There was a time when most neighbourhoods had a Geoff Penney. The guy who could fix anything. The guy with the garage that looked like a wizard's cave of bits and pieces. The guy with the yard that held everything the garage could not, and the guy who would stare for a moment at whatever sad, broken mystery you were holding and say, "Leave it with me."
A drive by the home he shared with wife, Sandy, would reveal a rotating cast of cars and characters. That house, situated on one of the most beautiful streets in Burlington, Ont., was a magnet for those who knew the man who waved an oily rag like a silk handkerchief. Cars and motorcycles would come and go, and I asked him once how he got away with it; how he managed to keep his back east slice of scrap yard amidst the gentle sensibilities of this part of town.
"Oh, well, everybody has something break at some point," he told me with a smile and a sparkle. And he was right. Everybody eventually made it to the Penney house, because in a world of throw-it-out-and-buy-a-new-one, Geoff was an oasis in the madness of planned obsolescence. Bicycles, washers, driers, taps, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, cuckoo clocks. You'd see the garage light on long into the night, but he'd also make house calls. His invoices would be signed with words of wisdom, usually telling me to never buy a boat and always use sunscreen.
Cleaning out my garage after my father died, I uncovered a trove of "you never know when you might need it," and some of it went to Geoff. His garage was a madhouse of bins, buckets, racks and piles of "you never know." He would dump a tin of assorted washers, nuts and bolts onto a cookie sheet to find what he needed; he had folded the sheet to create a funnel at one end so he could expertly put everything back in the tin. You sometimes couldn't see the man himself in that garage, yet he could find a single screw in record time.
I once left a wounded lawnmower with him, telling him I had no clue what my son had hit, but wondering if he could figure it out. He smiled, and called me two weeks later. The mower ran better than it had new, and he told me my kid owed him a beer. My son was 12.
Geoff had more friends in more diverse places than anyone I've ever known. I'd see Porsches in his driveway as well as scooters and an ancient MG. His friend Rolly Astrom said it was that MG that had caused the only neighbourhood consternation I'd heard of. A woman took offence to the blight, so Geoff had historical plates put on it. Not every problem had to be solved with a wrench.
Astrom's pride, a 1975 Ferrari Dino, was maintained by Geoff. "We just couldn't let him get close to paint. He only had one rag, I'm sure, and he'd go to rub something on the body and we'd yell," he said.
When a 1972 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow showed up in the Penney driveway, I was intrigued, but not surprised. I would find out later it belonged to long-time Penney friend, Jamie Edwards, who had made the purchase 15 years ago.
"It was for fun. When the wiper motor went I was quoted $1,000," Edwards said. "Geoff turned a cable around and machined a new piece. Then the hydraulics in the car were pretty bad, and the wiring was the Lucas Prince of Darkness variety. He fixed it all. He was a genius."
There are endless stories of his abilities, and his self-proclaimed "Goofy Newfie" spirit, but I will forever remember this one: When he finished working on that Rolls, he fetched his elderly neighbour and put him in the back seat. Geoff would then put on a chauffeur's hat and drive him around downtown.
We recently lost Geoff at age 74.
Wherever he is, I hope there's a garage.
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