An emissions admission: Van might fail

April 02, 2009|By KEVIN COWHERD

In the mail the other day comes a notice from the state informing me that it's time for the minivan's vehicle emissions test, which induces the usual anxiety.

This is because the minivan is nine years old. Oh, it will outlive you and me and everyone else, but it has issues. The engine is making funny noises. Two windows won't roll down. Who knows what kind of horrible fumes it spews into the atmosphere?

So the next morning, I set off on the long slog to the vehicle emissions test station, which, by law, must be in an area that will inconvenience the greatest number of citizens.

Suddenly, the check engine light comes on.

When it does, I do a tire-squealing U-turn in the middle of York Road - yes, this is legal, sort of - and race to the Cockeysville world headquarters of the Fabulous Kleim Brothers, my mechanics.

I do this because I know that a check engine light means automatic failure with the vehicle emissions Gestapo.

Naturally, by the time I get there, the light is off.

This is what the check engine light is designed to do: torture you, make you paranoid, convince you the car is about to break down at any moment.

At their garage, the Fabulous Kleim Brothers go into full diagnostic mode, like a pit crew swarming over a disabled stock car.

They hook up a gizmo with wires under the dashboard, turn the key, check the dial readings, exchange thoughtful frowns.

Finally, they render a verdict: "We don't know why the light came on."

Oh, I say. Will it come on again?

"Who knows?" they say.

Should I still take the emissions test?

"Sure, give it a shot," they say.

Buoyed by this confidence-inducing exchange, I head off again to Owings Mills and the Baltimore County test station on Cronridge Road or Cronridge Lane, or wherever the hell it is.

The trip there is nerve-wracking. Every 30 seconds or so, I find myself glancing down to see if the check engine light is on.

This is why people have accidents. You talk about cell phones and texting while driving and all that. How about having your attention diverted by a stupid dashboard light?

The testing station, a soulless warren of concrete bays wreathed in the usual choking gray exhaust fumes, is busy.

There are six cars ahead of me, which gives me plenty of time to brood about the light coming back on.

Again, I find myself staring at it every few seconds and murmuring little "don't come on, don't come on" prayers.

I have brought along the newspaper to kill time. But how do you concentrate on Rick Wagoner getting his head chopped off and Madonna in Malawi at a time like this?

Finally, after 25 minutes, it's showtime.

I'm waved into the testing bay by a smiling technician. (She won't last long at this job, since the default personality for these technicians tends to be irritated.)

She takes my money and tells me to turn the car off and go into the glass-enclosed waiting area with the rest of the shivering masses.

"This baby's running like a top," I say, a lame bluff. "We're acing this test."

In the waiting area, I watch the test and try to read her face, but her expression never changes. I bet these technicians are terrific poker players.

A few minutes later, she waves me out. She's still smiling. I figure I passed. Either that or she gets a charge out of seeing people fail.

Unfortunately, it turns out to be door No. 2.

"Your vehicle failed," she says. "Maybe that's why the check engine light came on."

The check engine light came on?

"Oh, yeah," she says. "Soon as I started it."

What follows is the humiliating ritual of reporting to the office, where they hand you a report explaining why your vehicle failed and why you're a wretched human being for allowing it to pollute the air we all breathe.

The good news is I have until July to get the problem fixed and to retake the test.

The bad news is it means shelling out more money to the Fabulous Kleim Brothers, who will probably take a trip to Tahiti after this score.

Maybe one day they'll name one of their lifts after me. That would be nice.

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