From the day my very first car heaved and groaned and hitched its way out of the driveway, I have dreaded turning to an auto mechanic for help.
For one thing, when you bring your car to a professional for repairs, you’re conceding that you’re not man enough to do the work yourself. That’s not a big deal for most people, but when you’re 16 years old and still working on your machismo, it’s a deflating experience.
“So,” the mechanic says, leaning way back in his office chair and smirking at you in that particular way. “You don’t know how to rebuild the front differential in this here Chevy Vega? That’s OK, miss. Why don’t you go get your hair done and we’ll see what we can do.”
The second thing is that, like doctors, car mechanics have a way of finding problems involving things you’ve never even heard of.
See a doctor for a busted ankle or something and it goes like this: “Your ankle is going to be just fine, but according to that one drop of blood we sucked out of your finger your LBJ cholesterol is high, your spleen pinions are all out of alignment and I don’t like the looks of that saw-toothed freckle at all. You’re going to need a full battery of tests and probably some form of expensive therapy.”
I almost never get a lollipop anymore, either, and if I do, all they have is green.
Likewise, go to a mechanic for a dangling muffler (it happens to all guys) and that part almost never turns out to be the most dire problem going on with that sweet 1975 Ford Pinto.
You know the news is bad the moment you step into that tiny garage office with its Castrol calendar. featuring a girl in Daisy Dukes leaning over a bright red Camaro. The mechanic is back in his chair again but this time he’s holding a clipboard.
“Ain’t good,” the mechanic tells you, tapping the clipboard on his knee to emphasize this point. “Your Napoleon connectors are rotted through, the brake banjos are shot to hell and the boot-faced fiddle vacuum is going to have to be replaced. That’s a specialty order, the boot-faced fiddle vacuum. Ain’t gonna be cheap.”
You came in expecting a $200 muffler job at the worst. When the mechanic gets around to giving you an estimated cost, you get queasy. Your face drains of color and you stumble into the inevitable rack of pine tree air fresheners. Your horrified brain is doing the math and silently you wonder if you’ll be able to raise that money by selling the rare coin collection alone, or if you’ll have to throw in one of the kids, as well.
Those damn fiddle vacuums. In some dark way, didn’t you always know that they were trouble?
It got to the point where I couldn’t even look at a girl in Daisy Dukes leaning over a red Camaro anymore. Every time I’d bring a vehicle in for repairs, I’d come up with my own sort of Doomsday estimate, factoring in cost and labor plus mucho bucks for the mystery problems ol’ Rusty Jones was sure to find. If the estimate for fixing my bitchin’ Ford Escort wagon (with luggage rack) exceeded the amount I’d paid for it to begin with, I had a plan in place to change my name, buy a pogo stick and move to a remote island where they’d never even heard of the combustion engine.
On top of that completely realistic fear of swollen estimates, I was also still afflicted with that bruising sense of inferiority every time I had to tap out on a car repair and take it to a pro. I’d rather crawl around beneath that oil-dropping Pontiac Uvula for a month trying to replace the clutch cable myself instead of going to the shop and facing Mechanic’s Estimate Gauntlet of Terror.
The result was that I didn’t see any mechanics or doctors at all for about 20 years. During that period, everything was a DIY project. I might have been completely contagious and I had car parts flying off all the time, but hey. No clipboards, no boot-faced fiddle vacuums and no pawning children to pay for car repairs.
Then two things happened that changed everything. I bought a dual sport motorcycle which can almost always be fixed at home with some tire spoons, a hacksaw and just the right balance of love and swear words.
And two, the auto industry started making cars that really can’t be repaired by anyone who doesn’t have access to the computer mothership that silently runs all vehicles on the planet. Instead of wrenches and screwdrivers, these days you need electronic diagnostic tools and computer software to so much as hang a new air freshener. Carburetors are gone forever and I don’t think cars even understand swear words like the old ones did.
For me it took the pressure off – it’s not that I’m inept; I simply can’t fix this car because it’s run by off-planet artificial intelligence and I’m not allowed access.
Take that, Daisy Duke.
Last week, though, my 15-year-old Ford Ranger started drooling gasoline every time I started it up. I thought of attempting to repair it on my own, but since it involved metal cutting tools and a flammable liquid, I just kept picturing a fireball that they’d be able to see from the International Space Station. Not to mention the inevitable Darwin Award. Who wants to be that guy?
So I sucked it up and took it to a Lisbon Street repair shop, turning over the Ranger to a well-known mechanic who’s been fixing cars since the era of Elvis, or something crazy like that. As always, I made those grim, inner calculations and braced for the worst. It was only a fuel line, yeah, but surely he’d have to replace it with some exotic metal only available on the moons of Neptune. Surely he’d find a zillion other things wrong on the underside of that rickety Ford Ranger. God only knew how my right-angled, cat’s eye ghost calipers were holding up.
Yet when he finished the work and quoted me the cost, it was so reasonable a figure, I almost found myself demanding to pay more. The cost was so manageable, I wouldn’t have to sell any of my organs to pay for it. With the installation of a simple fuel line, the fellow restoreth my faith in people to the extent that I’m thinking about going to a doctor for a complete overhaul.
Ha! Just kidding.
Can you imagine? I’ll just play it safe and have this mechanic take care of all my medical needs from now on. I can’t imagine I’m any more complicated than a 2004 Ford Ranger.