I guess I could leave my apartment and take a new picture of my car, but I've got a rule about not wearing pants after work unless it's an emergency.
I think I’ve made this clear before, but if not, I’ll say it again: Every car in automotive history, with the possible exception of DeLoreans and the Ghostbusters’ car, is vastly inferior to my silver 1997 Subaru Legacy, The Mystery Wagon. Sure, other cars may be faster, or more stylish, or have a functional left rear seatbelt, but The Mystery Wagon trumps them all for two reasons:
1) It has character. It’s seen a lot in the past 15 years and 164,000 miles, and you can tell when it chugs up a hill or the turn signal starts inexplicably blinking faster or slower that it’s dutifully ready for more. My car is like Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon – it’s too old for this shit, but that won’t stop it from killing Gary Busey if need be.
2) It’s incredibly reliable. This car was heavily used when my family bought it ten years ago, and since then it hasn’t given us so much as an ounce of trouble. It starts when I need it to, takes me where I need to go, and waits patiently outside, no matter how hot it is, until I’m ready to go back. I have plenty of friends with far newer cars who’re always running into trouble on the open road, but The Mystery Wagon and I get along just fine.
It’s fortunate that The Mystery Wagon, like an ideal woman, is so low maintenance, because my understanding of automotive repair, like my understanding of women, is nonexistent. A year ago my mechanically-gifted cousin gave me a brief crash course on how to check the oil, which I promptly forgot, and to this day I don’t know how to increase the air pressure in my tires.
I’ve heard the argument that, that living in a car-centric city, I should have some basic automotive know-how just in case disaster strikes and I get stranded on the 405 in the middle of the night. I’m of the opinion that nothing I learn from Wikipedia or a book ending in For Dummies will help me much if something goes so wrong with my car that it won’t even run – nobody’s ever fixed a broken transmission by popping the hood, waving away some smoke, and loudly observing that he’s nearly out of windshield wiper fluid.
Not knowing how to fix my car may be shortsighted, but it also frees me from rubbernecking and trying to out-jargon everyone else the next time one of my friends or coworkers talks about car trouble. “Sounds like you’ve got a crack in your, uh… Fan belt. I bet you, like, three dollars it’s a cut-and-dried fan belt issue.” If I get stranded on the 405 in the middle of the night, my plan is to lock my doors, call Triple A, and spend the next 45 minutes wishing I had a gun.
This past Friday I walked out of CVS and noticed a long, winding puddle underneath my car that had not been there when I parked five minutes ago. Carefully squatting in such a way that I didn’t have to touch the pavement, I noticed fluid dripping from several locations underneath The Mystery Wagon. Now, as stated above, I know nothing about cars, but I know that if I were leaking fluids I’d want to get it checked out, so I drove my incontinent car home and started poking around on the Internet in search of a good mechanic.
The one advantage to the San Fernando Valley is that thanks to strong car culture the place is positively lousy with mechanics. I still did copious homework, though, because I didn’t want to wind up with a lousy mechanic.
I think I’m a lot like most Americans in having no damn idea how cars work, and I’m well aware that a lot of mechanics capitalize on this to overcharge people for unnecessary procedures and parts they don’t need. When I first moved to LA, two months after Mom got The Mystery Wagon a full tuneup at a mechanic in Portland, the guys changing my oil at Jiffy Lube tried to scare me into $550 worth of maintenance that I both didn’t need and couldn’t afford.
With Yelp on my side, I was able to locate a mechanic a quarter mile from my apartment who had something like 65 5-star reviews. Figuring those credentials were as good as it could get, I took The Mystery Wagon in for a checkup.
The place is run by an eccentric old Russian guy and his eccentric Russian sons – mind you, these are fun Fiddler On The Roof Russians, not terrifying Eastern Promises Russians. After checking out the car, the owner took me back to his office and, with the help of various cost spreadsheets on his computer, laid out the damage.
“Your car has leak in three places. Rear seal needs replacing – is no big deal. But your steering gear also needs replacing – is more expensive. Total cost is $1300 – but because is big job, we round down to $1100.”
To an incredibly frugal person like me, the only thing that can soften the blow of learning that I’m about to spend $1100 on something is hearing that news in a goofy accent. Hell, if a guy from South Africa gave me the bad news I probably would’ve given him an extra $20 just to say “Fookin prawns!”
I made an appointment to drop the car off before work on Tuesday – because what the hell else could I do? I had the money and I couldn’t not fix my only lifeline to the world outside of the greater North Hollywood/Burbank area. I had no choice but to trust the 65 Yelpers who said these were honest, hardworking Russians who had committed zero atrocities in former Soviet republics in the 1990s.
In retrospect, Yelp reviews of mechanics may very well be bullshit. After all, the reviewers don’t know how to fix their cars – that’s why they went to a mechanic in the first place. So they really have no way of verifying if they’re getting screwed or not – the rating is all based on pricing and friendliness.
If the Russians were screwing me, though, they were really sweet and gentle about it. The owner kept the shop open late so I could pick up my car after work and he walked me through all of the work that they’d done, encouraging me to come in soon for a free post-op checkup. Most impressive was that when I got in the car to drive away I found that they’d set my clock to Daylight Savings Time, which I had never been able to figure out how to do.*
*By which I mean, I had never been able to give enough shits to try to figure out how to do.
I don’t like spending large amounts of money, particularly when it’s on something intangible – I didn’t see the guys pull the guts out of The Mystery Wagon and replace them with newer, better guts, so at first glance it’s like nothing changed except for the time on my clock.
But I’m as neurotic as I am cheap, and if there’s one thing I’ll pay big money for, it’s peace of mind. And I got that.
As he walked me out to the car, the owner said, “Otherwise, everything in car looks fine. Is very good car. Subaru! Very reliable!”
“Yeah,” I sighed, dreamily staring at my dusty chariot. “Is very good car indeed.”
Truman Capps encourages all of his Southern California readers to use Pacific Motor Center for all their autotmotive needs!