Not Firing On All Cylinders

June 7, 2013

As soon as I dropped the car off I was dreading the call. I’d left it at the auto repair place with explicit instructions that all it needed was an oil change, but I knew from previous experience that later in the day I’d be getting a call, that they would have found some urgent and costly and completely unrelated problem that would need to be fixed. The phone would ring and the guy from the auto place would say, “Mr. Waldrop? We found a loose thread in one of the seat cushions. Now it’ll cost $150 for us to cut it, but I’d suggest you let us go ahead and do it now or in a couple of months it’ll be $500 to get the entire seat replaced.” And because I have the word “sucker” printed across my forehead in special ink that only auto repair people can see I’d tell them to go ahead and do it.

I should clarify that I usually take the car to one of those fancy chain auto repair places, although I have on a couple of occasions taken it to an independent, locally owned auto shop. You know the sort I mean: it’s a dirty, ramshackle building, usually behind a lonely gas station on a country road. Outside there’s a stack of a half dozen tires from long extinct car models. The inside is all wood paneling with a calendar with a girl in a bikini hanging behind the desk. The guy who comes out to look at your car wears coveralls that look like they’ve been dipped in grease, and he’s got seven teeth pointing in eight different directions, and he leans over the engine with a lit cigar hanging from his lips and tells you something you can’t understand, but that’s okay. In spite of the fact that this sort of place always makes me uncomfortable I feel like these guys know what they’re doing. Those aren’t grease stains on their coveralls and caps and eyelids. Those are battle scars. They’ve learned the mysteries of the internal combustion engine, and can fix anything from a lawnmower to a Rolls Royce, sometimes just by hitting it hard enough in the right place with a wrench. And these are guys who’ll knock fifty bucks off replacing your car’s thermostat if you remembered to bring a box of doughnuts.

The place where I dropped the car off to get the oil change was the exact opposite of one of those places. As I said it’s one of those fancy chain places, where the interior is all gray and lavender, where brand new tires are arranged in geometric patterns and support promos for the latest animated film. If you want to wait while your car is fixed there’s a lounge where the big screen TV is always tuned to the home and garden network, and where you can enjoy a complimentary cup of free trade Sumatran medium roast. This is not an auto repair shop. It’s an automotive transformation boutique. Most of the employees appear to be between the ages of twenty and twenty five, wear spotless uniforms without a trace of grease, and look like cover models for CaZ, the magazine for the discriminating coveralls wearer. Even the one old guy, who’s a dead ringer for J.K. Simmons, is spotless, which makes me wonder if they wear hazmat suits just for oil changes. The whole place is permeated with the heady scent of tire rubber with just a hint of lilac. I can understand why they charge a little more – hey, those artisanal pastries aren’t cheap. But I also feel a little nervous. I wonder if they really know what they’re doing, especially when they tell me all these 2012 models have a special left-handed brake fluid catcher that needs to be replaced every six months, and I say, “But this is a ’98.”

This last time, though, when the call came all the young woman said was, “Mr. Waldrop, your oil change is done, and your car is ready any time you’d like to pick it up.” I nearly fell out of my chair. There was no hairline fracture in the carburetor, no southward drift in the rear axle, no coolant leak in the starboard nacelle’s plasma relay. So I went in to pick up the car and pay for the oil change, and the guy was ringing it up and said, “It’ll be $49.75. Would you like to make it an even $50 and donate the change to disaster relief?” This top-off program is something I’ve never heard of before. It sounded like a possible scam, even though I knew I was dealing with a legit business. And I was tempted to say, “Remember that time you charged me $600 and didn’t fix the problem I had but just made my car smell like maple syrup? Skim a quarter off of that.” Then I had this mental image of some poor child standing in the ruins of her house saying, “My family lost everything, including my pet goldfish, and now we can’t even get a lousy box of macaroni and cheese because you won’t part with two bits, you schmuck”. I felt so deeply conflicted that I finally said to the guy, “If you’re going to make me this uncomfortable you should at least have a calendar with a girl in a bikini hanging behind the desk.”

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