Friday, November 20, 2009

Jiffy Lube

I got the oil changed in the car today, which always makes me think about my relationship to my vehicle. We don't drive much - less than 3,000 miles a year - since we commute by bicycle and live on an island that is 35 miles long. (This leads to unintentional humor when the AAA tries to sell us the gold membership by telling us that we can get a tow as much as 100 miles from home. If my car were 100 miles from my house, a tow truck wouldn't be much help.) And we're pretty frugal, so we didn't want to pay for any more car than we were going to use (for running errands and going to shul). So we drive a 1998 Corolla with 78,000 miles on it. This is low mileage for a nearly twelve-year-old car, and it's a Toyota after all, so it's been pretty reliable. Things wear out periodically - the radiator went a few months ago, but then it was the original radiator, and had reached the end of its usable life. It has some cosmetic issues (some small rips in the fabric of the ceiling, for example) but because we don't care, we got it for $1000 under blue book when we bought it three years ago. Generally speaking, it's a good car: reasonable if not stellar gas mileage (and we only fill it up once a month anyway), easy to park, and it's worth relatively little so the insurance payments are low.

The challenge is that it is the first car my husband and I have owned (the first we have owned together, and the first he has owned ever - I shared custody of a Honda Civic with my girlfriend N for about two years back in the early nineties, and my folks lent me their old Mazda for a year when I was in grad school and teaching all over Chicago). The point is that neither of us has very much experience owning an automobile. The result is that it can be very hard to tell, of the many strange noises a twelve-year-old Toyota can make, which are the ones we actually have to worry about. On top of this, there's the American culture of automotive competence. We are supposed to know something about our cars in a way that nobody necessarily expects us to know something about our computers. As it happens, himself and I both know more about our computers than about our car. But it makes interaction with auto mechanics - even the guys at Jiffy Lube - a little bit touchy sometimes. "Do you want a flush of your automatic transmission fluid today?" I don't know, do I? What counts as due diligence for a reliable but ancient old car you don't drive much? Usually I answer "No," and then I ask Mr. Noga (my mechanic) about it the next time I go in. He and his second-in-command, Scott, are extremely patient with me but I do end up feeling like they must roll their eyes at me as I am leaving.

Fortunately, after a few years of ownership, we are starting to get the hang of what needs to be taken seriously and what can be safely ignored. For instance, we know that the fact that the air conditioning doesn't really work is mitigated by the fact that you can always roll the windows down. And the windshield washer fluid system has never worked right (though the wipers are fine) and more recently has given up entirely. We suspect it would be expensive to fix, possibly involving replacement of the whole system. However, a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex in the back seat are extremely economical.

1 comment:

thm said...

So I consider myself a fairly handy person, especially upon becoming a homeowner--doing minor electrical and plumbing work, patching holes in the walls, replacing the garbage disposal, and so forth. And as an experimental physicist, I've had the opportunity to become comfortable with precision metalworking equipment in the student machine shops as both an undergrad and graduate student.

But with cars, I can hardly do a thing. Replacing the battery in our ('99) Corolla was the most involved thing I've tried--I just want the darn thing to work, or for the dealer to take care of it. Sometimes I feel I ought to be able to work on cars (especially considering how much CarTalk on NPR I've listened to) and I probably could learn, but at present, no.