Sunday, January 30, 2011

Orifice on Wheels

Car overheating,
Title just received in mail,
Four wheeled whore....

Cars are like relationships, there is never a good time for them to break down. In the United States, trying to live without a personal vehicle consigns you to public transportation, to living among the poor, to becoming a second class citizen. Sure you don't have to have one, but by not owning a car you'll be sacrificing both mobility and that most important of all American commodities, time.

Unlike most people, I don't like cars. I don't derive pleasure from driving them, I don't care what they look like, they don't validate my existence. The axiom: I own a Porsche, therefore I exist stands outside my spiritual frame of reference. In my world view a car must have two qualities, otherwise it is worthless.

1. It must get me from point A to point B.
2. It must be dependable and be low maintenance.

(Curiously, these are the same criteria I have for girlfriends.)

So when it comes to owning a car, my money has always been on a Honda, the Timex of the vehicular world. I have ten levels of experience of driving beaters; a lifetime of popped clutches, non-working breaks, dying alternators, dead batteries, overheated radiators, electrical shorts, failing transmissions, and blown fuses.

I have had one car stolen, five different radios ripped from three different dash boards, and a third car driven all the way from the East coast only to have it crumpled like an accordion while parked on the street in a hit and run my second week in LA. (Whereupon it was pushed into a red zone and towed without my knowledge for being parked illegally.)

Every altercation I ever had with the police or the authorities has been a direct or indirect result of owning a car. I've been harassed at least a half dozen times by police looking for DUI's. I have received tickets for speeding, a ticket for failing to yield at a stop sign, a ticket for running a red light, a ticket for a failed tail light, and a ticket for a missing front license plate. I have received more parking tickets then I have fingers and toes; tickets for expired meters, tickets for being parked the "wrong" way on the street, tickets for being parked during street cleaning, tickets for not reading the street signs properly.

No, I do not like cars. I have probably spent at least two years of my life long salary buying, repairing and maintaining vehicles, all for the privilege of owning a car.

In 2008 I bought a used Honda Civic with 65,000 miles for ten grand. My old Honda was on its last legs, and it was time to move on. For the past three years, the Civic has been good to me, or as good as any car can be to any owner. I had the breaks redone, a battery replaced, your standard oil checks, but the car appeared to be fine.

Until Thanksgiving. While driving up Escondido canyon to my sister's, the car began to overheat. I eventually had it towed to an auto shop near my house. The mechanic told me the radiator was shot and the thermostat fused to the engine, but for a mere $500, he could fix it.

For the next two months the car appeared to be fine.

Until last week. I was driving back from Riverside when I noticed the engine overheating. Worried, I got off at the next exit only to have the car die as I pulled into the gas station. Once again I took it back to the same mechanic, figuring since he already had experience with the car he would know what was wrong with it.

Instead he figured he should replace everything, including the plastic valve covers which had melted on the top of the engine. This time there is a new timing belt, a new water pump, and a new camshaft pulley and camshaft sensor, both of which had been causing the engine to vibrate. For $1400, I would have the privilege of being able to drive again.

For three days. But then the car overheated. Again.

This time the car overheated when I turned the heat on. Yup, you read that right. Overheated with the heater on. I turned the heater off and the car appeared to cool down. But while sitting still in traffic the engine began to overheat, again.

I've either just been ripped off by a mechanic, or at 107,000 miles my car has just officially hit menopause.

This time I'm at work when I call the tow truck. Ms. Seabourne, a fellow teacher at school, recommends a mechanic in Long Beach who is supposed to be fantastic. She even offers me the use of her car, a Toyota Corolla, while mine is in the shop. She has a second car she can use as a spare.

Most tow truck drivers in Los Angeles are Latino, so I'm a little surprised when the guy who arrives to pick up my car is African American. His name is Victor Jones, and he's a former NFL running back who played for eight years before shattering his knees. I ask him why he's driving a truck.

"Groupies, man. Groupies."

"You should come and speak to my students."

"I used to do that, man. Used to. But the most important thing you can tell your students, STAY IN SCHOOL."

When we arrive at the auto shop the second mechanic strides forward to shake my hand. I explain what has happened and that this time I want him to look over everything and whether or not the car is salvageable. He nods, telling me what he'll check, explaining that he wants to perform three different tests.

He starts by placing a blue tube of liquid over the radiator. "If this turns green," he explains, "that means there is a problem with your coolant."

We turn the car on and the liquid appears to remain blue, but then it begins to shift, turning bluish jade, before transforming into a rich shade of aquamarine . The mechanic whistles. "That took longer than it should, normally it turns green right away."

"Well, what does that mean?"

The mechanic begins to explain the inner workings of the engine. I'm lost within twenty seconds. I ask for a more simple explanation.

"It means that there is one of four things wrong with your engine. Three I can fix easily, but if it is a bad valve then I will have to replace a cap and that is expensive. I'm going to run some other tests, I need to make sure. I want to run the tests early in the morning when the car is really cold."

I thank him. He asks if I want anything from the refrigerator, a diet coke, water. "Do you need a ride anywhere? I'll have one of my men drive you."

I thank him but the teacher who is letting me borrow her car is picking me up. (Give it up for Seabourne!)

The next day the mechanic calls. It's a bad valve. It's going to cost me about $1600. I begin to silently swear, as I am now faced with the ultimate modern dilemma.

When an older car begins to break down, does one spend the money to fix it, or does one cut their losses and get a new car?

And I just made the last payment in December.

Son of a Bitch.

I'm about ready to say screw it, but then what? If I walk way I've thrown away not only a car but all the work I've already had done on the car. At least if I get it working again I can resell the vehicle and get something back for it, or keep it and hope that the car is fine for years to come.

The mechanic tries to reassure me. He tells me if I don't have the money, I can pay him in installments with no interest. He further claims that he'll stand by his work for 20,000 miles or two years, and that if anything goes wrong with the engine he'll fix it for free.

I double down.

I tell him to go ahead and fix it. I should get it back Monday.

I can live without a mate, I can live without a house, I can even live without a TV. But no matter how much I hate them and fear them, I can't live without the god damn car.

A car isn't freedom, its purified angst. Angst on wheels.

No comments:

Post a Comment