The time I found a new mechanic

Los Angeles, February 27, 2002

I was meditating on that old sawhorse about a good mechanic being worth his weight in gold. I had just retrieved my '87 Saab from my mechanic. Walter Wong is a certified Saab specialist who works out of his home in a residential Los Angeles neighborhood. Since he doesn't have a lot, he keeps all his cars on the street. Saabs dot the neighborhood streets for blocks around his home. When I delivered my car to him two days earlier he invited me inside. I drank coffee with him while his 3 young boys ate baloney sandwiches and watched cartoons.

My relations with my cars have never been close, so I'd never dwelled on the value of mechanics before. I drove my prior cars into the ground without remorse and sold them at firesale prices or had them towed away when their idiosyncracies became too problematic to ignore. When I bought the Saab a couple of years ago I vowed to treat it with respect, and so far I've been pretty responsible. In Seattle, I took the Saab to Scanwest Autosport. I believed they were giving me excellent service, but since I'd never bothered before I had no yardstick by which to measure them. But they and Walter shared certain traits that are now more evident to me.

The first thing I noticed when I got in the car was that Walter had tightened the clutch, which is what got me thinking. A really good mechanic is one who'll look beyond the problem that brought your car into his shop, and fix small nuisances without charging you for it, or even telling you about it. He'll fix things simply because he loves your car and hates to see it in disrepair. After all, that's why he chose to specialize. Not for money, but for love. I'm utterly ignorant when it comes to automechanics, but as a diehard Macintosh fan, I can understand and respect this attitude. Good mechanics are, at heart, geeks.

I found Walter recommended on a website called Saabnet. I was looking because my car had begun mysteriously stalling a couple of months earlier. Since I don't drive much, I parked it and let it sit idle. But then I decided to move back to Seattle. And I planned to haul a trailer behind the car. I needed my car to rise to the challenge. I called Walter before anyone else because he made house calls. Unheard of. On the phone, Walter tried to discourage me from requesting the house call. He would charge me $80 for the trip, whereas he would give me a free inspection if I brought it to him. I was already impressed. But since I couldn't drive it, and a tow would've cost me as much, I asked him to come.

Walter came. In the time the car had been idle, the battery had died, so he brought a loaner battery. He swapped it in. The car started immediately. We drove it around the neighborhood together. It failed to stall. Funny how the symptoms never show when the doctor's around. So he replaced the spark plugs, listened to the engine and did all the standard checks. He found that it needed the coolant system flushed, an oil change, maybe new oil pipes, maybe new front brakes. All told, about $300 worth of work. He charged me $95 for the visit and the plugs and asked me to drive it for a couple of days before bringing it to him. He needed to see how well the engine oil flowed before making a verdict on the oil pipes.

I drove the car for two days without incident and brought it back to him. It stalled once on the way there, and he quizzed me about it. He kept the car and gave me a loaner. We spoke later that day. He'd managed to stall the car too, and on inspection found a bad fuel pump. He'd also found a thick layer of mud impacted in the car's underside. I didn't bother to mention that it must have been left over from an unplanned and nearly disastrous u-turn through the soft soil of a Napa valley vineyard. He recommended a place that gave the whole chassis a thorough cleaning. Total for a rebuilt fuel pump $275, cleaning another $30. Ouch. That hurt, but I couldn't have the car stalling halfway to Seattle. Those Napa grape farmers have notoriously long memories.

I picked up the car two days later. The battery had been unchargeable, so his spare was still in the car. He raised the hood to show me the engine. It sparkled as a result of the cleaning. The car was in better shape then it had been since my last major tuneup, a year or more ago. Total cost including the house call? $600. Peace of mind when I hit the road with a packed 2,500 lb trailer? Priceless.

The next stop was a Sears automotive center for a new battery. Since I was flat broke after all the repairs I applied for a Sears credit card, hoping to defer payment. I was declined. Oh yes, didn't I default on a Sears card when I declared bankruptcy a few years ago? Ah well. Anyway, it had a 21.9% interest rate. And they think I'm the criminal?

It was on my way to my final stop, the U-Haul center, where my tow hitch and trailer were waiting, that a curious thing happened. A great green road whale, some old Chevy, pulled up alongside me at a red light. The driver motioned for me to roll down my window.

"Where do you take your car?" he asked. I was more than a bit bemused.

"Funny you should ask," I said. "I just came from my mechanic. He's a guy named Walter Wong. Works out of his home."

"Is he good?"

"Yeah, he was great."

"How much did you spend?"

Now I was getting uncomfortable. I wasn't inclined to tell a stranger in a trashy car in a rundown section of LA that I had just spent six hundred dollars. I hedged. "Um, well, he did a lot of work."

About this time, the driver's previously invisible female passenger popped up and said across the gulf, "You've got a great spirit! Very positive! I'm a spiritualist!"

"Oh, uh, thanks!"

"I've got one just like yours!" the driver yelled. "What year is yours?"

"It's an '87."

"Mine's an '86!" He went on to describe his problem in great detail, something involving injection hoses, as if I had some magical knowledge that would help him. "They want to charge me $150. How much does your guy cost?"

"Oh, he was good. I think I have his number here somewhere."

I started digging through my notebook, but by now the light had changed and we were stopping traffic. The tired litany of angry honking began behind us. Though I was a bit edgy about the conversation, I still wanted to help. And sending some business Walter's way would be a good way to repay him. The other driver gestured to pull over, so I turned into a parking lot.

We pulled in so that he was on my left and I was facing the girl. They continued to marvel over my car while I dug for Walter's phone number.

"We have one just like it! It's the same color blue! It even has that same dent!"

Suddenly I got creeped out. I wondered if they were on some Mickey and Mallory trip to shoot me in the face and steal my car and take my expensive-Saab-repairing life. I had an eerily clear vision of a gun rising into the frame of our open windows. By this time I had written Walter's name down but hesitated to give it to them. The next thing really caught me by surprise.

"You have problems with your love life," said the spiritualist girl. "It's causing you pain. You have things that that are following you around."

"Well, yeah," I stammered. I was in fact moving back to Seattle for that reason. I don't hold any stock in fortune tellers, and I figure her 'insight' would've applied to 50% of the people she might've encountered, but this was just weird.

"You should let me do a reading!"

"Oh, thanks, but I'm on my way to get a trailer right now!"

"Just give me five seconds!"

By now I was convinced that they were just trying to get me out of my car. "Thanks, I said, but I really have to go!" I handed Walter's information across to them and she handed me a small slip of paper in return.

"I'm Stephanie!" she said.

I looked at the slip of paper. It advertised a psychic, tarot reader and advisor, Miss Barbara. Guaranteed to help on all problems of life specializing in Love & Relationships. Get the one you love. Marriage, Business, Health, Happiness, Peace of Mind.

The trip to U-Haul was uneventful. It took them several hours to install the hitch, so I was stuck wandering around Koreatown for most of the afternoon. Eventually I pulled out of their lot hauling an empty 5' by 8' trailer.

Later, I returned to Walter's house to give him his battery. Walter wasn't home, so I left the battery. The first thing I noticed when I walked back to my car was the coolant leaking into the road. Fortunately Walter walked up at that moment. He also saw the leak. He had me pull the car around back, and opened the hood. Just a loose hose. We talked about Saabs for a few minutes. He told me I'd spent a lot of money on the underside of my car - which is true, I had the whole exhaust system replaced last year - and that the work was excellent. He admired the new trailer hitch. He asked me to send a photo when I got to my new home. He wanted to put up a website with photos of all his babies. I told him I'd be happy to build one for him. We exchanged cards and shook hands.

As I headed home to fill my trailer, I thought about psychics and mechanics. I couldn't argue about my troubled love life. But for peace of mind, I'll take a good mechanic any day.