Monday afternoon, I had a meeting in the western suburbs. Tuesday morning, I had court in Wheaton. After only modest wailing and gnashing of teeth, I successfully negotiated the use of the family van. Youngest Son and Younger Daughter had to double up Monday morning; this deprivation will someday enrich one or both of their therapists.
But it gets worse. The van was running rough Monday afternoon. The engine never died, and it never backfired, but it rocked and rolled at every stoplight; there was even some ominous shaking at cruising speed. Still, I made it home without incident.
The "check engine" light came on when I went to pick Youngest Son up at school.
Regular visitors will know that I am not mechanically inclined. I have changed the oil and even changed the spark plugs on cars, mostly on my parents' cars, though I recently came across a tool for setting the 'gap' on spark plugs in my basement. But I last worked on cars a generation ago. Cars changed.
About the only thing I can analogize this to is the difference between DOS and Windows. I could do things to computers, once upon a time, when DOS was the operating system. I could fix things, troubleshoot, diagnose. I was no expert, but I could even write simple programs in Basic and run them. Windows, in that sense, was inaptly named. It was more like an iron door slamming shut on the amateur.
So it was with cars: Electronic ignition, I believe, is the term that was used when it became literally impossible to change one's own spark plugs. I guess you might still change the oil on most cars, but you can't responsibly dispose of it anywhere, so it has become virtually mandatory to take the car in for almost any issue.
And so, when the check engine light clicked on, I was obliged to go to the dealer.
You'll notice that it was I who was obliged to make this trip, not Long Suffering Spouse. Long Suffering Spouse, you may recall, is a teacher. I am self-employed. That means, whenever something must be done during the business day, I have to do it. No one has to procure a substitute to take my place when these frolics and detours come up. Of course I broached the topic with her anyway; I have a million things to do just now and really could ill afford to be out of the office all day. But my protest was feeble -- only half-hearted.
Now the dealer that I went to is not the dealer from whom I bought the van. When the American auto industry collapsed, huge numbers of dealers were closed down by the shrinking car companies. The place where I bought the van did not survive the winnowing. I could have walked there. The dealer to whom service issues must be taken is in Skokie. I could walk there, too, I suppose, but it's about 14 miles away. I'm really not in shape for that, and wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase would only complicate the matter further.
Anyway, this 'new' dealer has no particular loyalty to me. I have not bought anything from it except service. It's not that the other dealer would have been any more loyal to me, or protective of my interests, merely that this 'new' dealer has less reason to pretend.
You've heard it said, I'm sure, that dogs can 'smell' fear. There are dogs being trained right now to 'smell' cancer; some research suggests that this will someday soon be an invaluable detection tool.
In general, people are not gifted with nearly so sophisticated an olfactory apparatus as our canine companions. But some rare people can smell automotive ignorance. These persons thrive as automobile service representatives. And it is in this sense, and I hope in no other, that I came into the service area at the dealership reeking like a wagon-load of Limburger early Monday afternoon.
I explained the problem as best I could to the service representative, thereby confirming his initial impression of my ignorance. He had me sign a consent to allow his mechanics to diagnose the trouble and directed me to a waiting room where I could sit on uncomfortable chairs and read old magazines while they figured out how to proceed.
You would probably like to believe that a mechanic thereafter hooked the car up to a diagnostic computer and otherwise investigated the problem. And, though I think that may also have happened, here is what else the dealer might have done:
First they looked up my FICO scores; they checked my Dun & Bradstreet. They looked at detailed credit reports on Equifax -- and maybe Trans Union or Experian besides. They looked up how many children I have, and who's still living at home; they checked the phase of the Moon and whether Sagittarius is rising. Their staff psychologist watched my anxious fidgeting in the waiting room. All this data and more was then considered by an algorithm in a sophisticated computer program -- credit scores here (oh my!), patience level there (oh dear!) -- and two numbers flashed on the screen. The first was the maximum amount the dealership could charge me without my immediately bursting a blood vessel; the second was the number of hours, days or minutes that I would tolerate waiting for the car to be returned.
After an hour and half, the service representative came and told me what it would take to get me back into the family van.
"Why?" she asked. "What makes you so sure that you know what's wrong and know how much it will cost to fix it?"
"You know I don't have the faintest idea what's wrong," I whined. "I won't even be able to repeat half of what they eventually tell me is wrong. But it will cost a thousand dollars."
"You're imagining things," she said.
"Fine," I said. "You'll see. They take one look at me and figure the job will cost a thousand dollars."
I'd gotten Youngest Son to pick me up in the meantime. I needed to vamoose after getting the estimate, so I set off walking. Youngest Son, who'd already picked up his sister from summer school, met me en route.
And the other positive note is that the van seems to be running fine now.
But you're wondering -- I hope -- what the job cost.
Well, of course, Long Suffering Spouse was right, as she always is. The repairs did not cost a thousand bucks.
They cost $1,010.