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VOL. 38 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 25, 2014

Mom, Pop go ape over American dream on Nolensville Road

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“Gorilla” – as he’s been named for obvious reasons – is a roadside oddity to many who clatter and clunk along the congested traffic snake that is Nolensville Pike.

To others, perhaps he’s a simple landmark: “Just go north past the giant black gorilla and we’re in the first shopping center on the right.”

To Tom Leaidicker, 72, the faux ape is a close friend and business associate who propelled him toward achieving the American Dream at Gorilla’s Muffler Center. “I owe him a lot,” says Tom, gently tapping the ape’s arm.

Tom also credits “The Muffler Lady,” who took on most of the physical labor after Tom was attacked ferociously by an air compressor. We’ll get back to that.

“This is a mom and pop and gorilla operation,” says Tom.

Mom, in this case, is wife Deborah, 49, the woman in the bay with the blowtorch, working on an exhaust system while Tom talks about the 100-pound fiberglass ape holding a small American flag in its damaged right hand.

The ape’s left hand is missing, severed at the wrist. “We’ve got all the pieces,” Tom allows. “When the weather gets nice for good, he’s due for some surgery. Paint job, too.”

In the course of that repair work, Gorilla also will have his right leg, temporarily bound with duct tape, healed.

Tom, white beard somewhere north of fashionable stubble, inherited Gorilla when he bought this place 25 years ago.

Tom Leaidicker rolls “Gorilla” out to the curbside, where he will stand watch on the Nolensville Road business for another day.

-- Tim Ghianni | Nashville Ledger

One of the first things he did as owner was bring the ape, a carny sideshow relic, down from the roof where he’d been stationed by previous owners.

Reinvigorated and more visible, the primate became Tom’s full-time greeter from atop a yellow VW bug and then from the bed of a Datsun pickup before moving in recent years to the roadside, where he glowers at passersby and welcomes customers.

“People are always coming by and asking if they can have their picture taken with him. He’s been kind of a landmark. When I bought this place, I decided this is HIS PLACE. That’s why I named it Gorilla’s Muffler Center.”

While Tom and Deborah repaired the building and earned loyalty through their expertise with mufflers and exhaust systems, the ape got busy, too.

“Once I started cleaning this place up, a lot of the blue-collar families that used to live around here began to come in. Gorilla made for a lot of comedy along the way.

“There are customers I have now who had their pictures taken, sucking their thumbs, with Gorilla way back then.”

Tom nods toward Deborah, holding the welding shield in her left hand while ducking her head up under a car and working the blowtorch with her right.

Deborah Leaidicker – aka “The Muffler Lady” – takes care of the day-to-day operations at Gorilla Muffler Center.

-- Tim Ghianni | Nashville Ledger

“They call her ‘The Muffler Lady,’” he says. “She’s earned that reputation. People are proud to get their cars done by her down here.”

Happy banter is interrupted by the barking of Dexter, the 10-month-old miniature Doberman – or “mini-pin,” as Tom puts it – who spends his days helping out when not with his master at the 77-acre family farm in Henry County.

In fact, Tom takes care of many aspects of the business via computer from that farm while Deborah tends to the manual labor at Gorilla’s.

“I used to do it all, but I just reached the point in life where reaching up beneath cars caused me a lot of problems. I got in a fight with an air compressor in this shop, and it tore my right foot off, except for the flesh. That was back in ’93, so I was still working here and at the farm, but at a different pace than I was,” he says.

“That old foot still can walk on dirt OK.” Not so much on concrete slab or ladder jammed into a Dodge’s underside.

“Plus, I got hand problems, eye problems. The hearing just kind of fell by the wayside with age. I still get out there in the shop if need be, but Deborah takes care of the day-to-day routine.”

Chris Johnson, not the former Titan, but rather a Sears appliance deliveryman, sidesteps into the conversation.

Tom Leaidicker with Dexter

-- Tim Ghianni | Nashville Ledger

“I’ve had four mufflers done on four different vehicles in the last four years. I love this place. She does a good job, and they treat you like family. They give out smiles down here.”

Another customer, third-time visitor Rhonda Longaberger, adds, “I like the service, and she gets it done in no time.”

These customers, like all who find this down-home alternative to franchises, are not drawn by advertising. There is none.

“It’s all word-of-mouth and Gorilla,” Tom says. “It’s funny the way such a small item like him can build a reputation. It’s nothing but an inanimate object. But he became part of the atmosphere over time. And he adds a little sense of humor to serious times in people’s lives when their car isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”

While athletes and music stars have brought vehicles here, most customers are working stiffs in one of Nashville’s most ethnically diverse stretches.

Other than the catalytic converter info sheet posted on the wall being translated into Spanish and Arabic, not much has changed during Tom’s quarter-century.

Those in this United Nations of neighborhoods “come back here because we appreciate their business and they aren’t treated rudely,” Tom says.

“People from all walks of life come in here: businessmen, Jews, Vietnamese, Mexican, Middle Eastern. Police officers bring their private vehicles in here. I have postal workers, state workers.

“In Gorilla’s Muffler Center, they are all one crowd. They aren’t black, they aren’t white, they aren’t rich, they aren’t poor. Everyone’s the same at Gorilla’s.”

The namesake ape by the road has quietly suffered the insults of occupying such an urban stretch.

“Some high school boys stole him one night and had him on the football field, but they brought him back,” says Tom. “And I came in one morning, someone had lassoes around the leg, and he was halfway across the parking lot with the right leg ripped off.”

It was then Tom decided his primate partner no longer needed to spend nights outside, unattended. Times had changed.

“He’s now on rollers. He sleeps inside at night. I don’t feed him out there either. It makes him ornery. I think of him as a Gorilla like no other. It’s his shop.”

That loyalty assures the ape a pastoral future when Tom and Deborah decide it’s time to retire permanently to their 77 acres in Henry County.

“When I’m gone, he’s gone. He’ll be retiring to the farm,” Tom says, nodding. “It’s thanks to him we are living the American Dream.”

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