This article appears in VICE Magazine's Means of Production issue. Conceived of pre-COVID-19 and constructed during it, it explores the organization and ownership of our world.
On the day after the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I was supposed to meet Terry Swords, a jukebox repairman, at his workshop in Brooklyn. Swords is one of five people in New York City capable of refurbishing antique jukeboxes, finicky, vinyl-playing machines from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, most of which are privately owned. They’re prone to breaking down and difficult to fix. Those who know how to work on them are all nearing the age of retirement, and none of them have successors. Unless some young, budding jukebox mechanic steps forward, once they vanish from New York, their line of business will vanish with them.
I had told Swords I would arrive at his shop at 1:30 p.m., and it was already noon. Nothing physically prevented me from going: The mayor hadn’t ordered us to shelter in place; the subway was still running; just outside my apartment in Brooklyn, Broadway teemed with life, its sidewalks bustling with people running errands and picking up lunch, or lounging on their stoops in the light of an unusually balmy March afternoon. There was no visible sign that COVID-19 was about to bring this country to its knees—but still I knew it was spreading, invisibly, all around me. I also knew that it was especially dangerous, and more likely to be fatal, for older adults. And yet here I was, an hour away from stepping into a cramped workshop with a 52-year-old man. Soon after that, I’d visit a 61-year-old; soon after that, a 72-year-old. Something heavy and awful twisted itself into a knot inside my stomach, and my heart thumped wildly in my chest. Suddenly I had gone from reporting a story on the metaphorical death of jukebox repairmen to worrying that, if I infected these people, I could kill them.
At 1:15 p.m., I called Swords and canceled the interview. He told me, politely, that he understood. But he also sounded a little bit sad.
“I hope you still do the article someday,” he said. “It’s a really interesting question: Who’s going to work on this stuff after we’re gone? Who’s in that next generation?”
Weeks went by, but that question kept nagging at me. As I wrote stories about small businesses at risk of closing permanently and independent contractors in financial ruin, another question did, too. This virus has been devastating for anyone whose livelihood is inextricably linked to human interaction: servers and bartenders, musicians, hairdressers, tattoo artists. But what about people like Swords? Few realize they even exist; was anyone checking in to see how they were holding up?
I had wanted to watch Swords work, watch him pop open a 1954 Seeburg and delicately prod its ancient mechanical guts with his calloused fingers, listen to the satisfying click of a 45 locking into place on a jukebox turntable, breathe in the musty scent of grease and wood finish inside his workshop, and hear some old crooner’s voice swell from a 66-year-old amplifier until it filled the room and rattled the walls. But as we all have over the last two months, I was forced to let go of what I’d hoped for and make do with what I had.
I called Swords again. He told me how, for as long as he could remember, he had loved vinyl records. He learned to read by studying record labels, and he got his first turntable when he was four. He wouldn’t use the word “obsessed,” but yes—he was obsessed with old-school jukeboxes, always had been. His wife bought him one for his 40th birthday, and when it malfunctioned soon after, he decided to fix it himself. He tinkered with it almost every day when he got off work as a teacher, pouring hours and hours of painstaking labor into the machine until, a little over a year later, he’d refurbished it completely.
As he was approaching 50, he found himself disillusioned with his job. He knew that, at his age, embarking on a new career would be difficult, but he needed a change. The only thing that called to him, the only thing he really loved, was fixing up his old jukebox—and so, quixotic as it may seem, he decided to open an antique jukebox repair, rental, and sales business in 2016.
His shop in Prospect Heights, New York Jukebox, has never been profitable; he makes just enough money to pay rent and cover his utilities. But now, no one’s renting jukeboxes for parties they can’t throw. No one’s buying them, either. Even if a client asks Swords to repair a machine, pick up and delivery isn’t possible.
“I refuse to consider that it’ll put me under,” Swords said. “I can’t even bear to think about that. But it’s unmitigatedly bad.”
Every repairman in the city faces the same problem. Perry Rosen, who’s been fixing antique jukeboxes since 1998, is filing for unemployment. Richie Overhuls, who’s been in the business for 45 years, locked up his workshop and decamped to Florida. Jim Sullivan, who’s owned a repair company in New Jersey since the 70s, told me he feels like he’s been “forced into early retirement.”
“This is like a depression,” Sullivan said. “In my 47 years in this business, I’ve never seen it as bad as it is now.”
Rosen, Overhuls, and Sullivan all seem confident that they’ll be able to weather the economic fallout from COVID-19 and emerge on the other side of this crisis relatively unscathed. They’ve saved up enough money to keep them afloat for a few months. Before the virus hit New York, each of them had more work than they knew what to do with, and they’re anticipating a boom in business once the pandemic ends.
But Swords isn’t so sure. Unlike the others, he doesn’t have a long list of clients, and a reputation solidified over decades, that he can count on for steady repair work. Much of his revenue comes from renting out jukeboxes. He doesn’t have money squirreled away.
“I know there are people who’ve got it a whole lot worse, so I’m disinclined to complain about it, but it hurts. It really hurts,” Swords said. “I’ve been assuming that I’ll be able to recover. But I don’t know that.”
All four repairmen told me they have no idea who might fill the void left by their retirement.
“It’s gonna wither away,” Overhuls said. “I don’t have the time or the effort to take somebody in and train ’em. There’s too many machines, there’s too many models, there’s too many different types of mechanism—it would take ‘em six years, seven years to learn how to fix these things, you know, and somebody doesn’t wanna spend that kinda time. It’s a dying art.”
Funnily enough, the one person capable of passing the torch from this generation of jukebox repairmen to the next might be standing in their midst: Swords. At 52, he may not be able to sustain this line of work for another 30 or 40 years, but he is in a position to find someone who can. He’s the only repairman in New York with a brick-and-mortar store. On bright, sunny afternoons, he sets up an antique jukebox on the sidewalk and invites anyone strolling by to play it, to come inside and see the others, to explore his workshop, if they’re so inclined. Kids in his neighborhood know him by name, he said. For a few months now, a man in his 30s has been volunteering as Swords’ apprentice, slowly learning the basics of repair and maintenance on machines twice as old as he is. If anyone in New York is going to fall in love with antique jukeboxes, to the point where they might consider fixing them full-time, it will happen at this shop.
Once my interview with Swords was over, he asked me if I could think of anyone who might be interested in learning to work on these obsolete machines, anyone he might be able to take under his wing to ensure that the day we had talked about, when there are no jukebox repairmen left in New York, would never come.
“There are people in the next generation who would love doing this, and for whom it would be an invaluable, lasting skill,” he said. “Finding those people, and getting them in it, that’s going to be the challenge.”
For now, he and the rest of the city’s last remaining jukebox repairmen find themselves in the same position as the machines they fix: relics of a bygone era, humbly and diligently serving their purpose, waiting for someone curious enough to discover the worth in the work they do and keep it going a little while longer.
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