You Auto Know

Shaw (Watha T. Daniel) Library

You Auto Know

A Lesson in Car Maintenance

Car, by DaLee_pl“Your right tire is low on air, Mimi,” my friend said authoritatively. Nonplussed, I peered at the circular mass of rubber that had hugged potholes and puddles and hub cabs, but had never once embraced a single portion of my thoughts.

Until, however, one recent and fateful day when I got a flat so severe I could barely make it to the curb in time to call AAA to rescue me from sheer terror (it was my first flat and I had no idea what was happening). The AAA technician patched up my tire, but neglected to tell me I needed to put air in it. And why should he? Possessing the ability to detect a semi-deflated tire is apparently sort of like breathing, or telling time: every functioning member of society somehow knows how to do it. Everyone, it seemed, except me.

“Should I get it replaced, then?”  I asked nervously, trying to calculate the cost of one tire by how many pairs of Warby Parkers I could have purchased instead.

“…Uh, Mimi,” he trailed off, with that mixture of concern and condescension only friends of several years can get away with. “Tires are filled with air. When they get low on air, you don’t replace them. You just add more air.”

But, you see, my lack of basic car maintenance skills had its causes. Despite their firm insistence on self-reliance, my good-hearted parents took it upon themselves to schedule oil changes and tire rotations for me all throughout high school. And I didn’t bring my car with me to college; I was too busy writing papers and pretending to understand non-Euclidean geometry to really focus on cultivating any essential life skills beyond memorizing saucy Baudelaire poems.

Because they thought a car would be necessary after I graduated and moved to DC, my loving parents trekked several thousand miles to bring me Herbert (the name of my beloved automobile). Like Delphic oracles, they explained strange, foreign-sounding words such as “windshield washer fluid” and “broken catalytic converter”, but at the time, I was simply not interested in being an interpretive priest to car maintenance, too excited I was about being a real, live grown-up in a real, live city.

Unfortunately, knowing thyself did not, in my mind then, extend to knowing thy car.

It wasn’t until I cracked my side-view mirror and had to take Herbert to the shop that I got a wake-up call.

Operating under the false assumption that a certified Honda dealership wouldn’t try to rip me off, I called the first one I found, ordered the part, and drove merrily to restore Herbert to his proper form. Since I was there with time to spare, I requested a check-up to see how my car was holding up.

Odometer, by Caveman Chuck Coker
What was to have been the equivalent of a 45 minute coffee break (albeit, a coffee break spent in the confines of a drab waiting room) inflated into nearly three and a half hours of biting my nails with listless anxiety. When the Honda representative finally reappeared, she relayed that the mechanic found my battery cables corroded beyond repair and that my rotors should be replaced immediately. The cost to fix these problems? Around $450 and $500, respectively. I smiled politely, paid for my mirror installment, and bolted out the door as if a deranged, ax-wielding Jack Torrance were right behind me.

Later, I told a few people about what had happened. All were stunned, indignant, proffered very helpful suggestions and referrals. But it made me realize a time-tested truism: If you want something done right, do it yourself. Now, I’m not proposing we all drop everything and become mechanics (although it is a very cool-sounding profession). But knowledge, Sir Francis Bacon is rumored to have said, is power. And for something as basic and essential to the health of your car as knowing when to change your transmission fluid, or what an air filter is will save you not only thousands of dollars in the long run, but also the risk of being fooled by shady establishments looking to make a quick buck. Most importantly, it will completely obviate opportunities for your friends to school you on what is used to inflate tires. (Air, apparently. Who knew?).

Some suggested titles on car repair/maintenance:

Dare to repair your car : a do-it-herself guide to maintenance, safety, and minor fix-its
Basic car maintenance and repairs
Car buying & maintenance
Car care & maintenance
Save $$$ on car repairs : everything you ever wanted to ask your mechanic but you were afraid he'd laugh at you
The car owner's survival guide
The people's car book : the one essential handbook for people who don't trust mechanics, car salesmen, or car manufacturers

Car tips for clean air : how to drive and maintain your car to cut pollution and save money
-- My Nguyen