Friday, May 19, 2006

Why I Heart My Mechanic

Everyone needs a good mechanic, but I would venture to say that this is even more important for a woman than for a man. Almost every woman I've ever spoken to on this topic has some story of being treated like a moron or cheated by a mechanic when visiting alone, and a corresponding story of receiving far better treatment when accompanied by a man. Not to say that men are never cheated or that all men know about cars, but this is one of those things, like walking alone at night, that are just different for women.

Having moved around a bit, I've not had a "regular" mechanic for awhile now. I've taken my car to the dealer quite often, paying the higher prices for the feeling that I'm less likely to get cheated (and for the very real feeling that they don't talk to me like an idiot). For a short time, I took my car to Finbar's parents' mechanic, who turned out to be an utter incompetent, creating problems that I've had to pay someone else to sort out over the past year. So I was thrilled to get a very enthusiastic recommendation for the same mechanic from two separate people in the space of a week this past fall.

I took my car in to get one of the problems created by Finbar's parents' mechanic-- an improperly installed set of brake pads-- fixed. I'd been having trouble with squealing and an odd, intermittant shuddering on braking for some time, but I kind of wrote it off at first because I'd just had the stupid things put on at the beginning of last summer, and it was only September, so how on earth could they need attention? Then the brake light came on... Anyway, when he put my car up on the rack and took a look, he couldn't see anything that should be causing my problem. Instead of just telling me that everything looked fine and showing me how I had plenty of pad left, he took the time to take the whole assembly apart and discovered that the previous work, having been improperly done, had allowed moisture to get inside the housing and a critical thingie (I can't remember the actual word for it) was gunked stuck. The nearly new pads (less than 1500 miles on them!) looked fine from the exposed side, but were entirely gone on the inside edge and if I had continued to drive on them, they would have exposed my rotors to damage-- which would have been ruinous to my finances. Instead, because he found the problem, he could install a new thingie, put on new pads, and fix the adjustment of the brakes.

When I got my car back on the road after that, I was shocked at how much better the car handled, especially the braking (of course). In fact, I was appalled at how dangerous it must have been for me to be driving the car: the distance for me to stop was many times longer before the repair, and because the deterioration had been fairly gradual, I hadn't really realized just how bad it was.

The entire repair cost me just over $300. Including parts and labor. And a loaner car. You see, when he took the brakes apart and saw the problem, he told me that he didn't really feel comfortable with having me drive the car and offered me the use of the spare junker in back of the shop. He'd gotten it to fix up for a relative. It looked horrible and had no airconditioning and things like the power windows didn't work, but it had a good engine and (most importantly) working brakes, and was otherwise driveable. He handed me the keys and told me to bring it back when I came to pick up my own car. He didn't have to do that; he could have handed me the phone and the number to Hertz, or offered to rent me a car at an extra cost.

Since then, he's done work on my exhaust and routine maintenance and each time, he's been just amazing to work with. The only downside to using this guy is that he doesn't really do appointments. Instead, he has you drop the car off in the morning and leave it there for the day-- though he's usually been done with it by early afternoon, so it's not been such a major inconvenience for me.

This week, he raised himself even higher in my estimation with a real act of kindness. My headlights both burned out last week, and I intended to change the bulbs myself. I used to do this on my old Toyota, and it was very simple. Unscrew the housing, pop out the old light, pop in the new one, screw the housing back in. Done. And much cheaper than taking it to a mechanic, too. It's one of those things, like changing your wiper blades or adjusting the tire pressure, that is so easy to do that it seems ridiculous to pay someone else to do it. So I consulted my owner's manual, saw that the procedure seemed simple enough (remove the relay box/ air duct, disconnect the headlight, remove the cover, release the light bulb, remove the old bulb, install the new bulb, and reverse the preceeding steps. Done.), and wrote down the necessary bulb.

Then I went to buy the bulb. Problem #1: the bulb number they note in the owner's manual doesn't seem to exist. I carefully and meticulously read each and every tag on the shelf, looking for the right combination of letters and numbers. No dice. So I find the little booklet they often put on the shelves that list all the different makes, models, and years in a chart showing the corresponding parts. It's how I know my driver's side windshield wiper is 2" longer than the passenger side, because let me tell you, my owner's manual doesn't tell me that-- which seemed odd when I thought about it, but, oh well... Anyway, they listed a bulb # 4003FL/ #4003EL (I made those numbers up because I can't remember the real ones now). On the shelf, I found #4003 ND, #4003 CH, and #4003 YB (I made those numbers up, too.) I dithered about for at least five minutes, trying to figure out how much the letters mattered. Was it like different varieties of the same thing or like different things that are the same variety? In other words, would I end up causing an explosion or an electrical fire if I installed one of these bulbs? I finally decided to chance it, because it seemed like the bulb number varied from vehicle to vehicle, but not the letters.

Back home, I read on the back of the package "WARNING: Bulb contains pressurized gas and may shatter or explode during installation. Wear eye protection. Do not drop bulb. Do not use if glass is scratched. Do not touch bulb with bare skin. Do not hold bulb by any part other than the base. Do not breathe on the bulb." (I made the last one up.) Now, I have been conditioned to ignore many warnings on product packages. "WARNING: Do not use your hair dryer in the bathtub" (risk of electrocution aside, wouldn't that defeat the whole purpose of using the hair dryer if you were getting your hair wet at the same time? And no matter how high you make the ponytail or how carefully you tuck your hair into a shower cap, your hair *will* get at least a little bit damp in the bath.) "WARNING: The inflatable couch is NOT a floation device" "WARNING: Do not use these hedge clippers to trim your hair. (That last one was NOT made up, but it was paraphrased from the warning sticker on my dad's hedge trimmers.) And it's not like I was planning to toss the bulb at the light receptacle, bocci style, or maybe attempt installation blindfolded, or something. Still, the warning got my attention because, dammit, I like being able to see. But, Problem #2, I don't have any of those little plastic safety glasses, like you wear in chemistry lab.

So I borrowed Ash's swim goggles.

Yes, I know. Swim goggles are not the same as safety glasses. But I figured they were better than nothing and might perform the essential function of keeping shards of glass out of my eyeballs.

So, there I am, in front of my apartment building, with the hood of my car up, the owner's manual laying open on the ground, my toolbox open next to it, and a pair of swim goggles on. The neighbors were probably wondering if they should call the cops or what. And I'm staring at the diagram in the manual and trying to figure out why the relay box isn't where it says it is. I look and look and, Problem #3, nothing anywhere near the damned right headlight looks like a relay box. Not, mind you, that I really know what the relay box is. Except that I figure it must be some sort of a fuse box, and I know what the fuse box under the driver's seat looks like, so I figure it must look like that, and the sketch in the book seems to confirm that, so WHY CAN'T I FIND THE RELAY BOX?

I finally decide to try the other headlight and come back to the right one. Let's see... left headlight is behind the air duct. OK. I went over to the other side and looked at the stuff over there. But I don't see anything that looks like an air duct, so I'm starting to question my intellect and sanity. I go back over to the right side and look, and suddenly it clicks: they mean right and left as seen from the car's point of view. How could I be so stupid? I mean, why would they right a manual from the point of view of the person doing the repairs? Of course it's written from the machine's point of view!

Having finally located the proper item to remove, I pull out the air duct. This is not easy because, Problem #4, it is very difficult to squeeze my hands into the space and manuever it off the connector. Next, I try to disconnect the headlight, but the connector is (Problems 5a-c) a)behind something, so I can't see it, and am forced to try and pull it out without actually seeing what I am doing, and b)covered in grease. Oh, and c)wedged in tight. The owner's manual has the helpful instruction "If connector is tight, wiggle it." Gee, thanks. That clears it right up!

I finally get the stupid thing disconnected and am forced to run inside and get paper towels and wet wipes to clean up the mess on my hands (Problem #6)so that I can continue with the operation. Next, I am to remove a rubber cover. It is helpfully labelled "TOP: OPEN", and I take hold of it and try to pull it off, it does not budge. Not even a little. (Problem #7). I am unsure if there is a special trick to this, since the owner's manual doesn't tell me to wiggle it, but the air duct required a squeeze and twist motion much like a childproof cap, and that wasn't in the manual either, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility. I pry at it ever so gently with the edge of a flat head screwdriver, and it moves ever so slightly, so I methodically continue prying at it until I get it off.

Now I am supposed to release the bulb from its housing. The manual shows an incomprehensible, IKEA-esque illustration with an arrow that doesn't seem to communicate anything to me at all except that it's supposed to come out. And this spring is behind everything, so you can't see it at all, but are simply supposed to feel it and somehow know how to release it.I, however, do not seem to have the proper touch (Problem #8), so I can't get it to release. It moves, just a little, but does not release. I study the diagram intently, hoping to figure out the secret motion that will unleash the bulb, and by dint of trial and error, finally get the latch to unhook.

Now I have to pull out the bulb. Wait. Have I mentioned that the swim goggles keep steaming up because I am sweating profusely? (Problem #9) So I am trying to remove the bulb while the edges of my vision are going blurrier and blurrier. I snake the bulb out from behind all of the machinery carefully, like I'm handling a bomb, which I suppose, in some small way, it is. I get it out of the engine compartment and lay it gently on the grass next to my car. Then I take off the goggles so that they can de-steam while I read the manual again.

It's time for the moment of truth. Goggles back in place I carefully unpackaged the new bulb and inspected it for scratches and such. Then I very slowly and carefully insert it into the receptacle, but it just won't sit flush, the way it's supposed to (Problem #10). And I am afraid to force it, or even apply much pressure at all, because I am afraid that it will explode and cut me up, and I don't have proper health insurance just right now, so that would be bad. Oh, and it's starting to get dark (Problem #11), because the operation that I thought would take maybe 10 or 15 minutes for both sides together has now taken a good hour longer than that for just the one side. I carefully move the bulb around, peering through the cover of the headlight to try and discern through the prism what I cannot hope to see behind all of the other engine stuff, and suddenly it sits flush for no reason that I can understand. Whatever! It's in!

Putting everything back together isn't too hard, but as I'm pushing the air duct back into place, one of the three clips-- which are plastic-- snaps off (Problem #12). The other two seem to be holding it in place firmly, so I don't worry too much about it. Got to get the other headlight in quickly because it's getting dark.

Back on the car's right side, I see the relay box right where it's supposed to be, and take out a wrench to remove the two bolts. 3/8" is too small... aaaand 1/2" is too big. (Problem #13). I don't have an adjustible wrench. Or metric sizes. Sigh. I wonder if I can get it off with a pair of pliers? Nope, I can't. Well, alright, I didn't really think it would work. On closer inspection, I see that the bolts are also rusted closed anyway (Problem #14).

That's enough for one day, so I quit and shut the hood of the car. The next day, Ash got his trusty can of WD40 and his own set of wrenches. He gave each bolt a little squirt of miracle juice, and then located the proper size wrench for the job. I stood at the ready with the new light bulb, and he gave the first bolt a twist-- and the head of the bolt snapped right off.

That was my breaking point. I called my mechanic and explained to him what had happened. He asked me to drive right over if I could-- and given that I can't drive the car at night until I fix the headlights, I definitly could. When I got there, he popped the hood, took a quick look, and pulled out his own tools. In the space of maybe 5 or 6 minutes, he pulled off the second bolt, knocked out the broken piece, removed the old light, and installed the new one. Then he said "Have a nice day!" I asked him what I owed for his help and he rolled his eyes. "Nothing at all. Have a nice day!"

That was mighty, mighty nice of him. He performed a service, and I was perfectly happy to pay for it, but he didn't charge me because, I guess, it seemed like a neighborly thing to do for a customer. And because he's a nice guy and a good mechanic.

If any of you in Our Fair City are ever looking to take your cars for work, let me know and I will be happy to give you this guy's number. He's phenomenal and I heart him-- and more importantly, I trust him.


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