It’s been a complete surprise to me, but the state of North Carolina has treated me remarkably well these past few months. Not the state’s government, mind you, who ran me through hoops to get a simple driver’s license in my last Horribly True Tale. No, what I mean is, it’s been unexpectedly pleasant, living in the big NC.
When I first moved here, I’d rather been expecting an upsurge in material for new and more horrific Horribly True Tales. After all, you don’t just uproot and move all your stuff 600 miles to a state where you don’t have a job and expect everything to go smoothly for you. I eventually began to wonder if I needed to take up writing non-whiny, bright happy tales of romantic bliss, since nothing bad seemed to be happening to me that would make for a good horribly true story. Even my wedding day–which, if you’ve ever been through such a thing you know how stressful and accident-prone they tend to be–went of with very few hitches. Sure, we probably needed the wedding equivalent of Cliff’s Notes since we had no rehearsal and were pretty much winging the whole thing. And sure, the minister dropped Ashley’s ring in the middle of the ceremony and had to cover for it by switching his own ring into it’s place, which might technically mean I’m married to him now, but the audience was none-the-wiser and that’s the point. And the car known as The Bent Turd, my beloved 1985 Chevy Caprice Classic and our departure vehicle for the honeymoon, got us to Gatlinburg and back in once piece and didn’t drop any of its pieces on the way. It’s also made numerous trips as we began moving our things from Hildebran into our new apartment in Charlotte without stranding me on the side of the road even once. In fact, other than having one of its taillights smashed when Ashley’s cousin backed into it with her truck, the Turd had been running in tip top condition the entire time I’d been in the state.
I think we all know where this one’s going next.
One day, a month or so after my wedding, as I was driving around Charlotte in the Turd, I happened to notice the distinctive smell of gasoline fumes coming from the air vents. My theory on this, brilliant mechanic that I am, was that I must have flooded the car while starting it and the fumes were simply lingering from that. Never mind that I had no recollection of flooding the car, that was my theory. The next evening, as I was going to the grocery store, the Turd stalled out in the apartment’s parking lot and I couldn’t get the engine to turn over at all. Ash also figured I must have flooded it, since she could smell fumes too, and she suggested that the car had some sort of gauge that shut off the starter if there was gas nearby. I thought that sounded a bit more sophisticated than `85 Chevys are generally known for being and figured it was most likely a starter problem. Then again, there were the fumes to consider.
The next day, we had it towed to Pep Boys, which I chose since I like their TV ads featuring the large craniumed cartoon mechanics, Manny, Moe and Jack, (one of whom, Manny, I think, looks a lot like Hitler with wire rim glasses.) We told the Pep Boys that we thought the starter had gone bad and that we smelled gas fumes and they went to work on it immediately. They called back shortly and said that in no way was this a problem with the starter since they had done some diagnostics, i.e. turned the key, and it started right up with no trouble. The peeps at Peps thought it was either a fuel problem or an electrical problem. Ashley told them that we really thought the starter was having problems too, but they took this with the kind of skepticism reserved for people who they don’t know are the daughters of mechanics. A few hours later, they called and said it was a fuel pump problem. Another few hours later, they called to say it was fixed and we could pick it up.
There’s a reason Manny Pep Boy looks like Hitler. Hitler couldn’t fix a car either.
The next morning, exhausted from my third-shift disk jockey gig where I basically sat on my ass and surfed the internet all night, I turned up with a groggy Ashley in tow to pick up the car. After paying the bill and waiting several minutes for my car to be brought around from the garage, I decided to go around to the garage to see what was holding them up. In the garage, was my car, still parked, its hood open and a mechanic underneath attaching a portable jump-start charger to the battery.
“Battry’s dead,” he said.
“I doubt it,” I replied. I let him unsuccessfully try to start the engine, before mentioning that the whole reason we’d brought it to them in the first place was because it wouldn’t start. I invited him to try the lights so he could see that it was not the battery at fault. They worked perfectly.
The mechanic scratched his head and said “Was we finished with it yet?”
“That’s what we understood when we were called and told we could pick it up.”
The mechanic just shrugged and then pretended someone had called him from the front office and left. I decided to go talk to someone in the front office too. The manager type on duty, whose name tag proclaimed he was called Dick, seemed plenty perplexed by it all too. Dick assured me that he would put a man on it when “a man” showed up at ten.
Meanwhile, Ashley had long since ditched me, figuring I could take care of things on my end and drive the repaired car home. She had to go upstream through morning rush traffic to get back to pick me up. While I was waiting for her, I eavesdropped on the conversation between Dick and another Pep Boy in the lobby. A customer had come in for a tune up and they told him that his car would have to wait until a bit later in the day because they didn’t trust “the man” they had coming in at ten to do the job. Wait a second, I thought. This guy can’t do a tune up, yet they’re trusting him to figure out what’s wrong with my car?!! What the hell? I was way too tired to throw a fit, though, so I let it slide, hoping that they were talking about a different “the man” than “a man.”
Turns out, it didn’t matter what “the man” coming in at ten could or couldn’t be trusted to do, because no one actually told him to look at my car when he got there. At 3:30 in the afternoon I phoned for a progress report and found there was no progress to report. No one had even given the car a glance. Dick was no where to be found and the manager on duty, Don, hadn’t been informed that anything was wrong with my car, so he just let it sit in the garage with its hood up, untouched all day.
“That’s odd,” I said. “Dick told me he was putting a man on it at ten.” If I was gonna have to put up with this crap, at least I could get Dick in trouble for it. Don assured me that he was gonna start throwing mechanics at the car until one of them stuck and would call back as soon as they knew anything. Not too long later, he phoned back to say that, lo and behold, the starter was bad. Don said that since they’d dropped the ball on that one, they were gonna throw in a “new” starter for free. We just needed to pay for the labor, which was another $72. I gritted my teeth and agreed to it. After all, it would have cost us more than that had they figured out the starter problem from the beginning and had to replace it and the fuel pump at the same time.
When they were finished replacing the starter, Don called back and said he’d like to keep it over night because he wanted “to see how it starts after sitting cold for a few hours.” Here’s how Don’s flawed theory worked: When the car was first brought in, it had started just fine due to it being all warm and toasty, never mind that it had sat cold all night and was towed over to Pep Boys without having its engine started at all. Later, after having been “fixed,” it started up just fine, cause it was warm then. But, after sitting cold in the garage all night it was unable to be started in the morning cause it was cold. Now Don wanted it to sit cold for yet another night, with its new starter, which did work, to see if it would start in the morning. I told him on the phone that I much preferred to have my car now since Ashley was working late and couldn’t drive me to work. He didn’t much like that and said he’d rather keep it. When I showed up in person and asked for my car he didn’t put up a fight. The car started fine. It got me to work, and in the morning, after sitting in the 57 degree chill all night, it again started just fine.
All this car activity, or rather frequent inactivity, spurred in me a desire to finally own a car that didn’t crap out on me quite so often. The following weekend, we went car shopping. My hope was to find a good, low mileage, mid to late 90s vehicle in the five to seven thousand dollar range. However, after shopping around at several dealers along the Car Dealership Strip, we discovered this was a pipe dream. We’d either have to pay a lot of money for a really good used car that fit the above criteria, or settle for a Kia Pet. (Kuh kuh kuh krappy!) Then, just as we turning into yet another pricey used car lot, the Turd up and died before we could even get to a parking space. Once again, the engine wouldn’t turn over at all.
Our insurance company said it would take two hours for the tow truck service to get around to us, so we called Pep Boys. They seemed skeptical that our latest breakdown could have been at all their fault, but said they could get a tow truck to us in half an hour. However, it turned out they were using the exact same tow service as our insurance company, and had just elected to lie to us about the time, so two hours it was. Fortunately, we were in the midst of used car central, so we could at least use the time to shop. Unfortunately, we were on the sharky used car salesman side of the road and after an hour of fending them off with sticks, we bravely crossed the four lane to get to the Saturn dealership on the other side.
I’ve always heard good things about Saturn and how their company is set up, (completely employee owned, big emphasis on customer service and no haggle prices.) Seemed pretty good to us. No sharky salespeople came at us with teeth bared. Instead, a guy named Calvin came up and showed us their selection of used cars. Our eye was instantly caught by a `99 Chevy Malibu with a V.6 engine and only 29,000 miles on it. We took test drives. We liked. Ash got her mother on the cell phone and had her look Malibus up on the internet. Turns out they’re good cars with great safety ratings. Better and better. The only reason we didn’t stay and hang out with the Malibu for the rest of the evening was that the tow truck finally showed up.
If you’re ever stranded in Charlotte, Ace Towing service is the way to go. My car was parked in a position that would normally make it impossible for a tow truck to get in front of it to pull it onto the tow bed without smashing up the front glass of the dealership we were stranded at, but this was no problem to the Ace man. Instead of pulling the Turd onto the tow bed, he backed his entire truck up under the Turd with a remote control system on the side of his truck. I had no idea they could do that. Out of all the times that car’s been towed, this was by far the most impressive. Even more impressive was that the Ace man drove us home after dropping the Turd off at Pep Boys.
The next day, Pep Boys called to inform us that the rebuilt starter they’d put in the Turd, to replace the original bad starter, had itself gone bad. They would be replacing it again, free of charge, and would reimburse us for the towing charges. They assured us that our experience was in no way a typical one of Pep Boys customers and hoped we would consider darkening their door in the future. He’s probably right about the atypical experience part, but I still had to resist the urge to Zeig Heil to Manny on the way out.
Over the next few days, we went to other used car places and took other test drives, but each was compared unfavorably to the Malibu we’d tried at Saturn. Still, we’d never find that bargain car if we didn’t keep looking for it. That logic kept us going for another day or two, until one morning when I stopped at Bruger’s Bagels to pick up breakfast and, after coming out with my food, attempted to start my car. When I turned the key I was met with a high-pitched roaring sound, kinda like how I imagine a velociraptor would sound while being sucked into a jet engine intake. I immediately turned off the ignition and removed the key. The engine stopped. The high pitched roar continued at full volume. Evidently, I’d set some horrific process into motion and the Turd was about to go “Christine” on me. I grabbed my bagels and got the hell out. Pep Boys could come fight the car themselves if this was how their replacement parts were going to behave! Before I had the chance to call them, though, the roar died off and the car went silent. After enough time had passed that I was fairly sure it wasn’t a cunning trick, I snuck back over to it and it started up just fine. However, the writing on the wall was clear: The Turd knew I was about to get rid of it and it wasn’t happy. Action must be taken.
Buying the Malibu was a pretty easy process. We just had to answer a whole bunch of financial questions then sign our names on 452 separate documents. This was easier for Ashley, who writes naturally in cursive. I don’t. I abandoned cursive in the sixth grade after enough teachers complained that they couldn’t make out what the hell language I was trying to write in, let alone grade it. I said screw em and became a staunch and even militant user of print. (The complaints about my handwriting never actually ceased following this decision, but at least I felt like I was taking a stand.) The only use I have for cursive these days is my signature, and even that’s debatable. Over the years it has evolved into little more than a wild scribble, resembling the words “Eric” and “Fritzius” about as closely as it does “Orville” and “Reddenbacher.” But, as I’ve detailed in a past Horribly True Tale, the state of North Carolina is not happy with only your first and last names, whether it’s at the Department of Motor Vehicles or a Retailer of Motor Vehicles. No, you must supply as many names as you can come up with, have verifiable photo-proof in triplicate and a signed letter from God. And don’t even think about just putting down an initial. That initial could mean ANYthing! You would think that the word Wade would be a fairly easy name to write in cursive considering that the letters involved are some of the most straightforward to produce in that form. However, after a couple of truly pitiful attempts at writing Wade in cursive, I again said screw em and from that point forth signed the Eric and Fritzius in my pseudo cursive scribble and the Wade in plain print. It looked incredibly stupid, but I have my principles, dammit!
Unlike many car dealerships, our only negotiation in the purchase at Saturn was deciding how little money we would be willing to take in trade for the Bent Turd. You might assume I’d practically give it to them after my scare in the Bruger’s parking lot. But the process felt a lot like deciding how little money you’d take in trade for an elderly, perpetually ill, irritable, yet very dear friend. Sure, this old friend might live for years to come, but there would be a lot of snot, vomit and passing out to deal with along with any good times. I knew the Turd wasn’t worth much cause I’d looked it up on the Kelly Blue Book website last year. In mint condition, it would go for perhaps less than $1500, so what chance did my rusting hulk with three working doors, nearly 200,000 miles, a faulty oil light, a still questionable starter and a penchant for belching blue smoke have on a trade? Saturn’s appraiser looked it over, gawked at the mileage, drove it around the parking lot for a bit, asked a few questions and then secluded himself in his office to formulate a way to let us down easy. He came back and explained that few car dealerships do trade-ins based on Kelly Blue Book and usually rely on what they could get for them at wholesale auction. He pointed out that three `85 Caprice Classics went for $50 each in such auctions in the past few months. He then asked what figure we were hoping for. Just to start the haggling off, I threw out a figure that I would be willing to accept, but which I didn’t figure I’d get, $500. He blinked for a while and pointed out the whole $50 auction price again, and how he could easily wind up losing money on the deal even at that price. He counter offered $100. I explained that it would hurt my very soul to sell my car for $100, especially since I just spent $300 to get it in enough working condition to drive it over there. We told him we didn’t want him to lose any money over this, and if necessary we’d just take the Turd over to CarMax and see if they’d give us a better deal. Dude then offered us $250. We shook our heads, and told him there were really no hard feelings on our part. If Car Max couldn’t come through, we could just put an ad in the paper and try to sell it that way. Finally, dude went off and made some calls, then came back and said he’d give us the $500 for it. (Technically, he was only giving us $200 for it, but Saturn agreed to knock $300 off the price of the car just so we’d be happy and wouldn’t have to be bothered with taking it elsewhere.) We were elated, not just for the money, but that we’d also wound up being hardball negotiators without even trying.
It was an emotion churning experience, saying good-bye to the Bent Turd. Sure, it wasn’t much to look at, and broke down a lot, but there were many times that it had held up for me, in conditions when I couldn’t have blamed it for breaking down. I transferred the jack and the can of Fix-A-Flat from its trunk to the new car’s trunk, then gave the Turd a pat on its roof and said good-bye. May it live on to infuriate other people for years to come.
A week later, I thought I had a Turd sighting. Ashley was having her hair cut at a little salon in a strip mall near our house and I was puttering around the various shops in the area while waiting for her to be finished. Exiting one store, I came face to face with the Bent Turd. At least, I thought it was the Turd. It was the same model and shade of blue as the Turd. It had the same patches of rust above each door. It’s hood ornament had been half destroyed by years of weather, just as the Turd’s had. Its wind-shield seemed to have the requisite number of cracks as well. I was even more shocked to see that it was being driven by a young couple with a small child. Oh, my God, I thought. Some poor couple had been tricked into buying that piece of shit!
I sprinted over to the salon and, in front of God, hairdressers and everybody, shouted “The Turd’s out’s there! I just saw the Turd!”
While Ashley explained her husband’s madness to the hairdressers and customers, I pressed my face to the glass to see if the Turd was still there. It was! In fact, it had been parked and the family who now owned it was walking toward the salon. I was at a complete loss for what to do. On the one hand, I wanted to warn these poor fools that their dreams of a cheap affordable family car were all for naught, for they had been woefully mislead by some shady used car dealer and had been sold the Queen of the Lemons. And on the other hand, I wanted to ask them how much they paid for it, cause I was betting it was more than $500. Mine was not a comfortable situation to be in, though. It was a lot like that story where the poor girl’s father buys her a used dress so she can go to the prom, and she excitedly does only to be ridiculed because the dress used to belong to one of her rich snobby classmates, whose mom put it up for consignment. I didn’t want to be the rich snobby classmate. I kept my mouth shut, continuing to cast side glances at the car through the window. It’s a good thing I didn’t say anything, cause it wasn’t the Turd after all. Upon closer inspection, the mock Turd turned out to have different hubcaps and lacked the huge scrape along the back left door that the real Turd acquired while I was attempting to back out of Marcus Vowell’s booby trapped driveway in the dark. It was not the Turd, merely one of its near broken brethren.
As for the new, as yet unchristened, Malibu, it’s sweet! It’s a very “Eric” sort of car, with all kinds of safeguards against things that used to cause me problems in the Turd—like alarms that sound if you accidentally leave your keys in the ignition, or an ignition that won’t turn off if you’re trying to get out of the car while it’s still in gear, or headlights that turn on and off automatically, saving me from running down my battery, and a low oil warning light that it’s perpetually on. And the whole thing’s painted almost the same shade of blue as TV’s Babylon 5, so there’s a big plus in my book already. So far there have been no major problems with it.
Just in case, though, we bought a huge extra warranty.