Sacrifices to Hermes, Part 2

When we last saw our hero, I had just driven off from Midas in my black 1998 Nissan Maxima SE, a new muffler in my car and a song in my heart. The song was “Wax Ecstatic”, and it has been playing on the car stereo when it mysteriously disappeared.

At the time, I was following a friend from the Midas to an Independence Day-eve party at another friend’s place. I was rocking out, enjoying the newfound quiet of my brand-new muffler, when the front-right speaker suddenly cut out, followed in swift succession by the front left, the rear-left, and the rear-right, leaving me in total silence. Sixty seconds of fiddling with the controls didn’t help any, though it did place my life at serious risk as it took up seventy percent of my attention span while driving.

I sighed but figured the Midas guys had simply hit a circuit or something while replacing the air filter. (Remember: I know nothing about cars.) I assumed I could just stop by on a later day and have them fix it, if one of my mechanically-inclined friends (“Chief” of the previous post) couldn’t do it himself.

I had been driving for about ten minutes, still following my friend (Chief’s girlfriend, as a matter of fact), when we reached a traffic light. For some reason—and I’m afraid my train of thought at the time is completely lost to me now, but I can only assume it made perfect sense to my then-brain—I decided to turn the car off and on again. So I turned the car off. Then tried to turn it on.

In an instant, my car went from being a sleek, high-speed form of transport to a two-ton paperweight. Or roadblock, as the case may be. The light changed and Chief’s girlfriend pulled away as I rolled my window down and waved the people behind me to pass. I flipped on the hazards, pulled out my cell phone and debated who to call—my girlfriend DG (who I knew was having a tough day already), my father (whose help in this situation was limited), or the Midas guys who I had just left? I got out of the car and walked to the convenience store nearby, imaginatively called “True Convenience.” As I dialed Midas I was approached by a swarthy man and his shorter, older companion.

Eyeing this two, I got through to Midas and exasperatingly (and no doubt with a bit of an accusatory tone) explained the situation. Initially they said I would have to get it towed to their place and they could take a look at it on the Wednesday after July 4, which was the day after tomorrow. Annoyed, I said fine and hung up, though I wasn’t sure I would actually get the car towed. At this point, my Maxima was beginning to annoy people, and I knew I had to get it out of the road.

Chief’s girlfriend called my cell but, fully aware that she would be asking where I was and nothing more, I let it ring while I spoke to the two men who had accosted me. I never got their names, and am not even sure exactly what ethnicity they were, so I will call them One and Two. One was younger, a large man with a mustache. Two was much older and shorter and, at the time of my arrival at True Convenience, had been involved in what appeared to be a very long conversation at the pay phone in front of the store. I convinced these two to help me push my car off to the True Convenience parking lot, which was achieved with minimal problems.

I then hopped in my car and attempted to start it again, to no avail. The car simply wasn’t interested in starting. At that point, Midas called back and told me that one of their guys was heading home and would stop and meet me on the way, to take a look at the car. I took a look at the street signs and told him where I was.

After that, I called my father and informed him of the situation. There really wasn’t much he could do other than commiserate and suggest I have Chief come and take a look at it. While I was talking to him, One approached my car with a hammer and told me to open the hood, informing me that if the problem was my starter, one good whack might start it again. While I had obvious reservations about allowing strangers to strike the complicated innards of my vehicle with blunt tools, I also subscribed to the Millennium Falcon school of vehicle repair (previously the Fonzie Method), which suggested that whacking complicated machines was often as effective a repair method as careful inspection with the proper tools.

So, after some fumbling for the lever, I popped open my car’s hood for this stranger. He stood over the car, brandishing the hammer as if seeking a mole to whack, but a look of perplexity slowly came over his face. I later learned this was probably due to the fact that my particular Maxima is an SE and therefore has a special engine that’s put in sideways from the way most engines are put in. Eventually One found the starter and tapped it with the hammer, then had me try to start the car. No go.

He then decided the battery was drained and I needed a jump. This made sense to me. He told Two to pull his car around and give me a jump. Then One, whose command of English was far superior to that of Two, left. As Two pulled his car around, my phone rang; it was the Midas guy. He needed directions. I didn’t know the area. I described the odd-shaped church nearby—it had a large round dome—and reiterated the street names, but this didn’t help, so I went into True Convenience to ask the cashier for directions, but got no help there. Actually, I can’t remember how I finally figured out the directions, but eventually I was off the phone with the Midas guy, so I must have told him something.

I went back to my car and found Two preparing for the jump. I decided to wait until the Midas guy arrived and, after repeating myself a few times, I got the impression that Two understood what I was saying. Either way it didn’t matter, as a paunchy middle-aged man in shorts and tennis shoes was demanding Two move his car so that he could back out.

Meanwhile I called Chief, who was at the party less than a mile away, and explained the situation. He said it was probably the alternator, and I then grilled him on how much an alternator would cost, as I had just dropped a good chunk of cash on the new muffler and mid-pipe assembly. I hung up with Chief and glanced across the street; there was a car repair shop there. Now that was true convenience! I walked over and asked them how much they’d charge to replace the alternator in my car. They said I’d need to bring it over so they could look at it. I said I’d think about it. I was wary of bringing my car to a place that was neither a chain (like Midas) or a dealership, as car repair is one of the few aspects of American commerce where the twin institutions of haggling and price gouging are still alive and well.

I returned to True Convenience and spent the next twenty minutes anxiously awaiting the Midas guy, who finally arrived. He used a battery tester on my car and discovered it was dead. His suggestion: that he drive back to Midas, get a new battery (which would cost me $150), throw the battery in the car, which would get me at least back to Midas, and then they’d replace the alternator for $400.

I was just about to go with this plan when I decided to bail. Even I, a complete and utter novice, knew that $150 was too much money for a new battery, and Chief’s information suggested that $400 was a rip-off for an alternator replacement. The Midas guy cheerfully went on his way while I debated my options. Then I made my decision.

I called Chief and asked him to come help my move the car (and pick me up for the party). Once he got there, we pushed the car to the repair shop with a request that they look at it when they can and get back to me on Wednesday.

I then went to the party, where I finally called DG. I prefaced my discussion with “First off, honey, I love you,” which of course is never a good sign. She took it well on the phone, though she later told me my poor car was the subject of a tirade to one of her friends at the lab. Admittedly, it had been an expensive pain in the ass lately.

In the end, the alternator was replaced but the battery turned out to be okay. It cost me a bit, but not as much as Midas had been planning to charge, and to be fair, it was a much bigger job than the mechanic charged for labor. You see, the alternator in a 1998 Maxima SE is actually under the front of the engine, so you have to pull out half its innards to get at it. The job ended up taking an additional two hours to complete, because my car just can’t make anything easy for anyone, apparently.

Anyway, that was last week, and so far (knock on wood), Hermes appears to be sated with this last sacrifice of green. Apparently he wanted to make sure I was right on the edge when my graduate loans came in this month.

But it was all a learning experience. I learned, for instance, that some convenience stores allow people to spend hours talking on their pay phones. And that hitting a starter with a hammer can sometimes fix it. And where the hood switch on my car is. And that most people in my area who are involved in car repair—or who are even prepared to provide car advice—tend to have accents (everyone in the preceding story except Chief and his girlfriend had some sort of accent; the Midas guy and the mechanics were Latino, and I have no idea what One or Two were; I’m going to say they had Portuguese accents, because when I can’t identify the accent my default assumption is that it’s Portuguese.

I do want to say that all these people had far more knowledge of car repair than I do, and that I am in no way making fun of them. Rather, I’m making fun of myself and how completely unworldly I am. And I also want to emphasize the weird, David Lynch feel of the whole thing. Trying to give directions to a location you’re unfamiliar with while strangers you can’t quite understand try to hit your car with hammers is quite a unique experience.

  1. Ed left a comment on July 14, 2006 at 9:41 pm

    Don’t feel bad – I know nothing about cars as well. I did marry a woman whose brother is a professional mechanic though – so that filled that hole in my life. Now, if only I could convince her to move to Utah, draft a female movie producer and plasma tv saleswoman into the stable – then we’d really have something.

    P.S. Your last paragraph had me rolling.

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