Archive for February, 2011

Things You Don’t Say To Your Mechanic

February 9, 2011

My car had started acting up the last week of 2010, accelerating sluggishly, but I hadn’t thought much of it until January 4 when the car almost stalled out on the busiest thoroughfare in Charlottesville.  In a fevered panic, I drove the car straightaway to the garage I’ve used for my oil changes, inspections and assorted other repairs over the past 5 years.  Although I detailed the problem, they called the next day to tell me that they couldn’t detect the cause and then proceeded to give me what I considered a “wish list” of what they deemed “necessary” repairs, totaling $2300.  Given that my car is 20 years old and not worth more than $800, this was patently ridiculous.  And clearly not all the repairs were necessary.  For instance, the oil pan has been leaking ever since I bought the car, a fact that these bozos might have noticed since they’ve been servicing the car all this time.

All that day I was shaking with wrath, sensing that these guys had profiled me as a “mark.”  Every woman has had this experience.  Eleven years ago at a Jiffy Lube in Boston, this guy had tried to convince me I needed a new radiator.  What he didn’t realize (because he wasn’t interested in helping me,  only in scalping me) was that we’d just had a new radiator put in.  “Just change the oil and give me the car,” I responded.  I now told my Charlottesville mechanic, who couldn’t be bothered to pronounce my name correctly but would have been happy to cash my check, the same thing.  When I picked up the car that afternoon, I didn’t break into a operatic aria of screaming denunciations.  I gave them a cool smile, paid the $35 and vowed silently to never return.

I put some fuel injector cleaner in with the gas and didn’t experience the problem again for almost a month.  Thinking it might be an issue of fuel delivery, I changed the fuel filter, the cheapest solution.  That didn’t solve it, so before the heap completely broke down, I took it to the mechanic up the street.  He told me he’d drive it around and see if he could diagnose the problem.  Three days later I called the garage.  He had no clear idea of what was causing the problem but was full of dire warnings.  “Drive it until it breaks down,” he said.  “Then call me and I’ll come diagnose the problem.”

The next day I gathered three weeks of laundry (of course, the washing machine is broken down too) and headed into town.  Not 8 miles from the garage, at one of the busiest intersections in town, the car died.  Completely.  I never want to relive what happened next; it will take months for me to shake off the psychic layers of curses that rained down upon me as the owner of that broken-down car.   I still can barely accept how happy I was to see the police who finally pushed my car into a gas station parking lot.  Usually my attitude toward cops is closer to Woody Allen’s in “Annie Hall,” juvenile anger directed toward any authority figure.

My exchange with my insurance company which provides towing was a less pleasant encounter.  I know those are  real living people with real problems on the other end of the line, but sometimes it’s difficult to remember that from the plastic way they behave.  The way they’re obliged to follow a script can quickly drive a person over the edge.  Like ending the conversation with “have a good day.”  Listen:  my car is broken down in traffic.  The chances of me having a good day are long passed.  When I told the customer service guy to stop calling me “ma’am,” he answered, “What should I call you, ma’am.”  It was like talking to the HAL computer in Kubrick’s “2001.”  I’d suggest they train these folks on two possible approaches, one where the customer’s car just needs a jump start and another where the customer’s car is blocking mid-day traffic and she’s trying hard not to scream hysterically.

And of course, the mechanic when I called him was nowhere to be found.  His son answered (how come mechanics always have sons?  do they farm out their daughters?).  I told him I’d just picked up my car and it had broken down.  This is the second time this young man had talked to me and provided me with the same, useless information:  “He thinks it’s the head gasket.”   “I’m having the car towed there,”  I told him, not sure he was listening.  Later, after doing my laundry, I came home to find a message on my machine.  “It’s the distributor,” my mechanic said.  “That’s $420 for the part and then labor.  Call me back.”  When he called again, pushing for an answer, I mentioned how much fun it had been to break down in traffic.  Impervious to chagrin, he answered, “Well, it’s done with.  I thought it was the distributor all along.”  “Oh really,” I was dying to say.  “It seems to me you thought it was the head gasket.  But then you didn’t really try to diagnose the problem, did you?”

Thus my point of things you mustn’t say to your mechanic.  Just like you can’t insult a waiter or they’ll do something to your food and never have it out with your redneck neighbor or things are bound to get worse, you can never tell a mechanic what you really think about his ability to fix your car and his indifference to your personal safety.  Not that it really matters anyway if you’re a woman, since apparently men of all ages are incapable of repeating anything you’ve just said.  But male or female, these folks have you over a barrel and you just have to smile and accede to their inflated image of themselves.  That’s the paltry sum of my wisdom on the matter.  And to think it only took 45 years to learn this!