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!


About poorlocavore

Welcome to one family's journey towards a smaller food-mile footprint on a small food budget. How do our choices affect the environment, and what influences our choices? Read on and find out what I'm learning.
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