The drive from North Carolina to Michigan is normally a pretty one. It takes you over small mountain passes, through luscious maple forests, and across corn fields until you make your way to “the North.” I’d done it a few times over the course of my life, and every time it went smoothly. I always grabbed a coffee, turned up the music, and hit the gas pedal.
But this time, something was different. As soon as I made it out of the mountains, my car began to stutter. I couldn’t get it to accelerate more than 50 miles per hour, even when gassing it. There was the deep growl of my engine, and then something started knocking around like there were marbles falling through the pipes. Before I knew it, semi trucks were blasting past me, alerting me to the imminent dangers of having a malfunctioning car.
I’d always taken my car in for its normal scheduled maintenance. But it had a tendency to develop mysterious issues. Sometimes they’d disappear as quickly as they appeared. Other times, they’d force my hand, costing hundreds of dollars to fix. And usually I was in a position to repair them at my leisure. But as darkness descended, I knew that not having control of my car could quickly become dangerous. So, I pulled over at a nearby hotel, let the tears stream down my face, and curled up in the back of my car to get a few hours of sleep.
I was 400 miles from home, stranded in Ohio with a mystery car problem. But I’d figure it out in the morning.
Red skies in the morning
A bright pink light lit up the sky the next morning, and I was reminded of a saying that my dad used to repeat. “Red skies in the morning, sailors take warning. Red skies at night, sailors delight.” The colorful greeting seemed optimistic, but maybe I was in for a storm.
I moved my car to the closest auto shop as soon as the clock struck 7 a.m., waiting for the first employee to unlock the doors. It was a Saturday, and most auto shops were closed on Sundays. So, I had to figure out how to get home, or it’d cost me. A middle aged man greeted me with a smile when I entered the shop and explained my predicament. “I just need to get back to Detroit,” I explained. He nodded his head, and shared a few whispers with a mechanic.
“We can diagnose the problem and see if we can get you on the road. But if you decide to take your car elsewhere, we charge a $200 diagnosis fee.” I nodded, trusting his smile.
A few hours later, the man behind the counter tallied up the paperwork and didn’t bat an eye when he told me that it’d cost me $3,000 to fix my car. I was driving a car that was nearly 20 years old, and he wanted to charge me the value of the car to fix it. My heart sank. This couldn’t be happening. If I were at home, or staying with friends, I could take my time looking for an honest mechanic or shopping for a new car. But since I was on the road in an unfamiliar town, my options were limited.
Phone a friend
I dialed a friend’s number as the tears began to well in my eyes. Josh was a mechanic, and I wanted a second opinion before I made a decision. “They’re scamming you,” he calmly told me through the receiver. “You’re an unsuspecting victim with a timely problem. And they know that they can get a lot of money out of you. Desperation pays.” But he agreed to help me navigate my car problem from several states away.
It was mid-afternoon by the time Josh got a lead. There was a mechanic down the road who promised he could do the job for $1,000 without looking at the car. Josh had a conversation to ensure that I’d be taken care of. Sure enough, the kind mechanic made good on his promise. I pulled my Subaru up to his shop with a weak smile on my face, eyes still puffy from crying. Just a few hours later, my wallet was a lot lighter, but I was back in business, en route to Detroit.
But a thought kept invading my mind. If I’d been the one to call this second mechanic, would I have received the same quote provided to Josh?
We’ll never know.