At 96, many miles left Dependable: Grant Lackey rises at 3 a.m. and takes two buses across town to reach his job. He has no plans to slow down.

May 14, 1998|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

In a small tire shop on Pulaski Highway, past the neon lights of the liquor store that used to be a family restaurant, sandwiched between the auto paint store that was once a brick manufacturing company and the vacant-lot-turned-palm-reading business, one constant endures.

complained when one of Lackey's tires was brought out, saying she had asked for a used tire, not a new one. It's a story he recounts again and again, and each time, remembering the magic his brush strokes produced, he smiles so broadly that his eyes almost disappear.

It might seem unusual for a company to employ a man born in 1901, but that's not the case at Pulaski Tire Service.

Calling it family-owned and -operated somehow seems an understatement. Primary owner Robert DeShazo works alongside his wife, Pat, who handles the cashier's post. Their 16-year-old son, Robert II, pitches in on weekends. DeShazo's sister Delores relieves Pat at night. Cousin Byrd DeShazo is chief mechanic. And DeShazo's two brothers -- the other owners -- fill the overnight shifts of the 24-hour-a-day business, which performs tuneups, oil changes and emergency road repairs in addition to selling new and used tires.

"This is a family business," Robert says, "and [Lackey is] the Pop."

He isn't a blood relation, but Robert, who lost his father in 1966, says that's just a technicality. One thing about the DeShazo family -- its members take care of one another.

Theirs is the kind of family that gathers Sundays and feasts on a dinner so bountiful that the dining room table practically groans under the platters of food. Robert works 18 hours a day but still takes breaks to drive his three children to school. Pat enjoys few things more than volunteering through her church to treat senior citizens to movies or restaurant meals.

"They can teach you about values and history," she says. "They've lived what we only hear about -- the [civil rights] speeches and marches."

It seemed only natural that after Pat's father died, her mother came to live with them in their cozy stucco house on St. Lukes Lane. It wasn't because she had nowhere else to go: Everybody in the DeShazo family wanted her to move in.

"She didn't want to be alone," Robert says, "and our house is always open."

In a sense, the same thing happened with Lackey.

Robert's father was the first to befriend Lackey, and it wasn't long before the whole DeShazo family embraced the gentle, white-haired man who began his career as a blacksmith and turned to tires when cars replaced horses.

Lackey, who was born in Atlanta but spent most of his life in Baltimore, has outlived most of his own family. His wife passed away years ago, and his two daughters have become elderly themselves. When Robert retired as a foreman at Bethlehem Steel Corp. a few years ago and took over for another brother in the tire business, he never once thought of suggesting that Lackey might want to stop working there. And it wasn't because Lackey had nowhere else to go, either.

"It's not like someone makes work for him," Robert says. "What he does is needed."

For Robert, there is something immeasurably comforting in Lackey's steady presence at the shop. When Robert phones in the morning, the first thing he asks, each and every day, is whether Lackey is there. The answer is always yes.

"Here, he's never lonely or alone or lacking the company of someone he knows," Robert says, and he takes comfort in that, too.

The rituals that mark the end of Lackey's workday are as methodical as those that begin it. When he leaves for home at 4 p.m., he will have finished painting every tire in his stack -- be it 10, 20 or 100. What's more, he'll remember the make and model of all of them, the statistics ready to roll off his tongue should someone need to know what Pulaski Tire has in stock.

Leaving behind a pile of shiny tires and a freshly rinsed brush, he picks up his empty lunch bag and either catches a ride from a co-worker or heads to the bus stop.

He climbs the steps of his rowhouse and fits his key in the door. He carries the plastic container that held his lunch to his narrow kitchen, where an old-fashioned breadbox vies for counter space with a package of sale-priced honey buns.

"Gotta keep your kitchen clean," he says. "Always something to do in the house. In summertime -- the grass, the yard. Always something to do. Take a walk."

He will be busy taking a bath, cooking dinner and tidying his kitchen until he retires at 8 p.m. sharp, as he does every night. He needs to be rested and ready for a new day's work.

"I can't stay in the house," he says. "I got to get out. They depend on me."

The family at Pulaski Tire Service will be waiting for him, tomorrow morning and every morning after that. He knows this.

"I know one thing," says Pat. "If he ever stopped, that would be the end of him."

Pub Date: 5/14/98

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