Held Hostage In The Auto Parts Store

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Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “In this world nothing can be certain, save death and taxes.” While that statement has stood time’s test, I would add a minor — and possibly uniquely American — corollary. Nobody gets out of an auto parts store in less than 15 minutes.

It doesn’t matter if you are buying a can of oil, an exhaust manifold for a 1977 Dodge Dart, or a set of floor mats. Auto parts stores are designed to hold their customers hostage for a quarter-hour minimum. Men have missed the birth of their first grandchild because they swung by AAA-Big Easy Auto Parts to pick up a set of spark plug wires on the way to the delivery room.

I try not to make a habit of visiting these stores. First off, I’m averse to working on my vehicles because it invariably costs me more money than if I had just taken it to the shop in the first place — especially since vehicles have gotten so complicated.

I once thought I was draining the oil from a 1978 Toyota Corolla and drained the transmission fluid instead. My first clue should have been the pinkish color of the stuff in the pan. My second clue should have been when the oil started flowing out of the dipstick tube after only a second quart of oil was added to the supposedly empty crankcase. My third clue definitely occurred when the transmission burned up while trying to drive back to East Texas from Austin.

That was more than 30 years ago. I haven’t changed the oil in a vehicle since.

Another time, on the same Toyota, I was installing an after-market cassette deck on the hump in the middle of the floorboard, which required drilling a couple small holes to screw in the brackets. When I finished, a strong smell gasoline wafted through the interior. I scooted under the car to see gas dripping on the concrete. I had managed to drill through the fuel line, which necessitated a quick trip to my long-suffering mechanic, all the while praying the car didn’t catch fire before I could get there.

Once or twice annually, I have no choice but to head to an auto parts store. Generally, this is the scene. Behind the counter, two or three people are staring at computer screens with looks of bemusement, occasionally tapping on the keyboard, and then staring some more, while a customer waits in front of reach of them. Occasionally one leaves the counter and enters the Bowels of The Auto Parts Store to return with a part. Usually it is not the right part, according to either the computer or the customer.

“Naw, I have a ’93 Malibu, not a ’96.” Apparently that makes a difference, though you couldn’t prove it by me.

Meanwhile customers wander the aisles largely ignored, since all the hired help are chained to the computers. If one does find unassisted the item that prompted this journey, the next adventure is actually paying for it. For some reason, auto parts store computers require more keyboard strokes and mouse clicks to ring up a $1.29 bottle of EZ-Start than it does to rent a car from Enterprise.

The other day my Beautiful Mystery Companion was headed out of town for a conference six hours away. The battery was dead in the driveway. We jumped it from my Escape and headed to the auto parts store. She had the receipt in the glove box. The battery was a day short of exactly two years old.

At the store, a helpful worker came out and tested the battery. “Nothing wrong,” he said. He checked the alternator, cables and pronounced the car fit for travel. My BMC, being of generous heart and sweet demeanor, felt compelled to buy something, so she decided to get the windshield wipers replaced. I decided in solidarity to do the same and also get a front left-turn signal bulb replaced that had burned out a month ago.

Let me emphasize that Ramòn (not his real name) couldn’t have been more helpful. He put new blades on my BMC’s vehicle and got her on the road fairly quickly. As she left, I paid for both sets of wipers and put the new bulb in myself. Then Ramòn realized the wiper blades he had sold me were not the right kind. This required additional computer searching. It also required, once the correct blades were installed, a complicated transactional analysis to void one purchase and input another. Ramòn then announced I owed another $6.49, but he was going to let that slide, since I had now spent 45 minutes in the store. By then, I was willing to give him $10 to be released from captivity.

I called my BMC once I was free from the auto store’s grasp. She was nearly to Tyler. I was ready for a nap.


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