The Crank Shaft Story
A true story written 12/27/2010 and rewritten 04/24/2016 unedited
It was in early 1964, I was in Miami Florida, and it looked like I was out of a job.
My good friend Lou Gladstein had decided to close down the auto wrecking yard that he had invested in. Lou had asked me to come to Miami to find out what was going on at the yard, and then once I straightened it out, he wanted me to stay there and manage the business.
The auto wrecking yard was called ABC Auto Wrecking, and was located on NW 46 Street in Miami, close to NW 37 Avenue.
At the time, in late 1963, I had just gotten married in New Haven Connecticut and I was looking for something interesting to do. Lou and his wife Gladys knew that, and they said that my going to Miami to help find out what was going on with their wrecking business, would be like a Florida honeymoon. Lou and Gladys Also knew that my mother had just leased a tiny hotel on Collins Avenue, right on Miami Beach, so they said it would give me the opportunity to visit her. Then to make the Florida trip sound even better, Lou said he would let me use a nice 1959 Plymouth sedan to make the trip from New Haven to Florida. Lou said he had the 1959 Plymouth sitting on his used car lot in Stamford Connecticut. So not only would he provide me with the Plymouth, but he would put a Connecticut “Junk Dealer” license plate on it for me, so I had liability insurance.
After arriving in Florida, and spending a few weeks in my mother’s hotel on Collins Avenue, my wife and I moved into a rented trailer located in a trailer park on NW 79 Street in Miami. Today I don’t think you could actually walk on NW 79 Street without getting mugged. But for us back then, living at the 79 Street trailer park was pretty good, it only cost $20.00 a week and we met all kinds of characters,
Plus, it was a lot closer to Lou’s wrecking yard which was located on 46th Street.
The running of the ABC Auto Wrecking business, turned out to be a really bad deal for all of us that were involved, that was except for the manager that Lou had working there. It appears that the managing of the auto wrecking yard, had been a bonanza for him, as he was embezzling all the money.
When I first met the manager, I immediately recognized him from my old college days, when I was working at Milford Auto Wrecking in Milford Connecticut, and I’m sure he recognized me. His name was Dave and he had a pretty lousy reputation back then in Connecticut, so I thought Lou must have been crazy for setting him up as his business manager in Florida. By the time I got there Dave hadn't paid the wrecking yard’s rent for several months. It appears that he had pocketed all the money himself, and to make matters worse, I found that Dave also was stealing most of the daily business receipts as well, he was quite a character. When I first arrived, Dave took me to see the landlord, her name was Mrs. Cunio, Right in front of me, Dave told her that Lou had sent me down to pay all the back rent, talk about having a lot of nerve.
By the time I could prove all the embezzling that Dave had been doing, several months had passed, and it was way too late for me to save the company. So not only did Lou end up losing all his investment, but I also lost about a thousand dollars of my own personal money trying to straighten things out. When I finally had all the proof I needed about what Dave was doing, I called Lou, who, drove to New York and caught a night owl flight in to Miami, and I went and picked him up in the middle of the night at the Miami airport. We drove to the wrecking yard, where Lou, using a cutting torch and a pry bar, opened the office safe. There was no money, but we found Dave’s ledger book.
The ledger book proved beyond a doubt that Dave was stealing the money as fast as the business was making it, none of his bank deposits matched the money that was coming in.
Lou, felt terrible about it all, as he knew he would have to close the wrecking yard down, and lose his investment, I felt worse about it, as I was counting on the wrecking yard as being my new start in Florida, and now I had to make the tough decision. My wife and I had to decide, did we want to remain in Florida or return to Connecticut. It was a difficult decision to make as I had no income in either place.
While I was involved with Lou’s wrecking yard, I had met a Cuban customer named Renato Cepero. Renato was a refugee who had started an automotive parts company on NW 27th Avenue in Miami. Renato sold all kinds of car parts but he specialized in rebuilding engine crankshafts and assembling crankshafts into kits that he sold to dealers back in Cuba. Renato had given me a list of the used crankshafts that he needed and I still had the list in my pocket. I went to visit Renato to see if I could continue to sell him the crankshafts he needed.
When I visited Renato at his auto parts store, I could see he was a very busy man, as I watched him, I realized what a really amazing fellow he was. He could be talking to someone in Spanish while holding the telephone to one ear. On the other ear he would be holding a phone and talking in English, in order to buy the part the customer wanted, and at the same time he was also talking to me in English, and to people around him in Spanish. Anyway, Renato agreed to purchase any good used engine crank shafts I could bring him that was on his list, and he would pay me fifteen dollars for each one I brought him. So, to make a living, all I had to do was find good used engine crankshafts that cost me less than fifteen dollars each, and I knew that was not going to be an easy task.
At the time, I was still driving around Miami with Lou’s 1959 Plymouth Sedan, the one with the Connecticut Junk Dealer license plates on it. So now every morning I started out by driving around a different part of Miami, I was looking for gas stations and garages that did engine work. It was there, where I hoped that I could find some used crankshafts that were on Renato’s want list. I felt that most all gas stations and garages did some engine work, and I knew that they all had old used engine parts laying around in the trash behind their buildings. So I would stop every time I saw a shop, and I would ask if I could look at their junk parts. If I was lucky I could sometimes find a crankshaft that was on Renato’s list. As I was getting fifteen dollars for each crank shaft Renato bought from me, I tried buying them for five to ten dollars each. But I found that dealing with mechanics and gas station owners, was not an easy thing to do, as most of them told me they didn’t want to sell their junk parts. Most gas station guys just said they were saving the parts in case they needed them someday. So this made it almost impossible to negotiate with, or buy anything from any of them.
Now, I was doing this searching and driving all day long, in the 90 degree Miami heat with no air conditioning in the car, but somehow I did manage to buy some crankshafts, but let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. I always came home at the end of the day pretty tired, and I was always soaked in sweat. So in order to be able to make a living, I started buying some other used auto parts, stuff that I could sell to various auto parts rebuilders in Miami, doing that, was kind of a natural thing for me, because as I looked for the crankshafts, I was also finding a few used car starters and generators laying in the junk piles. I was very familiar with rebuilding starters and generators from my old Milford Auto Wrecking days, so I started buying all the used starters and generators I could for $1.00 each.
In the meantime, while I was out doing this, Lou had returned to Miami with a forty foot diesel wooden work boat that he had bought in Connecticut. He called me one day, to tell me he had rented a boat slip on the Miami River, and that I should stop by to see him. When I went to see Lou and the boat, he told me, he wanted to build a flash freezer in it, and then take it to Haiti, and go into the frozen lobster tail business there. I didn’t know where Haiti was, but I figured that Lou knew what he was doing. So now, every evening, after work, I stopped by the boat slip to help Lou work on the boat. When Lou eventually returned to Connecticut, it became my job to drive by the boat slip every evening to keep an eye on it.
After a month or so, the dealing with the gas station owners, was wearing me out, and my trying to buy their junk was just too tiring a thing to do, I needed to find a better way of finding used crankshafts. So on one terribly hot Miami day, just before I was ready to give it all up, I pulled over to the side of the road, and sat there, sweating and thinking. Then it struck me, it was just like a revelation from God, I remembered when I worked in a gas station in Connecticut, we would throw all our used engine parts on the side of our building, then once a month we would load up our pickup truck and take all the metal to the local junk yard and sell it for very little money. Here, I had always been trying to negotiate with the crazy gas station owners when they were going to sell the stuff for nothing to a junk yard sooner or later anyway. It really was a new revelation from God for me, and suddenly I became very excited, so excited that I wasn’t sweating any more, it was like I was in air conditioned heaven.
I drove right away to North West South River Drive in Miami, that’s where all the large Miami scrap metal junkyards were located. I went into the first big junkyard called Metro Iron and Metal, and I introduced myself to the two managers, Nordy Blum and Arthur Pepper. I asked them if I could look in their scrap pile and buy some old iron crank shafts from them. They asked how much I was paying and I said $3.50 each. They were ecstatic, I was going to pay them more than they were getting if they shipped to a steel mill as scrap, and they knew I would pay them in cash, which they could put in their pocket. So they both said certainly I could buy from them and I drove my car down to their huge scrap pile and immediately started pulling out good used crankshafts. As I stood there, I watched as pickup truck after pickup truck from all the gas stations around Miami were unloaded their junk engine parts, I thought I even recognized some of them as the same guys that said they wouldn’t sell their junk to me.
I was really in the crankshaft business now, then one afternoon as I was driving the 1959 Plymouth, on North West 27th Avenue when a motorcycle cop noticed the Connecticut Junk Dealer license plate.
He pulled me over and said that he wanted to see my license and the registration for the car. Well there was no registration, and my driver’s license was from Connecticut. The police officer said it was illegal for me to be working in Florida with a Connecticut driver’s license, and then he said that he had never seen Connecticut Junk Dealer Plates before, so he was impounding my car.
I hitch hiked home, and after two days of constantly calling the Miami police, they told me that the 1959 Plymouth I was driving was a stolen car, and the engine numbers had been ground off. Then they said that a Miami detective would be coming to see me shortly.
I immediately called my friend Lou in Stamford Connecticut, and when I told Lou that the Police suspected the 1959 Plymouth he gave me to use was stolen. He said “That was impossible, and the Miami police were full of crap, so don’t you worry about it.” Then he said, that I could now use his 1958 Ford station wagon that was parked at the boat slip. He said the keys were under the floor mat, and the only problem now was that the 1958 Ford Wagon, didn't have a license plate on it. Lou said, “I should get the Connecticut Junk Dealer license plate off the 1959 Plymouth, so just in case I was stopped again, driving the 1958 Ford, the Police couldn’t match up the plates. So I went and did exactly as Lou told me to do. I called the Police to find out where the impounded car yard was, and I went there and I explained to the cop on duty that I needed to retrieve my stuff from the trunk of the 1959 Plymouth. The Cop at the impound yard told me to take out whatever stuff I wanted, so I unsnapped the Junk Dealer license plate and took it. I now had the complete set of two Junk Dealer plates again and I kept one on the ford Wagon and I never heard another word from the Miami police regarding the stolen 1959 Plymouth. Nor did Lou ever mention it again. I think it was lucky for me, that back in 1964, Miami police didn’t have a good computer system. Because I started to suspect that perhaps Lou’s Ford station wagon that I was driving was a stolen car as well. Stolen or not, now that I was driving the 1958 Ford Station wagon, it was just like my having a truck, when all the rear seats were folded down I could load in plenty of used crankshafts. So now, using the station wagon, I went to see several large scrap yards in the Miami area, and I found that they would all allow me to drive to their scrap piles and pull out whatever crankshafts I wanted.
I noticed that in each scrap yard, I found that there was always someone operating a crane with a magnet on it. So. Usually for a $2.00 tip, they were always happy to retrieve any crankshafts for me from anywhere in the scrap pile. When I had first started looking for used crankshafts, I was lucky if I could find one or two every day. Now, now I was able to buy between five and ten per day, things were rocking and rolling, and I was doing OK.
One day when I drove in a large scrap yard in the town of Miami Springs, and I noticed something going on that I had never seen before. There was a team of about six black guys taking apart engines. They had their own pickup truck with an air compressor mounted on it and they were all using air wrenches taking engines apart. By taking an engine apart, the junk yards made more money, because now instead of just having to sell a complete engine, they ended up with a clean cast iron engine block, aluminum from the pistons, and steel from the crankshafts. So I walked over to the fellow that looked like the teams boss, and I started talking to him. He said that he charged the junkyards .75 cents an engine to take one apart, and he and his men traveled a whole circuit of scrap yards all around the state of Florida. He said they were spending one to three days in every big junkyard taking apart hundreds of engines. I asked him if I pointed out a few engines would he take out and put aside the crankshafts for me, and he said he would. I had never seen anything like this type of operation before, all I had to do was follow them around and they would remove all the crankshafts I needed. My crankshaft business had now become very easy to do.
The following week, when I returned to Metro Iron and Metal, I said good morning to Nordy and to Arthur and then I drove down to the scrap metal pile. I was surprised to see the same team of black guys who were disassembling engines in the Miami Springs yard, were now here at Metro Iron and Metal, taking engines apart. I thought that was fantastic, so I went to the engine pile and started to mark the engines I wanted them to take apart for me.
That’s when I heard a loud booming voice yell. “Hold on, that’s my engine”. I had no idea where the voice came from until I looked up on top of the big used engine pile, and there sitting way up near the top was the biggest heavyweight black guy I ever saw. All I could think of was he was the movie “Mighty Joe Young”, I mean this guy was really big. I stood there and watched as the big fellow gingerly made his way down from where he was sitting. As he got closer to me I could see he was blind in one eye. He warily looked me over with his good eye, and I could see he was thinking about what to say to me. He shook my hand and said his name was Charlie, then Charlie told me that he followed the group of engine dismantlers, as they traveled from junk yard to junk yard. He did this all over South Florida, and he said, he had been doing it for quite a few years, it appears that Charlie was also in the crankshaft business just like me, and here I was, infringing on his territory. I quickly realized that for me to continue getting some crankshafts, I would have to use some good psychology, and try to work with Charlie. It would do me no good to get into an argument with him, as he was twice my size.
In retrospect, I think, Charlie had expected me to start a fight with him and try to get him ejected from the scrap yard, but I didn’t do it. I thought it would be in my best interest to be friends with Charlie, not enemies. After all Charlie had been doing this a long time before I had come along. Here I was thinking that I had just discovered an easy method of getting good used crankshafts, and Charlie had already been doing it a long time before me, and he was obviously very successful doing it as I saw he was driving a brand new GMC diesel truck.
All day I watched Charlie, to see exactly how he operated, and saw that he would give the crane operator a $10.00 tip every day. That way Charlie just pointed out the engines he wanted, and the crane operator would pull them gingerly out of the engine pile, ready for the team of guys to take apart, and Charlie gave those guys a dollar extra for each engine they took apart for him. I could see that Charlie had every aspect of the crankshaft business under control. So I politely asked Charlie, if he would let me take about five crankshafts a day, for my customer, and he could keep all the rest for himself. I know he didn't like it, but he agreed and we shook hands over the deal. For me, it was a good deal, I could stop by once a day and take the crankshafts I needed, and Charlie could still sit way up on top of the engine pile, all day long, acting like he was the boss.
After a few weeks, Charlie and I became pretty good friends, and I started bringing him a sandwich for lunch. But no matter how friendly we became, Charlie always kept his distance. By the end of 1964, several things happen. I was buying into a rebuilding company called Automotive Parts Industries, and due to the politics in Cuba, Renato Cepero lost his ability to ship crankshafts there, so now I was out of the crankshaft business. I went to the scrap yard to tell my friend Charlie that he no longer had to save any crankshafts for me, but Charlie wasn’t there. I went to his house and it was empty, even the furniture was gone. I never saw Charlie again.