The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Monday, March 07, 2005
My wife's 1996 Plymouth Neon has been fading over the past year. It would probably be in the junkyard already if I hadn't started renting cars for high-mileage vacations. It has at least 102,000 miles on it now. I say "at least" because the instrument cluster doesn't always work, including the odometer. When I looked into fixing it, the dealer's $500 estimate deterred me. It only happens intermittently, and speed doesn't matter much in the city anyway. It didn't seem to be worth fixing, just like the air conditioning that we didn't fix a few years ago for $700. By that measure, we have saved more money by not doing repairs than the car is worth. I own at least one bicycle worth more than our car, possibly two. If I got rear-ended on my way to a bike ride, I would be more upset about the bike than the car!

Five years ago my brother worked as a mechanic for an unsavory character, the kind who tries to parlay a $15 oil change into a $600 repair bill. He invited me to bring our car in for new tires since that was something he could do alone without the boss he didn't trust. When I went to pick up the car, my brother's boss pointed out that we had a hole in our muffler and ought to replace it. Later that night at Mom & Dad's, my brother said, "You know the muffler is just fine with a little rust hole in it." Yeah, even I knew that.

My brother quit that job soon after in the midst of a moral crisis about his boss' lack of integrity. As the years passed, that muffler became a running joke at family gatherings. My brother would say, "You know, you ought to replace that muffler." It was always good for a laugh.

Yesterday my wife was picking up a friend for breakfast when the exhaust suddenly got really loud. It so happens that this friend is a little snobby, and my wife said she clearly wasn't happy riding around in what I called a "ghetto car" (that's how it sounded). In fact, her friend took the bus home from the restaurant instead! When my wife got home, I went to check it out. It didn't take a master mechanic to see what was wrong--just behind the catalytic converter, the exhaust pipe was hanging down within inches of the ground.

This morning my wife took it to a repair shop. I asked her to call me if it was more than $200, which in retrospect was uncharacteristically optimistic of me. I knew it likely needed a new catalytic converter, and those aren't cheap. When the inevitable call came, the total was $600, even with her police discount on parts. Ouch. The car isn't worth that much anymore, but we couldn't ignore this problem. So now, for the first time in five years, our car has a holeless exhaust. Of course, the speedometer and the A/C still don't work.


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