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Beware of the Mechanic Wearing a Smile, Tidy Coveralls

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dear Readers:

Like many people, I have had a long and tortured relationship with the automobile.

My cars quickly become the mechanical equivalent of a 75-year-old man limping along with a faulty aorta. No matter how much money I pour into cures, these geriatric jalopies always seem to have one tire in the grave.

So it’s little wonder that I loathe a visit to the mechanic. Sure, there are probably lots of talented and ethical practitioners of the automobile craft out there, followers of the Hippocratic oath for grease monkeys. I just haven’t collided with any.

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Instead, I drive to the shop for a simple oil change with dread in my heart.

Consider a recent Tuesday. It was my birthday, so I took the day off. After 17 years as a licensed driver, you’d think I’d know better than to waste valuable free time venturing anywhere near a grease pit.

Think again. My Mazda was in dire need of a checkup. The brakes were squealing, the engine sputtering. The running lights were out, the horn didn’t work. The backup lights were on the fritz. Even the clock was faltering. After just 62,000 miles--middle age in car years--my fiery steed was acting like an old nag.

Off I went to a shop near my house. No problem, they said. Fix you right up.

A couple of hours later they called with the bad news. I took it stoically. At this point, I just gritted my teeth and accepted my fate.

It’ll be $400, they said. Brakes are shot, front and rear. Spark plugs are too. They’re some special Japanese type. Cost $18 each.

My jaw tensed, but in my best Bo Jackson voice I told them to “just do it,” wincing as the words came out.

I picked the car up the next morning. After paying the bill, I asked about the taillights. Seems they had forgotten to look at that, despite their ballyhooed 12-point safety check.

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With visions of Highway Patrol cars dancing in my head, I asked if they could please take a look. A young guy with Schwarzenegger biceps poked around the fuses and rear light bulbs for a few minutes. When he emerged, the hulk pronounced that this was beyond him.

Great.

I called around and got an appointment at a place that specializes in Japanese cars. No problem, they said. Bring it in.

I dropped it off early the next day and awaited word. By late afternoon they called.

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We don’t know what the problem is with the lights or clock, they said. It’s beyond us.

Growling, I hitched a ride with my wife to the shop and demanded my keys. Sensing my irritation, a greasy-haired kid wearing a white surgeon-style mask tried to explain the problem.

“Must be in the computer or something,” he whined. “You’re talking big bucks. I don’t want to mess with it.”

“Just give me the keys,” I muttered.

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“The dash light is out,” said another mechanic, a wild-eyed man with a British accent. “There’s a little bulb in back. That’s your problem. Have to take the whole dash apart to get to it. Go to an electric place.”

“Yeah, right.”

So off I went, irritated but obliging, to an electrical specialist. On the way, I glanced at my odometer. It didn’t look right. The knot in my gut tightened. The masked kid and his cohorts put about 35 miles on the car trying to figure out that they couldn’t fix it.

No big deal. I can put up with 35 miles. That’s nothing compared to the 400 miles a San Diego dealership once logged on my wife’s car. After many angry calls we learned that the assistant service manager had taken the car on a quick jaunt to Mexico.

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Not able to fix the lights? Hey, that’s OK. I can appreciate someone who eventually realizes their limits. God forbid those who don’t. Like the guy at another shop who once threw my tires on a newfangled machine to “gently grind down” the treads, assuring me it would make them “perfectly round” for a cushy ride. When the gizmo cut deep furrows like an Illinois cornfield, the mechanic blamed it on the tires.

Such creatures have continually bedeviled me. I’ve dreamed of finding a mechanic who, with skill and an avuncular hood-side manner, will keep my car running like a Laker fast break. A guy with a slight smile and one of those little name tags on his tidy coveralls. Bob, he’d be called, or maybe Chet.

I figured I’d found him at the electrical shop, which sat nestled on a sort of auto row amid some warehouses. He was a middle-aged sort and wore the slight, trustworthy grin, the little name tag. Bud, it said.

Now this is the way it’s supposed to be.

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“Doesn’t sound like those other guys knew what they were doing,” Bud said after I recounted my tale. “You should have brought it here in the first place.”

He agreed with one thing: It would not be cheap. But he had the name tag and the shop was clean, so I let him have the car for a day.

Bud called later and soothingly explained that it would cost about $375. The problem with the running lights, my principal concern, was in a cluster of switches on the steering column. Unfortunately, he said, the manufacturer charges $195 for the part. The backup lights, meanwhile, would be a piece of cake, he said.

But a glitch in the clock involved the car’s central computer, a $600 part. Why in the world they routed a clock through the central computer none of us could figure. Don’t bother with it, Bud advised.

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It all seemed reasonable enough. When I picked up the car, all the work had been performed as promised, and less than Bud estimated.

I drove away happy, content that maybe I had found a mechanic I could trust.

In our Southern California car culture, we are unwitting captives of these automobile caretakers, of the mechanics with greasy hands and the know-how to perform feats under the hood that seem like open-heart surgery to most of us. We put our trust in them at $45 an hour, praying that they understand the increasingly complex innards of these machines that get us to work, deliver the groceries and whisk us to the lake on weekends.

I was finally safe. I had found my mechanic.

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Then I hit a bump, and a knob popped off the light switch Bud had just installed.

Anyone know the number for the local bus line?


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