The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Precious Liquids
Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It by Paul Simon - In recent years, many books have been published about water issues, but back in 1998 there were few. Since I've read extensively about the subject, I figured I wouldn't learn much from this book. All the same, I was interested in Simon's perspective. Much of "Section I: The Problem" covers familiar territory (alas, the problems haven't gone away), but "Section II: The Answers" is surprisingly informative, particularly the chapter about desalination. As a senator, Simon was a huge proponent of desalination, and this book includes historic quotes from Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy endorsing the need for desalination research. The U.S. was at the forefront of desalination technology until government funding was cut drastically during the Reagan years, which Simon felt was a serious policy failure. He offers other solutions as well, calling for realistic pricing, reduced pollution, and population control. Despite its age, Tapped Out is still an excellent introductory text about a crisis that has only intensified in the years since.

Return to Thunder Road by Alex Gabbard - Almost two decades before Bruce Springsteen invited Mary into his car, another "Thunder Road" was part of American pop culture.* Robert Mitchum directed and acted in the 1958 movie Thunder Road about running moonshine, plus he wrote and sang the theme song:
Thunder, thunder, over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine and
White lightnin' was his load.
Moonshine, moonshine, to quench the devil's thirst
The law they swore they'd get him,
But the devil got him first.
This book is a joy to read. Gabbard explains the origins of homemade whiskey and the motivations of the men who risked their lives to deliver the illegal goods across the rural South. Much of Return to Thunder Road is presented in oral history form with extensive recollections from moonshiners, whiskey runners, and ATF agents. The 'shiners talk about the distillery process and how they built and concealed their stills. The drivers describe dozens of heart-racing midnight escapes in souped-up cars with big motors and heavy-duty springs. The U.S. Treasury agents recount raids and chases, along with the frustrations of a never-ending battle. In fact, moonshining came to an end not because of enforcement, but because of new economic opportunities (in the case of legendary Wilkes County, NC, a Holly Springs chicken plant). Gabbard discovers that the movie Thunder Road was likely inspired by the real-life final run of a certain driver. In the book's climax, he leads the reader along the fateful route, interlacing his narrative with the lyrics of the song. Anyone interested in fast cars, whiskey, the South, and/or 20th century American history should enjoy Return to Thunder Road. I'll have to bump the movie to the top of my Netflix queue.

Current tally: 87 books finished, 82 books acquired

* There is a Springsteen connection to this book, not in his "Thunder Road" but in "Cadillac Ranch." When he sings of "Junior Johnson runnin' through the woods of Caroline," he's talking about the famous moonshine runner turned NASCAR racer/owner. Junior and his family are quoted and mentioned many times within these pages.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Lyrics of the Day
A special treat for those who saw the Drive-By Truckers at Metro on Saturday was "The Tough Sell," a song from their second album, Gangstabilly, that has been played only one other time this year (and only seven times since 2004). The protagonist describes making a purchase from stereotypical used-car salesman EZ DAN:
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other;
It certainly wasn't the car of my dreams, but the price was right.
And EZ DAN assured me that the mid 70's were a particularly nice period for Chrysler products in general,
"and this one is a Volare."
EZ DAN doesn't fare well in the next verse, but let's say he probably deserved what he got. My first car was a 1977 Plymouth Volare, and I assert that the mid 70s were not "a particularly nice period for Chrysler products," except perhaps for desert dwellers. That car never ran worth a damn in the rain, no matter what I fixed or replaced. At least I was fortunate to have the V-8 (318 c.i.) instead of the standard straight six.

I had some good times with that car, no matter how many times it broke my heart.

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Friday, April 14, 2006
Bert Weinman Ford
We bought our Focus from Bert Weinman Ford on Ashland Avenue. I have been annoyed by many a car dealer in the past, but they were good to us. I liked everybody there and how they did business. To top it off, their location was perfect. I took our car in for its first oil change last week, and it was only a short walk to the L to come home. Then my wife took the L to pick the car up, and she was already halfway to work. I thought it was unusual for a car dealership to sprawl across so much land in a rapidly appreciating area like West Lakeview, but I figured after nearly 40 years they were a neighborhood institution and wouldn't be going anywhere.

Yesterday Bert Weinman Ford announced that they have made a deal with a real estate developer and will be closing up shop. Damn. They stopped accepting service appointments last Thursday, which means we got one of the last oil changes performed on the premises. Fortunately the scheduled maintenance plan I purchased that day is good at all Ford dealers.

Our nearest Ford dealer is actually 0.3 mile closer than Weinman, but it's straight north on Western Avenue, which isn't as convenient for us. It's been only four months since we bought the Focus so I've hardly known Bert Weinman Ford, but I'll miss them. I wish their 40 employees luck in finding another place to work.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006
It Fits!
Tuesday I took my bike up to the North Branch Trail (Ride 20 from Biking Illinois for those following along at home -- this isn't some sort of book release celebration, though; these are just the trails nearby that I like to ride). It was my first time putting my Co-Motion Americano in the Focus. The main reason I wanted the hatchback was so I could transport my bike without the hassle of a trunk rack. Thank goodness it fit! I would have been pretty irritated if it didn't. There isn't as much room to spare as when I used to put my Raleigh hybrid in my 1993 Probe GT, but I think the Americano is longer and the Focus is shorter. Whatever -- it works, and I can say goodbye to bungee cords and road grime.

The ride itself was good, about 20 miles. My ankles were fine, but my sit bones were a little sore, to my surprise. That's what I get for not riding all winter. I was crushed to see the Happy Hound on Touhy Avenue was closed and for sale. Not only was I especially hungry this afternoon, but their french fries were perfect when I ate there last summer so I was really looking forward to them.

In other news, I did my first interview for the book Tuesday afternoon. I'm starting to feel like a real author!

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Monday, January 30, 2006
I Feel an Itch Coming On...
It's our seventh wedding anniversary today.

In other news, we finally had the Neon towed away by They are actually a poorly run charity and a suspicious front for orthodox Jewish New Jersey missionaries, but the bottom line is that they towed the car for free, and we can claim a tax-deductible gift. Besides, odds are the charity won't get any money anyway. My wife said she was okay with all that, and her name is on the title so it's her call. I did a quick check of some popular animal welfare charities (HSUS, ASPCA, Anti-Cruelty Society), and none of them appeared to have a car donation program, so we went with Kars4Kids. If you care where your money goes or you're donating a car with any value, you may want to look elsewhere.


Monday, January 23, 2006
Don't Congratulate Me
What would you say if I told you I just bought $17,000 worth of stock that was guaranteed never to increase in value? And what if I said it would only be worth a few hundred dollars in a decade? First you'd ask me what I've been smoking, then you'd probably tell me to sell it (the stock, that is, not whatever I was smoking).

So why do people congratulate me for buying a car?

Does it have to do with the auto-centric nature of our culture? Am I to be congratulated for contributing to traffic congestion and pumping out greenhouse gases? Or is it about our rampant consumerism? Should I be lauded for accumulating goods? It's not much of an achievement; there are nearly six million cars in Illinois alone, so there's nothing special about owning one. Does anyone congratulate me for buying a television? Come to think of it, my TV has outlived my wife's car, so my $420 investment is looking better than her $15,000 investment now, isn't it? I haven't spent a dollar repairing my TV or performing any routine maintenance on it either. Plus it came with a free cordless phone, which we still use.

My family was disturbed when I told them I was selling my car after I moved downtown 10-1/2 years ago. Living without a car seemed to be more than their suburban mindsets could handle. My parents later said they were just afraid I was going to lose money on the deal, but they should have known me better than that (isn't it funny how people brand me as cheap without recognizing me as fiscally responsible?). Worse was a ridiculous comment from my grandfather about why I shouldn't sell: "A car is an investment." Huh? How is a depreciating asset an investment? We weren't talking about an antique, classic, or limited edition, just an ordinary car. There's only one context in which his statement made any sense. My grandfather was an insurance agent. So whenever a customer bought a car, it was an investment... in my grandfather's retirement fund!

I don't see why I should be congratulated for buying a car -- it's just a matter of spending a lot of money. At my wedding, did people congratulate me for getting married or for spending a bunch of cash on the nuptials? Jeez, I could have bought a car for that kind of dough.

When my mother-in-law saw our new car, she said something even worse: "That's a cute car you have." I suppose she was waiting for me to graciously respond to this supposed compliment. But instead, I stared blankly at her in silence. No guy in the world wants to be told his car is cute. In fact, if another guy said it, those would be fighting words. At least I bit my tongue; what I wanted to say was, "Cute? No, my Focus could kick your Buick LeSabre's old-lady-car ass!"


Monday, January 09, 2006
Catching up again -- this is from the week before Christmas...

It's the punchline to a crude, offensive joke, but for some odd reason that word has become a part of the family lexicon. And so years ago when Ford introduced a car called the Focus, my Fordophile family said I would have to get one someday. I even joked about making a "Bofus?" bumper sticker to put below the nameplate.

The last time I bought a car, it was a new 1993 Probe GT. I was fresh out of college and needed reliable transportation for the long commute to my first programming job (80 miles round-trip on the suburban tollways). The car was a blast to drive. It had foot-wide tires and cornered like it was on rails. Then I moved to the city and didn't need a car anymore. After a few months of making payments on a car I never drove (I left it at my parents' house), I dumped it through a broker who was a truly despicable human being. It was an inglorious end to my years as an auto enthusiast. Since then, my attitude toward cars has changed. I still enjoy driving, but I view cars in a more utilitarian role now.

I always saw my wife's 1996 Plymouth Neon (which predated our relationship) as just that -- basic transportation. It gets you from A to B at a reasonable cost, and that's all that matters. Even when I was making big bucks (the years leading to Y2K were lucrative for computer consultants), I never had the urge to buy an expensive car. So as the Neon's repair bills piled up, I set my sights on something practical, something well-rated but inexpensive. Good fuel mileage would be a plus, and ideally I could transport my bike inside without dismantling it. With special year-end, no-haggle pricing near dealer cost, the Ford Focus hatchback moved to the top of my list. Even Consumer Reports, notorious for favoring Japanese reliability, picked the Focus as the best in its class. When I went to Ford's web site, I was amazed that I could search Ford dealer inventory online and even view a mock price sticker so I could see every option and feature.

I thought we should pick out the car together since my wife will be the primary driver. That was a recipe for disaster. My wife knows as much about cars as I know about horses, maybe even less than I know about horses. I thought it was odd that my wife had bought the Neon at age 28 with her dad (it never occurred to me to ask my dad to come with when I bought my Probe GT at age 22), but now I understand why. It really amazes me -- how many women actually need a man to buy a car, be it a husband, father or friend? I thought it was a sexist stereotype to make jokes about women buying cars based on the paint color, but for some the truth is not far off.

To make a long story short, we bought a silver 5-door Focus SES. It has automatic transaxle, A/C, power everything, tilt wheel, 16" wheels, AM/FM CD player, remote keyless entry, etc. That's more than we really needed, but I guess it's okay. My wife wanted the 5-door instead of the 3-door, which cost us an extra $1000. The only option we didn't get was anti-lock brakes. For some reason my wife didn't seem to want them (of course, if either of us ever gets into an accident because the car couldn't stop quickly enough, it will be all her fault).

The purchase process was much faster and simpler than when I helped my grandmother-in-law buy a car a few years ago (that "can't buy a car without a man" thing runs in the family!). We filled out a loan application although we planned to finance through a credit union. We put a $500 down payment on a credit card and they told us we could take the car. That seemed weird to us to take the car without paying or financing, so we planned to pick it up a few days later instead. By then we had secured financing through my credit union (by the way, my wife's credit union never even returned our phone call). Although Ford Credit was offering 2.9%, it was cheaper to finance it separately and take the "cash back" option. We got 5.14% for three years. At times like this it's nice to have good credit!

So far, so good. The water pump doesn't leak. The gauges always work. And I'll bet that when it gets warmer the A/C will work too. It's amazing what we've learned to put up with driving an older car.

UPDATE - 01/12/2006 - My friend Chris pointed out that Co-Motion, makers of my favorite bicycle, used to make a tandem called the Bofus! I wonder how many Bofus owners didn't even know the joke. That reminds me, I am no longer officially a bike geek -- you know you're a bike geek when your bike is worth more than your car. For the three years that I had both, my Americano was worth much more than the Neon (my biggest accident fear in that car was that I might get rear-ended with the bike on the rack!).


Sunday, December 25, 2005
Neon Flickers, Blinks Its Last
I'm posting a few things belatedly -- this is from Friday, December 16, 2005...

It's only a $650 water pump/timing belt repair.

But considering the other mechanical shortcomings of my wife's 1996 Plymouth Neon (so old that neither the make nor model exist anymore), we have reached our limit. We could replace the leaking water pump and its attendant timing belt. But we still would have dashboard instruments that work only intermittently (a $600 repair so common that the garage owner said Chrysler should have recalled the circuit boards). And we still wouldn't have air conditioning next summer (the A/C system failed so many times that my wife gave up on repairing it), so I'd have to listen to my wife complain about it. The door windows still wouldn't have frames (we have to roll them down and up after closing the door in order to quiet the wind noise). The trunk lock still wouldn't work (we have to release the latch remotely from inside the car). And worst of all, a huge repair bill for the next thing to go wrong could be right around the corner.

So after putting several hundred dollars into prepping it for winter just two short weeks ago, we're throwing in the towel. Of course, it is the nature of cars that this problem couldn't manifest itself before I made that investment. Believe me, it pains me to throw away a car with two new tires and a new battery, but it's not worth fighting it anymore.

My brother, a former mechanic, recommended the new tires as well as the cooling system flush. Since that possibly caused the water pump leak that put the final nail in the Neon's coffin, and since he's my brother, of course I blame him. He never liked the Neon anyway (he abandoned his wife's Neon at her parents' house several years ago), so I have my suspicions. He called it the Peon, or was it Pee-on?

While I'm at it, I'll blame my wife and her horseback riding hobby. It's 80 miles roundtrip to the barn where she rides weekly. While that may not seem like much, it has increased our annual miles driven by 50%. Theoretically, we could have squeezed a few more months out of the car without those extra trips.

My brother and my wife -- it's a conspiracy to make me spend money on a new car. I haven't bought a car since 1992 and haven't made a car payment in more than ten years. I do not miss either experience.

While my brother is thrilled that he won't be working on that car anymore (he did a lot of work for low prices or free so I can't really complain), I do have a bit of a soft spot for the old Neon. My wife bought the car before we met, and I rode in it on our first date. Our first kiss was in that car, too. We took our first weekend trip together in the Neon, the 1997 Illinois Route 66 Association Motor Tour. We also drove our Neon on our honeymoon in early 1999 (my wife almost ran over my head and crushed it like a grape in Beaumont, TX but that's another story).

My only consolation is that my wife said she would have given up on the Neon several years ago. As the person in charge of the household budget, I feel like at least I succeeded in deferring a major expense for a while. All told, she got ten years out of that car and maybe 125,000 miles (can't say exactly since the odometer doesn't change when the gauges aren't working). On the bright side, our marriage has outlasted the car, which is better than many other marriages these days. The big question is, will our marriage survive the next car?


Friday, December 02, 2005
The Car, Again
This has been a good week for getting things done and tying up loose ends. So I began yesterday with a solid plan and great expectations. For starters, I would replace our seven-year-old car battery and go to the grocery store.

I got in the car and began driving down the street. Immediately, I knew something was wrong and pulled over. Sure enough, one of our brand new tires was flat! I backed the car in front of our house and set about doing exactly what replacing the tires was supposed to spare me from doing -- digging the space-saver spare tire out of the the trunk and installing it. Of course, with the dry rotted tires this could have happened at 75 mph on the Tri-State Tollway, so this was a little better.

I cannot imagine how pissed I would have been on the shoulder of the Tri-State when I discovered that my wife had several bags worth of crap piled up in the trunk, everything from three-year-old greeting cards to Baskin-Robbins cups. Since I was home, I stormed into the house, cursed a blue streak about the flat tire, and asked her to empty all the crap out of her trunk.

After I changed the tire, I called the tire place. They said they were swamped and asked if I could bring it in later. Fine, I guess I'll change the battery first. It shouldn't be too hard. Dave's First Law of Automotive Repair: It is never as easy as you think it will be.

I went to AutoZone and bought an inexpensive (~$45) battery. Unlike the last time I replaced the battery, this time I had a car to drive to get the new one. And although I lamented that I didn't do it on Monday when it was warmer, it was still 20-30 degrees warmer than it was the last time I did it. Besides, I was already off to a good start since I found my battery brush in the first place I looked.

Disconnect the negative, disconnect the positive, detach the plastic shroud, loosen the nut holding the metal bracket that secures the battery... A slight tip, a yank, and out came the old battery, a battered Die-Hard that I had waited in a line of 20 people to buy on the coldest night of 1999.

Just slide in the new battery... Sh!t. Dave's Second Law of Automotive Repair: The slightest difference between the old and new parts will cause a world of hurt. In this case, the plastic moldings that held the new battery in place were thicker than those on the old battery. I tried again to loosen the nut on the bracket at the front. After struggling to move it about half a turn, I decided that wasn't going to work. Maybe if I could file down the plastic at the back that was to hold in the new battery, I could slip it in without removing the front. Besides, this gave me an excuse to use one of my brother's favorite tools -- the bastard file (his other favorite is the bunghole mixer). I filed away until my arms got tired. I was making progress, as evidenced by the shreds of black plastic below, but it wasn't nearly enough. I considered filing the plastic on the battery, which would have been much easier, but I was afraid it might void the warranty.

Let's try the bolt again. This time I sprayed it liberally with WD-40. By the way, both the bastard file and the WD-40, although I haven't used either in years, were in the first places I looked for them, so at least something was going right. I brushed the corrosion and dirt off the battery cables to pass the time while the WD-40 soaked in and worked its magic.

When I tried the nut again, I managed to turn it almost a full revolution... Then suddenly sheared the bolt clean off. Damn! Dave's Third Law of Automotive Repair: No job is done until you break something. Well, at least the battery would fit in easily without the bracket in the way... Except that the purpose of the bracket was to hold the battery in place. Oh well, nothing I could do about it now. I slid the new battery in and put on the plastic shroud, hoping it would prove to be stronger than it looks. I put the fuzzy washers and gel that came with the battery (to prevent corrosion) on the terminals, connected the positive and negative cables, and tried to start the car.

It worked! For an hour of work (though it should have been a 20-minute job) and a couple of bloody knuckles, I saved nearly $80 versus having the tire shop replace the battery (that's more than two months worth of electricity!). Back in the house, I warned my wife that she might lose her battery if she slams on the brakes too hard. Of course, the nice thing about having a cramped engine compartment is that there really isn't room for anything to move very far anyway.

I traded in the old battery for a refund of $8.72 and headed for the tire place. They managed to squeeze me in, but naturally there was more bad news. The tire hadn't failed (I figured as much since I didn't see anything in the tread), the wheel had. The rim was corroded so the tire bead didn't seal properly. The mechanic was going to clean the rim, apply a sealant, and remount the tire. If that doesn't work, I'll have to buy a new wheel, which they estimated at $90-120. I can't believe a plain old black wheel costs that much.

I never made it to the grocery store since I barely got home in time for my wife to drive to work. This morning I nervously walked toward the front window to see if the tire had gone flat overnight. It didn't! Let's hope the sealant did the trick. After a trip to Dominick's (always an adventure since I shop at Jewel 98% of the time), we are fully stocked with Charmin Ultra ("like wiping your a$$ with a cloud," as I always say) and Entenmann's apple strudel.


Thursday, December 01, 2005
Winterizing The Car
Yesterday I finally took our car (technically my wife's car since her name is on the title and she's the primary driver) in for a radiator flush and two new tires. The radiator flush was just in time since the temperature is forecast to dip below 20 degrees tonight and into single digits early next week. Plus the $49.95 coupon was about to expire, and the regular price was $30 more. The rear tires had plenty of tread but were dry rotted after five years on the car. Notes about the day:

Now all I have left to do is replace the battery and we should be ready for another winter, knock on wood (with an old car you can't take anything for granted).


Friday, September 16, 2005
Carless And Carefree?
The Chicago Tribune has a story today about people who live without cars. It isn't that difficult to do in this city--I lived without a car for 3-1/2 years until I moved in with my wife who already owned one. If she didn't work late hours and we didn't have pets, we could probably live without it. Oddly enough, I grew up in the car-crazy western suburbs and she grew up in the city, but she is the one who wants to drive everywhere. I just don't think it's worth the hassle or the expense, and walking is so much healthier (city air pollution aside).

Anyway, this article presents a few examples of people living without automobiles. Unfortunately, the reporter loses credibility in the second and third paragraphs:

They are the carless people of Chicago, the folks who don't own a car either because they don't want one or they can't afford one. Either way, they are relatively immune to rising gas prices because, for the most part, they don't buy gas.

Having a chunk of the population car-free is good for Chicago's economy, economists say, because it means those people won't have to cut back on the rest of their spending to account for the bigger bite taken by gasoline.

Not owning a car does not mean a person is immune to rising gas prices, and an economist with even half a brain would have to agree. The problem is that everything is affected by rising gas prices. Every product on every shelf gets transported using gasoline and/or diesel fuel. Consequently, rising fuel prices will impact the price of everything one buys. Even people who don't buy gas are going to pay plenty more for everything else. I am shocked that the reporter would disregard that fact. And while higher gas prices won't take an obvious slice out of a non-driver's pie, it will leave that person with a smaller pie--getting fewer goods for the same amount of money. To put it another way, more expensive gas and diesel will take a "bigger bite" out of every slice before it gets to the consumer's mouth. No economist is quoted in the story, so I am inclined to believe the reporter simply made this up without thinking it through logically.

This is why I am concerned about dwindling resources and "peak oil," the point in time when we have used more oil than we have left, which will essentially be the "beginning of the end" of transportation as we know it. Unless the automakers, truck manufacturers, airplane builders, and train locomotive producers are holding back some wondrous alternative until we run out of oil (a popular but doubtful conspiracy theory), we are in for a world of hurt. How will we eat? It doesn't matter whether I walk, bike, or drive to the grocery store if the shelves are going to be empty when I get there. Living without a car is a great way to simplify one's life, improve the environment, and get exercise, but it absolutely offers no protection from increases in fuel costs.

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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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