Night Crawler

Patron of the Arts
It's a golden, quiet, seemingly abandoned Sunday morning on McKinnon Avenue. The forklifts in front of Ace Auto Wreckers stand idle, as they do most Sundays, waiting to shift the towering mounds of junk that, in an era without Nintendo, would have been a young boy's wet dream: contorted bumpers, mangled toaster ovens, chipped claw-foot bathtubs, twisted golf clubs, partially crushed cars, and, buried beneath all the consumer waste, hidden gems -- a dental hygienist's table with a vicious set of tools, a working boombox, exercise equipment still in the box, old-fashioned mannequins with moving parts, ATM machines, and the occasional rocket launcher.

During the week, scavengers of all kinds pore over the castoffs, looking for odds and ends, hoping to make a fantastic discovery. Mechanics are abundant; so are gypsies, large-scale artists who contribute to Burning Man, and "tech mice" -- collectors of vintage computer components. There's also a small tribe of junk lovers who come just to hang out and talk shop with Bill the Junkman. Unlike your stereotypically dour purveyor of abandoned refuse, Bill is gregarious, funny, easygoing, and, if you're working on something interesting, endlessly generous with his knowledge and detritus.

Today is Bill's birthday. His admirers have decided to throw a surprise party in the junkyard.

A cockeyed banquet table stands in the middle of Ace, looking implausibly pristine under the towering silhouette of a crane. The table is set for 12, with champagne bottles positioned at every third seat, and more chairs leaning against a pile of scrap. Under the eaves of Ace's shanty-style office, Mark Perez, creator of the life-size Game of Mouse Trap, stands in an apron and chef's hat, preparing eggs Benedict on a camping stove.

When the guests begin to arrive around 10 o'clock with more champagne and fresh orange juice in hand, it begins to look as if the junkyard has slipped through the looking glass. All the men wear tuxedos, some with top hats and flowers in their lapels; the women wear formal evening gowns with satin gloves and decorative wraps. Among the attendees is a diesel mechanic, a Stanford psychology student, a beekeeper, the owner of an accordion shop, and local personalities such as Survival Research Laboratories founder Mark Pauline and Dashiell Hammett expert Don Herron. They all share a fondness for Bill and for junk.

"Ace supplies the fuel that keeps the SRL machine running," says Pauline, "but it's more than that. Bill really cares about supporting the San Francisco art scene. He creates a world here where people who wouldn't normally feel comfortable in a junkyard feel welcome. That's a rare commodity."

Bill arrives at Ace under a thinly veiled pretext supplied by his longtime girlfriend. Once seated at the head of the table, he is presented with a deformed carrot nailed to a board. He is understandably speechless. Toasts are made to the junkman's health on his 42nd birthday, and the crowd clamors for a speech. The junkman blushes, stammering the beginnings of an excuse.

"What's the firing order on a 1956 Ford?" shouts Circus Redickuless ringleader Chicken John.

"1-5-3-6-2-4," snaps Bill without a moment's hesitation. The crowd couldn't be more pleased. The eggs Benedict is served, and champagne flows like propane throughout the afternoon.

"I've been playing around junk since I was 9 or 10," says Bill. "But I've done other things, too. I repaired trucks in the '70s. I got a degree in accounting. I'm the only one in the family who didn't always work in the family business."

Ace is the third addition to a family-run operation that includes All Auto, located down the road, and Kennedy Van and Storage Inc. across the street. Bill's two elder brothers run the storage company, his youngest brother runs All Auto, and his father tries to spend a lot of time in Hawaii.

During brunch, one of Bill's older brothers drives by in time to catch sight of a bunch of drunken lunatics in tuxedos breaking plates and throwing dead batteries through windows set up by Bill specifically for the purpose. The brother drives on without a word. It is a moment Bill relishes.

Bill and his brothers at Kennedy Van have not spoken in more than 10 years (something about parking). Of course, Bill still does their accounting and still helps maintain their trucks, but if anything has to be discussed, it goes through Dad in Hawaii. It's your standard junkyard family feud. The atmosphere of controlled chaos that Bill has created over at Ace Auto by befriending all the young artists in town only adds fuel to the fire.

"When I took over Ace, the average age of folks hanging around dropped by 20 years," says Bill. "We have a bunch of skate punks from Potrero Hill who hang out and help out. All the people from Burning Man and SRL are constantly coming in and out. I know when my nephews look over here and see all these people with blue and purple mohawks, they must want to come over. I'm the crazy uncle. Every family's got one."

Every town, too.

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By Silke Tudor

 
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