VOL. 38 | NO. 35 | Friday, August 29, 2014
Developers swing, miss in attempt to buy prime Germantown locale
The first time I stepped into this mustard-yellow building at 300 Jefferson Street to ask how it felt to have the Nashville Sounds moving in across the street, Wayne Woelk, 50, was having a heart attack.
Now that he’s survived – though awaiting more surgery – “Big Wayne,” as he’s known in North Nashville puts a share of the blame on stress caused by developers who kept calling and dropping in, trying to convince him to sell his obviously prime Choice Auto Repair garage and property.
Speculators salivate over this space at Third and Jefferson, a dandy location for high-rise stacks of homes or perhaps a dining destination.
A mustard-yellow garage, with racks inside and outside the building, isn’t in any city visionary’s idea of the landscape after mascot Ozzie and his boys of summer settle in across Jefferson.
Big Wayne, with no intention of selling, wishes those visionaries would stop pestering him, so he can focus on his job and his legacy as Germantown’s second-generation neighborhood mechanic.
Oh, he didn’t know he was having a heart attack the last time I dropped in to talk about the imminent arrival of First Tennessee Park. He was too busy almost dying, a process that was interrupted that night when doctors discovered a 100-percent blockage in an artery, necessitating emergency heart surgery.
“He was all out of sorts that day,” says his best friend, business partner and “much younger-looking” wife, Vickie, 43, as she settles into her chair in the office of Choice Auto Repair. “Wayne’s 50. He looks 50, too.”
“He told me you were here that day. Sorry if he was grumpy. He was to everyone,” says Vickie, who grew up across the river on Fatherland Street and who was introduced to Wayne by the last boy she dated before she fell in love. “I’ve been with Wayne since I was 15.”
Pictures of family, friends and stock cars – “he was champion at Beech Bend and Highland Rim,” his proud wife proclaims – decorate these walls, a cheerily cluttered monument to lives well spent in this place they vow no shyster developer is going to talk them into leaving.
Handcuffs dangling near the framed certificate proclaiming his membership in The Imperial Council of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of The Mystic Shrine for North America aren’t just for show.
“I use ’em,” Wayne says. “One guy came in here and was trying to walk out with a shirt full of tools. Cuffed him.”
It wasn’t an isolated incident here in this shop where, on this day, the Frigidaire wall unit battles the 100-degree-plus heat index baking North Nashville asphalt.
“Get ’em in cuffs and we call the police, and they’ll say ‘Oh, Big Wayne got another one,’” says Vickie, proud of the man with whom she shares her days, her nights, her life.
Choice Auto Repair’s mustard exterior is hard to miss if you drive down Jefferson Street near the future home of the Nashville Sounds. Developers want the property, but the owners are vowing to stay.
More heart surgeries scheduled, the crime-busting stock car champ and mechanic isn’t supposed to be at work. But the air-conditioner at the family home on 40 acres near Cheatham Dam isn’t working, so it’s too Tennessee steamy to rest in the house they share with son, Taylor, 16, and two parrots, Rizzo, a 17-year-old African grey, and Gumbo, a 24-year-old Senegal.
“You know that big white mansion out (near Cheatham Dam) with all the horses and everything?” asks Wayne. “Well, that’s not ours.”
He laughs at the little joke that comes easily, likely honed by repetition on cooler days when he whiles away time in the row of stadium seats in front of the mustard-yellow building.
He relishes the time spent in those seats that ended up here while what now is LP Field – across the Cumberland River – was being built. “Everybody blows (their horns) at me. I sit there and wave at them. Been here all my life. Know everybody.”
Vickie blames her beloved for the loud mustard-yellow color.
“He was supposed to paint it a yellow-tan, kind of like Ruby Tuesday’s,” she says, adding she didn’t realize the real color until the painting was half done. She’ll pay closer attention next time.
“We put new paint on it every year or two.”
The interior décor of handcuffs, a crash helmet, disconnected traffic light, pit bull warning sign and stock car photos also includes pictures of their son playing football.
“He hasn’t missed a game since he was 5,” Vickie says of the young man who plays guard on both sides of the ball for the Sycamore High War Eagles. “Mama wants him to get a scholarship to Vanderbilt.”
There’s also a photo, taken in the 1930s, of stock cars being raced inside the old Sulphur Dell ballpark, which occupied the forlorn space from which the new field will rise.
“I like it that the Sounds are coming over there,” says Vickie, nodding kitty-corner across Jefferson. “It will be a lot better to have the ballfield there than to have that old fence and the field with all the grass torn up.”
She doesn’t expect it to affect business one way or the other, “unless it’s a big crowd and it’s an afternoon game and their car overheats in traffic and they need to come here to get fixed up.”
What she does expect is to see more people to wave at or visit with as they pass by or drop in. “Up until Germantown started coming back, it was lonely here,” she says.
“I know everybody. Even some of the homeless people are our friends.
While custom exhaust is a Choice Auto Repair specialty, a list of services is painted on the facade.
“There’s Geno. There’s Michael and his mom and their German shepherd, Mac. I see them every day. When I don’t see them, I get worried and I get on my bike to go look for them where they stay” in the homeless encampment just across the Cumberland.
Not everyone is welcome. Especially the developers, whose pressure contributed to Wayne’s heart attack, she says.
“They come in here and tell us they’ll give us a million dollars for this spot. But we’re not going anywhere. We’ve had so many people who want us out of here.”
Course this is prime turf now that the Nashville Sounds are vacating their historic surroundings on Chestnut Street to bring new life to the ratty desolation that now occupies the former Sulphur Dell site.
Germantown is where Wayne grew up and where his dad ran the Post Office Garage on Sixth Avenue North.
“He drove a Post Office truck all night and worked in the garage all day,” Vickie says proudly of her late father-in-law, who opened the neighborhood garage in 1953.
The spirit of that original shop traveled with Wayne and Vickie when they moved the business to Jefferson Street. So did old Morgan Woelk, the mechanic everyone in Germantown loved.
“When Wayne and I moved over here, he would come in almost every day, with this little cooler with his lunch. He would sit here and talk with people. And then he’d say ‘Well, I better get home to see Mother.’
“Really what he was doing was going home to watch ‘Days of Our Lives.’ He was in love with Marlena,” she says, referring to comely Deidre Hall’s long-running soap character, Marlena Evans.
Her bubbly laugh disappears though when talking about the pressure to sell.
“This is our home. This is our source of income. It keeps us alive,” Vickie says. “When we opened up, I named it Choice Auto Repair because it would be early in the phone book when people looked for mechanics.”
She looks out at her husband, who is talking with a customer.
“He’s got another 80 percent blockage and two 70 percent blockages. He don’t feel well,” she. “I’m the bookkeeper here. I run it, but I don’t want to say I’m bossy, even though I’m the boss.”
Wayne, later disagrees, saying he’s “got the brains” in this outfit. In reality they’re a team. Have been for 25 years.
Phone rings. This time it’s a long-time customer whose tire is losing air and he wants to come by right away. Another call is from a father who wants to bring his 20-something daughter’s car in for an oil change.
“We’re on our third generation of people here,” Wayne says of the neighbors who have relied either on his dad or on him for 61 years of auto care. “We’re staying here.”
“It’s our only source of income,” Vickie adds. “If we sold it, we’d lose so much money to capital gains taxes.
“If we had to go buy another place we would need to re-establish ourselves, get familiar with the neighborhood. People know us here. We’d have to start all over again and we don’t want to do that.”
She looks again toward her husband, who is back outside. “I love him. Wayne is an excellent mechanic.”
Soon, he’s going back home to get the air conditioner fixed and rest, doctor’s (and Vickie’s) orders.
“There’s so much pressure on me for us to sell,” he says. “I don’t want to sell. I want to work. I like it right here. I want to come to work where I can sit outside and wave and all the horns blow.”
His wife’s eyes trail him as he steps back outside.
“There are people who are told ‘You go see Big Wayne. When nobody else can solve a problem with a car, Big Wayne can.’ I’m very proud of him.”