A Cautionary Tale From a Career Painter

A Cautionary Tale From a Career Painter

Back in 1985, the actor Yul Brynner was dying from cancer when he told a television audience on "Good Morning America" that what he really wanted to do was film a commercial that said, "Now that I'm gone, I'll tell you this: Don't smoke. Whatever you do, just don't smoke."

When he died several months later, his wish came true when a public service announcement was produced telling the world to quit smoking. Today, it is one of the most memorable anti-smoking statements ever made and is often re-broadcasted all over the world.

In life, we hopefully learn from others’ mistakes so that we don't repeat them. In this story, a career painter has sage advice for painters and techs who don't wear proper gear when repairing vehicles.

Alex Alonso is 52 years old and originally from Bronx, NY. His father, Jesus, was born in Uruguay and came to the U.S. to eventually open a two-man restoration shop where Alex started working at age 12. After high school, Alex took a six-month course on automotive repair, learning a lot of things he already knew, he said.

"In the Bronx, people fix their cars right out in the street, and I started working on my friends' vehicles while I was in high school,” he said. “Back then, we learned by doing, so when I went to auto tech school, I knew a little more than just the basics."

Father and son worked side-by-side restoring primarily classic American cars, and pretty soon, the quality of their work brought them more and more customers. After a while, they moved the business out of the city and continued flourishing.

"We moved upstate to Prattsville, NY, where we opened J. Alonso Body Shop in a small facility,” Alex said. “I learned how to do it all---disassembly, sandblasting, painting---you name it. We would turn around our restorations in 4--6 weeks on average, which meant that we were working all the time, but the shop was literally 3 feet from our house, so it was convenient. I would take multiple photos at every stage and put together an album for every customer with 200--300 pictures of their restoration, and they loved it! We built a reputation for quality and [fast work]."

In 1989, Alex and his father moved to Montevideo, Uruguay to run a restoration and body shop, where the business took off despite issues along the way.

"We worked on cars for the Israeli, Russian and Spanish embassies on mostly high-end European cars," Alex said. "Armed guards would come and inspect the vehicles after the repairs and stick mirrors underneath them to make sure everything was safe. They called us the gringos and used to tell us, 'You gringos do good work.'"

Uruguay doesn't make it easy for collision repairers to do their job, Alex said.

"There are a lot of DRPs available to shops in the U.S., but in Uruguay, there is just one insurance company and it is owned and operated by the government,” he said. “The insurance adjustors had all the power and they were a nightmare to deal with. They had a monopoly, so they were rude and nasty all the time and we had to fight with them on every supplement---It was awful."

In 2000, Alex moved to Florida, where he had to go back to square one upon his return.

"By the time I got back, it was a different ball game and I couldn't get a job without a work permit," he said. "So, I had to take a course and prove what I could do, and then the only job that was available paid $8 an hour. I was working in the hot sun outside painting cars for a shop that charged $300 for a paint job. Luckily, I became friends with a couple of the paint reps there and they helped me get a better job. After a couple years, I was making $1,200 a week working flat rate for a top shop."

In 2012, Alex experienced back pain, so he went to a chiropractor---but it didn't solve the problem. Finally, he got an MRI. When he went to the orthopedist to find out the results, they met him at the door.

"They told me that I had a tumor in one of my kidneys and that I needed to go to the doctor right away,” Alex said. “They removed it and I thought I was out of the woods, but I was wrong."

Today, Alex has stage 4 kidney cancer and the doctors give him 1--2 years to live. The last doctor he saw told him that he wasn't willing to do any more surgery at this point, because it would possibly make his condition even worse. He is battling for his life and taking chemo pills every day, keeping his hopes up and proceeding as best he can.

"I can't prove it and I'm not blaming anyone, but I know that the risks I took over all the years finally caught up with me," he said. "I was a mechanic when I was younger and always elbow-deep in all kinds of transmission fluids, brake fluids, motor oil and carburetor cleaner---you name it. I never wore gloves or any protective gear, because when you're young, you think you're a superhero. But all of that stuff gets into your blood, and where do you think it ends up? Your kidneys---that's right."

After 25 years in the paint booth, Alex also realizes maybe a little too late that wearing a breathing respirator and a full suit is a must, he said.

"In Florida, it gets really hot and humid, so sometimes I would either wear a half-suit or take it off and not wear gloves at all,” he said. “I tell painters now to put that mask on; don't be stupid the way I was. In the early years, some of the equipment wasn't all that great, but now with all of these oxygen-supplied air respirators, a painter can be safe all the time. Some shops stay on top of it and make safety a priority, but when things get busy and there are a lot of cars in the shop, it can be discarded very easily."

Staying hopeful and positive, Alex wants painters out there to know that their safety and health should be more important than any paycheck.

"I am hoping that painters will read this and learn from my mistakes," he said. "Don't take shortcuts and compromise your health, because life is precious and no one is indestructible."

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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