A good man is hard to find; a good auto mechanic is even harder to find. But how about a good guy who is also a fine auto mechanic and plays a Middle Eastern string instrument called the oud? Well, that's nearly impossible to find.
Dan Khali of Community Automotive, 40, thrives on being exactly that kind of rarity.
"I want to be the opposite of what people think of when they think of mechanics," he says. What he means is he doesn't want to be a stereotype...y'know, a greasy, lying, price-gouging snake ready to charge you $800 for an $80 fix. How many of us truly know about cars? Very few. How many of us depend on our cars to get us through life? Nearly all of us. Thus we're easily taken advantage of, Khali says, especially when the economy takes a nosedive and the aforementioned mechanics need to pay their rent.
Just within walking distance of his Burien shop, Khali's seen a number of places go out of business, including the Land Rover, Jaguar, and Nissan dealerships, which all employed onsite mechanics.
"The biggest competition in this business is word of mouth," says Khali. "You've got to gain people's trust and keep them coming back. That's the biggest challenge for any shop there is." As obvious as it may sound, Khali has discovered that honesty and fairness truly are key. "I have never advertised once," he says. "And work has been steady and very reliable."
Khali has been an auto mechanic since 1987. He has played the oud since the mid-'90s. However, he started both for the same reason: to please his parents. Born and raised in Jerusalemâ€"one of 12 childrenâ€"Khali was 12 years old and the first of his Palestinian family to emigrate to the U.S. when he arrived in 1980. Khali says his father was so poor when the family resettled on the East Coast that he couldn't afford to get the family car, a Jeep Cherokee, fixed. So Khali went to school to learn to be a mechanic.
"I knew nothing about cars," he says. "Nothing. I didn't even know how to do brakes, which is the easiest thing to do. I didn't even know how to check the oil on my own car."
Once out of school, he worked for an AAMCO Transmission service in Richmond, Va., and later got a job with Mercedes-Benz (an automaker he still swears by). There he met a foreman, a Southerner whose full name he never knew and whom he describes as "a real cowboy, but he's the best man I've ever seen work on a car. He taught me everything." It so happened this guy also played the oud.
Khali had been playing electric guitar for close to a decade up to that point. But his parents always hated the sounds he made on the plugged-in six-string, whereas the sound of the oud, he says, invariably made them smile. Furthermore, his mentor's example suggested to Khali that the best mechanics should also be artists. It helps to have an outlet.
"Go into any shop where the mechanic thinks only about cars his entire life, and I guarantee you'll see some real head problems," he says with a grin. "I get frustrated, I come in [to my waiting area] and bang away on the oud...I'm a whole new man. I can think clearly."â€"Brian J. Barr