The slightest blip on the economic radar these days, and analysts trumpet the end of the recession. But down in the trenches, where the rest of us live, it’s hard to tell the difference, says Dewey.
Dewey runs a small metal fabrication shop in the industrial district (one of my favorite hangouts these days) and he’s making steel mountings for my sculptures. His shop is fast, accurate and relatively inexpensive. The fast part, Dewey says, is because business, frankly, just isn’t what it used to be.
I found Dewey in a roundabout way: I asked my metal sculptor friend Zoe to recommend a good metal shop. She suggested a guy who suggested a guy who said, “You know, what you need is a place like Dewey’s that does small custom jobs. He’s great and won’t charge you an arm and a leg like we will.”
I called Dewey, who asked me to email a PDF of my design and they’d call back in the morning with a price.
First thing in the morning the phone rang. “OK, tell me what exactly you’re doing with these things,” commands Dewey. I described what I want–a steel shadowbox to hold 6×6 tiles and small studies of bigger sculptures. He asked questions about gauge, variety of steel, my budget, etc.
I had trouble getting the vision across and finally, he sighed. “If you’ve got time I’d rather you bring your glass down and let me see what you want. You might save some money because I think there’s an easier way to do that.”
He gave me directions, “There’s a tavern next door, that’s not us. I know it looks like a girly house but really, they’re nice people in there and the food’s not bad. My wife even lets me go. When you see the tavern, well, we’re right around that corner.”
So I lug my glass and a mockup of my idea down to Dewey’s shop, which is of WWII vintage with old wood paneling on the walls and a big, hanger-like workshop in back. His yard is crowded with old girders, bits of machinery and gigantic metal poles.
Instantly, I feel at home. My grandpa in North Carolina had a fixit shop kinda like this, but smaller. I loved visiting it and sharing a Dr. Pepper with Grandpa as we diagnosed the problems with broken-down televisions and non-working toasters.
An ancient dachshund barks at me ferociously, tail wagging and head extended for a pet. I give him a wary pat, which he accepts, but the barking never stops.
“Shorty!” commands Dewey, and the dog settles down, “He’s covering all his bases,” he tells me, “he can’t tell if you’re a burglar or a customer.”
Dewey’s employees crowd around my sculpture, looking at the drawings and making suggestions. As usual, they have a whole new take on what I’m doing. I listen carefully and wonder if anyone will ever see my art the way I see it. Probably not, but I’m coming to enjoy the different interpretations almost more than the work.
Dewey’s wife, the CFO, likes my work but thinks my design is too concealing. “Why do you want to hide it IN the box?” she asks, “Why not put it ON the box?”
Dewey takes me out into the workshop, where we examine steel and extruded aluminum and brass and copper, checking the gauge I want (nice and heavy), the finish (as rough as possible without hurting someone) and the fabrication (no need to weld the corners closed).
He points out an angled, box-like construction shining in stainless steel and looking very much like an Cubist sculpture. “Lady who ordered that has some bucks,” he muses, “those are stainless steel deck braces for her house on the coast. That cost a pretty penny.”
I stop at a gigantic machine. “Wow, that’s the biggest brake I’ve ever seen,” I say reverently. (A brake makes precise bends in metal)
Dewey grins. “That’s because it’s a shear,” he says kindly, pointing to a much smaller device in the corner, “That’s a brake over there.” So much for my metalshop knowledge; I ask if he thinks he can do the frames.
“Didn’t catch that,” he says, cupping an ear, “You’ll have to speak a little louder; not much hearing in this ear. Comes from working with steel all these years. We wear these earplugs” –he fiddles with the pair hanging around his neck– “but still, it creeps up on you.”
I repeat the question and he strokes his chin. “I think I know what you want, but the best way to do this is to give it a try. I’ve got a guy free right now who can make one of these up if you wanna go have lunch or something for an hour and come back.”
When I return he’s got a frame made up for my inspection and it’s lovely. I slide in the glass, hold it up for everyone’s inspection, and realize that, as Dewey’s wife suggested, the shadowbox looks better flipped over to make the sculpture stand out from the wall “See,” she says smugly, “Your stuff is too pretty to hide.”
Dave, the fabricator, wants to modify the wall cleat I’ve designed. “If I put it on the top I won’t discolor the metal so much,” he says, “and I think it’d be easier for people to hang.” He runs back to the workshop, welds one up quickly, and brings it back. I like the change, and the design is done. I ask when Dewey can finish 20 frames.
He smiles. “Tomorrow too soon?” he asks, then sobers. “It’s not like we’re doing much right now. Spot jobs, framing and stuff for artists, little things here and there, that’s what we’re living on right now.”
“We haven’t lost any customers, but they just don’t have much work for us. The guy that sent us three or four jobs a week now gives us something maybe once a month. I’ve had to lay off guys and make one part-time. He says he doesn’t mind, he likes the free time, but I think he’s just trying to make me feel better.”
I ask if business looks like it’ll pick up, and he nods. “Yeah, we’ve got more work this month than last month, and more work last month than the one before. If that keeps happening we’ll get through. If not, well, I don’t know,” he sighs, “Sometimes I wish I could retire.”
“This Obama guy, I think he means well,” he says, “But as far as I can tell he’s not doing anything that’ll get down to the small business guys. I don’t know as there’s anything government can do, except maybe get out of the way. They’re killing places like mine, right and left.”
He reddens, as if maybe he’s said too much, and I need to get moving anyway, so I change the subject by ordering the frames. “How much deposit do you need to get started?”
“You got a hand?” he says solemnly, “You know how to shake it?” I nod, he extends his hand and we shake.
“I trust you,” he says, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”