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The Philosopher Mechanic

Why do they even ask?

Taking your car into the shop can be traumatic – not only because of the massive repair bills, but for another reason entirely. When a mechanic inspects your vehicle and presents you with a list of necessary repairs, he actually asks you whether you want them done! What in tarnation are you supposed to say?


Assuming you don’t know anything about cars, are you really going to engage him in a debate? Are you going to disagree with his assessment of your brake rotors, and convince him they really don’t need to be replaced? Are you a metallurgist? No. You’re going to agree with everything he says because he’s a mechanic and you’re not. And the very fact that you’re being asked to give the go-ahead for repairs that you don’t understand but are necessary for your safety is, as the French Existentialist philosophers might say, “inauthentic” experience.


There’s no sense questioning it when you take your car in for an oil change and it costs $1,500. It’s natural, it’s right and it’s proper. There are things under your hood better left in the realm of mystery. Oh sure, you could try to mount a rebuttal if the mechanic tells you the “fill-neck” on your gas tank needs replacing, otherwise it could “develop into a fireball.” You could, but why? 


Better to accept his argument, especially if he bolsters it by describing how gasoline is leaking, in subtle yet profoundly dangerous ways, into your wheel area, and how, say, if a truck were to pass you on the highway and kick up road debris in the general direction of your car, it could “ignite the vehicle.”


A better approach is to smile sweetly and proffer all your credit cards. If you have a carte blanche, so much the better, and you should hand it over and nod in wholehearted agreement with your mechanic’s assertion that a “jet of flame” coming from your dashboard could be “quite dangerous, particularly at high speed.”


Please, for the love of God, go ahead and fix it! That’s the best attitude. If you can leave extra money somewhere, maybe in a tip jar if there is one, do so. Endorse your mechanic’s approach to the fact that the “stabilizer rods” on your front end are “gone,” and don’t make the mistake of thinking they have disappeared, because he’s speaking metaphorically. What has happened is that their structural integrity has been compromised.


Metal fatigue. It’s a serious business. At this point you can just take some money and throw it at someone, anyone, even another motorist who’s waiting in line at the service counter. It doesn’t matter, because your safety is in jeopardy.


You’ll feel even more confident in siding with your mechanic when he mentions, in passing, that these strange rods you wish you’d never heard of are “very, very close to coming loose,” and your front wheels might come off, which would be “quite dangerous in terms of maintaining control of the vehicle.”


You had no idea how much danger you were in, and if you can find some more money to give to charity, or someone else, perhaps to another mechanic who’s working the next room, you should. Give everyone money, always, and immediately. Thank your mechanic profusely. And when he says there’s something more, that some important “valve” has become dislodged and “could blow,” nod and give him some money.


After all, if it does “blow” you could be killed instantly, right? No. The mechanic will disabuse you of this Pollyanna fantasy and explain that when a valve blows it’s typically a slow and painful death, involving blunt trauma to the human head, and it “could come without warning, sir, I’ve seen it.”


If the mechanic inquires as to your age, and tells you that “you’ve got a lot of good years left, sir – choose life,” you should find some more money and adopt his viewpoint. Because that’s what taking your car into the shop is all about. Choosing life. It’s not a debating society.


Published in the National Post, April 15, 2002

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