I just had some repairs done to my car, and I have the sad, helpless feeling I’ve been ripped off. Like many middle-class Americans, I know next to nothing about the intrciacies of automobiles and unable to assess whether the work I have done is necessary, ably performed, or reasonably priced. When I was teaching college classes, one of my students helped me install a car battery, and afterward he told me, “Mr. Horning, you’re a smart guy. Why don’t you know anything about cars? I didn’t know anything about cars until I got sick of paying all this money to get my car fixed, and I read a manual. It’s not rocket science. You have a master’s degree; those guys repairing your car are often high-school dropouts.”
I don’t know if that’s really true, but he had a point. If I wanted to know how to fix cars, I could learn the basics without a whole lot of effort. But as much as I wanted to follow that advice, I didn’t. My excuse was that I didn’t have the tools, the place to store them, or a place to do work like that if I needed to (despite living in an apartment complex where there were routinely cars up on blocks, month after month). Perhaps the reason that middle class folks refuse to learn how to do auto repair is that cars seem more fun to own when they are magical and incomprehensible, when their operation can seem more miraculous to us. They are supposed to make our lives convenient, and the convenience aura is stronger when it seems to suspend cause and effect. The less we know about how our cars work, the more useful they are in making us feel we’re living more conveniently and efficiently. This is doubly tue when cars are actually inefficient—getting us stuck in traffic or repair shop waiting rooms, watching horrendous daytime TV.
That mechanics prey on the ignorant should be news to no one; it’s their prerogative, a tidy piece of class warfare that you can hardly hold against them, when you think about it. But it still burned me up when one of my power windows broke (don’t even get me started on the infuriating inefficiency and planned obsolecence of power windows; they are de rigeur on cars not because people want them but because car companies make a fortune on them—new power window motor: $200, new manual wondow handle: fifteen cents) that the mechanic who claimed I needed a new motor on inspecting the part turned out not to have even opened up my door panel. And I find it suspicious that if you complain about anything, the default response is to insist you replace the correspinding part—by compaining about it you make it broken, automatically. (I fear the same is true of my body when I am dealing with doctors, those auto mechanics of the flesh.) Mechanics just want an excuse to do the labor; if you open any avenue for them, they’ll charge down it, even if it doesn’t lead to a repaired car. And judging by my latest bill, mechganics are moving to the incomprehensible medical-billing system, where you need special training in higher insurance-ese in order to decode them. The more complex the bill, the less likely it is you’ll complain, and the more likely you’llbe frustrated with circular cross-referencing from stonewalling customer service reps when you do. Doctors and hospitals have been playing this game for years; mechanics are only now catching on to the foolproof brilliance of the scheme.
The worst part about the repair experience, at dealerships anyway, is dealing with the smooth service reps who are there to serve as a barrier between you and the guy who actually works on the car. These are professional bulllshit artists trained to create teh maximum of confusion in the customer. These are wite-collar guys who instinctively side with management; the trouble with mechanics at these big dealerships is that management is screwing them as much as its screwing you, the car owner. So they might actually tell you the truth about your car if you had a chance to meet with them. So these service reps intervene and spew the nonsense and doubletalk at you all while making sure you can never get a straight answer from someone who’s actually wearing spattered overalls. In the end the service rep is meant to make you so frustrated that you are relieved just to pay whatever you’re being charged and forget about all the hassle and lying and treachery. They make your money into a magic wand that you wave and wish all irritation away. I guess we should thank them for that.