Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Car Trouble and Good Samaritans

Well, there are some good reasons I have assiduously avoided car ownership for the last 20+ years of my life. I'm not the most organized person on the planet when it comes to paperwork. I like not spending money. I'm a mechanical idiot.

Most of these weaknesses have come into play rapidly since I bit the bullet a month ago and bought a friend's old Toyota Camry. The car looks like a dream--one owner whom I know, no major repairs, meticulous records on the vehicle and the friend hasn't driven it very much (less than 75,000 miles in over 10 years). Just my luck, something went wrong with it less than a month after I bought it.

Saturday afternoon I took Jo, Beth and Amy over to 57th Street Books so they could go shopping--Jo wanted more James Patterson; I think Amy got a Japanese anime book and I forget what Beth picked out. On the way back, the speedometer and the tach stopped working.

I knew I needed to take it to the shop, but I took a chance and drove it twice--once yesterday and once today--to take care of some meetings, thinking once it went to the shop God only knows how long it would take to come back. Besides, my dad used to keep an old bomber around and the speedometer didn't work on it, so I am familiar with judging one's relative speed without a reliable gauge. Yesterday the car drove fine. Today, not so much.

I had a meeting in Bridgeport today--not far but not convienent by public transit. So I went out and started the car. The radio died before I got to 35th Street. The wipers began to slow. The car had trouble accelerating after stop lights. Uh-oh. But I was committed--had to get to the meeting. I got it into the parking lot and was pretty sure I'd need a jump to get home. Fortunately, after the meeting, someone there had cables. As I suspected, the car wouldn't start. He looked at the battery, said it was corroded and warned me the alternator might be in bad shape too, from working extra hard to start a failing battery.

It was daylight but raining heavily.I drove home through the rain with wipers that moved very slowly. By now the car's headlights had quit (flashers and turn signals still worked). Fortunately the car seemed to accelerate decently after stop lights. I got it all the way to Castro and Sons, the repair shop just south of 50th on Ashland, pulled into a parking space on Ashland, and the car died with the back end still sticking out of the parallel parking spot further than I'd like on a main artery. After a few moments to breathe and call a friend for advice, I got out and went over to Marshfield Avenue to look for some neighbors who could help me push the car into the space.

In the end, I got a lot more than I bargained for. On the way down the block I called Junior's house but his dad wasn't home, so I told his mom not to worry and I'd try someone else. Over at the Brady house a couple of guys were bringing in a microwave. I asked one of them in very slow, simple English if he'd be willing to help me push my car (I couldn't think of the Spanish). He got the idea, gave me a smile, explained he was bringing in the microwave, and disappeared. I figured he'd be back, but it was really raining hard and he didn't come back for a while.

Then I heard a noise over my head. Mr. & Mrs. Brady from upstairs were looking out their window at me. The window was up and the screen was down, so they could hear me without my having to yell. "Necesito poquito ayuda," I said. (I need a little help.) They sent one of their daughters down to find out what was going on. I told her about the car and how I needed some help to push it into the space.

"I"ll get my dad," she said. Meanwhile, her aunt and cousins on the first floor came out. Her aunt said something to me I didn't understand, but we all kind of hung out and waited for the guys to organize themselves. We joked around about Littlest Brady Boy coming to help push and tried to get him to show off his muscles. He didn't bite. When the other Mrs. Brady heard what was going on, she sent Oldest Brady Boy to join the car-pushing force. Her husband came out, too. Evenutally we had three adult men, Oldest Brady Boy, Ines and her cousin. Off we went.

When we got back to the car, it wouldn't budge out of park. All the Brady men tried it, I tried it. Nada. So they decided to try to pick up the back end of the car. Two grown-up Bradys on the left rear wheel, the Brady Girl and her dad on the right rear wheel, and Oldest Brady Boy on the back bumper. Ines and I held all the umbrellas. If I weren't seven months pregnant I would have joined the back bumper crew, but you gotta give up some things while the bun's in the oven. One, two three--with a mix of lifting and serious pushing from the two Brady men on the outside, the back end was hauled right up to the curb. Whew!

"So, you feel strong?" I asked Brady Girl.

"Yeah, she said. "I always wanted to push a car. I see people doing it and it looks like so much fun." I couldn't believe she was saying that in the middle of all the rain and wind, but I was glad she felt that way.

So at this point, I'm thinking we're done, I'll say thank you, and everybody gets to go home and dry off. Oh, no. Forgive my stereotyping here, but when you have three Mexican men in front of a car that needs fixing, there is no stopping them. (Ironically, my significant other, who is from Mexico City, knows nothing about fixing cars and has no interest in learning. He was at work during this escapade and I'm sure that was just as well.)

"My dad says he's going to go get another battery and see if it works," Oldest Brady Boy told me. I figured there was no fighting this. I explained to Oldest Brady Boy what my friend with the jumper cables had said about the battery and the alternator, but I'm not sure if he got it through to his dad. I took a break and went back to the house to drop off some stuff that had been in the car.

When I came back, the girls were gone and Oldest Brady was watching his uncles take the old battery out. "Do you like cars?" I asked him.

"Yeah. A lot," he said.

"Do you know anything about how to fix them?"

"Not really."

"You should get your dad and your uncles to teach you. It looks like they know what they're doing."

They put the new battery in and the car started right away. Oldest Brady told me his dad and uncles wanted to take the car back to their garage to check out "what you said" --the alternator. His uncle told me in Spanish to go home and they'd let me know what they figured out. I was ready to go somewhere dry, so I said, "OK, thanks," and let them have at it. (Actually, I didn't totally understand what Oldest Brady told me at first--I thought they were taking it to a garage where they knew somebody, but they were just taking it back to the garage at their house.)

About half an hour later Oldest Brady was at my door. "My dad wants to speak to you," he said. So I went down the alley with him to their garage. Sure enough, the battery had quit almost as soon as they got it to the garage--the alternator is worn out. Oldest Brady's uncle called Auto Zone and had me speak with the clerk to find out how much it would cost to buy a replacement alternator. The clerk said $139.99 but then said something I didn't understand about $80. The main thing was they didn't have them in stock and would have to order one.

So then we walked over to see if the parts place on 51st was open, but it was closed. On the way Mr. Upstairs Brady said something to the effect of, "Castro's is expensive. You work hard for your money. Save some." I couldn't muster up the Spanish to say "but I've really eaten up way more of your time than I intended." For tonight, the car is in their garage and after 3 p.m. tomorrow we'll work on getting the part. I'm going to do some looking on line tonight to see if I can find it.

To be continued...

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