Friday, November 02, 2007

The Adventures of a Luddite: Man vs. Car

For sixteen years, I drove a fairly basic car. It didn’t have much in the way of fanciness to recommend it and it was kind of boxy and ugly to boot, but it got me where I needed to go (except for those times it kept stalling on me whenever I’d fill the gas tank: that was kind of weird but only lasted for a few months) and, when the end came, I only went to replace it because it just wouldn’t pass inspection any more. Yeah, I felt like I was abandoning an old friend when I dropped it off to pick up my brand new used car, a much snazzier version I’ll probably be lucky to be driving sixteen years down the road.

This newer car has a lot of now-standard bells and whistles, things that weren’t available in the Dark Ages when I’d bought the other one. The CD-player was a nice plus and I find myself listening to the radio less, now, when I’m driving around, especially on weekends. I’m finding Simone Dinnerstein’s “Goldberg” Variations wonderful mood-adjusting music for driving to and from work, for that matter, especially in heavy traffic.

I never needed a keyless entry remote before. You walk up, put the key in and unlock the door. Why do I need to do it from 200 feet away? (Do I sound like Andy Rooney? OMG, I’m even beginning to look like Andy Rooney…) Turns out, it didn’t really work from 200 feet away, after all: sometimes I’d be standing two parking spaces away and it might work. Okay, big deal.

Then there was the alarm system. Living in mid-town Harrisburg at the time, I thought this was a good idea, given the increase in crime in my neighborhood. Of course, I had a garage to park it in, but you never know.

Keep the car empty, they told me sixteen years ago, and no one’s tempted to break in. But it got broken into anyway, by a short person who apparently just wanted to steal the car, not anything that was in it (I know this, because they’d adjusted the rear-view mirror). And a neighbor’s car had gotten broken into by one of the more colorful local characters who thought the cigarette lighter was really cool-looking. Great.

Some time in April, after moving into my house, I’d gotten into the car to retrieve a CD from the player. I quickly turned on the ignition, retrieved the CD, shut off the ignition and the car started to scream. I couldn’t figure out how to shut it off. Now, at the time, I was sitting in my garage. It’s not like I was trying to break in or anything.

So I called the dealer’s service people and they said “oh, that means it’s in Valet Mode.” What, I asked naively, is Varlet Mode? No, no, he clarifeid, "Valet Mode." They explained what that is but could not answer how it got there. After several calls, the solution was just to bring it in for them to look at. Later.

Checking one of the booklets, it appears I had three choices: Normal Alarm, Valet Mode and Off. Since “Normal Alarm” was for some reason no longer one of them, I opted for “Off” since the alarm would just start screaming every time I put the key in the door.

This worked fine for several months. Then an odd thing happened. Parking on a city street one afternoon, the alarm (which, you'll remember, I had turned off) started screaming when I got out of the car and locked the door. It stopped when I got back in and put the key in the ignition. Weird. It's like I was trying to break out of my car.

This happened two more times, each time when I parked on a city street. Like it could smell fear.

Then last weekend, it happened again, only it wouldn’t stop. Nothing I did made a difference. Finally, after two minutes of ear-splitting din, it just stopped. But every time I put the key in the door or in the ignition, it would go off again. I couldn’t drive the car. So I called a friend to come in and give me a ride back to the house. Because it was the weekend, the service garage wasn’t able to help me till Monday morning.

And so Monday, I called about the car. Nope, nothing as easy as “press the alarm button three times while turning the key in the ignition and clapping in a flamenco rhythm” to reverse the curse, of course. “Bring it in.” Which means it had to be towed. They gave me a special dealership roadside service 800-number to call.

“And where are you,” I asked after I reported to this guy what I would need.

“Arizona.” I had an image of me waiting while this tow truck was driving out from Phoenix.

They connected me with a local towing service (hmm, I think I could've done that myself). They would be there in 40 minutes. Well, make it 90, but hey…

So the guy went to get the car ready to be hauled up onto the flat-bed. This took about fifteen minutes. During which the car’s alarm system never stopped screaming except every two or three minutes when it might take 15 seconds to catch its breath.

Did I mention I have a hearing condition where certain frequencies can attain near-painful levels? Mmmmm...

By mid-afternoon the next day, the car was… well, not exactly ready. I had originally said I just wanted the alarm system disemboweled. They told me they weren’t sure they could do that since it was tied into the car’s computer and removing it might affect other electrical systems. Swell.

But an hour later, I was assured they could, if I really wanted them to, disable the alarm. Would it be covered by the expensive warranty package I had purchased with the car the year before? Uhm, well, no, that wouldn’t be a repair, would it, and the warranty would only cover certain repairs.

Ah. So if I had them fix the alarm system so it worked properly, would that be covered under the warranty? Well, not exactly. So, I asked naively, because something screwed up with the computer, I would have to pay this out of my own pocket? Uhm… yes...

So it would cost me $158 to disable the alarm system and keyless entry. Or it would cost me $485 to repair it.

Curiously, I’d just gotten a recent offer from Dell about buying a new PC with a discount that would make it under $500. So I could buy a whole new computer for what it would cost to fix one bell and whistle (as it were) on my car’s computer.

So I made my decision. And peace has once again returned to Hooterville.

-- Dr. Dick

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