Lack of car repair acumen yields vulnerability

Lack of car repair acumen yields vulnerability
The air inside is heavy with the smell of tires – big tires and a lot of them mixed with an odor of oil. Light filmy grime covers the floor and walls, even the counter, where empty spark plug boxes, radiator hose clamps, and loose lug nuts wait for reuse. Everything and nothing about this place tells me to trust.

The disconcerting rat-a-tat-tat idle of my car's engine brings me here. Now, watching as my car is hoisted for diagnostic analysis, I glaze over. My car repair acumen boils down to almost nothing.

I look on from the edge of the mechanic's bay, while the car guy probes the heart and soul of my only means of transportation. He stands with his legs straddled in the center of the bay well, gazing up; his head bends backwards and moves slowly from one part of the underbelly to another.

I crane my neck, straining to interpret every twist and turn and sound he telegraphs. He taps, as though with a tuning fork, striking gently for right replies.

"Aha!" he says with resounding conviction. "I think I've found your problem. See that?" he points out with his wrench.

Grime covers him, as well. It brushes across his forehead and chin; it's on his elbows and forearms; it outlines his fingernails. It blends with his dark blue uniform, making it appear cleaner than it really is. It turns the white embroidered name, Don, which stretches across his heart, dingy.

"There's your problem. You're gonna need a new alternator belt," he announces.

I see nothing but the underside of my car with undifferentiated parts. Turning to him, I search his face for answers to my doubt. I study his eyes to bridge the gap between what I do not know about cars and what I hope he knows about cars. I hope to detect virtue, honor, and, most importantly, truth.

"Listen," I tell him squarely, "more often than not, when I take my car in for repair, I end up paying for something I do not need."

"I know exactly what you mean," he smiles agreeably, shaking his head in solidarity with my plight.

At this point, a shroud of suspicion looms, and the only thing between me and the car mechanic is a great deal of doubt mingled with some hope.

I agree to replace the belt and ask for the old one to take home.

A half-hour and $85 later, I arrive home with the replaced belt. "See?" I say, handing it to my husband, seeking some sort of validation.

He inspects the fan belt inside and out for signs of wear. "By the looks of it, this belt could have gone quite a few more miles."

The disconcerting rat-a-tat-tat idle of my car's engine prevents me from returning to that place, where everything about it told me not to trust.

A resident of Southeast South Dakota for more than 30 years, Paula Damon is a popular columnist, keynote speaker, and freelance writer. Her column writing has won first-place national and state awards in The Federation of Press Women competitions. For more information, e-mail

� 2007 Paula Damon

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