A bumpy, expensive journey into auto repair


March 07, 2010|By Janet Gilbert

You have to admire my minivan. It's 11 years old and has more than 130,000 miles, and yet it continues to keep up with the snappier vehicles on the road. A couple of years ago, I nicknamed it "the space shuttle" because it definitely has some inexplicable rattles, and yet it boldly accomplishes its missions safely. It also handles remarkably like the space shuttle when you try to park it anywhere.

Of course, the reason our space shuttle is still going strong is because we bring it in for scheduled maintenance, or whenever we get the feeling that we're riding in a mobile toaster and could be ejected at any moment.

These days, our eldest son uses the space shuttle for transportation to and from campus. When he phoned command central to report that he was experiencing rapid headlight dimming and brightening on his way home one night, we knew we had to take immediate action.

I called the dealership for an appointment and gave a brief description of the shuttle's condition to our regular mechanic.

"It's like it's a roving disco ball," I said.

"The headlights get brighter and dimmer."

"Does this happen all the time?" he asked.

"Of course not," I said.

Naturally, the space shuttle put its best wheel forward and rallied, so the mechanic couldn't find any problems. It's the classic call-the-doctor-and-your-symptoms-disappear syndrome. But a few weeks later, when our son returned for winter break, he reported increased incidents of flashing, as well as a host of new scraping sounds whenever he applied the brakes, so we dropped the space shuttle off for another evaluation.

I waited by the phone for the diagnosis, but evidently the shop was running tests most of the day. The following day I had made arrangements to help my aunt set up her new computer system -- more accurately, I had made arrangements for my son to help my aunt set up her new computer system. So I took my aunt out to lunch while my son both configured the system and proved himself gifted at guessing my aunt's many passwords for e-mail and Internet access.

It was the end of a lovely day when my cell phone finally rang.

I knew immediately by the mechanic's tone it was not good news; he told me I might want to take notes. It was dark in my aunt's kitchen, but I found a pencil and paper and started scribbling: new alternator, front brakes, rotors. The list went on and on. I sighed a lot, asked a few questions, authorized the repairs and hung up, jamming the notes in my purse. I figured when I got home, I would write a quick e-mail to my husband (who was away on business) detailing the extensive work.

Sitting at my computer later that evening, I unfolded my notes and discovered to my dismay that I could not read my scribbles.

Nor did the abbreviations I had come up with make sense or trigger the real words for the numerous parts and problems.

Suddenly, I had no way of coherently justifying the costs.

Fortunately, I am taking a night class run by the Baltimore Improv Group, and the important lessons of improvisation have not been lost on me. So I wrote my husband the following informative, authoritative e-mail:

"Dear John, Apparently, the Trans Par Gasfelt needs replacing, as does the Axle Skell. Further, the Rogues could not be ground. Multiple maxi pads will be replaced. Shockingly, there is no Anterior Rimlist left! We're driving a full metal jacket. Finally, there will be a massive flushing followed by a filling, bringing the total to $1,593.47. This completes my report.

Love, Janet"

Fortunately, he agreed with my assessment.

So I'll be taking the space shuttle to improv class again tonight. Wave if you see me. Just don't flash your lights.

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