Now I understand why the car owners from my hometown, Guangzhou, whine and complain. They’re worried when they don’t have cars, but after they have cars, they’re even more worried. Living in a populated city, they think owning a car makes their lives more convenient than having to take the sardine-can buses, but in fact drivers are often cooped up in their cars in the traffic for hours.
My driving experience is a bit different. It’s not Pittsburgh’s traffic but the car maintenance that frets me. Owning a car is as much trouble as raising a pet.
A year ago, I bought a 2002 Chevy Cavalier with 116 thousand miles on it — big mistake. I used to think the car would be fine if I didn’t drive it too often. Not true. If a dog needs a daily walk, a car needs a daily ride. (It also helps to call it sweet names and stroke its snout — just like a dog.) Thanks to the treacherous winter weather in Pittsburgh, my car went into the garage for a checkup or repair nearly once a month. And I became one of the Pep Boys’ best customers, if not their best friend. In addition to the normal oil changes and yearly inspections, my car suffered from a flat tire and fuel pump damage. It also suffered from a problem in its immune system which caused it to wheeze and hiccup (I’m amazed at how much mechanical jargon I’ve learned in the past few months.).
Different from the Chinese auto mechanics who are usually young men in their late teens and early twenties, slender and industrious, American auto mechanics tend to be middle-aged men, gray-haired with retreating hairlines, standing behind the Pep Boys’ service counter with names like Hank, Bill, and Rusty embroidered on their blue shirts… (I’m very suspicious of any mechanic named Rusty. I can’t imagine this happening in China.) And despite working at Pep Boys, they’re certainly not boys, but they are sometimes peppy guys with potbellies.
Despite my long wait in the customer lounge, I never got used to the strong Pep Boys smell of tires and gasoline. The red front doors seem to separate two worlds—one with fresh air and traffic noise, the other with the strong chemical smell and pop muzak in the background. I hope Hank, Bill, and Rusty have a good health plan. They’re going to need it breathing this poisonous air every day, wheezing and hiccupping just like my car.
Of course in America, as in China, the customers who overpay for any service are the ones who haven’t done their homework. To make sure I’m not one of them, I download an owner’s manual from the Internet. I learn that the symbol which looks like an Aladdin’s lamp is called engine oil pressure. So that’s what I tell Rusty, my Pep Boys’ mechanic, . “Rusty,” I say confidently, using his name in a friendly American way, “I think it’s the engine oil pressure.” After a few hours of celebrating my triumph of talking like a professional American mechanic, I see Rusty who comes to visit me in the customer lounge. “Ma’am, it’s not the engine oil pressure that’s on, but the check engine light .” Rusty reads the analysis of my car’s problems and quotes a price. “Fine,” I say with a gulp, I have to agree to the cost before the repair can proceed. I may not trust a mechanic named Rusty, but who else can I turn to in my hour of need?
Heavy repair on a car is like major surgery on a human. Looking at the three-digit number on the receipt, I figure that the labor alone totals one third of the cost. American labor is expensive! From now on, I’ll have to pray not only for my own good health, but also for my car’s. I’ll also pray that Rusty changes his name.