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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

"But... why?"

I’m in the office updating my customer database when a late model van drives up into the shop. I go out to greet the potential customer, and see a mustachioed man in his late twenties, or early thirties, sitting in the driver’s seat. I gave him my usual professionally interested greeting.

“I’m interested in getting an estimate for doing the brakes on my old Chevy El Camino,” he replies. “It had drum brakes originally; but I had disc brakes put on the front, and now they lock up. I don’t know why.”

I do, it’s because you changed them from the original drum brakes to disc brakes.

“Sorry,” I’m not of course, “but I can’t help you out with that.”

“You do brakes here, don’t you?” He asks, with a slightly perturbed tone.

“Yes, I do brakes on all American and Asian vehicles, but I don’t work on anything with changes done to the way a vehicle comes from the factory. I fix only factory manufactured. Once someone does re-engineering on something as vital as brakes, I won’t work on them.”

“So, if I have my vehicle towed over, you won’t look at it?” He asks, a second after hearing the answer.

“No, I won’t,” I repeat my answer. “Look, who changed the El Camino drum brakes to disc brakes?”

“I did,” He answers proudly.

“Well, why don’t you stick with your re-engineering project and fix it yourself?”

“I don’t have time anymore,” he answers. “They lock up, and the pushrod (in the master cylinder) needs adjustment.”

He had time to screw up the brakes, but no time to fix them. Okay, and now I’m supposed to get them working. A professional who works on someone’s Mickey Mouse attempts at re-engineering will be held responsible for it from then on. If five years from now, the man wrecks the El Camino, it would still be my shop held responsible simply because the brakes I fixed were not OEM (original equipment manufactured).

“I can’t help you,” I inform him once again.

“Is there some reason you won’t look at my car?” He persists.

“I don’t fix anything but factory equipped,” I persist.

“So, you won’t fix my brakes?”

This is getting fun now.

“Not unless the brakes are factory equipped.”

“I can’t understand why, if you work on brakes, you can’t work on mine,” He states yet again with this award winning perplexed look on his face.

Wait, wait, I know this one. “Because they’re not factory equipped.”

“What would it take for you to work on them?” He continues as if we have not been talking about it for the last ten minutes.

“For you to have never altered them from factory equipped,” I answer. This is like playing scrabble.

“I can’t…” he begins.

“I’m all done talking about your El Camino, Sir,” I end our one sided negotiation, and head into my office. He sits in my driveway until I figure I’ll have to help him find his way out; but as I get back up, he starts his van and backs out.

I figure the guy must have sold encyclopedias or vacuum cleaners door to door at some time in his life. :)

Friday, May 25, 2007

The 'Machine'

Professional Auto/Truck repair shops have tens of thousands of dollars tied up in all manner of diagnostic machines, tooling, and computer gear. People assume anything wrong with their car can be found out quickly and easily by throwing it on the ‘Machine’. While wonderful aids for a variety of repairs, our ‘Machine’ is not an all seeing magic eye into the inner workings of everything on a vehicle.

At first when a new customer comes in, this assumption can be humorous. I’ve had people come in with noises in their brakes, who want an instant estimate. I explain an exact estimate can’t be determined until I physically check the vehicle’s brakes. The funny part comes when they get this disgusted look on their faces, and tell me I should just throw it on the ‘Machine’ for a ball park figure. This usually costs me about ten minutes lost time trying to convince them my ‘Machine’ cannot insert its tentacles into their car and amazingly spit out diagnostics on everything. Sometimes I don’t have the time to waste, and sometimes my sarcastic side rears its cement head. On occasion I tell them my ‘Machine’ and I are going through a rough period in our relationship, and it just starts reciting "Mary Had A Little Lamb" every time I try to get it to tell me about something it wasn't designed to do.

Granted, this rocket usually streaks right over many of these potential customers’ heads. Once in a while I get someone in like the older lady the other day, who wanted me to give her an estimate on an air conditioning problem on her 1998 Honda Accord. It was blowing the fuse every time she changed it and turned it on. After my usual spiel about needing diagnostic time to find out what the problem was, she gave me the ‘just throw it on the ‘Machine’ line for an instant figure. I gave her my smart-Alec remark with the scene involving Dave and Hal the computer from 2001, A Space Odyssey. She paused for a moment and told me with a straight face she had done some relationship counseling, and offered to mediate with the ‘Machine’ if I'd give her a discount. I declined, but with regret. :)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Disney Decorated

A guy brought in his wife's pickup truck for servicing. Every Disney trinket you've ever seen at the Golden Arches was glued to both sides of this truck along with purple carpet liner and purple painted hubs. I couldn't even put a fender cover on it. I leaned on it, and one of the things squeaked, and another lit up. While I was under it, something started singing 'It's a Small World'.
I shot out from under, but there was only silence. Most people see something like this and laugh with delight, 'Oh, that's so cuuuuuuute'. Not me, I picture the scene from Stephen King's 'It' with the clown saying. 'We're all floating here, We're all waiting for you'. :)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Loss for Words

This happens occasionally. A new customer drove into the shop with a 2001 Nissan Sentra. Middle fifties, well dressed, the lady slipped out of her car, and wanted to shake hands without even a word. I always get a queasy feeling when people do this; because it makes me thing they’re mutes, or they’re trying to give me a false sense of security. I smile as if I know what the hell she has up her sleeve, and shake hands politely, reigning in my paranoid mini-me.

“Hi,” I break the ice, “can I help you.”

She still doesn’t speak. Instead, she walks around to the driver’s side door, and leans in to start the engine. Okay, she’s a mute, and now I’ll either have to play charades for the next few hours or read hastily written cue cards. She pops the hood, lifts it up, props it, and steps back gesturing at the engine with a smile. Good, I know this one.

“Engine?” I ask questioningly with a bright smile. If she is a mute, I am going to burn in hell.

She looks perplexed. She leans in the open maw of Mr. Nissan, and holds a hand up to her ear, glancing at me while she does it. I’m hooked. I lean in too with an intent look on my face. After a few minutes of this, the woman straightens.


Holy crap, she can talk. I try to cover up for whatever the hell I’m doing under the hood by getting an even more intent look on my face. Finally, after a moment more, she breaks the silence.

“What do you think that noise is?”

I straighten; but remain with my hands on the fender, and the now comfortable intent look on my face.

“I’m sorry, I just don’t hear any out of place noise,” I admit truthfully. “The engine sounds real good.”

“You can’t hear that?!” The woman gasps in astonishment.

Okay, now I’m the mute.

“Not really, can you describe it for me? Is it a squeak, a metallic noise, or…”

“That whirring sound!” She doesn’t finish her exclamation with, ‘you idiot’, but I know she’s fighting the temptation.

I lean over the engine compartment once more, inching around the outside of the car, listening for any hint of a whirring noise out of place. This little Nissan is running like a Swiss watch, with only the usual sounds an engine has to make to run on gas and compression. I tell her so.

“I can’t believe you don’t hear it,” she comments with a disbelieving shake of her head.

I decide on a different tact.

“When did this noise first start?” I ask.

“Ever since I bought it last Wednesday,” she answers. “I thought it would go away, but it’s driving me crazy.”

“It may be you’re not used to the way this car sounds normally,” I suggest. “This Nissan may sound a lot different than your last car.”

She stared at me for a moment, let the hood prop down into place, and then closed the hood. She walked around to her driver’s side door, and faced me once more.

“You really don’t know what you’re doing, do you?” She asks in all seriousness.

I’m game. I shrug and say, “apparently not, in this case.”

“Fine.” She gets into her Nissan and backs out of my garage.

I count my blessings. She could have been mute. :)

Friday, May 11, 2007

Can You Help Me?

“Hey man, can you help me out?” A deep voice called out from my big doorway.

“Just a second,” I call out, dragging my less than limber frame out from under the dash of an old 1978 Chevy.

I manage to make a precision six inch, scalpel like cut in my left forearm, as I inadvertently scrape it on a sharp burr on the parking brake release bracket. I hum a couple of sentences internally, made up of words I learned during a three year stint aboard the USS Ranger Aircraft Carrier long ago in a galaxy far, far away. :) So, I’m in a happy mood as I clamp a rag over my welling wound, and try to at least pretend some interest. The man does not have a car or truck with him, so I paste an attentive look on my face, and walk over to him.

“Yes Sir, what can I help you with?”

“Are you busy?” He asks.

Oh no, I’m thinking, I was taking a nap under the dash of yonder Chevy, and the 1989 Ford Truck up in the air with the trans laying on the floor, waiting for a clutch, is a new hobby I’ve taken up. I immediately put a clamp on my snappy answers to stupid questions internal dialogue, and adopt an even more concentrated look of interest.

“How can I help you, Sir?” I persist politely.

“Do you come out?”

He loses me on that one. Out of the closet? Out of my mind? WTF?

“Out of where?” I ask simply.

“Christ! Out of the shop,” the man takes offense to my ignorance. He should get together for a chat with my wife. She could give him a clue on just how ignorant I can get. :)

“Only when I leave for home,” I reply, giving him an internal countdown to ten for reaching the point of this meeting. Besides, I can tell I’m going to need a big Band-aid soon.

“I lost a pad on my Mitsubishi”. (He means disc brake pad; which does not get lost by itself) “How much to come over and throw some pads on. I bought them already.”

Oh… about when chipmunks are ice-skating in hell, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Christmas carols in the background.

“I don’t do house-calls, Sir, and I don’t give brake estimates until I check the vehicle out. Lastly, I don’t install other peoples’ parts.”

“You don’t do much of anything here, huh?”

“Let’s quit kidding around with each other,” I get serious; because you have to be an expert to get a rise out of me, and this guy wasn’t even a novice. “Disc pads don’t get lost. Somebody screwed up. If I’m going to take on something like that, I’d replace the calipers, pads, and possibly the rotors depending on whether I can resurface them or not. I would check the back brakes, master cylinder, and all the lines. If you’re interested in a job like I just explained, have the vehicle towed in and…”

“Why can’t you just help a man out?” He interrupts.

“Because it wouldn’t be any help to you at all if I further patched your brakes; and you went out and killed yourself, or some other innocent party, with your car. You’d be dead or maimed, and the lawyers would be in a hatchet fight to see who gets to divvy up everything I own.”

“I’ll take responsibility for my own damn self,” he retorts indignantly.

“No, you won’t, and definitely not here.”

“Fine, you just lost yourself some business, man,” he states, turning to the door.

A lawsuit, possibly. Business, I think not. :)

Saturday, May 5, 2007


I’m using an air-gun to take lug nuts off a 91 Toyota Camry front tire in order to check the brakes when I look up, and there’s a woman standing over my right shoulder. Never mind I have a six inch wide warning line across the front inside driveway of my shop stating no customers past this line. Never mind I have a motion detector, which is supposed to ding louder than my air-gun, and I now realize must need new batteries. Never-mind I just used up all my good luck credits in heaven since the lady has not slipped, fallen, or been hit in the eye with a metal fragment. I straighten slowly from the Toyota, stripping off my mechanic’s brand latex gloves.

“I’m sorry, did I startle you, Bernie?” She asks.

No, no lady, I love being reminded of all the shortcomings inherent in one man shop operation all in one short moment, I’m thinking. Once again the addition of a vicious guard dog pops into my head, immediately to be discarded. It’s one thing to discourage bums and gang-bangers, but a completely inappropriate greeting for harmless potential customers.

“Kind of,” I admit, taking her arm; because she has walked through a minefield of potential hazards to her health, which are a necessary drawback in a busy auto shop. “Let me get you back to the front of the shop.”

She steps directly on the rubber mallet with metal pry for taking off hubcaps as she turns too quickly. I pull her back just in time to keep the lawyers chasing ambulances a while longer.

“Easy,” I caution, guiding her around my six foot high toolbox with sharp edged drawers jutted out for my easy access. “It’s a lot simpler getting over here than it is getting back. Sorry my motion detector must be out of commission.”

When we reach the front of the shop, I see she has a 1994 Honda Accord with oil dripping down in a steady line from where I know the front timing case is. I thought us Mech’s out here in the Dealer shops and Indy garages had fixed all these. The Tech bulletin and Recall had been out for many years on the balance shaft oil seal kit this one obviously needed.

“I have a problem with oil loss,” she deadpans.

I start laughing, and then shut my amusement down quickly as she looks at me like I’m Kafka’s bug-man. I have done some work for this lady in the past on a Chevy Corsica she owned, but I haven’t seen the Honda before. I also have obviously misread her humor quotient.

“Ah…sorry, Ms. T,” I’m not, but it never hurts to be polite when I know I’m wrong. “I would need to check it out for sure, but there’s been a recall and technical bulletin on this type oil leak for many years. Did you just buy this?”

“No, it’s my Mom’s car, and she doesn’t drive much anymore,” Ms. T explains, from her expression, still a little miffed at my callous reaction to her oil leak (if she only knew).

I nod my understanding, and open the driver’s side door, release the hood latch, and check the mileage with a quick glance. The odometer only reads 53,461 miles. Mystery solved as to why the fix had never been applied yet after thirteen years. I then open and prop the hood. With my handy little mag-lite beam flashlight, I can see the oil is definitely leaking out of the bottom of the front case. I show Ms. T, explaining all the bracketing, belts, front timing case, etc. have to be removed and a balance shaft oil seal kit installed. In addition, the timing belt, and water pump have to be changed while I’m in there. Unless of course I want to do the job a second time for free, with the possible valve damage a broken timing belt causes on Hondas. She listens intently while I explain I only use Honda parts, and the special balance shaft seal kit would possibly have to be special ordered because of the vehicle age. I glance at the clock during our conversation, noting it’s almost noontime, and I have fifteen minutes into this. Then she straight lines me again.

“Can I wait for it?” Ms. T intones, glancing at her watch.

My lip quivers as I’m curling my toes up in the steel toed work boots housing my feet, and biting my tongue so hard, it’s probably lacerated. Sure, I’m thinking, did you bring your sleeping bag? I don’t know you too well, Ms. T, have you ever spent the night in an auto shop before? If they can’t get the balance shaft kit for three days, will you have any special needs during your stay? Oh boy, I’m on a roll internally, and knowing if I don’t get a grip soon, I’ll be in danger of donning my Kafkaesque disguise once more.

“Ah…no,” I answer after a moment’s battle between the tiny cackling horned demon atop my left shoulder, and the angelic money guardian on my right. “You would have to leave it Ms. T, and I’ll have to call you later in the day as to when the parts will be in. I can give you a time estimate on job completion then.”

“Do you think this will cost over a hundred dollars?”

This time I narrowly avoid disaster by clenching my teeth to the point I can feel my gums begin to ache. I shake my head in the affirmative, buying time for the more powerful money angel to kick the crap out of my obnoxious demon side.

“Yes, it will, Ms. T,” I manage to say out loud, almost managing a believable tone of regret. “I’m afraid it will be much more than that. You will have the opportunity to say no, and I can even hold on to the car for a couple days while you shop the price. Let me give you a list of what will be included when I call you, and you can decide from that.”

We adjourn into the office without further incident. Willpower, it’s a beautiful thing. Too bad it doesn’t work on pizza and potato chips. :)

Thanks to December Quinn for reminding me inadvertently of this. :)

Tuesday, May 1, 2007


Ah, the familiar feel of East Oakland once again rears up to ruin my impromptu three day weekend. The connecting ramp between freeways gets melted by an exploding tanker truck early Sunday morning, causing an untold number of delays for all of the foreseeable future. Then, what to my wandering eyes did appear, rounding the bend toward my shop this morning? Certainly not Santa’s reindeer; but instead, the colorful ambience of graffiti covering my shop front, sprayed there by young morons with nothing better to do than destruction. I always think ‘oh man, if only I had been here to catch them’; but I know it is not always a good thing to get one’s wish granted, because then I would be in prison.

While I spent my first two and a half hours cleaning the black spray paint off my metal door and metal window cover, many of my neighbors came by to express their sympathy. We all thought we had the graffiti problem licked, which is why most of us redid our homes and storefronts. As my neighbor across the street said, there’s probably a new bunch of the old neighborhood thugs paroled recently. This usually means a new bout of break-ins and worse. I have it easy. My neighbors are still here at night when things have been getting real wild lately. A few have reported these characters hanging out in front of their houses, and the Oakland police, morale lower than their San Francisco brethren, have all but ignored them. The police don’t do themselves any favors ignoring this stuff, cause some of the neighbors are past the upset stage, and heading into wild west mode. Just thought I’d add a little local flavor to the blog today. :)