Let me begin by saying that I am not a worldly person. While I haven’t, as Quint says of Hooper in JAWS, “been countin’ money all my life,” I also have not developed any horny calluses over thousands of hours of hard, back-breaking outdoor work. But my naivete extends far beyond a mere unfamiliarity with extensive blue collar labor. Take, for instance, cars.
Cars are mechanical vehicles that take you from point A to point B—sometimes faster, sometimes slower depending on the reliability of Google Maps. Provided you continually feed them a not-inexpensive substance called “gasoline,” they will continue to take you from point A to point B fairly reliably. Occasionally, you must re-shod their feet with new tires, and always make sure they are a well-oiled machine by duly allowing a mechanic to try to overcharge you every three months. And that is the extent of my practical knowledge of the car.
But believe it or not, cars are actually much more complicated than that! Go to your car. Open your driver-side door and fumble around to the left of the steering wheel. If you’re like me, eventually—through sheer luck—you will find the switch to open the car’s hood. Now look—look at all that…stuff! Tubes and hoses and bolts and vents and all sorts of mechanical trappings you’ve only seen on robots in low-budget science fiction films. All of that stuff needs to work perfectly, in concert, in order for the car to go. Okay, maybe not perfectly, but with at least a jazz band level of coordination.
I bought my car, a used 1998 Maxima SE, last September. It was bought through a private owner, an acquaintance of my mother’s, and we had it checked out by our own mechanic first, who said it looked good. The car ran fine until about February, when I needed to replace the front brakes. Thankfully, I had a sizeable tax refund to sacrifice to this first demand from Hermes, Greek god of transportation and cowherds.
Then, about one month ago, I was driving to my parents’ house during the second Flood. The ghost of Noah himself floated by and let me know I was doing a great job, and, pulling out an amusing poster of a kitten with its paws around a tree branch, told me to “hang in there.” Less than a mile from my parents’ house, I accidentally drove my car into a small pond (okay, “large puddle”—semantics, people!). My car tried to stall. In response, I floored the pedal, throwing ten-foot sheets of water on both sides of the street.
I congratulated myself on my quick (read: impulsive and panicky) thinking for a few seconds before I noticed that my car was suddenly very, very loud. In fact, when accelerating, my car was vibrating enough that I began to wonder whether I were about to jump to 1955. Something had happened during that puddle adventure. My mind, which, as you’ll recall, contains virtually no data on cars and their inner workings, tossed out two possibilities: I had somehow gotten water in the engine, or the fact that I had gunned the engine had somehow gotten water in the system that handles the shifting (this I wondered because it was loudest whenever it switched gears).
My father assured me I’d just gotten water in the car somewhere and that the sound would go away. While my father is no mechanic either, he does at least know how to change an air filter and has a general idea of what parts are involved in making a car go, so I bowed to his advice.
Unfortunately, the sound did not go away. A few weeks later, I had an automotively-educated friend of mine, who I’ll call Chief (based on his common videogame handle), take a quick ride in the car. His conclusion: it was the muffler.
I then took the car to a Nissan dealership where a friend of my father used to work. (You can see how my ignorance forces me to rely entirely on friends and second-hand acquaintances for my automative assistance; not the ideal situation when it comes to car repair.) It turned out that the muffler and the mid-pipe assembly needed replacing. I asked them how much it would cost. They told me. Perhaps realizing I was about to crush my cell phone in my bare hand, they suggested I call an aftermarket muffler shop, rather than go through them. And so I did. It was still an expensive sacrifice to Hermes, but not as brutal a sacrifice as the dealership had demanded.
I picked up the car from the muffler shop on July 3rd while on the way to an Independence Day Eve cook-out. I have to admit, it sounded great. Clearly the muffler had been bad even when I’d bought the car, because now I couldn’t hear the gears shift at all. Though a bit worried about the money I’d spent so far—my college loans are due this month—I drove off into the sunset, pleased.
For about ten minutes.