Mom and I left Chicago on our way to North Carolina to attend the Writer's Police Academy (WPA). We had to get there by Thursday, 4:45 PM N.C. time to catch the bus to go to the jail tour we'd won.
Wednesday evening, my car made this knocking, weird, hard-to-describe kind of sound. We stopped at a gas station in Hurricane, West Virginia and I asked the attendant if she knew what it could be. Another attendant followed us outside and they listened and looked under the hood and neither knew what on earth was causing this horrid sound.
The guy suggested we go to the Napa Auto Parts store in the morning because they're pretty knowledgeable about cars. He gave directions and we found a god-awful motel and I somehow got to sleep worrying about cars and germs. (Monk NEVER would have survived this trip.)
I woke up in that dirty motel room (seriously, I'm only doing a Motel 6 or Super 8 from now on) Thursday morning, had a difficult time getting dressed (don't ask) and eating breakfast. I lost my piece of toast. How does one lose a piece of bread? I had it in my hand one minute and couldn't find it the next. I figured if I couldn't keep track of a slice of bread then I don't deserve to eat. Natural selection. Mom had other ideas, as moms do, and she ordered me to find it which I did. I peanut-buttered it up and hung out of the car door while I ate it, careful to keep the sides in between the plastic baggie. I am such a germaphobe.
We drove to Napa Auto Parts and I got the guy to come out and take a listen to my car.
"Sounds like it might be a ball bearing."
He sent us to Cooper's Garage warning us that they're busy and might not be able to fix the car quickly.
We need to get to West Virginia by 4:45. BEFORE 4:45 so we can check into the hotel and dump our bags.
The guy said he'd come out to listen to my car then fiddled with the computer. Then he exited via the garage. Mom was already seated on the couch in the waiting area. She jumped up expectantly. I stared at the man through the window. He was walking away...
Mom and I went to my car and we stared at one another, listening to our hair grow.
One thing about the South - they are slow. They work slow. They talk slow. They truly enjoy each passing moment life has to offer.
I'm not like that. Chicago born and bred - it means get to work and finish the job in record time, every time.
(I do not know how my sister and her husband do it. They moved to Georgia a while back and they had a hard time adjusting to the different pace of life. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying one way is better than the other - I'm just talking about the differences. The funny thing is, it took their co-workers and neighbors an adjustment period to get used to them, too!)
So we stood there, waiting. There was no noise. No traffic. No sirens. No trucks barreling by. No people on cell phones. No honking. No shouting. It was just quiet. The only thing before us were the gorgeous, fog-soaked, multi-colored trees on hills in the distance, framed by the beautiful morning sky.
I looked at my mother.
"Don't forget we're in the South," she said, reading my mind.
"If it takes this long just to look at it, think how long it'll take to fix it."
That's my mother.
I gave her my best glare.
The guy finally limped over. It wasn't just a Southern amble, something was wrong with him. The poor man pulled a groin, his mother is in the hospital and his best mechanic just had a burst appendix.
He listened to my car for 2.7 seconds. "It's your air conditioning unit. Probably a bad bearing."
He said it was too dangerous to drive, it might be a big problem, they probably don't have my parts and they're busy.
Wonderful on all counts. Whenever the car guys say it's too dangerous to drive or they can't let me leave like it is, the more suspicious I get. (I'm telling you, Chicago born and bred.)
"Do you have a timeframe and a price frame? We have to be somewhere five hours away in seven hours."
"Ohhh, you'll probably miss that. You might want to rent a car."
Rent a car? I OWN a car.
He took my car away and I called my sister, told her we were broken down in West Virginia and could she be prepared to send an e-mail to Lee Lofland if we can't make the jail tour so he can pull two other names so they can go. No use in wasting the opportunity for someone else.
She said of course and wanted to know exactly where we were, the name of the car place and what was wrong.
I suddenly felt a little safer, still stuck in the middle of nowhere.
In layman's terms, the mechanic said it was the air conditioner, Mom asked if we could just not use it and he said that wasn't an option because the belt going around it would freeze up.
I asked, "Can we bypass it somehow?"
He stared at me and scratched his head. "I thought about that. You'd need a pulley to replace the air conditioner unit so the belt could go around that. The part you need is in Columbus."
I'm stuck in the middle of nowhere with no way of getting out. The whole point of not flying or taking the train was to enjoy the freedom my car provides.
Now we're going to miss the jail tour and possibly the whole convention depending on when he gets the part from Ohio and if they're open on Sunday.
I felt SO bad for Mom. See, my Dad is not the easiest driver on cars and we were always breaking down. My entire childhood consisted of getting into the car and never knowing if it would start when he turned the key. Here I am driving Mom around (talking her out of the plane and train idea) and the first chance I get, we break down.
I felt awful.
My sister kept calling to check up on us (so sweet) and she put her assistant on the phone because she knows cars. She even consulted her husband. She suggested the mechanic get a shorter belt and bypass the air conditioning unit altogether. I mentioned this to the mechanic who said that was exactly what he was trying next - but he didn't have the shorter belt. He ordered it.
While I opened my mouth to ask how long that would take, he looked at a young kid about to open the door. "And there it is," he said to me. "We'll know in thirty minutes."
My sister's assistant called me back and gave me a quote on parts and labor so I wouldn't get cheated.
I hope I'm not being unfair to Cooper's Garage - I'm simply giving my insight at the time this was going on. In no way did they talk down to me, not explain what the problem was or judge this city girl for being on the cell phone the whole time, not looking at the peaceful scenery and enjoying the day.
I'd called my Dad, too. He was in dance class but took a break to calm me down and make me laugh.
The mechanic limped over to us. "It's okay."
"Your car is ready for you."
I think our jaws dropped.
"It's safe to drive?" I asked - as if they'd let me leave if it wasn't.
"Yup. But you have no air conditioning."
"Psssstttt. That's fine by me."
Mom sighed. "She never uses it anyway."
Now came the time to pay. I scanned my notes from my sister's assistant and prepared myself. You see, I've been cheated by car mechanics in the past. Royally robbed. I'm talking, went into debt to pay the bills that turned out to be unnecessary. That guy was later shut down by the State of California and some people got some of their money back but I wasn't one of them. I'd moved back to Illinois and didn't even hear about it until it was too late.
I'd memorized the dollar amounts the job should be. Originally, I thought it would be around $500 but that was replacing everything. Then it was around $200 for the unit to bypass the belt but now, it was just replacing the belt and labor. So it should be between $120-150 and that's a city price. I said it like a mantra over and over in my head.
"It'll be $65.62."
I was so stunned I lost the credit card fight with my mother who insisted on paying.
No one was ripping me off. No one intended to rip me off.
Cooper's Garage fixed my car and made it safe for my Mom and me to drive. They treated us with respect and compassion - while overworked, understaffed and in emotional and physical pain. I hope they realize how much of a difference they made in our lives. Not just fixing the car AND allowing us to get to our destination on time but their kindness and work ethic won't soon be forgotten. (The old memory of being cheated is fading just a bit.)
Mom kept me calm.
Dad kept me laughing.
My sister kept us feeling safe and protected.
My sister's assistant and her husband kept us knowledgeable.
And the gas station attendants in Hurricane and the Napa Auto Parts guy led us to the right person for the job.
Everyone, stranger and family, helped and supported us in our time of need.
And we made it in time to check into the Embassy Suites Hotel, drop off our bags, check in with the WPA and get in the van for the jail tour (which you can read about here).
We got to see Lee Lofland organizing everything, the great people at the WPA tables and the effervescent and wonderful driver/volunteer, Bunny.
All in all, it was an uplifting experience. A nice reminder that there's more good in the world than bad. Even for this Chicago chick, born and bred.