If you're broke up or broke down

Local handyman Hudge, above, sips coffee at his favorite haunt,
which also doubles as his office, the Steaming Bean./Photo by
Dustin Bradford

Hudge can get away with wearing a bright pink collared shirt and a thin, pendulous string of metal in his chin, which people frequently mistake for a stray strand of cheese. This is part of being Hudge; living outside the box with no apologies and nothing to hide. Hudge came to Durango in the early 1980s, hoping to get in on the last wave of the hippie communes. He was just in time.

We meet at The Steaming Bean, which “has been home for the past seven years.” While we sit and chat, Hudge receives hugs from young college cuties sprinkled with glitter and butterfly hair clips; waves from grizzled expatriates just one step away from the madhouse; and acknowledgements from a few upstanding citizens, including one police officer. “This is my life,” Hudge gestures to the inner chambers of the coffee shop with swollen fingers bearing permanent oil stains and fissured scars, which he wears like a warrior’s badge.

Some say Hudge is a town fixture, though he winces at the word, claiming it conjures up images of things you flush. He does have a first and last name but – like Madonna or Prince – to most people he is simply Hudge.

Hudge is the hardest working man in Durango who doesn’t have a job. His duties comprise a strange yet synergistic mixture of Ann Landers and the Maytag Man; the yin and yang of blue-collar life; the best of your mom and dad rolled into one.

Hudge in happier days with his now-deceased but
still infamous “Mostly Mazda.”/Courtesy photo.

Mornings are routinely spent at The Steaming Bean, where Hudge holds office hours. Firmly planted at the counter, he works on the daily crossword while waiting for the day to pick up. It’s not long before someone strolls in, deeply perplexed and desperately seeking Hudge. People just want to talk to Hudge. Maybe it’s something about him being so reliably easy to find, or possibly the way he can top your worst drama with something more scandalous and tragic pulled from the archives of his five decades, or perhaps it’s just the way he massages his red sideburns as he simply listens without judgment.

“On a typical day I’ll get a couple broken hearts, parental issues with the younger crowd, always the money problems and then some good old existential angst, the ‘What am I doing with my life?’ thing.” Hudge sums it up while watching three young bottoms bob by.

When traffic is slow and people are basically doing OK, he chats with the young, beautiful counter girls (“When I was 20 I loved the young girls, and now that I’m 53, I still love the young girls.”) This harmless flirting is no doubt good for his health which is a shaky, unpredictable force in his life, rendering him unable to hold any regular, consistent job.

After a few hours of dispensing coffee-counter therapy, Hudge – like Superman in that phone booth – puts his grubbies on, gathers up his tool box and goes in search of some greasy metal parts to tweak. He doesn’t have to look far. In fact, as office hours are rolling along, Hudge is simultaneously receiving calls on his pager from folks in need. Besides cute counter girls, getting coffee’d up at The Bean in the morning provides several benefits: the caffeine jolt needed for remembering which gasket goes where as he’s putting a carburetor back together, as well as unlimited use of the coffee shop’s telephone to return calls that come in on his pager.

Not much for calendars or short-term memory, Hudge relies on his pager to keep his life straight. Most of his work is on an emergency basis: someone’s car isn’t turning over and they’re late for work; a heater’s suddenly gone out in winter; clothes for a job interview are stuck in a broken-down washing machine. Mostly it’s auto repair, though occasionally Hudge gets to do some welding or neuter a cat. If he had a business card, it would offer services for the broken up and broken down.

Hudge’s people estimate that he’s collectively saved this town tens of thousands of dollars and tons of hassles. One friend says she should just pay Hudge a monthly stipend for being on call, though what Hudge really hankers for is a home-cooked meal (meat and potatoes preferably).

When Hudge has a day off, he works on his own vehicles, a patchwork of evolving parts reflecting slices of his unorthodox life. His landlady explains that there are typically 3BD Toyota Tercels in the driveway (small, portable parts are kept in the spare bedroom), the exact configurations changing on a regular basis. This is Hudge’s art. When someone comes to him with their recently wrecked, no longer driveable GMC van, Hudge’s eyes flash with visions of parts, salvageable parts, that might come in handy if he were ever to be given a GMC van with a body intact, which is bound to happen eventually.

However there is no taboo against mixing usable parts from different automotive brands, as took place in his trademark “Mostly Mazda.” When I ask if it was sad to take the Mostly Mazda to the dump after 12 years of love and labor, Hudge shrugs and mutters, “I could’ve had one hot Camaro for all the time and money I put into that piece of shit.” Seeing my surprise in his unsentimental reaction, he shakes his head and says, “It’s just metal.” He smiles, and his laughter seeps like thick, clean engine oil from some deep internal reservoir.

However his eyes and voice are all sappy nostalgia when he begins to recount the car’s evolution: “The front half was a four-door ’84 Mazda GLC, which had survived a wreck its back end hadn’t. Back half was a two-door ’83 Mazda GLC from Farmington that someone had let run out of oil. The rear half of the roof was John Whitney’s ’82 Mazda GLC station wagon; wheels and suspension were off an ’84 Mazda 626 that Mary Ellen wrecked; and the four-barrel carburetor with manual choke was from a ’72 RX-7. The rear bumper was off Angie’s Volvo – you know her?” Hudge gets frustrated that I can’t remember Angie, with her long legs and curly hair, sighs heavily and continues. “The tops of the rear fenders were also from her, and after I put in a new engine (daughter’s ’88 Mazda 323) it could tow or carry on its roof 2200 pounds.”

Hudge watches as I write to make sure I get it all straight. “Did you get the part about the wheels?” he presses. “The wheels were 15-inch alloy; make sure you get that down. This is important too: It had a wheelbase shorter than a Honda CRX.”

Furthermore, the car had the handy feature of not needing a key (keys are such an inconvenience). Rather, it started by way of two flip-on switches and one push button.

When asked for some final words of advice, Hudge leaves us with this: “Take your car to a reliable mechanic for oil changes, not the quick places, and insist on no oil that comes from a yellow bottle.”

And for the women: “Choose boring, nice guys. It’s like this: You know where he is - he’s home watching TV with a beer. If you want spirituality, go take a yoga class, leave your man alone. Spirituality isn’t something you do until after your mid-life crisis.” Hudge smiles, revealing an endearing, crooked set of top teeth. “Very few women have taken my advice on this.”








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