Monday, July 4, 2011

Break Down (Richmond, VA)

(June 26, 2011)

Wouldn't you know that just when I need to go driving all over town, gathering everything I need before leaving the country for the summer, my car decides to conk out?

I'm not referring here to the world's ugliest auto, which I've written about in the past and which, you would rightly think, would hold a mighty grudge against me for calling it homely and not finding a single positive thing to say about it. No, this is the old lady's car with the old car's body. The car that turns mechanics on -- not just because it needs lots of work and has probably helped them buy a couple of boats with the money I've spent to keep the thing running -- but because of the sexy roar of that turbo engine when it smacks into action. With just 88,000 miles, this 1988 paint-peeling baby has zip, speed, and looks just great when pealing (sp?) ahead of others on the highway, although it looks quite decrepit when parked, idling, or moving at the speed of limits.

It's this car, sturdy and reliable, hiding its inner beauty under a hood, it's this car that has betrayed me when I need it most.

First, it starts whining. A high-pitched, bird-like sound that I think is coming from another nearby vehicle. When I finally realize that no single car has been following me around for over an hour and a half, I am almost as unnerved as I would have been had I confirmed that I was being stalked. Any remaining nerve disappears when I glance at my dashboard, where there are more lights flashing than you'd encounter on the annual Tacky Lights Christmas Tour. Not only are they warning me of low levels of fluid and high levels of engine temperature, but they are sending me subliminal and superliminal messages: GET OFF THE ROAD! NOW!

U- and me-turning, I draw into a gas station, parking in the rear. What seems like forever after calling for help, the mobile mechanic pulls up alongside me. After a careful and thorough 10-second evaluation, he says, "You're totally out of coolant."

That's unusual, because this car is always up to my neck in coolant. That's because the malfunctioning coolant gauge always says that the level is low, so we're always checking to keep it full. I tell this to the mechanic as I pay way too much for a big batch of the fluid in the station's convenience store. I stand next to him as he pours the liquid into the proper container and assures me that I'll be able to go my merry way.

My merry way is impeded when the mechanic notices the liquid gushing out from the bottom of the car. "Uh-oh," he says, never a good word coming from a mechanic who is crawling under your vehicle.

"It's the water pump," he tells me.

"It's gonna cost a million dollars," I hear.

"I can order one, but since the car is old, the part might not be in stock."

I go into the convenience store to explain my situation and ask permission to leave the car until the mechanic can fix it. "It's okay with me," says the fellow behind the counter, "but if the big boss comes by, he'll have it towed."

"Can you call the big boss?" I ask.


"Can I call the big boss?" I beg.

"No." The big boss is "the corporation," and you never know when its representatives will do a drive by and tow anything that they come across.

Mobile mechanic suggests driving the car into the nearest residential neighborhood and parking it. "You can drive it for about three minutes..." he says.

"Before it explodes," my mind finishes the sentence.

I park the car in a subdivision, in front of a house where there are already six or seven vehicles. Maybe they won´t notice the addition... I ring the doorbell, but nobody answers. So I walk down the block, knocking on doors, hoping to have someone else inform the homeowner of my plight and my request that he or she won´t have my car towed. No one is home.

Later that day, I drive back to the neighborhood in the super ugly car. The woman who eyes me suspiciously from behind a screen door guesses that it´s okay to leave the car, but I´ve parked it in her husband´s spot and am blocking the mailbox. Can I move it?

I can´t because I´ve already given the keys to the mobile mechanic and I don't have the spare with me. "I´ll come back tomorrow," I tell her.

Husband and I return to the neighborhood the next day. I tell the woman and her husband that the mechanic won´t be able to fix the car until tomorrow, because the wrong water pump came in. My husband moves the car down the block, while I explain that the car doesn´t have an up-to-date sticker because I hadn´t noticed that it had expired until a police officer stopped me the other day, verified that the fee had been paid, and my husband had sent in the $1.00 to get a replacement for the one I had never put on and had subsequently lost, but the new sticker hasn´t arrived yet. I give them my business card and home phone, so they can call me if there are any problems. I obviously come across as completely pathetic because the couple has become quite sympathetic.

The next day, despite three phone calls made and messages left, the mechanic never contacts us. Turns out he had a family emergency. When he calls the day after, he assures us that he will fix the car that very next day.

That´s the very day that we learn that my car has died. The mechanic says that it´s a blown head gasket, but I think it is pure and unadulterated spite.

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