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The Ledger - EST. 1978 - Nashville Edition
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VOL. 39 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 14, 2015

Shop owner finds right fit in Crieve Hall

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Emmett with his old Willys Jeep, the pride and joy that he tinkers with to bring it back to its Cold War and Korean War prime.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“You can catch me here every day, but you gotta call during the right 12-hour shift,” says the mechanic with the gray goatee and mustache who fled 12th Avenue South – decades before corporate profiteers and the generally chichi overran that neighborhood – because of safety issues like gunfire and armed robbery.

But that’s for later in the conversation. Right now Pat Emmett wants to jokingly inform this writer when it would be a good time to call back or drop back by.

“You never know when I might change shifts,” he says, standing by impotent gas pumps.

Pat laughs brightly at his own joke because this 5-foot-5, 170-pounder can be found tending to invoices, pounding the computer and lending an extra hand or two to the mechanics during every working shift at his business at 4801 Trousdale Drive.

“We’re open Monday through Friday, 7-5:30, and 7-noon on Saturday,” explains Pat, whose Emmett Automotive has become a landmark on Trousdale not because it looks like anything other than what it is – a sprawling, three-bay garage and office surrounded by a dozen or two cars needing repair – but because it’s a fixture from the “good old days” when folks would drop by the filling station and chat.

“We’re a landmark because we’ve been here a long time and a lot of people know us,” he says, pausing to grab the phone and answer “automotive.” The caller wants to know the price of a Freon charge.

“We do a lot of air-conditioner work in this type of hot weather,” he adds, after dropping the phone into its cradle.

Traffic moves briskly down this commercial stretch, zooming past Engine 27, across the street, and a score or more neighborhood businesses, including a florist and a cigar-and-beer emporium.

The speed limit drops as Trousdale rolls into Crieve Hall, the quiet, little neighborhood of tidy 1950s ranchers and often not-so-tidy and underemployed 63-year-old journalists. It’s a small green island tucked roughly between Radnor Yard and Ellington Agricultural Center.

But back up Trousdale, there’s plenty of urban noise, some of which is from the pounding and the hydraulics accompanied by a classic rock radio soundtrack that escapes from the bays where Pat’s mechanics tend to business.

Neighborhood nights are punctuated by the loud sounds of coupling and uncoupling of railroad cars in the train yard in the gulch behind Emmett Automotive.

Heck, there’re even been oxy or cash robberies at the chain drug store up the street or at the two nearby convenience stores, all within easy escape-from-the-scene-of-the-crime Harding Place and its ramp onto Interstate 65.

OK. So it’s not Nirvana (or even Pearl Jam) here near the gateway to Crieve Hall. It’s a real slice of urban Nashville, dressed up in shade-tree glory.

Regardless, Pat says, life on Trousdale is a lot different than it was at the under-siege gas station and urban fortress he and his late and former father-in-law and business partner escaped 36 years ago or so.

“It was just getting kind of rough over there back then,” says Pat, speaking of the 12th Avenue South of the 1970s, when handgun fire punctuated the skyline over mostly dilapidated (or dilapidating) residences, Nashville’s last great bakery (I loved the Becker brothers), a couple other shops and Brian’s Texaco, which Orville Brian opened at the intersection of Paris and 12th – roughly where 21st Century Christian Bookstore is now – in 1956.

Orville and his son-in-law, Pat Emmett, established Brian’s Texaco as the place to go get your brakes replaced, battery tested, oil changed, engine overhauled, gas up and, of course, gab in that part of town.

But as the city grew, the neighborhood changed. A lot.

“It was time to move on,” says Pat, whose divorce from Debbie Brian occurred “a good long while ago” after their marriage produced four daughters and now grandchildren ranging from almost newborn to 10 years old.

Back in the 1970s, what’s now known as “12 South” or “12South” (depending on how cool you think it is to leave out the space) was not the sparkling place of designer coffee, uniquely flavored frozen stick treats, thin-crust pizza and Caucasian-approved pulled pork shoulder.

Instead there were abandoned homes and empty lots. The street itself was not traveled much after dark.

“We recommended to our customers that they not leave their cars overnight because of what might happen to them,” Pat recalls. “And then there were a lot of shootings, too.

“One time I walked into the office and right into a robbery. My father-in-law told me not to do anything. The guy said he had a gun under his coat, but we never saw it.

“We emptied the cash register and he got out with about $200.”

This writer, as an editor and the columnist for the long-deceased Nashville Banner newspaper, spent a lot of afternoons wandering by vehicle and by foot through the neighborhood in the 1980s to talk with the mostly proud and good African-Americans who were trying to survive as violence swirled.

One of my columns back then, with the headline “12th-Avenue Shootout” – a violently flavored take on an old Springsteen song – came from an afternoon spent inside a home down near the current location of The Frothy Monkey coffee shop, aka “Frothy,” as nearby Lipscomb University students dub it.

I had knocked on the door because on the prior weekend an OK Corral-style gunfight on 12th had interrupted the family’s front-yard T-bone barbecue. Can’t remember who got shot. Life went on, and on the day of my long-ago visit, the family was firing up the oil-barrel grill for another round of steaks, inviting me to stick around.

Pat Emmett checks the charge on the battery of loyal customer Bob Belser’s Honda Accord.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

By that time, though, Orville and his son-in-law already were gone from the weathered neighborhood that still continued to bustle on certain days, like the day before Thanksgiving, when people lined up for rolls and pies at Becker’s (at least until January 6, 2004 when the place that had become one of my personal safe havens locked its doors. By that time, the neighborhood was turning trendy and the property was destined to be devoured by progress, just as fancy-colored wafers and white cakes had been devoured there for generations.)

In 1979, long before the neighborhood hit rock bottom and then began its robust rebound, Orville and Pat decided it was no longer worth the fret and fear felt not only by them but also by the customers who dropped by regularly to holler “fill ‘er up with ethyl” to attendants who put squeegee to windshields and checked oil.

It was a breed of businesses – “a service station” – that has all but died in this self-pump, pay-with-debit, yell-into-the-unintelligible-pump-speaker age.

The two men took their friendly reputation – and many of their customers – to Brian & Emmett Texaco at 4801 Trousdale.

The older gentleman retired in 1991.

“He had a desire to be not working and going fishing,” says Pat, who took over what became Emmett Texaco for “20-something years” before switching fuel brands to Citgo about seven years ago. (Orville died in 1993).

Passersby can’t help but notice this business, with its fleet of perhaps 20 cars parked outside most nights, safely awaiting parts and overhaul or whatever is needed. Probably doesn’t hurt that the firehouse is right across the street.

By day, the most obvious of the cars out front is a 1946 Willys Jeep that each morning is driven from a bay and parked next to the desolate gas pumps.

“I got that (Jeep) from my ex-wife down in Shelbyville. We’re still friends,” adds Pat, who spends his free time tinkering with the Cold War/Korean War-era Willys.

“You ever hear those Jeeps on M*A*S*H? Sounds just like that when I drive it around the lot. Gotta get some seat covers one of these days.”

That there are so many cars here – in addition to those of himself and his staff (“I like a truck,” he explains of the light-brown 2003 Chevy Silverado he drives daily from his Smyrna home) – is the reason that while Pat was not happy when Citgo ceased gas deliveries, his business has continued to thrive.

“We sold gas until two or three months ago,” he says, nodding toward the empty machines with plastic bags tied over their nozzles. “They said I wasn’t pumping enough.

“It kind of stunned me,” he says.

Gas was not a big part of his business and the profit margin was slim. He tried to keep pace with the Mapco next door but didn’t have coffee, cigarettes, jerky, chips, tallboys and lottery tickets to boost up profits.

Still, he’d been pumping gas since he was 16 and he figured he would until the day he died. It was the favorite part of his job.

“I just liked actually pumping the gas and helping the older people who came in here,” he adds, noting that many folks with disabilities also relied on his guys to pump their gas and check their oil.

Pat Emmett checks the charge on the battery of loyal customer Bob Belser’s Honda Accord. A new battery was needed.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

And a lot of older people, women in particular, much preferred having their gas pumped. The self-serve gas routine, which killed most service stations, is something that many elderly have elected not to learn. That’s what attendants are for if you can find a station that has them.

“You never know what you are going to learn when you are talking with an older person,” Pat says, noting that many of those gas customers would come into the office, likely to pay with cash, and sit down in one of the half-dozen or so chairs just to share opinions.

“There may be something they are thinking about that they just want to talk about,” he says, adding that there weren’t arguments but discussions.

But the gas tankers stopped coming in the spring. “I couldn’t think it would ever come to that,” he says. “I got shocked. Many of my customers came and I couldn’t pump their gas.”

Those folks still drop in just to talk in the office of the former neighborhood filling station. If they need gas, Pat sends them a half-mile north – across Harding Place – to get their fuel pumped and windows squeegeed.

“I send them on up to Ben’s place,” he says, referring to Ben Little’s Pure station, where the gentle owner and his staff gladly pump gas and wipe your dipstick.

As Pat talks, his own son-in-law, Adam Givens, married to daughter Ashley, comes in from one of the bays to discuss whether a wire or a bracket needs replacing on some brake lights he’s fixing.

They discuss the possibilities of pulling on the wire to see if it can be reconnected versus replacement, before electing the latter.

“Better off getting a new clamp,” says Pat, after his son–in-law retrieves model information so the owner of Emmett Automotive can jump on the computer and order the new part.

The fact that Adam and Steve Hix – the two full-time mechanics – are on this day helped by part-timer Kyle Bullock proves Pat’s business continues to thrive even without gas.

“We got real busy, so I’m thinking that if I had to go out there and go to the pump and do this too, it would end up being kind of a chore.

“We’d always been more of a mechanical shop. Didn’t pump much gas, anyway. So it worked out real well. I’ve been blessed.”

The 59-year-old grew up in various parts of the country while his dad, Ernest, was “a higher up” with Swift Meat Packing Company, forcing his family to move to Regent Drive in Crieve Hall from Stockton, California when Pat was 15 or 16.

“I went to Overton,” he says, proudly of the public high school that’s a mile or so from Emmett Automotive.

Never feeling his pop’s white-collar tendencies, Pat went into gas-pumping as a teenager, so it really is something that defines his life, even though the real money and his future is in automotive repair.

“You gotta like what you do,” he explains. “I have no regrets.

“As long as I enjoy it, I’m going to do it,” he says, adding that his son-in-law Adam may well carry on the tradition of service when he decides he wants to go fishing.

If Pat retires, he’ll probably just spend more time tinkering with the old Willys Jeep, turning the disheveled vehicle with an American flag decal on the flipped-down windshield, into a car worthy of Hawkeye, Trapper John, Colonels Blake and Potter, B.J., Klinger and Radar.

But he doesn’t expect business to slow down anytime soon, so retirement’s not in the plans.

“People try to keep their cars longer,” he explains. “We keep busy with general repairs. A lot of different things. Check engine lights. Brakes. Power windows.

“We’ve discovered it kind of runs in cycles. For a while we’ll have a lot for water pumps. Then we’ll have a lot of brakes. Funny how that works.”

As he talks, a customer, Bob Belser, comes in, leaving his 2007 Honda Accord running, parked next to the old Jeep.

He’s just gotten his car serviced at a dealership and the recommendation was that he purchase a new battery. He didn’t. He kept the car going and drove to Trousdale, where everyone greets this loyal Emmett customer by name.

“It’s the people that make this special,” says Pat, as he steps out the door to check the charge of the old battery.

It’s the kind of thing you’ll find him doing on every 12-hour shift except Sunday, when he’s closed. “That’s the Lord’s day,” he says.

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