Friday, July 18, 2008

Jump Start (my adventure at Kragen Auto Parts)

About six weeks ago the mechanic told me that the battery was dying on our 1988 Acura Legend. For the last year, our daughter has been driving my 2003 Honda Civic while I used to the twenty year old Acura to get to work. The goal with the Acura was to make it to August 10, when our daughter heads off to college where she won’t have a car for her freshman year. Jump starting the car every three days just wasn’t working for me so I persuaded my wife that it was worth eighty bucks to replace the battery even if it’s just for a month. I called my local Kragen, the lady on the phone offered me a 10% discount if I “ordered’ in advance, I used one of the office cars to jump start the Acura, and drove the two miles to the auto supply store.

The lady on the phone was behind the counter. She was short, sturdily built, and middle-aged. She wore a badge that said “Diane” and pointed me to the battery and a wrench to unhook my old battery. “Perfect” I thought.

Diane tells me that she’ll ring me up when I’m done. “Even more perfect,” I tell myself.

I go to the car, prop up the hood with a 7 iron. I was last on an actual golf course almost thirty years ago. I last hit golf balls at a driving range about five years ago. I just figure that if I ever decide to play golf again, I’d want them in the trunk and ready. Since the strut that normally serves this purpose in the Acura disappeared some time ago, the 7 iron now gets more use in this function than it did for hitting golf balls around 120 yards with deadly accuracy to the green. Let me put it another way, the clubheads of my woods are so old that they’re really made from wood.

Naturally, tragedy struck immediately. The battery leads for my car didn’t reach the terminal posts for the new battery. I turned it around a couple times, tried cutting the plastic ties that held the leads in place to give them a few more inches of play, but nothing worked. At one point, an older man carrying a bag with an new oil filter comes up to me to tell me that Kragen varnishes the battery posts, so I better make sure I scrape them down before I try to start the car. It’s nice of him, but I’m not to the point where that’s an issue yet. “You need to tell them the vin number of your car, that’s the only way to make sure they give you the right battery. Did you do that?”

I try to tell him that I did, but then confess that I’d just given them a make and model number. The old man wishes me good luck then walks away.

I check in with Diane who’s dealing with a steady line of customers and she looks at my old battery and compares it to a new one and tells me that the posts are identical, “See positive is on the left when you face the label towards the front of the car”.

I agree, they are identical, but I’ve already turned the new battery around twice and the leads still don’t reach. Diane agrees to look at the car. At that point she notices that whoever put out my original battery put out a 24F instead of a 24. Naturally, the 24 has the leads in the other position. I look down at my now grease-covered hands and am acutely aware of the fact that I’m still dressed for work. This is taking longer than expected, but I have no idea what I did with my cell phone. I should be calling my wife.

Diane helps me get a number 24 battery and this one does have the posts in the right spots. There is one small problem, I was dumb enough to put the nut that holds the battery bracket in place on top of the engine block. Naturally, the thing wound up falling somewhere south of the transmission when I was moving things around. I put the leads on with the slightly too-big wrench from Kragen and the alarm goes off. I press one the remote and the alarm still honks away. It’s six o’clock, busy time at Kragen, and my car is parked directly opposite the open front door. I disconnect the cable then go back in to Diane. Maybe it’s the battery for the remote. She goes and finds me a replacement remote battery, a tiny thing much smaller than the car battery. Actually, it’s much smaller than a triple A battery. This time there’s no problem with the orientation and Diane patiently adds it to my tab.

I try again and the alarm goes off yet again. A pair of Latino men show up by my car. They look like gang members, but for all I know they’re accountants who like working on their cars. One of them shows me how to unhook the horn. My inner George Wallace pops out and I momentarily wonder to myself “Mmmm…wonder why this guy knows how to do that?”

The noise stops, but the car still won’t start. Basically, if the alarm goes off then it disables the starter. I thank them and they go back to their evening. In frustration, I decide to take out the new battery and put the old one back in. I tell Diane that I’m just going to go back to the beginning and have a car that works but just needs to be jumpstarted every two days. She shrugs.

I decide to give it one more try and two white guys show up. One has a shaved head, tattoos, and is that a Raiders jersey? He could get cast as an extra in movies about convicts, no problem. The other guy is short, built like a beach ball, and wearing gym shorts. “Looks like you’re having a problem, ” he asks in a soft southern accent.

At this point, I’m thinking “Try to lock the car up, get my laptop off the front seat, along with my bag of electronic gadgets, find a way to call the wife and go home.”

The short guy motions for me to give him the key while I get ready to return a phillips head screwdriver to the back of the store. I have to make an executive decision here and decide to trust these two guys with my car keys while my back is turned in the store and my laptop, probably worth more than damn Acura, sits on the front seat. Anyway, I decide to go ahead and risk being their car bitch.

In the next five minutes, I learn that my alarm remote was made by Peerless and all about how car alarm backup devices work. The one guy finds the switch for the alarm and manages to disable it and the starter clicks in. He then repeats it to show me how. They give me some advice on car alarms etc. and the shaved head guy explains how removing the battery reset the remote and I’ll have to go to a car stereo store if I want to set it up again. I shake their hands and think about offering to buy them a drink or something, but don’t. They were just in a position to do a good deed and I was the lonely mechanically inept guy who happened to need saving.

I go back to the counter and wait for Diane to ring up one more customer. Diane takes me to the back of the store so I can wash my hands and I thank her for the help.
“Did they get you straightened out?”

“Yeah, they were wonderful. Are they mechanics or something.”

“Yeah, more or less.”

“Well we couldn’t let you make a spectacle of yourself out there and scare people off now could we?”

“It’s like you have sort of a community happening around the store.”

She nods as in “What kind of dumbshit are you? Of course, the local auto parts store is like a social club!

She then remembers to give me my ten percent discount. I decide to take a chance, briefly forgetting that Dianne fits in better with the various guys who helped me that day more than she fits in with me and say, “You know I learned a lesson. Some of those guys were sort of scary looking and in reality they’re the nicest guys in the world.”

She nods again and says “Yep”

I’m not sure if I’ve just said the wrong thing.

“So you learned how to disable an alarm and you learned how to install a battery today too.”

“Well, I already knew how to install a battery.”

She looks at me skeptically. I shrug and say “Well, maybe not as well as I thought I did.”

I get home about an hour and a half late where I tell my wife “Sorry I didn’t call, I was being rescued by the cast from that Showtime series Oz with the psychologist from Law and Order SVU playing a priest.”

Mrs. Chancelucky tells me that I should have called.

“Well that was my adventure changing the battery on the Acura.”

She shakes her head at me, “You didn’t change the battery on the Acura, the convicts did. Otherwise, you’d still be stuck there….You should have just taken it to the mechanics and had them put in the battery.”

I suppose that makes sense, but I wouldn’t have wound up with this swell story about prejudging the people who hang out at auto-parts stores. My evening at Kragen is the America that I’ve always loved. We help one another out, simply because it’s who we are. People trust one another because that’s the default mode. It’s the same America I saw when I rode across the country on my bike in 1987 and dozens of people bought us meals, housed us, helped us out in various ways just because. Anyway, these are the people that John McCain's economic adviser, Phil Gramm was calling "whiners".

It’s the saddest thing in the world to me that we’re rapidly losing that America and those instincts. Ninety minutes at Kragen and I meet 6 people who are nicer than I ever would have been. I am the beneficiary of a random act of kindness and despite news of the war, the stockmarket, and shrunken snow packs in the Sierras, I am for the first time in weeks, strangely hopeful.



At 7/19/2008 02:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! Auto parts stores are pretty cool that way - Fry's can be the same way for computer stuff...

I had the same problem with my 99 Civic - battery died during the day and a quick trip to Costco found only the battery with the terminals in the wrong spots. Costco customers aren't as good at helping - I recommend Kragen's.

PS - I still don't have the anti-theft code for my radio....

At 7/19/2008 02:49:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for stopping by. The anti theft code for your radio should be on a sticker inside your glove compartment. At least that's where mine is. Also Honda will have it if you can give them the year and exact model etc.

At 7/20/2008 10:04:00 PM, Blogger Elizabeth McQuern said...

Great story. Not that it's a "story," it's real life, but you know what I mean.

At 7/21/2008 12:44:00 AM, Blogger inkyhack said...

I used to fix my own cars. Then the cars got smarter than me, so I stopped. Probably a wise choice on my part.

At 7/21/2008 11:58:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks. It was real life and it was one of those pleasant surprises to have a trip to Kragen turn into something so unexpected.

I just thought changing a battery was one of the last simple things you could do with your own car. Wasn't quite the case which makes me wonder how the auto parts store stays in business these days.

At 7/21/2008 02:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tho the official people at Frys can sometimes be fishy, I did have a 13 year old sweet geek hear me being inadvertently misled. He than came up & said that longer than 10 feet a usb cable isn't reliable after the misleader had gone around the corner.

I"ve found that as long as one is willing to act sufficiently helpless & stupid, people will flock to help you. As you discovered, cl. (You should always borrow a phone & cll Ms. CL.)

At 7/21/2008 08:12:00 PM, Blogger Marianne said...

You know, I just -- love this story.


At 7/22/2008 10:03:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,

I'm not sure it's a matter of acting stupid and's more a matter of people knowing that you need help and being willing to accept it. People can be very kind in the moment. They can as a group make some very odd choices in the abstract.

Why would anyone want a USB cable that's more than 10 feet long?

thanks. I wonder if I'd recognize any of these folk if I ever ran into them again. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz in some ways.

At 7/23/2008 08:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

re usb cable longer than 10 ft --If your printer's 15 feet from your computer.

At 7/23/2008 08:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, I've done the daffyish helpless & stupid thing for a lifetime of the kindness of strangers. Indeed I often AM helpless and stupid in many areas & that isn't some worry to me.

I think perhaps guys are more reluctant to appear dumb or helpless -- as if it might be some kind of global statement about them rather than merely the bungling at hand . . .

At 7/28/2008 12:08:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

Maybe I should hop the fence and get to know Honeypot and the gang? Is that the moral? Cause I ain't doing it!

Loved this post Chancelucky. Faith restoring goodness.

At 7/29/2008 12:12:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Does Honeypot hang out at auto parts stores? My experiences with Canadians were that you guys are all like that. Vancouver was the one place where we asked for directions and instead of claiming not to know how to get there, people were breaking out maps, escorting us to the second intersection so they could point out the funny right turn, and giving us phone numbers of dear friends of theirs at our destination just in case we got lost again.

At 8/19/2008 06:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are not alone! I used to fix my own car but now We have a STX-15F that the battery keeps dying. We put a new one in and after a couple rides it is dead. It always happens after riding for a while first. It has caused the ski not to start out in the ocean a couple times.

Any ideas? Thanks guys.

At 8/20/2008 02:14:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

sorry Moog,
I have no idea myself. I hope you get it solved.

At 10/01/2009 02:30:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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