with garage dirt under his fingernails.  He hung around the station, watching and helping as his father’s business moved from the Model T to the V* engine.  Their family garage was as vital to the community as the grocery store or the post office.

 His memories of Ruby, who was a year behind him in school, go back so far that he can remember going out to her family farm on his bicycle.

 “Suuurrre,” he said, “I used to go sparking on that bike.  But I kept wanting a car.  Daddy finally bought it for me before I went into the service. Got it in 1942.  It was that ’41 Chevy sitting right there on the road.”

 LaMonda went of to World War II in the fall of 1942, eventually serving in Europe.  Ruby, then Ruby McKibben, wrote him every other day for three years.  LaMonda didn’t write back often enough.

 “He’d send one of them little ol’ V-mail letters every once in a while,” she said.

 “Well suuurrree,” LaMonda said, “I was too busy killing the enemy.”

 They married in 1946 and went going on their honeymoon to the Great Smoky Mountains in that same 1941 Chevrolet.

 “When it comes to sentiment, Louis does awful good,” Ruby said.

 Ruby, the youngest of three children, and the only girl, described herself as a “first-class Tomboy.” Louis had thought all along the woman he married would have to work in the garage.

 “You know,” he said, “some women may not want to take a hold of something that’s greasy, but Ruby’s been very instrumental in the business.  If I got something to decide on, I ask her, you know, and see what she thinks about it.  She’s got a more solid head than I’ve got.”

 Louis’s father eased out of the business, and Louis and Ruby eased into it, keeping the garage going.

 “When we first married we went into housekeeping in that little ol’ shack right over there,” Ruby said, pointing to a low, sagging frame building across a nearby junk-filled lot. “Then in the early ‘50’s we moved to the apartment right above the station.

 Louis believes the 1950’s were the very best of their service station years.  Their work was 17 steps away, all of them down.  He was handy with a wrench or welder, and Ruby would be right there to hand him the right tool.  The auto repair business was much simpler then.  The models didn’t change much from year to year, and Louis was able to keep enough parts in stock or was handy enough to craft something that would do if a part couldn’t be found.

 “You could overhaul a car a lot easier,” he said, “and I did an awful lot of welding in those days, and a lot of ‘dozer work.  The days just weren’t long enough back then.”

 Good service was routine at LaMonda’s Garage.  The LaMonda’s always checked the oil and the tires for their customers.  Washing windshields was never a big deal at LaMonda’s, but it was done on occasion.  The special services were what most people remember, like the night a drunk came in with a big wad of cash he’d won in a poker game n a riverbank across the way and asked Louis’s mother to hold it for him until he sobered up.

 “We had a bunch of characters around here then,” LaMonda said.  “Years ago we had fights every Saturday night.  Now all those people are dead. “

 If business couldn’t come to Ruby and Louis, they would go to it.  They might load up the old wrecker and drive out to help a farmer who had broken down in a field. 

In time a Goodyear representative came along with a plaque thanking them for 10 years of service.  Eventually, another representative dropped off a 40-year good-service plaque.  After nearly two decades sitting in some dim corner waiting for a cleaning, the 10-year plaque finally went back up on the office wall last month.

 Those were the good ol’ days.  When a salesman came in around noon, Ruby might fix him some lunch, maybe some chili and a sandwich.  If a particular salesman stayed a little too long, Louis would invite him to sit on an old tractor seat he had wired to a magneto so it would send an electrical shock into the occupant’s posterior.

 “I got one salesman in here one day and I thought I was going to have to kill the damn man to make him leave,” he said, “So I sat him in the electric hot seat and gave him a shot.  He come out of there real mad.  And the fact that he was mad made me mad.  But he left.”

 As the business moved along, Tim LaMonda, one of Louis’s and Ruby’s sons, began helping them.  Louis’s father had made or bought much of the equipment they used, and it was approaching antique vintage. So were a few of the items on the wall, and the customers began to notice.

 “My mom had a regulator clock she had gotten for little or nothing, and I had a customer who was bothering me to death, wanting to buy that clock every time she came in,” Louis said.  “She was a good customer, but she was worrying the hell out of me so I finally took the clock off of the wall and put it under the bed for about 15 years.  When she finally died, I took it out again.  If you start selling stuff, people are going to come back two weeks later and want something else.”

 Louis did develop a real knack for hanging on to things.  He bought a 1953 Buick Riviera new, and that got away from him.  But the 1967 Buick Skylark he bought is parked out fro not the garage – and rusting – as is the 1974 Pontiac.  Now he and Ruby run around the country in a jeep, mostly to fish and watch birds.

 “I always kept my cars in good shape mechanically,” he said, “but the bodies, well, I never was too much on that.”

 It quickly becomes obvious that the most important item in Louis LaMonda’s tool box is his grease pencil.  There are hundreds of yellow boxes and bags shoved onto cluttered shelves inside the station, all of them plainly marked with a grease pencil in a code known only to Louis LaMonda.  The man still has the warranty for a valve grinder his father bought in 1933. (The grinder still works.) He even kept the letter from its manufacturer, a letter written in 1959 explaining it could no longer supply spare parts.

 “I know where everything is in this garage,” LaMonda says, “but sometimes I can’t find it.”

 Hundreds of times over the years the management of LaMonda’s Garage put on what’s best described as the “Louis and Ruby Show,” an affectionate production performed without guile or premeditation, the timeless plot being Louis can’t find something and has to ask Ruby for directions.

 “Hey Rube,” Louis will shout, “where is that thing?”

 “What thing?” Ruby will answer.

 “I know it’s around here somewhere,” Louis will say.

 “It ought to be,” Ruby will say, still uncertain of what’s missing. “It’s a cinch you didn’t throw it away.”

 AS business has fallen off, as Milford dried up and automobiles became more computerized, fewer and fewer of the parts those boxes were needed.  But they, like the LaMonda’s, stayed with the station.

 LaMonda does have a fair inventory of new parts, and can find anything he needs in Cynthiana, about 25 miles away.  But time, age and progress have eaten away at their business.  They don’t pump much gas, and repair business is slow – which, really, is about the speed they want.

 “I’ve got current parts,” LaMonda said, “I don’t think the garage is an antique thing altogether.  The thing is a lot of these parts dealers don’t know how to work on old machinery.  But I don’t make any money on gasoline.  I can buy gasoline for my car at the bigger stations for the same price I’m charged to put it in my pumps.”

 LaMonda simplifies his bookkeeping by just adding a flat 15 cents per gallon for his profit.  His regular gas was selling for $1.21 a gallon, his unleaded for $1.31.

 These days you can go into a grocery store, a drug store, just about anywhere and buy a lot of parts in these little bubble packages,” says Ruby, “There’s a lot of shade tree mechanics now.  All they want with us is something they can’t handle.  It’s getting harder and harder to make a living in these little one-horse garages.”

 So hard a few years ago Tim LaMonda left the garage for a better-paying job in a bigger town.  His place, at least in the heart, has been taken by a mongrel dog named Buck, an animal who wandered in one day and found a home.  He likes to ride in the old garage truck.

 “Buck sits up so straight that sometimes people will just get a quick look at Louis and Buck going to town and ask me if that was me along with Louis,” Ruby said.

 So far, EPA regulations requiring insurance and underground tanks have not affect LaMonda’s.  When business gets real slow, or if they want to go hide, Ruby and Louis will hang a sign on the door that says, in effect: If you need help, if you desperately need help, we’ll be across the road fishing.  Otherwise we’ll be back in a few hours.

 They won’t be washing any windshields this spring.  A mother wren has been discovered setting up housekeeping inside the tissue dispenser – which hadn’t been used for years anyway – and wasn’t about to be moved just for the sake of a clean windshield.

 “That about knocks that out,” Louis said.  He didn’t look all that unhappy.


By Bob Hill, accompanying color photographs by Pam Spaulding. From the Louisville Courier Journal Magazine, May 14, 1989.