The garage at Ponce’s Transmissions in Fort Worth is empty. Nobody’s working on any cars, and there’s no sound except for the air blowing through the vents.
The owner, Joe Ponce Jr., said it wasn’t always this quiet. Business dried up after people stopped receiving their extra $600 in unemployment benefits, part of the COVID-19 relief package Congress passed in March. That aid lapsed in July.
“Sure enough, about two weeks later, it’s been like this,” Ponce said. “It’s just — it’s gotten from worse to worse.”
The same relief package also offered paycheck protection loans to help businesses keep their employees. Ponce said he got one, and it helped pay his workers — for a while.
In the end, he had to let go of three out of his five employees, including his wife, Arlene. Now it’s just Joe and a coworker who’s been with Ponce since the beginning.
The pandemic has hurt everyone in some way, whether it’s financial struggles, the loss of a family member or the isolation everyone is facing. This year, the Ponces have faced it all.
The Ponce Family
Joe and Arlene have been together since they were teenagers. Sitting on the couch in the front office of Ponce’s Transmissions, they laughed as Joe recounted how he introduced himself.
“I seen her walking down the street one day, and I guess I liked what I saw, and I pulled over and asked if she wanted a ride,” Joe said.
Arlene wasn’t interested. Joe went around the block and asked her again.
“We’ve been together since,” he said.
Joe started the transmission business in 1979, and Arlene started helping out after their kids started school.
Their son, Joe Ponce III, who his parents call Jojo, grew up at the shop’s original location on the North Side. Arlene had to scrub her baby clean after he spent the day there.
“He left a black grease ring around the tub,” she remembered, laughing. “That’s when I said, you’re not taking him back over there no more! You’re not watching him. He’s all over the place.”
Still, Jojo spent a lot of time there. He learned how to build a transmission — a complicated car component — when he was still a kid.
As an adult, he was the shop’s office manager. He handled all the computer tasks and cheerfully greeted customers. His father planned to pass the business on to him.
But this past spring, Jojo got sick.
Jojo had a stomachache that turned out to be a hernia blocking his intestine, his father said. Jojo spent weeks in the hospital, and he underwent surgery. Through all that, COVID-19 restrictions at the hospital meant his parents couldn’t visit him.
“We called every day, every day, and we asked them if we can go and see him. They said no,” Arlene said. “You know when they called us to go down there? When he was already gone.”
Jojo died unexpectedly on April 17.
Texas Health Harris Methodist — the hospital where Jojo died — confirmed in an email that its COVID policy in early April did not allow most inpatients to have visitors. They made exceptions for patients nearing the end of life.
Joe and Arlene think things could have turned out differently if they were just allowed to see their son.
“He didn’t die of COVID, but I believe he died because of it,” Joe said. “I believe he was collateral damage.”
Life, And The Pandemic, Go On
As Joe and Arlene grapple with loss, they also have to deal with everything else going on in the world.
Right now, Joe and Arlene’s granddaughter is living with them, along with her boyfriend and baby twin boys.
“They were living somewhere else, and we told her to come live with us, and they give us a little rent, but can you imagine if they had to go out on their own? People cannot pay rent!” Arlene said.
Arlene has health conditions that put her at a greater risk for a severe case of COVID, and more people at the house means more people coming and going.
“It’s just gonna take one person to get sick, and there we all are,” she said.
Joe and Arlene are not fans of President Donald Trump, who Joe said has bungled the response to the pandemic. He criticized the president for refusing to listen to experts about how to handle the crisis.
They’re hoping President-elect Joe Biden will treat the pandemic more seriously and provide more financial aid for families who need it.
Arlene said she’s scared. She just wants to see an end to the pandemic and the political chaos.
“After these elections, I’m kind of — I’m kind of excited to see what’s gonna happen, you know. For the better, I hope,” she said.
As for their financial situation, Joe and Arlene say they’ll be OK, even if they have to go into debt. They already own their shop and their house, and they’ve made it through tough times before.
“I don’t really care about getting a whole lot of work. I’m just one of those that’s happy just to make a living,” Joe said. “And that was something I had hoped to leave for my son.”
The Ponces remember their son Jojo for his larger-than-life presence. He loved being around his family. He was loud, and he had a sarcastic sense of humor that Arlene sometimes had to chide him for.
“One time I told him at the house, I said, ‘You know what, Jojo, not everybody has a sense of humor,’” she remembered, laughing. “He goes, ‘I know.’”
Because of the pandemic, the Ponces had to wait six months after Jojo’s death to have an in-person memorial service.
They almost canceled it, for fear of spreading COVID, but it turned out well. They got a space at a Lions Club and made sure it was cleaned and disinfected from top to bottom. Everyone was required to wear masks.
About 50 people, including Jojo’s friends and cousins, came to share videos, pictures, music and catered barbecue.
It was an event Jojo would have loved to be at — full of family.