Name that tuneup: I hear ya knockin' but can't slow down


Once, I had a system for car repairs that I figured was pretty much universal.

If I heard a strange noise coming from the car, I turned the radio up.

If I heard a really loud strange noise, I turned the radio way up.

Then there was the time the car noise approximated a death rattle. I had a CD player and two extra speakers installed. They were really blasting, too, and still the car rolled over like a dead horse. It occurred to me: Could there be a better way?

So, these days I take my car in regularly, every 10,000 miles or so, for something called "routine maintenance." If you look up "routine maintenance" in the dictionary, you'll find this definition: "The opportunity for garage and/or car dealer to divest client of lifetime savings." This will explain what follows.

I bring my middle-aged car, 73,000 carefree miles strong, to the dealer. I am told I am on the silver team. Why do car dealerships have teams? I keep expecting cheerleaders: Two, four, six, eight/Sit down now, you'll have to wait.

Anyway, I leave the car, go to work and wait. Finally, the dreaded call comes.

"Mr. Littwin, this is Bob. Afraid I have some bad news."

"What -- I didn't make captain of the silver team?"

"No, it's the clutch."

"The clutch? The clutch is fine. The clutch is wonderful. I've never had a clutch I enjoyed more. The wife and I had thought of adopting the little fella."

"Well, it's about to bust. You ever notice that when you go up hills, the engine races and makes this horrible noise?"

"Yeah, but I just turned up the radio. Try putting on some Nirvana. You can't hear anything over that."

"Well, you gotta get it fixed."

"How much?"

"Umm, 522 bucks."


"It's gotta be done. Otherwise it could break, and then it's gonna damage the flywheel . . . " (and this is where he starts to lose me).

They always lose me. That's because I don't know anything about cars. Flywheel? I know flypaper. Fly ball. Fly swatter. Fly the friendly skies. I don't know from flywheel.

But you have to put on an act at this point.

"Oh, the flywheel. Yeah, the flywheel. My god, you don't want the flywheel to, uh, gosh, no. . . . Yeah, better fix 'er up."

The point is not to seem stupid. A man, you understand, is supposed to know about cars. It's a requirement, like barbecuing (which I can't do either). You go to a garage, and they ask you what kind of oil you use. I say, canola? You should see the looks that gets.

It's worse at the hardware store. I am deathly afraid of hardware stores. I start to get the shakes if I even drive near one. You've heard of agoraphobia -- the fear of going outside. I have Manny-Moe-and-Jack-aphobia. If I see Pat Summerall, I break out in hives.

That's because I'm tool-deficient. I don't know what a ratchet is, for example. I don't know why certain screws have those funny designs on the top of them, and I don't think anyone else does either. My entire tool chest consists of a fingernail file, two spoons and an old toothpick.

If you go into a hardware store, the man behind the counter is going to ask you a question. I turn into Ralph Kramden. Homina, homina, homina.

Here's what I know: The words to every rock song from 1959 to 1975 and the Opening Day lineup for the 1955 Dodgers. That's it. Ask me anything else, I'm stumped.

That's why when something breaks around the house, I have only three options:

1. Prayer.

2. My wife gets home soon.

3. I hire a nice man (or, OK, a woman) to fix it.

Of course, when stuff breaks around the house, you can always go to another room. You can't do that with your car.

A car is a necessity. You need a car like you need air. So you tell the guy to fix it, even though somewhere in your gut you're afraid he's ripping you off. We all know garage-mechanic horror stories. I saw one on an NBC news special the other night -- something about cars that blow up, killing a bunch of fish in a river in another state.

But Bob seemed honest. He didn't even smile when he took the 522 bucks.

I got in the car, and it drove wonderfully. Not a noise. Not a sound. In fact, it sounded exactly like "Jumpin' Jack Flash." Turned all the way up.

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