Car-Dependency, Part 3

“So there I was..,” with only a radiator to replace and a whole day to do it, and in my own driveway to boot. Not a bad start to a Sunday, and a lot better spot than the last time I had to do such a job. I knew there was still some coolant sloshing around in the engine block, so I laid down a tarp, set up a pair of service ramps on top, and drove the van up onto the ramps for better under-car access.

Now, replacing a car’s radiator is not a terribly complex job as car repairs go. There are essentially four big steps to take: drain the fluid from the system, remove the old radiator, replace it with the new one, and refill the system. The devil, as they say, is in the details: gaining access to well-concealed fasteners; breaking loose umpteen thousand miles of accumulated grit, corrosion, and good old surface tension; dropping tools and tiny fasteners into deep crevasses of the engine bay, requiring extensive search-and-rescue operations; and getting covered, layer by layer, in a strange amalgam of  solvents, grease, antifreeze, and driveway grime. Now I remember why I gave up doing this for a living. 

Yet for all that, this job proceeded rather smoothly. I had good music playing and a decent supply of disposable vinyl gloves. I even got to set up my little camping stove to make tea, for the cold that day was of the raw, damp kind that seeps into a person, dying them sore and blue. All was going well until I went to fit the new radiator into the van.

It was the wrong size.

Not by much; not so much as you could tell by looking; I think it measured out to 1/4-inch. Still, there was no way it was going to fit the way it was. I took a break then to go inside and give an update to my wife on the situation.

“You’ll think of something,” she reassured me with a smile.

“Yes, I will, won’t I?”

Even as I responded to her, the plan was forming in my mind; what to measure, where to cut, and how to cut it. I ended up making two modifications to the new radiator, and they came out rather nicely. (I wish I could find the pictures I took of the finished work.) I was then able to fit the radiator in properly, if rather snugly; button it back together; refill the system and purge the air from it (very important); and get cleaned up and “home in time for supper.”

While refilling the system, I had the van’s engine running, and I took the opportunity to get out my multimeter and check the electrical system voltage. Readings were in the normal range, from 12 to 14 volts. The lights were not flickering. I had checked and tightened all the connections to the alternator while the van was up on the ramps, and now that seemed to clear things up. I didn’t have the full set of test equipment to fully check the electrical system, but isn’t that what the shop had done? I should be all set for tomorrow, then. Good thing, too. Downtown early to job-hunt, then that interview out in Beaverton at 2 pm…gonna be a full day. 

I had no idea then how full it would be.

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Car-Dependency, Part 2

As I walked uptown towards work, I considered my situation and quickly realized that things could have been far worse. All I had to do was call The AAAuto Club after my shift for a tow, catch a ride back with the tow truck, and get to work on replacing the radiator the next morning. It had to be a quick project, though, because I had a job interview on Monday. Being only very partially employed at this time, I could ill afford to pass on any opportunities.

If the reader notices that I was not at all worried about obtaining a new radiator for the van between Saturday night and Sunday morning, permit me to reveal now the ace up my sleeve: I already had a replacement radiator. I had ordered it the previous summer, when a crack had developed in the very same upper hose outlet that had just failed. When I was able to repair that first crack and it was too late to return the new part, we simply kept it, boxed, and moved it with all our other belongings. Now it was tucked safely in the backyard shed, ready for installation.

First things first, though, and that meant the tow. I had my AAAuto Club card right there in my wallet, and…

Not there. $&*%. Urgent messages to the home phone and my wife’s mobile number, I’m fine, but guess what, need the number, gotta go…and I checked for return messages every service break that night. I finally heard back from my wife, and…wait a minute…expired? Since when? Oh, my…all summer, you say? Yes, renew it…put it on that other card, still plenty of room on that one…okay, call me back. Back from break, finish clearing after dinner, lots and lots of plates and glasses, any volunteers to clock off early? YES. And by “early,” I mean 10 pm.

My wife called back with the new account number and the assistance number, and I spent the greater part of my walk back to the van on the phone with the AAAuto Club representative, trying in vain to listen on a city street and write in a notebook in the dark. I finally got them to understand where the van was, what I needed to have happen, and that I realized there would be extra mileage charges since I was “out-of-state.” What was I, 15 miles from home? Ah, the perils of life in a border town. They would call me back when the tow truck driver arrived. I found a convenient spot indoors to wait for the call. And by “convenient spot,” I mean a pub. Sure enough, midway through my first pint, my mobile phone rang; the tow truck driver was at the vehicle. No one should ever have to drink stout as quickly as I did then, but somehow I managed. It’s one of my many skills.

I hurried out to meet the driver, who had a Portland air about him: portly, jovial, bearded, and amiable. We got to talking (or rather he got to talking, given minimal prompts) and it turned out that handling a tow truck (flatbed car hauler, actually) was only one of his many talents. He was also a semi-professional chef, specializing in private dining; a goat farmer; and he lived in a refurbished treehouse on his ex-father-in-law’s trailer home. Really, just a run-of-the-mill Portland resident. He may even have dabbled in bike repair and artisanal tattooing with reclaimed local ink, but we never broached the subject.

I got home late and cold, but safe, that night, and got ready for a day of turning wrenches and cussing on the morrow. Sunday may be a day of rest for many, but I had other plans for mine.

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Car-Dependency, Part 1

One of the troubles with living in the suburbs is how dependent it makes us on our cars, especially when they are not dependable. Our old green van had been trundling along quite nicely since we moved out here in August, which should have been a clear sign of danger. Instead, we got complacent, and put off plans to replace it until next spring. It goes to show you…just when you think you’ve turned the corner, the corner keeps bending.

It all started on a Tuesday night, of all times, when the van got a flat tire. I changed the flat for the spare and drove home, all quite uneventfully, and planned to go out and have it fixed the next day. The van was due for an oil change, and there were some other “issues” needing a look as well. I had noticed that the van’s headlights would sometimes flicker up and down, varying with engine speed. I had also been topping off the engine coolant, though I could find no signs of a leak. Not having my own set of diagnostic equipment, I needed a professional opinion.

My first mistake was probably not shopping around a bit for the new tire, since there are more tire shops on Highway 99 near my house than pigeons in a park. However, I loyally went to the national-chain, brake-and-muffler shop on the corner, where I had already gotten some good work done.

The tire was not salvageable. A finger-sized chunk of road debris was crammed into the treads, and the sidewall was collapsed due to my slow roll around the corner the previous night to get to a well-lit area where I could do the work. So be it; those tires, on the rear of the van, were low on tread anyway. I opted for a new pair, rotated to the front. I also silently said a prayer of thanks for having a sufficient line of credit to cover the expense. I requested the other work from the shop manager: oil change, check electrical system, check cooling system; then settled down in the waiting room, trying to ignore the chatty television and read a book. I did fairly well at that, but could have done better.

The shop manager returned to report that they could find nothing amiss with the electrical system, but did recommend a flush-and-fill of the cooling system. Knowing that the engine coolant was at least two years old and of uncertain provenance, I agreed. The work proceeded and I felt a sense of calm, even contentment: two new tires, new fluids, and the systems check out. We should be all set for a while, I thought. We’ll make it to spring, then replace that beastie. After all, a service bill of nearly 400 dollars should bring with it some peace of mind, should it not?

That Saturday, there being no bus service available, I was driving into Portland to work a catering job. I had taken the wrong downtown exit, so I had to scramble a bit to get back to where I wanted to be. Trying to move into the turn lane, I noticed a certain smell; sharp, metallic, and sickly-sweet. Whoa! I thought. Some dude just lost his cooling system! As a precaution, I glanced down at the dashboard, and saw the needle on my van’s temperature gauge climbing like a kid at the YMCA rock wall. CRAP! I’m the dude! 

With reflexes honed by years of driving shaky old cars, I turned the heater on full, put my window down, and signaled frantically for a turn, pretty much all at once. Somehow I found a parking spot on the street, at a corner, in a two-hour zone, important since it was now 4 o’clock and the city only charges for parking until 6. The last thing I needed at this point was a ticket. Once stopped, I shut off the engine but not the fan, popped open the hood, got out, and took a look.

The leak was not hard to find. The upper hose outlet on the radiator had blown apart. Roughly half of the outlet was still attached, the hose still valiantly clinging to it; but the rest was gone, probably somewhere on 6th Avenue. Questions ran around my head like hungry squirrels. What did the yahoos at the shop do? How much brand-new coolant had I lost? How was I getting home? How was I going to fix this? Then I remembered: I have to be at work in 20 minutes. What a relief! That would give me a few hours to get things sorted out. Meanwhile, woe to anyone who tried to steal the van! They wouldn’t get very far!

I locked it anyway.

To Be Continued!

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Come To the Dark Side…We Have Pizza!

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they have to stand up and face certain unpleasant realities. A time when ideals clash with experience, and tough decisions about the future must be confronted. For some people, this might mean a divorce, a career change, or a move across the country. For us, it was the giant leap of signing up for a Costco membership.

Having spent the last few years trying to rein in both our grocery spending and our food-mile radius while at the same time focusing our consumer activity on smaller, locally-owned merchants, this decision was not easy. But…those…children… The three boys, at 11, 14, and 16 years of age respectively, had started doing what teenage boys are wont to do: eating their parents out of house and home. Milk by the gallon; meat by the pound; bread, cereal, and most any other starch; yogurt; oatmeal; you name it, they ate it. Between the quantities we needed to have on hand and the frequency of our trips, we had little choice in the matter.

Naturally, when we were in Pullman, the nearest Costco was a good half-hour’s drive south, so getting sufficient quantity to make the trip worthwhile was paramount. We’d carefully make our list, plan a few other stops nearby for efficiency’s sake, and…

WOW! The SIZE of the place! The sheer, mind-numbing MAGNITUDE of it! and so…many…people! All BUYING LOTS OF STUFF! Multiplied by how many stores, how many shoppers, how many hours per day…I was getting dizzy. So, post-shopping, we bought a pizza. Because they have ready-to-eat food there. And…it’s delicious. Choice of toppings is limited to either pepperoni or a combination of sausage, mushroom, peppers, and olives; but: they are made to order, span 18 inches from crust to crust, and cost all of $10. Yes, ten little ducats for a pizza that the five of us can barely finish. It nearly makes up for the stress of being there.

All the same, I do not regret crossing over to The Large Side. Trying to stretch a monthly grocery budget of just under $500 to cover five people is a challenge that requires we work every angle we can. At Costco, we can employ the same “economy of scale” strategy that the company itself uses. Buying more at a time also means fewer trips overall, saving on fuel use and expense. We also have two Costcos nearby, the nearest being maybe 15 minutes away. This gives us some flexibility in where else we may want or need to go that day.

In exchange, we have to trade off a few things. First of all, we have surely given up a few miles on our “consumption radius,” although we do check to make sure we’re not buying fresh produce from South America. No grapes with frequent flyer miles, please. Secondly, buying in bulk has storage and planning requirements that not every household can fulfill: a separate freezer, big pantry shelves, time and space to portion and prepare, and oh yes…some sort of plan. I should be better at that part, what with all my restaurant experience, yet lately it has eluded me. I’ll have to look into that.

There is something else we lose when we shop there; something maybe less tangible, but no less real, as we walk around the vast, chilly, concrete warehouse, buying cases of this and big bags of that; looking at the towers and plies of all sorts of products; seeing the other shoppers there, and hoping we don’t resemble them. Perhaps I’m getting a glimpse of the vast scope and scale of the Industrial Food Complex. Maybe it’s that the shopping carts are the size of utility trailers. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s a feeling that we are more Consumers than People, and I need more than a slice of pizza to take that chill out of my soul.

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Time for A Few Adjustments

Reining in our automobile usage while living in the suburbs is starting to feel like trying to stay sober at a whiskey tasting: even if it’s possible, it seems counterproductive; contrary to the spirit of the endeavor. Still, we need to make the effort, for both practical and philosophical reasons.

The most obvious benefit is economic, of course: fewer miles driven will reduce our fuel expense and extend our vehicle’s service life. There are other tangible reasons, though. The closer we can stay to home, the better we’ll get to know our neighborhood, and we will help reinforce existing community ties as well as create new ones. Also, if society suddenly takes a turn for the apocalyptic, long-distance transportation and delivery of goods and services is going to take a big hit.

The philosophical and ethical considerations contain the idea of community-building, especially considering the incident with the stranger at our doorstep, but they extend beyond that: to how we live on this finite planet, how we treat those more vulnerable to the whims of fortune, and how we see ourselves as both citizens and consumers. Let’s face it: as radiation from Japan makes its way to the coast of Oregon, and ash from Mount St. Helens made its way around the world, we’re all in each other’s backyards now.

It’s not going to be easy, though. My wife would need 90 minutes to take a bus the 6 miles to her college campus, at $1.70 per trip. If our driving cost is 25 cents per mile, we save both cash and time if I bring her up there and go get her, 15 minutes each way, on the two days a week she needs to go. Public transportation isn’t supposed to work like that! It should be an appealing alternative, better in some tangible way than driving. More expensive and less convenient? That’s two giant steps backwards.

There’s more to the story, but it’s past my bedtime and I want to make sure this post goes out by Monday morning. I appreciate everyone who reads this and I’m trying to be more consistent with my updates. If you like this blog, tell a friend! (Telling me won’t hurt either.) 

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Wanted: Community

In the post-supper quiet of a Sunday evening, as I was dozing reading at the dining table, our ever-alert team of Home Defense Dachshunds gave notice that there was SOMEONE AT THE DOOR!!! After clearing our crack security team into the back bedroom, one under each arm, My Dear Wife asked me to see who it was.

There stood a woman, no older than I for sure, peering out from under the hood of a raincoat. She asked if we had any chores or work that needed to be done, as she was trying to earn some money for a hotel room, since she and her daughter had just become homeless. I wished right then that I had piles of laundry to fold, mountains of dishes to wash, and a pile of cash with which to pay someone to do them, but I had none of those things. We had folded the clean laundry just the night before; the dishes were in the dishwasher; and I have all of three dollars in my pocket. I told her I was sorry, but I had neither work for her to do nor money to pay her for it, and before I had a chance to offer her anything else, like some food, she was gone.

The cynic will suggest that she may have been “casing the joint,” or trying to hustle money for drugs, or had some other nefarious scheme in mind. I doubt it, though of course I can’t be sure, and I put our bicycles away soon afterward. That’s not what troubled me about the incident, though. Drug habits are nasty creatures, and I sympathize with anyone battling those demons. If they need a couple of bucks to get through to tomorrow, I won’t begrudge it.

What bothered me more was, first of all, that my hospitality skills were so rusty that I couldn’t even make a timely offer of something to tide her over. Secondly, on further review, I realized that I have absolutely no idea of whom to turn to with such a crisis. We’ve lived here since the first of August and hardly know anyone, either in our neighborhood or in the city. We are not yet members of any spiritual community or civic organization, though we are making some halting progress on that front. But tonight I was as lost in my new city, right there on my front steps, as if I had been driving at night in a rainstorm. We’ve got a ways to go in learning our way around.

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The Road Goes On Forever

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Most people wouldn’t have suspected that Tolkien was referring to a day of running errands in the American suburbs. Yet there it is, plain as day in Cincinnati: a dire and portentous warning for the ages. In a land so vast and unpredictable, planning and preparation are keys to avoiding the hidden dangers of Suburbia.

Just the other day, for example, My Dear Wife and I set out to do some grocery shopping and wound up on a five-hour, fifty-mile expedition around the Portland-Vancouver area. Along the way, we visited two farmer’s markets, bought dog food for some homeless Portland pets, had a fantastic pizza lunch, and generally made a day of it. Granted, the day was pleasant and the company outstanding; but as running errands goes, it was not our best effort. Clearly, we have some work to do in reining in our radius.

Here’s the thing: Vancouver itself is roughly 14 miles across, girdled by freeways, and just north of Portland, a city of over half-a-million people. Between the sheer scale of the place and the tempting lure of the big city, staying on task is a challenge. We need to stay vigilant if only for economic reasons: our spending on fuel has tripled compared to Pullman, and gasoline isn’t going to get cheaper anytime soon. Whether due to a mechanical problem or a change in our driving habits, the minivan is only getting around 16 to 18 miles per gallon. Heck, for mileage that low I’d just as soon get an old Chevy Suburban and be done with it. It’s also harder to find out what’s in your own neighborhood when you’re constantly leaving it.

I’m sure there is some low-hanging fruit to be had here, like more strategic errand-planning and better use of alternative transportation, but there are limits to what we can accomplish there as well. A lot comes down to the nature of the place: suburban America was built by and for the automobile. It’s a car’s world; we just live in it.

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