I enjoy a trip to an auto repair shop about as much as I like to get a cavity filled or sit in the middle seat of an airplane between two obese travelers who have no reading material or headphones. That is to say, not much.
I inherited absolutely zero mechanical skills from my dad and, despite the fact that I’m a highly curious person that ordinarily loves to learn new things; I haven’t bothered to learn bullocks about how vehicles operate, beyond the absolute basics.
For my money, auto mechanics are some of the shrewdest people in the world. They can size you up in about 30 seconds. It usually starts with some sort of pop quiz.
“Toyota Matrix, now, do you have front and rear struts?” they’ll ask.
I try to act nonchalant and will hazard a guess, quickly, hoping they won’t sense my inner panic. But it’s hard to bluff your way through these cross examinations, and any mechanic who has ever spoken to me will tell you that I don’t know dick about cars. And with auto repairs, an uneducated consumer, like me, makes for an excellent customer.
This week I took my car to a Sears Auto Repair shop in our neighborhood to buy two new tires. Tires I can handle. You can see that the tread is all worn out and, voila, there you go, you need new tires. But the problem is that these clever characters aren’t content to simply sell you the tires. Oh no.
“Did you get the alignment done when you replaced the other two tires?” asks Ruben, a Vietnamese mechanic from Sears who has already pegged me as a dumb ass who will probably agree to just about anything.
I have no idea but when told that they cost only $79, I grudgingly agree to get the alignment done. Or redone, for that matter. Aside from the cost of the tires and the requisite taxes, I’m told that I also have to pay $31.98 to have the tires balanced. Whatever.
A few hours later Ruben calls.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of things wrong with your car,” he begins.
Whenever I hear this, I usually have just two questions.
How much? And, do I really need to this? But instead of asking these questions, I gamely try to feign intellectual interest in whatever the problem is.
“The wheel bearings?” I say. “Yes, tell me more about those Ruben.”
Ruben claims that I need new front and rear struts and also new front wheel bearings. My first uneducated and uninformed reaction is to think that these repairs might not be too costly.
“So the front struts are going to be $127 each,” he says.
That’s not bad, I thought. But then Ruben continued.
“And the strut mounts are $95 each. And of course our labor rate is $100 per hour.”
He prattles on about how much the bearings are going to cost but by this point I’m not listening anymore.
“What’s the total?” I ask, no longer even pretending to have a clue what the fuck I was talking about.
After several excruciating moments he arrives at a total.
“Two thousand, thirty-one dollars and forty two cents.”
Well, I’ll be damned. Struts and bearings are more expensive than I thought. I move on to standard question number two.
“Ruben, are these repairs absolutely necessary, are they urgent?” I ask.
He claims that the front struts are leaking and thus, should be replaced immediately.
“But what about the rear struts?” I ask.
“Well, mechanics usually like to replace both the front and the rear struts at the same time,” he says.
But I am not in the business of making costly, unnecessary repairs simply to make mechanics happy, so I tell him to hold off on the rear struts. He agrees but launches into an incoherent explanation about why the bearings are also urgently in need or immediate care. I ask if he can do a little better on the price, but he claims he’s already given me such a truly wonderful price and waxes poetic about the quality of Midas struts.
I suspect that his children probably need braces or that perhaps he’s going through a costly divorce, so I tell him I’m going to hold off and get a second opinion on the repairs.
“Second opinion?” he scoffs, with such obvious disgust that I almost buckle and tell him to just do the damn repairs. In these cases, I often agree to pay for repairs simply because it’s convenient to “get things done” while the car is already in the shop, and because I’m so clueless that I fear that if I fail to heed the advice of the mechanic, I’ll find myself stranded on the side of the road one day, beating even alive by rabid coyotes.
I went online and found rave reviews for a place called Tom’s Auto Stop, and decided to give them a try. Still in a mistrustful mood, I didn’t tell them about my Sears baggage. Instead I ask them to check the struts and bearings in the most nonchalant and matter-of-fact way possible.
Twenty minutes after I arrived, a bearded man named James introduces himself and asks me to follow him into the garage. I brace myself for his verdict.
“I didn’t find a single thing wrong with your car,” he says.
I try very hard to contain my glee and pretend like this was exactly what I was expecting.
“Well, you can never be too safe, can you?” I ask.
James was honest. James was my hero. He didn’t even hit me with any pop quizzes to test my knowledge. Instead, he took his flashlight and showed me that my bearings and struts looked fine- no leaks as Sears had claimed.
Best of all, he didn’t charge me a dime. Most folks probably would have left well enough alone, but I decided to go back to Sears and throw James’ verdict in their face, just to see what they’d say.
Ruben was there waiting for me and when I asked to speak to the manager, he looked justifiably nervous.
“He’s in there,” Ruben said, nodding over his shoulder towards a small office.
I popped in and introduced myself to Amal, a vaguely Middle Eastern man who was apparently the manager. I explained the situation and gave him a copy of the $2,031.42 estimate. He disappeared for a few minutes and then returned with the mechanic, a fifty-something African-American man whom I believe he called Cooler, and Ruben, who was looking very sheepish.
“I never said the strut was leaking,” Cooler said, in the way of an opening statement.
“Well, Ruben told me it was,” I said, casting an accusing look at him.
“It must have been a miscommunication,” Amal offered, hopefully.
Sure there was, I thought. They’d gleaned that I knew fuck-all about cars and assumed they could take me for a ride. Maybe Ruben, Cooler & the Gang will think twice before getting greedy with another uneducated consumer such as me. Or maybe not.