This very space, right where you stand, a 9-year-old Tom Volkaert walked into The Fritchle Garage and secured a job as a breaker boy in 1898. It was the glory years of the “Automotive Age” and car parts for makers like Nash, Hudson, and American Motors were arriving daily in Atlanta via a 16-car train that would arrive from Milledgeville. These were rumbling, bumbling, bone-jarring contraptions: four-cylinders, standing seven feet tall, with 20-horsepower that allowed a breakneck speed of 25 miles per hour. They were glorious and hot damn Tom wanted to be a part.
Old Man Fritchle warned some uppity gibberish that it wouldn’t be easy. For $1.15 a day Tom would arrive in the deep dark of the early morning and leave after the sun went down for the night. Being below ground the light would only spill down the chute in the seconds between the manhole cover being pried up and impenetrable cloud of stale black dust hitting his eyes and nostrils like a brick of fire. His job was never ending. As soon as it would spill to his feet Tom had to grade the coal based on it impurities (sulfur), removing the undesirable slate pieces, and putting the rest in clean coal bins. For better agility he worked without gloves.
The opposite of upstairs, this basement is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Fritchle was a germophobe who demanded hot water from the sinks, meaning Tom had to continuously hustle shoveling the coal into the furnace. Tall for his age he stayed hunched over all day long. He covered his mouth with a dirty handkerchief, but still had respiratory issues. Every day was backbreaking. Attempting to wash himself clean would create a thin layer of sulfuric acid that burned his freckles off. Yet, Tom loved every minute of the job. Unlike most of his young friends who worked in large, noisy breaker rooms, stacked to the brim with kids missing fingers that were amputated by fast moving belts and sharp shards of slate. Here Tom was alone. This was his office. The furnace was his desk, and the shovel, his pen. Barely visible thru the dust he proudly hung a photo of his mother. Surrounded by bottomless concrete he was able to escape. He is a zealous provider for his family, a patriot helping build the cars that make America move. Tom wanted wind-burned eyeballs, the dull sound of wind, the type of speed that would take him and his anywhere but here.