Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Downward Spiral

What my car does to me

"When a man stares into the abyss and sees nothing but darkness, this is the time that he finds his character. And it is his character that keeps him from falling into the abyss."

That's right, folks, I am peering intently into the abyss right now and it's quite a sight: a big yawning bleak chasm of absolute darkness that seems without end. Of course, there is an end down there somewhere, but it sure feels bottomless today...

A lot of the following sad, stupid, amazingly shit-luck story has been alluded to in a recent post, but as it turns out, that was only the tip of the iceberg, kids! Life, which was merely being a pain in the ass at the time I wrote that linked entry, took a razor-sharp hairpin turn for the "horrid" late last week, and finally reached the level of "blackly comic" earlier this afternoon. And it may not even be over yet -- as I write this, there is the small chance of things somehow getting even worse tomorrow, but I'm currently of the mind that the bottom has at last been touched...it's time to resurface, take some slow deep breaths, and recount just how in the Hell I got into my current predicament.

About two weeks ago, I noticed that my driver's side rear tire was pretty low on air. A refilling solved the problem temporarily, but less than a week later on a Friday night, it was back to low again. That Saturday, I dropped the car off at Conrad's (local Good Year place on Euclid Avenue), and I was informed that there was a nail in the tire, but repairing it seemed kinda silly as both that and the opposite tire were wearing down considerably. Thus, I authorized their replacement and threw in an oil change and lube since it had been a little longer than four months since the last one had been done and it seemed a good idea at the time. That was about $200 after all expenses.

A few days later, I believe it was Wednesday, it was time to get the car E-checked. Granted, I went into this a bit cocky since the exhaust system on this car was only replaced this past March (a surprise repair that caught me unawares monetarily and SHOULD have been a sign of things to come back then, but I always sucked at reading tea leaves), and it was to my amazement, that the car failed the test.

A slight bit annoyed, I headed back home to set up an appointment to get whatever problem I had taken care of as soon as possible. Upon pulling into my parking spot, I noticed some steam under the car hood, which surprised me, but didn't trouble me since this car has a long history of steaming slightly when hot. Figuring this was a side effect of E-check running up the RPM around 3000 or so (to, uh, simulate 25 mph driving conditions, I am told...though I wonder exactly what kind of cars sound like that at 25 mph), I paid the fumes no mind.

That night, I drove the car back to the place that installed the exhaust system in the first place to have them find what was causing my NO emissions to read higher than they should (said establishment being Giles Marathon on Route 306 near Lakeland Communit College in Kirtland). When parking my car in the lot next to the building, I noticed the steam again, only this time the car had only been running for a few minutes. Frowning, I popped the hood open and looked around. There was quite a bit of smoke, not steam, and it was certainly not cooking engine coolant. It smelled like oil, and seemed to be emanating from the center of the engine. It wasn't a frightening amount, perhaps some leftover spilled oil from the change, I thought. In any case, I mentioned this in a note I left for the mechanics the next day, wondering if that might be the source of my problems.

Thursday comes around, and Giles calls me to say that there is nothing outwardly wrong with the car. They noted (correctly) that i must have just failed the E-check, since everything was running properly. Just to make sure, they went ahead and did a lot of engine cleaning (fuel injectors, lines, etc.) in order to give the car the cleanest possible exhaust. They reccommended that I run the engine a bit hot to cook off any residual gunk and then it should pass with flying colors. I then asked about the steam/smoke, which they blew off, saying that there appeared to be a small leak of fluid all right, not sure if it was transmission or oil, but that it was of no consequence to the test. Relieved, I plunked down $100 and drove home, confident that all was well once again.

That feeling of confidence wore off really fast when I got off the freeway and pulled into a Wendy's for a bite to eat, however. The car was steaming again, and this time it was a pretty considerable amount, roughly that of what an overheating radiator looks like. The gauges all read fine, and after a few minutes of worrying me, the smoke just vanished and did not recur the entire drive home.

Bright and early Friday morning, with a bit of unease, I took the car onto the freeway and then up and down Lost Nation road, heating it up nice for it's second E-check. I pulled into an adjacent building and the car was steaming away again. Hoping it would do the same as the previous night, I let it idle and waited for the steam to disperse so it wouldn't prove a distraction to the servicekids at E-check. To my rising concern, the steam didn't stop. At all. With a sigh of resignation, I pulled over to the E-check facility and my fears are justified when the manager of the place refuses outright to test the car. A couple of the kids look under the hood and tell me that I have a pretty good sized oil leak going, and the rules clearly state that they will not test a car that is leaking or smoking anything at all.

E-check was in the right to do that, but I was infuriated nonetheless. I backed the car out of the building and then floored it down the driveway and laid down some additional rubber on Lost Nation Road in a fit of mounting anger. Now I am in a real pinch with the tags expiring in two days and only one shot left to get the car fixed and passed before then.

Steaming, I roared back to the condo, watched my car throw off some more smoke from under the hood and wheel wells, and told Sarah the situation. I then attempted to contact the mechanic who fixed my car at Giles Marathon. Ah, he was off that day and wouldn't be back until Saturday. No dice there. So, I immediately set up an appointment at Conrad's, told them what was wrong and that I had to get this car passable by early Saturday morning or I would be pretty well screwed (ha ha...I had no idea what that word meant at the time).

Off to work I went, wondering offhandedly what in the hell I did to bring all of this jumping through numerous hoops upon myself. A couple of hours later, Conrad's called and said that they could find no leak or smoke coming from the engine whatsover. They even did some kind of expensive degrease-and-dye test of the oil system and found no breaches or leaks anywhere.

What. The. Fuck.

Wondering if I had stumbled into some new episode of Candid Camera, I asked them how much it will be to pick the car up on Saturday morning and was told that the charge was just south of $90 for all services rendered. I hung up the phone, not at all reassured, and getting increasingly exasperated. I was now just around $400 spent on this car in the last seven days, and becoming increasingly certain as time passed that something was being missed.

After thinking about it a few minutes, I called Conrad's back and talked directly to the mechanic who worked on the car, verifying once again that there was no leak, no smoke, nada. Verified. Stymied, I then asked how long the car was running when it was being examined and was told roughly 20 minutes. Figuring it was worth a try for my peace of mind, I asked that he start the car again and just let it run.

30 minutes later, the mechanic called back and said they had found the problem. I was not leaking and burning oil at all, but rather power steering fluid, and quite a bit of it at that. In fact, the whole rack-and-pinion system was shot. When totaled out, these repairs would be about $840...over twice what I had just put into this thing. I balked immediately and decided to think about it overnight.

I spent a lot of time weighing my options that evening and into Saturday morning. It was a tough call almost any way I cut it. A brand new car is out of the question for me, and even making payments on a new used car wouldn't kill me, but the insurance premiums until I could pay it off certainly would.

My first inclination was to just fire this aging car out of a cannon and into Lake Erie, but after already flushing $400 down the toilet, that option stung, and it stung hard. This car, until now, had been a very good car for me. It was free (a gift from Sarah), so the maintenance and repairs I have put into it have been the price of the car...and considering that, it's still not a terrible deal except for the "all at once" part. The car is still in good shape, too -- I use it only almost exclusively for work transportation and little else. If i can get another 2 years or so out of it, great, and these repairs certainly bode well for that being the case. Also, thanks to a little caveat in the E-check program, I will probably not need to worry if the car passes an emissions test or not, since if you can show documentation that you have spent at least $200 having the car worked on in order to pass the E-check, then they would in effect say "good enough" and pass you for your labors.

In the end, the above made up my mind for me. While there was an option to wait until Sarah upgraded from her current car to a new one, that waiting period would be a few months and the price I would pay to get rid of the leftover payments was a couple hundred dollars more than I would spend fixing this car up once and for all. So, once I had figured out a way to make this work around my finances, I made the call Saturday afternoon and green-lighted the rack-and-pinion work. This was gonna hurt a bit, yes, but I figured it was the right choice to make.

Wellllllll, it wasn't...in fact, that call just went down as the most galactically stupid move I've made in this new century.

This afternoon while getting ready for work, Conrad's called. I figured it was them saying that the car was ready and all, but the mechanic on the other end of the phone had a tone in his speaking that chilled my blood the second I realized what it was: that voice had "Err, I don't know how to tell you this..." written all over it.

It turns out that the mechanics were pulling off or putting on my tires to get at the steering system and realized that my front braking system (not just my front brakes, but the whole fucking system) was hosed. Calipers, shoes, rotors, the works. I started to giggle in a completely humorless, doomed fashion.

So, uh, how much for this work now? Oh, another $500...

I felt like I had just been kicked square in the stomach. Making a last, desperate, pathetic attempt for a sane ending to this farce, I asked (already knowing the answer) if the work on the rack-and-pinion steering had already been completed, hoping for some way to avoid going into spectacular amounts of debt in a real big hurry.

Silly me. Of course it had.

What else was there to do? I am already sunk for a now-$950 repair bill (boy, that went up since the estimate) and throwing on another $500 for something I can't drive safely without was a quick and easy "oh, what the hell, I'm completely fucked already, why not" decision. I didn't know whether to laugh like the damned, weep like an 8 year old, or simply self-combust in my chair. I opted for the former. Oh, that was cathartic.

So, we are now, what, somewhere south of $1900 on this car since last Saturday? You know, I'd rather not find out for sure. I borrowed some money from Greg and from Sarah to get all of this shit done, and it may or may not be enough, and I'm not sure I even care one way or the other and I'm about two steps from absolute rabid insanity.

Yeah, things can only get better, and I know they eventually will. Life is a bitch. Everybody hurts. When a man stares into the abyss and sees nothing but darkness, this is the time that he finds his character, et cetera.

Ten bucks says I get the car back on Wednesday morning and it still fails E-check.

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