Friday, July 28, 2000

car repairs for dummies

I'd like to take this opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding people might have about me. I'm really not that mechanically inclined. Not at all, actually. In fact, I have what you might call a mechanical disinclination.

My latest display of deficiency in the area of mechanics began with car trouble recently. For some reason, my car -- named Bluebeard, though neither I nor it ever has pursued a career in piracy -- for the last four months has been creating more pollution than the entire New Jersey Turnpike. I finally took it to a mechanic three weeks ago when I found a massive yellow puddle under the engine.

Taking my car to the garage for maintenance isn't my first impulse. While in Haiti, I learned the value of knowing how to perform at least routine maintenance on vehicles. It was there I finally learned which end of a screwdriver is useful for turning screws -- the pointy end -- and which is meant for hitting yourself in the head when you realize you just compounded the problem. (The one without the sharp point. Trust me.)

So when I returned from Haiti and bought a Buick Century from my brother, I quickly became acquainted with a ratchet set and a few other tools, and took to changing the oil in my car and performing minor repairs myself. That lasted about a year, until that car met an untimely end in a head-on collision.

At that point, it was time to upgrade to a maroon Chevrolet that required a little more maintenance. After the accident, all that worked on my Buick was the trunk. By coincidence, it seemed the trunk was all that worked on the Chevrolet when I bought that.

One of the first major systems to go was the exhaust system, and it went in style. In less than a year, I had to replace the muffler twice, and the intermediary pipe, front pipe and catalytic converter once each.

My neighbors became accustomed to seeing me out in the parking lot with my trusty toolbox, rachet set and screwdrivers. They assumed this meant I knew a lot about cars, but that's not quite true. I was getting very familiar with my car, especially with its exhaust system, which I had to reattach at least twice a week because I never seemed to get it on right and it kept falling off.

The same summer the exhaust system went, I also had to replace the car's radiator. This ended up being fortunate, although I didn't realize that when it happened. At the time, I was too annoyed at being stuck somewhere on Route 30 in the middle of rural Pennsylvania at 3 a.m. to appreciate how lucky I was.

Well, I learned to appreciate that mishap less than three weeks ago. The mechanic we take our car to listed nearly $1,000 worth of repairs Bluebeard needed: a new head gasket, repair work to the front axle assembly or something, and a new radiator. At least the trunk still opened and closed.

"Oh, a radiator's easy to replace," remembering that my brother Brian and I had changed the one in Bluebeard in less than 40 minutes back in 1995. "How much will we save if I do that myself?"

My reasoning went like this: Garages mark up the cost of parts, and often charge exorbitant amounts for labor. If I could buy a used radiator and do the work myself, I could save a bundle. My brother Herb repairs his and his wife's car all the time, and saves a small fortune in the process.

(Somehow it escaped my attention that Herb never has any weekends or evenings to himself. They're all spent doing repair work.)

I should mention that my brother Herb is one of those fortunate people who Has A Clue. He's only two years older than me, but when it comes to mechanical inclination, my brother Herb is beyond a shadow of a doubt a more highly evolved life form.

By the time he was 12, he could patch the inner tubes on his bicycle, tighten its chain, adjust the hand brakes and straighten the frame he had bent double by not-quite jumping across Sulfur Creek, all while getting his friends to cut the grass for him.

Compare that to me. Just two weeks ago, I took my bike to a service station because its tires were flat, and stared at the air pump for five minutes before figuring out how to get it to work.

The disparity is pretty severe. Over the past ten years or so, my brother has grown accustomed to getting calls whenever I have a question.

"What's the problem?" he asks in a typical conversation.

"The engine makes loud grinding noises whenever I start the car, and then flames appear unless I put the hood down."

"When's the last time you changed your oil?"


Fortunately, radiators are as easy to change as my memories suggested. And if it gets too confusing, I have a Haynes repair manual that explains in plain language everything I need to know about repairing my car.

At least that's the claim the manual makes on the cover.

Directions actually went something like this: "Be sure to reconstitute the osculatory valve before defenestrating the isolinear filtration matrix under the krammer block. You will need a Hackerman wrench for this. See Figure 3A, conveniently indistinguishable from a dead otter, to locate the osculatory valve."

The first step is to flush the coolant system. In a healthy car, coolant is a mixture of antifreeze and water, and is fatal to drink. What came from Bluebeard's radiator looked like a mixture of dijon mustard and water, and probably would have been fatal to touch. It ran yellow for nearly a minute, and then it was time to begin disconnecting things.

Next step was to disconnect the fan, the air filter and a few other things to have unobstructed access to the hoses and clamps. That was no big deal, but once that was done, another obstacle presented itself.

Twin lines run from the radiator to the transmission, and the components that tap into the radiator often have corroded extensively by the time the car is eight years old. We soaked them with Liquid Wrench to get them loose and still managed to strip one.

A stripped nut doesn't come off with a wrench, which meant one thing: time to get the hacksaw and cut the line in two.

It just went downhill from there. Junkyards in the area that sell used auto parts usually would charge about $20 for a used radiator, but no one I contacted had one for my make of car. A parts store I'll call "Zesty Boys" wanted $170 for a new one. I found the same radiator elsewhere for only $87, but I still saw my potential savings going up in smoke.

That Saturday, a week after I brought Bluebeard home, I took my new radiator home and began installing it. It took a little longer than I had expected, and it didn't save me as much money, but it was done.

Or so I thought. Remember that line I had to cut in two? Well, I didn't, and realized my mistake only after I finished installing the radiator and putting everything back together I had dismantled in what I fervently hoped was the right order.

Getting a new plug -- properly called a "line starter" -- became a living nightmare. A nearby garage specializing in radiators didn't carry them at all. A parts store carried them, but not in the size I needed. And the employees at Zesty Boys didn't even know what I was talking about.

"You mean a radiator hose, right?" one worker said, pointing out the one-inch hoses I didn't need.

"Where's this go on the radiator again?" another worker asked.

"You want to buy a new radiator?" suggested a third.

I was starting to get the picture. "I don't think they even know what a car engine is at Zesty Boys," I told a manager at a different parts store who knew what I was looking for but didn't have them.

My final solution was to take the new radiator back out of the car, put it in the box and drive to a parts store to show them exactly what I needed. Total cost for the part: 95 cents.

Time to complete the job: 15 days.

Total savings: $4.23.

You would think I would learn from experiences like this, but the prognosis is doubtful. Just yesterday, I bought a new vent for our dryer. Think how much money we'll save if I put it in myself ...

Friday, July 14, 2000

mattress of my heart

Have you ever had a relationship so deep and meaningful that when it ended, you felt as though a part of you had died?

I have. For the past 12 months, Natasha and I have shared our house, our back yard - yes, our very lives - with a mattress called Spring Air. Initially, I admit, we regarded Spring Air as an inconvenience, a twin-size mattress left in the driveway by the house's previous owner, but as time went on, Spring Air came to mean something more. Something special.

It grew on us slowly, but when we threw a housewarming party last July, Spring Air was there, along with some of our best friends from church and from college. It said little, being shy, and it mostly hang out on the side of the house away from the guests rather than mingle with them.

This behavior didn't particularly surprise me. Mattresses are not social creatures, and they rarely spend much time with more than one or two people in the course of their lives. This also probably was its first party, so some bashfulness was to be expected.

But there was no mistaking the sensation it caused. In its own quiet way, Spring Air quickly became a conversation piece among our guests, who invariably revered it as the most unusual piece of patio furniture they ever had seen. Our picnic table and every one of our chairs have been used repeatedly, but not one person dared to use Spring Air for an afternoon nap. Such was the respect we held it in.

In time, Spring Air became something of an attraction, or perhaps a celebrity. People came from Maryland, from Pennsylvania, from Arizona and from Vermont and asked to see the mattress. Ours became known as the only house on the block - perhaps in the city or in all New Jersey -- to have a mattress in the back yard.

Spring Air became like family to us. It stayed with us all summer long and into the autumn. When Hurricane Floyd hit New Jersey last September, destroying communities like Manville and Bound Brook, the mattress stoically braved the elements and protected our house as best it could.

When our daughter was born, Spring Air kept vigil while we were at the hospital. And when we brought Evangeline home for the first time, it was there, waiting for us patiently, and never once reproached me for not telling it when she had been born.

To my knowledge, the mattress never once asked for anything. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's and Easter all came and went, and Spring Air stayed outside on the patio without once asking to come in and dry out.

From time to time, Natasha gently would hint that Spring Air had overstayed its welcome, and she would ask me to escort it to the roadside.

"I think we have to make special arrangements before they'll take it away," I would say as I stalled for time.

And so the days passed. Snow fell, lingered and melted away. Winter turned to spring, and in their turn, spiders, insects and a few species of mold I've never identified made that mattress their home.

Trouble began brewing in the spring. Leaves that had gone unraked over the winter because my time was needed inside with the baby had piled up against Spring Air, and as they rotted around it, the mattress began to make a stink. Its bright colors had faded, and visitors who saw Spring Air began to remark that it should go.

The fateful day arrived early one morning in late May. Walking back from the university one morning, Natasha saw something that sent a thrill up her spine. A homeowner a block away from us had put a queen-size mattress and box spring out on the curb with his regular garbage.

I knew as soon as she told me that Spring Air's days were numbered. Less than a week later, I dragged it out to the curb. Time and the elements had not been kind to our guest. Practically new when we had moved in, it had aged prematurely, and I knew it was time to put it down.

I leaned it against a tree between our house and the one next door in case there was an extra fee associated with leaving oversize items out for collection, and I said my goodbyes.

"I guess this is it," I said. "It's best if you leave tomorrow morning. I don't want the zoning officer to fine us for keeping you outside. It's probably against a city ordinance."

Spring Air said nothing, and wouldn't even look at me. I could tell I had hurt its feelings.

The next morning I watched, misty-eyed, as city workers picked up our departing tenant and threw it into the garbage truck. Even from where I stood, I could feel its resentment as this betrayal.

"I could have stayed forever," it seemed to say sullenly. "See how your flowers and picnic table fare. I never would have biodegraded on you."

I watched as it rode slowly away aboard the garbage truck. It never even tried to look back.

Copyright © 2000 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, July 07, 2000


Don Miguel Cervantes de Saavadera once observed that there is nothing so bad that you can't find something good in it.

He got away with saying that because the worst he had to contend with was an abudance of trashy stories about knight-errantry. Cervantes never once had to read "Jane Eyre" or, worse, watch a soap opera.

I have. Although "Jane Eyre" thankfully is in my past, for two weeks while I was on vacation, I was subjected twice daily to the modern-day horror called soap operas. Two weeks later, I still am suffering post-traumatic syndrome from what I endured. I'll refer to these soaps as "Puerto Carlos" and "Major Hospital" to avoid offending any fans who might read this.

It's not as though I wanted to watch soap operas on vacation. I tried to do some writing, and I tried to do some reading, but just being in the same room as the TV set was enough to be sullied. It's like the time I played rugby in my school uniform, only I don't know of any laundry detergent that can remove these ugly marks from my psyche, no matter how hard I scrub.

The dreary flicker of the TV screen and the combination of bad acting, worse directing and really terrible writing kept dragging me into the show with the same horrified fascination I feel driving past a car wreck. I couldn't look away no matter how hard I tried.

I was so appalled by what I was watching, I decided to call ABC from a morbid curiosity to know where they get their soap opera writers, but since I was calling at night when rates are cheaper, no one was there except a janitor named Bob.

From what Bob told me, all the major networks, not just ABC, use a special test to find the right people for major soap-writing jobs. Anyone who has read books for pleasure and not just for a book report, who can name three presidents of the United States in any order, or who knows how to use the word "obviate" in a sentence, is disqualified immediately and shipped book-rate to Rhode Island.

Every now and then, Bob said, someone with actual talent manages to slip through the cracks. When that happens, the networks neutralize them with specially trained directors who pick the most melodramatic facial expressions and postures the actors can assume and let the camera linger painfully for three or four seconds on them at the end of every scene.

Nothing worthwhile survives of the plots these soaps have.

I'm sorry, did I say these things have a plot? My mistake. Plots have a clear beginning, middle and end. Academians claim there are three basic plots in all literature: man against man, man against himself, and man against God, although in each case the writer has tremendous freedom to define what man is, what God is, and what it means to work against something.

Soap operas don't have plots. They have storylines, which also happen to come in a set of three: sleeping with someone, planning to commit murder, and manipulating people. Sometimes the writers will try to get creative by combining the three.

On "Puerto Carlos," one of the storylines I saw involved the disappearance of Luke Steffan, who like everyone else on the show is a manipulative and controlling fart.

As the story unfolds, about twelve minutes after Luke Steffan disappears, the city prosecutor decides he was murdered and immediately arrests Luke Steffan's neighbor Rufus for the crime, judging that the complete lack of evidence is merely proof of Rufus' criminal genius.

As viewers, we of course know that Rufus is innocent of foul play, because he was having an affair with the prosecutor's wife, teen-age daughter and sheepdog Muffie when the alleged murder occurred.

About a week later, those clever writers reveal that Luke Steffan simply ran off to use the bathroom when no one was looking and went on a drinking binge.

When he finally comes to himself, he is in Paris, France, with 40,000 Mexican pesos and a passport that identifies him as a purebred German shepherd named "XP39 Heart Breaker of Sunnymead Farm."

But in order to lose viewers interested in Rufus' efforts to defend himself from charges of murder and stay free of Muffie's canine machinations, the writers also develop a number of other storylines, none especially relevant to his situation.

At the same time Rufus escapes from jail, Lucille's adopted 1-year-old daughter is kidnapped by her biological mother and taken to Kzakhastan, a woman named Charlie tries to kill the man she blames for her recent miscarriage, and 33 other people plot to take over the world, or at least the board of directors of Major Hospital.

Confusing? That's not even half of it. By the time our vacation ended, Luke Steffan had been thrown into the pound because he didn't have a dog license, Rufus had disappeared to escape being framed, Muffie had bitten the prosecutor on the leg, the kidnapped little girl was found at Wal-Mart in a different set of clothes and with a new haircut, and the entire board of directors of Major Hospital quit when the hospital's snack machine ran out of yellow Zingers.

Now I'm not saying these things don't happen in real life -- although I honestly can't say I know of anyone they've happened to -- but if they happened as regularly in real life as they did on soap operas, Jerry Springer would be out of business.