What fools indeed we mortals are
To lavish care upon a Car,
With ne’er a bit of time to see
About our own machinery!
~John Kendrick Bangs
It is the most unnerving sound in the world – the wheezing, asphyxiated gasps of a car in the process of having a seizure. “Click, Click, cough, ping, ping,” and a final flatulent, life flicker — “pa-tooo-hee”.
My engine had died and was now simmering the way an egg still cooks even after the burner has been turned off. Under the auto’s hood, a complex ecosystem of moving belts, pistons and strange, rhombus shaped parts fused together with monstrous Frankenstein bolts, had frozen. The apparent aneurysm was deep inside its steel cerebellum and not visible to my naked eye.
I looked for the lever to open the bonnet of my Audi A6. I had no idea what I was looking for or what I might find. A loose wire? A squirrel ejected from his wheel? A gypsy? Yet, my vehicle was in crisis and I needed to save it.
I pulled the handle and the gas cap popped open. Despite the fact that I had 70,000 miles on my car, I was like a child attempting brain surgery. Relieved to find another lever, I grimaced, yanked the handle and looked away, expecting to be smashed into the seat by an exploding air bag. The Audi’s hood momentarily shuddered.
My next challenge was probing for the ingenuously camouflaged knob that released the hood. I needed to survey the Audi’s central nervous system – an abyss of meaningless carbon stained engine parts – but why?
It is a pathetic fact that each time I open my hood; I am engaged in an act of open denial. It’s as if I expect to have a sudden mechanical epiphany and will be able to solve this German Rubik’s cube. I naively expect to see a dangling extension cord or loose distributor cap that I can gently replace and be on my way – but not before I slam the hood and swipe my barely soiled hands together to the adulation of passing motorists who honk in homage to my utter self sufficiency.
To the average male, an automotive breakdown is an opportunity to affirm one’s masculinity and prove that he can be superior to, in this case, a mocking bully named modern automotive technology. The cars of the second millennium – with their mysteriously complicated engines, electronic sensors, valves, and fuel emission alternatives – remain one of the last great places where a man can reaffirm that he is indeed, a man.
For others, it is a sad confirmation of their feeble domestication. There are those unfortunates – and I am one of them – who have lost their childhood interest in cars and have become grossly dependent on others. We are eunuchs in the presence of sleek Italian, fast German and haughty English models.
Specialists have wondered for years whether a man’s mechanical aptitude is driven by nature or nurture. In a type A society, physical prowess seems to define a male in life’s pecking order and in the 70’s, many fathers viewed mechanical prowess as a leading indicator of how a boy would likely turn out. If Johnny was not able to get an A in wood shop, pump gas and dip an oil stick by 13, Dad was getting a little concerned. It was like a cowboy not understanding his horse or an athlete not knowing which way the jock strap was supposed to go. Next thing you know he is playing with little Suzy’s barbies. It was – you know- unnatural. So, like most guys, you faked it.
It seemed everybody knew how to fix his car. A real man could change spark plugs, oil, tires, a wayward fan belt or a blown gasket. The strip malls were filled with auto parts stores owned by guys with names like Vic, Dom and Lou. These oracles spoke as if they personally knew Henry Ford. At the Pep Boys, Manny, Moe and Jack could teach you to become an automotive savant, subordinate to no one – not your dealer, your mechanic or your local garage.
Yet, ironically many of the most proficient motor-heads in my neighborhood were also annually voted most likely to do time in San Quentin. It seemed that it was a veritable midnight in the garden of good and evil underneath that car’s hood. Perhaps inhaling gasoline and oil caused you to skip school, smoke a jag in the east parking lot and eventually break into your neighbor’s garage. Is this where the expression, “hood” came from?
Yet, “man law” dictated understanding cars. No dude would admit that he did not grasp the finer points of a 1973 Mustang’s 266hp, 8 cylinders, and 4-valve Cobra engine. You had to give the impression that you had just finished taking one apart and were close to reassembling it once you found a rare spare part at the local junkyard. It was in these conversations about cars and girls, that boys learned the fine art of hyperbole.
When the tow truck arrived for my Audi, a tattooed twenty-something kid with the Wolverine lamb chop sideburns barked at me, “Let me take a look at her.” He peered under the hood,” Ok, give her a try.” The sound was like metal grinding across a belt sander. “Ok, ok turn it off.” He yelled wiping off his filthy hands with oil stained cloth pulled from his back pocket.
“Could be the alternator.” I asked rhetorically. I did not want him to know that I had no idea what an alternator actually did. Perhaps an alternator determined who stood in for whom in a high school play.
“No, that’s not it. The ignition would click,” he said absently. By now, I am sweating. He senses my ignorance. Add $500 to the bill.
I plunged through the dark. “What about the head gasket?” Bzzzzz! Another buzzer. Oh, I am afraid that’s not correct. $300 more to your VISA for stupid answer number two.
As he inventoried the eight million things that could have gone wrong, I became an obsequious blob. “Of course” I blurted with an unconvincing eye roll and smirk. The window was closing for me to reestablish my manliness. The bill was going to require a second mortgage on my house.
Later, when my wife asked me the most basic of questions, I became irritated at her interrogation. “No, I did not get other estimates. I am a busy man.” No, he did not tell me the expected cost?” ” Did, I negotiate with him?”” Please, that’s so un-dude-like”. I mean did you see the guy’s tattoo? But, she was right. I hate it when she is right.
I have now come to the realization that spouses should take the car to the garage. My wife is unafraid to ask any question such as “what is the cheapest option?” Or “explain that to me again. I don’t really understand what that means.” Or is “this covered under warranty if I take this to the dealer?” and the bold “ok, thanks. I am going to get another estimate and I will get back to you.”
You see mechanics want to see guys bringing cars in. Garage owners know a man does not want to violate man law by asking questions, troubling the skillful mechanic about how things work or how much it will cost. I mean, the guy has a tattoo for God’s sake. He probably was an extra in Easy Rider and knows Peter Fonda personally. He is obviously a cool dude and I want him to think I am a cool guy. If I piss him off he might pull a shank on me.
As the mechanic gathered under my hood, he began speaking in an advanced dialect of “motor-head”, a language I do not speak. As he discussed the “5 speed tip-tronic transmission”, “slippage” and “cam seal problems”, I nodded as if I had performed all of these repairs in my bathroom just earlier that morning. He was an oil stained astronomer discussing a nebula in the far off galaxy of my engine block. I furrowed my eyebrows in feigned interest and nodded. ” Of course. Yup. Makes sense. Uh-huh. Yes…Of course!”
The car is an extension of the modern male. I must admit that my role as an automotive consumer leaves a lot lacking. It is not unlike healthcare, where the consumer says, “just fix it.”
You get out of it, what you put into it. Perhaps after Washington “fixes” healthcare, they can focus on the automotive repair industry. It’s all so intimidating.
I just hope in the meantime, my doctor does not get a tattoo.