Friday, July 3, 2009

Car Talk

I don't have a driver's license, don't know much about cars. But I do know that when the oil indicator lights up, it's serious.

We were driving in Brookline on Wednesday night, heading for yet another burrito dinner at Anna's on Beacon Street, when the oil light started flickering on and off. We have a Mitsubishi Eclipse, which is only the second car my husband has owned; he bought his first car just 10 years ago. Before that, he just stole cars whenever we needed one (actually, he borrowed his mom's old Chevy, but that doesn't sound nearly as cool, does it?).

We were planning to drive 400 miles to Maine the next morning, and we had a long night ahead of us, putting the final touches on a 530-page book on ancient Egyptian archaeology that my husband has been racing to complete before we left. He'd begun writing, illustrating, and designing it in 1993, but it got sidetracked by other projects over the years. But suddenly it had to be in print by September to give him a better shot at being selected for an exciting new job. We were planning to drop off the files and manuscript at the printer on our way north. We'd been working like maniacs day and night to finish it, and we really didn't need car trouble at this point.

I grew up in a family of men who fix their own cars, so I know a bit more, via osmosis, about them than my husband does. And from my experiences of being around other people's cars, I have learned that the first break-down of a previously reliable car is a harbinger of many more repair bills ahead. I don't know if the local repair shops are unusually inept or actually sabotage cars, but I've noticed that new repairs are usually necessary every few weeks after the initial problem was repaired. Sure enough, my husband had taken his car to a new mechanic a month ago when the "check engine" light went on. Because he is trusting and earnest as well as clueless about cars, he told the owner of the garage (let's call him Charles) to repair anything that he thought might be wearing out, figuring that this would prevent future problems. Charles saw dollar signs (700 of them). And my dad, in Pennsylvania, saw stars when he heard the story and started yelling. "Crooks! You never have to replace all four ignition coils at once! He paid what for how many spark plugs? Geez, it's too bad the ancient Egyptians didn't have cars or he might know something about them! I bet he never read his manual, either!"

Two weeks later, my husband mentioned that the car wasn't starting properly. "When did this start?" I asked, figuring that the grim era of never-ending car repairs was about to commence. "About a month ago, I guess," he said. "Didn't you tell Charles when you were there a couple of weeks ago?" I asked. "No, I forgot." "Well, you can't go back to there or my dad will have a fit," I said.

But he said he liked and trusted Charles, and that all of his work was guaranteed for a year. I rolled my eyes. Charles said the car needed a new battery; it was 7 years old. He also said the starter was wearing out but that it would probably last a few more months. And he gave him the model info so we could buy a less-expensive, rebuilt one ourselves, to have on hand when the time came. This didn't seem especially "crooked," to me, but I figured Charles was feeling guilty about all those ignition coils.

When the oil light flickered on I said, "You have to stop driving. Now. If you're low on oil, that's okay, but if you're not, we're in big trouble." The light flickered on and off until we found a parking space; my husband checked the oil. There seemed to be plenty, maybe even too much. I wondered if the light was lying.

It was 6 o'clock. Cars never break down when repair shops are open. I called my dad. He said, "Are you sure you're not low on oil? If you're low, go get some. But if you have enough oil, you're probably in big trouble with a pressure problem. And don't drive at all if the oil light is on." As I said, we have osmotic learning in our family. But then my dad said, "Of course, it could just be that your oil light is no good. Those bulbs and the electronics can wear out over the years. In that case, it's nothing, you can drive." "Well? Which is it? We're stuck in Brookline!" I asked my Oracle. "I don't know!" yelled my dad. He never says that.

So I called my brother, who happened to be on his way to drop off his car at a mechanic in New Jersey. "He says there's plenty of oil," I told him. He said, "Does he know how to check the oil? Does he know what the marks on the stick mean? Does the car have an oil pressure gauge?" I inquired. My husband said he wasn't sure. My brother said, "Does he read the manual?" I said no, and saw, perfectly in my mind's eye the disgusted expression that accompanied the snort coming through the phone. He said, "If you have oil, you can't drive at all with the engine light on. You'll wreck the engine... unless the light is just acting up. Why don't you start the car and see if the light goes back on?"

We did. It didn't. "Try driving it," said my brother. "As long as the light stays off, you're okay." We made it home without the little red light. The next day, my husband called a list of mechanics suggested by friends who had heard about the ignition coils and spark plugs. No one could take him that day, and many were closing early for the July 4 weekend. We'd miss at least a day of our Maine vacation, and maybe the whole thing. So he called Charles, took it right over, and had it checked within the hour. "No problems at all," said Charles. "Everything looks fine. You should be okay to travel." He didn't charge him.

So we set out in a downpour that afternoon for Maine, exhausted but jubilant, having finished the book (more or less). We handed off the files to the printer, and avoided conversational topics pertaining to oil, cars, and lights for 7 hours. The car was fine. I have to tell my dad.

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