BY TAMAR KEVONIAN
Mike offered to drive me the few blocks to the café where I would wait while they detailed my car. He’s a quiet, 30 years old former surfer and walks with a slow gait with his arms swinging lazily by his side. His sloped shoulders, relaxed manners and easy tone of voice are indicative of the laid back lifestyle of a California surfer. He ambles across the lot of the business he owns and runs with his father Steve towards his car assumes I’m not far behind.
It’s a short drive to the café and I expect it to be a silent drive occasionally peppered with polite conversation. As soon as we pull out of the drive Mike begins to speak slowly and tentatively at first. A few questions prompt him to continue until, without changing his pace or manner of speaking, his story unfolds.
The auto detailing shop is a family business and he’s been involved in for about six years doesn’t like the fact that it doesn’t pay well. “It’s a family business and no family business pays well,” he says, “but it gives me time to spend with my old man.” Steve, affectionately called ‘the old man,’ is a small wiry man with a full head of grey hair and is a force in the office of the business they manage together. Quick talking and hard selling, he dominates the tiny space. Mike just shrugs when his father continues a conversation he started with a customer as if to say ‘what can you do?’
This is the latest of several family businesses on which they’ve embarked together. Before auto detailing they owned a pawn shop and before that it seems it’s too long ago for Mike to remember. But in the beginning there was surfing. “I was a surfer and got paid for it,” Mike says with pride. He stumbled into it completely by accident. “My cousin got his (driver’s) license and we would go to the beach,” he reminisces about his older relative. Surfing is a very popular pastime that originated in Hawaii but was popularized on the beaches of California. In the last several decades in has grown from its cliquish roots into a highly competitive sport. Mike had managed to turn a favorite hobby into a lucrative profession. “I surfed everywhere. I even went to Tahiti,” he says wistfully.
Five years into his surfing career, he suffered a horrible accident when, about to get out of his car on Topanga Canyon, a winding road through the Santa Monica Mountains, he was hit by a car. “Some guy was trying to be cute and spun,” forcing the tires to spin and swerve the car wildly across the road.”I almost went over the cliff,” he explains. He spent a year convalescing and sustained permanent back injuries at which point all his sponsors terminated their support. He misses those days, “Who doesn’t miss competition?” he says wryly. Since the accident his back has not been the same and surfing requires “a lot of getting up on the board” which relies heavily on the muscles in the back. “When a ten foot wave crashes on your head, your back gets tangled,” Mike explains. Despite all these reason one gets the impression that he would still pursue it if he could. Except that he now considers himself too old for the business. “These youngsters are a little more crazier than me,” he says. Now he just surfs for fun.
So now he’s partnered with his father and started a family business. Steve and Mike spend their days in a clean but small, cramped office on their auto detailing lot. A customer walks onto the lot and it’s not clear who’s in charge. There are several people rushing about on the tiny lot packed with cars. Mike looks like a customer waiting for his car and will greet you like a polite stranger you may pass on the street. He gives no indication that he’s the one who can answer any questions you may have. Finally, taking a peak in the empty tiny office looking for the proprietor you realize that he’s followed you, waiting for you to acknowledge him. He’s carried over the essence of the casual beach culture he acquired in his teens into the way he runs his current business.
His manner is in startling contrast to his father’s. Steve is a bundle of energy with a healthy mixture of humor and all of it geared toward sales. “Do both services now for a $140. It will be $100 (for each) if you come back,” Steve jumps into the conversation to impresses upon the customer. It’s a very different approach than Mike’s who will answer a customer’s questions but allows them make a final decision. “I like working with Dad, it’s comfortable,” he explains. He has an innate distaste for the corporate confines of other jobs and likes that his father isn’t a “by the book boss.” “But,” he says, “I have to keep a higher level of respect.”
Naturally, since the two not only work together but also live together. Having lost his mother to cancer when he was only ten years old has left him alone with his father and younger sister. He doesn’t have a particular love of the business, “It was something to do,” he says. They purchased the established business that allowed Mike to spend time with his father. “When I held other jobs I felt distant from my family,” he says. He acknowledges that spending so much time together, both at work and at home “could be hair raising,” Mike says displaying his dry sense of humor.
Although he doesn’t have a serious girlfriend, he believes that his next step is to get married and have kids. Asked whether he wants to get married or simply believes that it’s time for him to get married, he shrugs and says “I don’t have a girlfriend so I guess it’s that I think it’s time.” He is at an age now when all his friends have begun get married and start forming families. He doesn’t find it hard to meet people and believes that when he’s ready he could meet someone at any time. “I’ll start (a family) when I find someone special.” He doesn’t think of the future much more than that. He may continue in this business for another year, or five, or ten but for now he’s living in the moment with a clear idea of how he wants it realized, “spending more time with the old man.”