Tony’s finest moment may have been the day he caught a jack rabbit in the shop. Former Californian reporter Gretchen Wenner had had her car towed in after breaking down on I-5 in the middle of way-out-there.

“We had the car up on the hoist and this rabbit poked his head through one of the holes,” said John Axt, owner of John Axt’s Auto Service.

“The rabbit dropped six feet to the ground and tried to get away. Tony caught it by the air compressor.”

Tony was Tony Nieto who died recently at 74. He’d worked at John’s shop for 22 years.

Tony, with his black movie star mustache, was the gatekeeper, often the first to greet customers when they pulled into the parking lot with one automotive lament or another. Tony was sympathetic but only to a point.

Tony, who was raised in Shafter, didn’t own a car. He rode a series of old bikes to work from his home near Garces eventually graduating to gas and electric bikes. He was proud of how little he spent on gas and maintenance and would list those expenses to customers on the verge of dropping half a paycheck on a new set of tires.

Every small shop needs a Tony, the man who answers the phone, keeps Boraxo in the soap dispenser and holds down the store while the owner is picking up a part or test driving a car.

“Tony was good at tool preparation,” John said. “He knew what tool to bring me.”

If they didn’t have the tool, Tony made it.

“He’d bend a wrench if we had a tough job we couldn’t get a normal wrench on,” John said. “I have a whole toolbox of tools like that.”

Tony was also adept at rotating tires, writing work orders and especially good at siphoning gas from a gas tank when the job called for a new fuel pump.

“He said it reminded him of being a teenager and cruising on Saturday night,” John said. “He and his buddies always carried a gas can and a hose, and when they got low on gas, they’d siphon some. They called it an Oklahoma credit card.”

Tony had his routine and God forbid anybody get in the way of it. Things were black and white with Tony and he did not operate comfortably in the gray area.

“He always took his lunch at 11 a.m.,” John said. “If a customer came in, he’d keep on eating. Tony could be a handful and I wanted to wring his neck at times.”

Lunch consisted of hot dogs, pork rinds and sometimes homemade concoctions involving rib bones which gave the shop a nice aroma, one that John misses.

Tony liked plants and trees and brought in ripe nectarines from his tree. He was black and white about how trees should be cared for and was bothered by the palm tree he could see through the shop’s window located across the street.

“The tree was overgrown and it bugged Tony,” John said. “One day, he brought in pruning tools and walked across the street after work and pruned that palm tree.”

If you owned something, you took care if it. After he’d had enough of the parade of unwashed cars that came through the shop, he sensed an opportunity and started his “Weekend Waxer” business. He took customer’s cars home for the weekend and detailed them until they looked showroom-new.

Tuesday, I stopped by the shop. At 3 p.m., I was startled by the sound of birds chirping. Tony had installed an Audubon clock on the office wall because he liked birds.

“He’d feed the sparrows every day before we opened,” John said.

Tony’s affinity toward plants, trees and birds did not extend to the jack rabbit he’d caught in the shop years ago.

“He took it home and I thought he might make a pet out of it,” John said. “But Tony liked rabbit and planned to fatten him up and eat him.”

Tony put the rabbit on the lawn with a wire cage around it but when he woke up the next day, the rabbit had dug its way to freedom.

“That rabbit lucked out,” Tony said.

We did too. 

Contact Californian columnist Herb Benham at 661-395-7279 or hbenham@bakersfield.com. His work appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays; the views expressed are his own.

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