Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Triumph of the tool-buying ape


Signs are there for a reason. Read them.
(from wikimedia commons)
Back in the day the word “Roadtrip” meant freedom, wild times, and heaping handfuls of illegal enhancements. Now-a-days it means visiting our aging, remaining parents and getting the oil changed.

And that meant going to the Dealership. I tried once to get our Hybrid’s oil changed at one of those “Spiffy Lube” places, but they turned pale at the thought of servicing our car. I guess Hybrid oil is radioactive or something. So we’ve always done it at the dealership, where we’ve had all of it’s regular maintenance done.

(Well, full disclosure: Hymie the Hybrid has also been recalled three times in 8 years. Each time for software upgrades. Welcome to Modern Times.)

My 9am appointment was for an oil change. I sat down with Bob, my “Service Advisor” who made me sign 18 different contracts for this while he made other suggestions. No, Bob, it doesn’t need a tune-up yet. No, Bob, it doesn’t need a 70,000 mile service because it only has 67,000 miles on it. No, Bob, I don’t think the windshield needs replacing….

 Eventually I was able to extricate myself from Bob’s hardsell embrace. I nabbed my bike off the back of Hymie, rode it to work, and waited for the phone call. You know, the one with the ‘problem’. I didn’t have to wait long.

“Well……” Bob says, “We’ve found a problem…….” This in a tone doctors use when they tell new parents that their baby was born with three butt cheeks.

“Yes…..?” I reply. “Did you run out of radioactive oil?”

“No. Nono. What? No. We were just doing a systems inspection…….” His tone dropped again to the Doctor Kildare register, “…….and we found a problem…..”

Systems inspection. Right. I just asked for an oil change. “Yes, Bob?”

“Your battery failed its visual inspection.”

I thought about that one for a moment. “What - is it upside down? In flames? What?”

“It needs to be replaced.”

“Right. Well let’s hold off on that until I talk to the car’s owner. I’ll call you back.”

I emailed Admiral Karen. Sensible Capricorn replies “WHICH battery? It’s a hybrid for crying out loud. There’s about 18 of ‘em in there.”

I called Bob back and he was a bit tongue-tied. “You know, under the front, um, hood, not the back, er, front ones. The one that runs the radio!”

“Ah, I see. And what will this run us today?”

He perked up. I could his chair creak as he sat up straight. “That will run you $110.00 for the battery and $54.00 for installation soshallwegoaheadandtakecareofthisproblemforyoutoday?

Hymie the Hybrid.
“Whoa. Hold on, Cowboy. Lemme call you back.”

I hung up and dialed Kragen Auto Parts. “What does a battery for a 2003 Civic Hybrid run?”

I could hear the pages of the catalog flip, and somehow I loved that Kragen still used the ‘wall-of-binders’ method of parts inventory. “That’ll runya 80 bucks for the battery, but we’ll give you 10 bucks back if you turn in the old one to us.”

“Uh-Huh. How about installation?”

“Installation?” snort. “It’s a car battery for fucks sake.”

“My thought exactly. Thank you.”

I re-dialed Bob and told him to nix the additional service. He sounded like everything he ever believed in had just mooned him and also his new puppy had been kidnapped. He was crushed.

At lunch I rode back to the Dealership. I walked in the service door, nodded at Bob scowling at his desk and headed for the counter where Sherry the cashier was. She dug out my 18 contracts and started flipping through all the 52 point systems check that the service guys in the back had ostensibly investigated during my “Oil Change”.

I waited quietly. Flip, flip, flip, flip. Finally she turned the whole sheaf back to the top. “Well, looks like everything checks out just fine!” She said with a smile. Behind me I heard Bob’s chair creak as he sat up straight.

“Really?” I said with big, wide eyes. “Nothing, you know, about, say, the BATTERY?”

She frowned and opened the stack of pages again. Flip, flip, flip, scan. “Nope. Battery checks out!”

Bob sprang to life. “Um, Sherry? Is that file still open? Don’t print anything out yet! I have, um, a couple more Service Notes I wanna add in here.”

I waited at the counter, smiling blandly at Sheila, listening to Bob type like the wind with one hand and fill out a form with a pen at the same time. He handed the form to Sheila, brushing past me without a word or a glance in my direction.

She glanced at the form, glanced down at the electronic receipt on her computer screen and hit ‘print’. She stapled these together, I signed both and walked out with a straight face, not sure whether I wanted to laugh in Bobs face or punch it.

But as I drove back to work (after the Hymie started up just fine, natch), I began to wonder about my feelings. Car dealership attempting to rip off its clientele? That’s hardly news. It’s almost expected. So why was I angry? Was it the bland attempt to foist a 50 dollar fee for a car battery installation? Something a six-year old with three butt cheeks could perform in 10 seconds? Naah. That was actually pretty evil, and hence worthy of respect.

No. What was pissing me off was Bob’s fumble of the ‘Service Notes’ and the falsified visual inspection form. I mean, if you’re gonna try and cheat the customers, ya gotta have the paperwork in order! He obviously made up the battery story but neglected to tell the technicians about it. They inspected it, turned in their paperwork, and he spaced it until he heard Sheila tell me that everything checked out just fine.

I guess I like my Evilness do be done with a degree of Style. A certain smoothness is called for when attempting to rip-off the unsuspecting. And I felt cheated that my nemesis was so ham-handed in his attempted fraud.

I didn’t expect anything less from a car repair place, but somehow I also expected more.

Closest thing I could find to the exit we took.
Places like this don't like their picture taken.
(from waymarking.com)
One of the other notes that Bob had frantically typed in had to do with something called a ‘Skid plate’. Something about how it was loose and missing a few of its bolts. I didn’t pay it any attention, figuring he had just thrown that in – whatever it was - to cover his tracks.

So we start on our roadtrip to L.A. to visit some of Admiral Karen’s family. We got halfway down Highway 101, about 150 miles, when the skid plate gave way and Hymie suddenly sounded like the Harlem Globetrotters were having practice under the car. I took the next off ramp and parked it in front of an abandoned entrance to some sort of camp.

We got out and looked under the car. Hymie now looked vaguely like a Formula One racer with a front spoiler. Except that this spoiler was made of hard plastic and had reduced the car’s front clearance to about negative one foot. We couldn’t continue this way. While we were flat on our backs in the dust, discussing our options under the 95 degree sun, we were surprised to see a gigantic armored personnel carrier turn the corner and head our way, with two grim-faced jarheads in full combat gear staring at us. We froze and watched this armed behemoth advance straight towards us on clanking tank tracks. I pictured my head being turned into Spaghetti Os by this war machine.

Instead it abruptly stopped about 20 yards from us, sending a dust cloud billowing away. We stared up. The Jarheads in their enormous black visors stared down. A full minute passed. A minute in which I neither breathed nor blinked.

Something like this, but without the cannon. Our view
was from approximately the rock there in the front.
(from timemoneyandblood.com)
Then the Personnel Carrier abruptly turned around on a dime (as only tracked vehicles can do) and the machine quickly disappeared back the way it had come. Karen and I looked at each other and then we both turned to look at the sign over the locked gate that we had parked in front of.

The sign said “Camp Roberts – National Guard and Army Reserve”. So here’s a pro-tip for you all:

If you have car trouble, DON’T park your car in front of an Army Base. The people inside are learning how to kill other people who want to blow them up with CAR BOMBS.

When our breathing returned somewhat to normal I tucked the skid plate back up into the engine, placing it on another hard plastic plate that forms a lip in front. I hoped it would stay up there until we made it into L.A.

No dice. As soon as we reentered the 101 the Harlem Globetrotters decided to run the magic circle again under our car. I left at the next exit, which was the one for San Miguel. This town apparently consisted of a gas station on the right, a cafĂ© on the left, and a few dozen houses down a steep hill. What I wanted though was a curb. I turned around in front of the French Bistro – apparently in a town of 1,500 there is a biting need for Basque cuisine – and parked our flapping car on the edge of the sidewalk.

Tools. I would need tools. And here’s where I utterly failed guy training: There wasn’t a single tool in the trunk. But hey, It’s a Honda – nothing ever goes wrong with these things. A quick inventory of our resources produced one old, chipped fake Swiss Army Knife. I opened the one remaining openable blade on it and was faced with an edge that would have difficulty spreading butter on toast.

Something like this, but made out of bulletproof
plastic and poked all over with a swiss army knife.
(from VWvortex.com)
I wiggled under the car – sandwiched between hot engine and steaming blacktop - and surveyed the task before me. There was no hope of repairing the skid plate – three of the six plastic bolts that hold it on were long gone. I would have to pry out the remaining three bolts and take the whole thing off. The closest one popped out fairly quickly. I wriggled across and began to work on the bolt on the far side. This one was tougher. As I was working on it – trying to keep the blade from closing up and chopping my fingers off - I began to smell something. Something delicious. Maybe we should hold off on the In-N-Out Burger and try this French place. Then I realized that what I was smelling cooking was ME. Eventually, sweating and cursing like Yosemite Sam, I managed to pry the second bolt out. But there was no way I would be able to reach the center bolt with this clearance.

I wiggled out from the car and sat on the curb and cooled my smoldering back for a bit. Eventually I realized that Admiral Karen was looking at me strangely. Part of it was concern for my overheatedness: a fair-haired Celt like myself has no business working on a car under these conditions. But there was also some Interest in that look. I am not a man who normally enjoys using tools, and so I had forgotten how much most women enjoy watching men use them.

When both us had cooled off a bit I moved Hymie across the street to the gas station. At the border of a field and the asphalt parking area there was a taller curb for me to put the car up on. I got out my untrusty knife and slithered under the car again, ignoring the ground covered in stickers, dirt and rocks. My hand could just barely reach the bolt this way, which was an improvement, but not enough to actually get the job done. I poked at it though until I had run out of energy, sweat and swear words. Karen then dragged me out by my feet and insisted I step inside the gas station snack shack to lower my temperature. I agreed and we walked across the parking lot with me looking like I had just been drug behind a horse for several miles.

Inside the store I tried out several cans of soda on my forehead until the guy behind the counter gave me a dirty look. I then retreated to the rear of the store where the motor oil display was. Next to this, I was delighted to discover, was a small peg board display of tools. No saws, no knives, but there was one slot screwdriver left and it had a long handle. Close enough. I may not be much a tool-using ape, but I am one hell of a tool-buying ape.

I slid under the car again, whipped out my sword like an automotive D’Artagnan, and stabbed the end of the skid plate around the plastic bolt about 100,000 times. Eventually I could smell my back cooking again. So I dropped my screwdriver, gripped the skid plate with both hands and ripped it off the bolt with one mighty yank.

I slid back out from under the car and into the blinding sunlight until my breathing quieted. The sun was then blocked and I looked up into Admiral Karen’s pretty face bending over me. She smiled sweetly and said, “Maybe it’s my turn to drive.”

I spent the rest of the journey picking stickers out of my pants.

The family visit was fine, and just long enough. Fish and Family go foul after 3 days and we were gone in 2.

On the way back we stopped at the In-N-Out Burger in Atascadero to have lunch and do the ritual hand off of the driving. This was the first time we had encountered a parking lot since we had fixed the car, and sure enough we tapped the concrete bumper and jarred the plastic shelf that once held the front of the skid plate. It flopped down as we zoomed down the on ramp and made a horrendous screeching noise. We stopped and looked at it. This was going to be a bigger job, as the hinges for this plate disappeared up deep in the engine. Hmmm.

Of more immediate concern was the fact that an onramp is no place to have a breakdown. But if a Double-Double burger is good for anything it is good for Courage. We got back in, strapped the seatbelts tight and I backed UP the onramp, into oncoming traffic, did a U-turn where they simply weren’t done and landed neatly in a K-Mart parking lot. Ta-Da.

I bought a serrated blade and simply sawed off the piece of offending plastic. We completed the journey North without incident, the skid plate, holder and our small stash of tools in the trunk.

I can’t wait to go back to the Dealership and show it all to Bob.

Angus McMahan

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