Today marks the twentieth anniversary of Computer Medic as a brick-and-mortar business.
By 2003, I had been working out of my house for several years. But you can only go so far with that arrangement. People don’t take you seriously unless and until you have a physical location. So I was looking to take it up a notch. A lady friend who knew of this ambition alerted me that a space might be coming up at her business park. A neighbor a couple of doors down was having a hard go of it and looking to get out of his lease. The rent was reasonable and the requirements were modest: first and last month’s rent plus a small deposit. I had actually been inside three or four of the spaces there, and based on that limited experience figured this one would work just fine.
Thanks to its excellent location and low rent, spots at Thornton Road Business Park were in high demand. There was even a waiting list. But the list could be bypassed if the right person put in a word for you with the management. If I wanted this deal I needed to act quickly. So sight unseen I said “yes,” which was conveyed to the landlord, who gave conditional approval. A lease was proffered and signed, and money changed hands.
I might should maybe have done a little homework first. My newly acquired space was a bare bones warehouse, with one corner enclosed to form an office. The office, and I use that word loosely, was small and dimly lit by a single bare bulb. Holes pocked the walls and ceiling, which were covered with a blotchy paint job of a sickly purplish hue. There was no AC or heat. The floor throughout was bare concrete, sticky where it wasn’t filthy, splotched every which way with god knows what. This was going to be a major Project. But I had never before rented a commercial space, and without a rental history could not afford to be choosy in boomtown Austin. It was either this or wait, for maybe a very long time.
The fellow who was leaving, a middle-aged guy by the name of Tim, was a builder of custom architectural fixtures, a craft at which he genuinely excelled. His designs were clever and eye-catching. His welding was world-class. I still have a movable staircase he fashioned from rebar and shopping-cart pieces. It is a work of art.
But Tim did not excel in the art of cleanliness. The place was a hoarder-grade mess with literally tons of junk scattered all over. Piles of plastic, metal and wood pieces of assorted sizes and shapes were haphazardly strewn about, filling every available space. As if that weren’t enough, every surface was covered with about an inch-thick layer of superfine dust, a toxic slurry of metal, plastic, wood, and paint particles.
Most of July and August were spent clearing and detoxing the space. It was a hot summer, with afternoon temps reaching over a hundred pretty much every day. Inside the shop it was about twenty degrees hotter. Up on the office roof, just under the ceiling, where I spent many an afternoon cleaning, building, or making repairs, it was probably twenty degrees hotter than that.
The dust was the worst part. I first tried sweeping it up, and then vacuuming, but both efforts failed miserably because the stuff clung tenaciously to every surface. So I bought a shop-size air compressor, hooked it up to an blower attachment and began pushing it out the garage door, starting in the very back and slowly working forward. The process generated great billowing dark clouds of fine particulates. One day a neighbor showed up, unannounced. She had seen what looked like smoke, got alarmed, and came over to see if there was a fire. No mask seemed capable of stopping the dust, and I developed a cough that lingered for months.
When the heat and dust got to be too much I would strip to my shorts and hose off at the bib by the garage door. For the uninitiated, this is a greatly underappreciated, life-affirming pleasure. The water pressure was fantastic, good enough to fill a five-gallon bucket in about 40 seconds. If you turned the tap all the way up, you’d get a splendid fifteen-foot arc of perfect laminar flow.
Eventually I finished the cleanup. Shortly after I added a new room for a working space. Not long after that I installed hot water and a shower. Central heating and air came along soon after. I built a locking closet with a sleeping loft above. When the space next door became available I took it over. For a few years, things hummed along nicely. The dog-eared little business park became a second home, where I knew everyone and everyone knew me. I made some very good friends there. It was congenial, comfortable. It seemed right.
But as some wise man once noted, nothing lasts forever. In 2016, a developer made a very generous bid for the property, contingent on a successful zoning change. They were going to tear down our little community of artists and craftworkers, tinkerers and creatives, and replace it with a mammoth mixed-use facility.
But their plans were a little too ambitious: Five stories, two hundred fifty-plus condos over ground floor retail, all on a small, already overcrowded strip of two lane residential road. Hundreds turned out to oppose it. In the face of vigorous, vocal opposition, the Planning Commission declined to approve and so did the City Council, a rare victory for continuity in a city hooked on growth at any cost. The plan was quietly shelved.
The management, which up to then had been extravagantly lax, took the failure personally, and lashed out at the tenants, some of whom had aligned with the opposition. Our two-page, bare-bones lease was replaced with one totaling twenty legal-size pages, brimming with onerous provisions. Rents went WAY up. A triple-net fee was levied, retroactively. By the time management announced a “no-dog” policy, over vociferous tenant opposition, I had had enough, and began looking for an alternative location. I found it in a low-key business park right around the corner from my house, a two-minute walk away. It’s the sort of place you could drive by a hundred times and never notice.
I left Thornton Road one month short of my thirteenth anniversary there. The new place is better in almost every way. Yet I miss the old one. I miss its comfort and camaraderie. I miss its laid-back, charming, old-Austin dowdiness. Some days I wish I had never left.
A great deal has happened in twenty years. When I started this gig I was still a young man. Or at least young-ish. But today also marks another significant date: my first day of Medicare coverage, which takes effect on the first day of the month in which you turn 65. By any definition, this is old. And this kind of work really is a young person’s game. Hard to see doing this for much longer.
But then what?