Not calculated to inspire confidence

I don't know anything about cars.

I can only imagine that the feeling that I get when I go to a mechanic is much like the feeling many people get when they call tech support for a computer problem. Completely at sea—at the mercy of this intimidating person who knows more than you do about the technology, and has little patience for people like you who aren't in the know.

I was going to go to the last place I took the car; they were very friendly and reassuring, they've been around for a long time, they were recommended by AAA. (Though I have to say, the last couple of AAA recommendations I'd had didn't work out so well.) But it's a 20-minute bike ride away. I'd have had to get the bike in ridable condition again, put it in the car, drive to the auto shop, hope that the engine didn't conk out en route, and bike back (in the light rain that's just beginning to fall), and the prospect of doing all that was keeping me from getting moving.

So I took the car to the Arco station that's a block and a half from here. I usually get my gas there; except for one unpleasant incident with a broken pump (where they claimed it must be my gas tank that was broken because the pump was brand new), they've been friendly over the years. They rolled their eyes a little a year or two back when I asked them to replace a headlight for me, but they did it.

But this time, I'm not so sure. The guy I talked with didn't inspire confidence. He had evidently never worked on a Geo Metro before, for one thing.

I told him there were two basic issues: (1) engine dying last night; (2) needs 120K major service. He seemed unconcerned about the engine dying; since it started up today without a problem, he seemed to think that the best course would be to do a general tune-up, and if the engine still started afterward, to declare the problem fixed. Coming from the world of computers, I mistrust problems that fix themselves; they seem likely to recur. (Also, he didn't seem to have any guesses about what might have caused the problem, but he seemed to be cheerfully assuming that it would go away anyway. This makes me nervous.)

And he kept asking me questions about what to do with the car.

Him: Do you want the timing belt replaced?
Me [consulting owner's-manual service list]: I'm not sure—that doesn't seem to be one of the items listed in the 120K service.
Him: Well, when was the last time it was replaced?
Me: I'm not sure.
Him: Well, that's the kind of thing we need to know here.
Me: I don't have any record of it ever being replaced.
Him [examining it cursorily]: Well, it doesn't look like it needs to be replaced. What's on this list of yours? [he looks it over] Coolant system. That must mean the radiator. Want us to check the radiator?

(He may not have said radiator. I don't know anything about this stuff.)

I feel like a computer novice who took a computer to the shop and the guy behind the counter said "Intermittent problems on startup? Okay, well, let's just do an overhaul on it and see if that does anything. You want the BIOS replaced? How about the CMOS? And would you rather have faster DRAM or should I check the system bus?"

(No, I don't really understand BIOS and CMOS either. They'll have to take away my geek card.)

I've been spoiled by the last couple of shops I went to, where they had computerized systems listing exactly what needed to be done for every model of car at every service interval. I didn't understand what they were doing, but it was comforting to see that they had a detailed list and would Do The Right Things.

Oh, and at the Arco station he asked me to sign the service request form without giving me an estimate. I asked for an estimate, and he looked mildly annoyed, but he gave me one.

I considered saying "Look, this isn't working out, you're making me nervous, I'm gonna take my car somewhere where I feel like I can trust the mechanics." But I knew that would eat up at least another hour of my day, and the place I went last time tends to be busy, so it might be a couple days before they'd even get to my car. And intermittent or one-time problems are hard to diagnose and fix, so it might not help anyway.

So the Arco station will do what they're gonna do, and we'll see what happens. Maybe it was a fluke—flooded the engine or something. (He said, trying to sound like he knows what that means.) With luck, they'll give me the car back tomorrow morning, and everything will be fine, and the engine won't die on the freeway.

The Billy DeFrank Lesbian and Gay Community Center in San Jose used to offer a basics-of-auto-mechanics class—kind of Car Repair for Sissies. I probably oughtta sign up for something like that one of these days.

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