Around here, it almost never snows. It’s not real warm here, but snow is rare, so when it does happen, we are all woefully unprepared. It’s February, and we’ve received an inch of snow, bringing the city to a screeching halt. Busses stopped, stores closed, news media in a panic, that sort of thing. One channel ran coverage all night calling it “Snowpocalypse”, which seems maybe just slightly hyperbolic.
I wake up in the morning and assess the situation. It’s dark out still, and the snow of the afternoon previous has transformed into a sheet of ice, which the city is even less prepared for. I briefly contemplate calling in to work and watching movies with the cat all day, but then I remember that I have a Jeep. I also remember that my bosses know I have a Jeep, so a little inclement weather is not going to work as a valid excuse to not come in. Damn.
Instead, I pile in my battleship grey gas-guzzler and head toward work, winding through streets filled with abandoned cars and past the closed businesses with dark windows, empty parking lots, and switched-off neon signs. An articulated bus sits on a hill, kinked in half, lying where its driver abandoned it. We truly are idiots in this city, nearly 4 million people panicking at the first sight of anything that doesn’t look like rain.
Dishonest Used Car Dealership was in an industrial park built on a gradual hill. The lot was perhaps 100 yards deep, with the service bay in a building at the top of the hill, a sloped parking lot between, and the office and sales bay at the bottom, facing the street. Because of the particular vagaries of our lease agreement (or at least our interpretation of it), the company we leased the property from was responsible for de-icing the pavement in the event of inclement weather. But, because our landlady was a miserable old bat, she never did so, which meant any day that fell below freezing turned the lot into an ice rink, and the owners were much too stubborn and cheap and overconfident in their lawyers to have one of us peons sprinkle salt around.
With the city shut down from the weather, we didn’t have a whole lot to do, so most of the day was occupied by watching The Raver (one of the lackeys in the service department) run up to the top of the lot by the service bay and moonwalk on the ice down toward the office. He was remarkably coordinated for someone who regularly ate his weight in psychotropic substances. But sadly, we were not completely customer-free, and come 11 o’clock, I had one of my least-favorite regulars in the shop.
He owned a V70 which he had bought from us a year prior. The car still had a bit of our terrible scammy warranty on it, and he was intent on using every ounce of free service he could get away with. According to him, there wasn’t a single system onboard that was functioning properly. It barfed oil, it made a horrible noise when reversing, it wouldn’t start half the time, so on and so forth, and it was all our fault. This was a pattern with him, and we had played this game a thousand times, only to find nothing wrong nearly every time.
The customer departed and Felonious Monk (one of my techs) pulled the Volvo into the bay, only to immediately find that absolutely nothing serious was wrong with the car. The noise in reverse was normal idler gear whine, the oil leak was a spill from the quick lube that had done his oil last time, and the car fired right up every time we tried to start it. The worst we could say about it was that the ball joints had a touch of play and the brake pads were getting a bit thin, both normal wear items.
I called him and relayed the news. It is not uncommon for cars to straighten up and behave themselves at the doctor’s office, so I figured we would be in for an uncomfortable conversation where I had to explain once again why we can’t fix a problem we can’t reproduce. Instead, he surprised me by immediately abandoning his initial concerns and barraging me with a thousand others.
”The driver’s window doesn’t roll down, and the defroster doesn’t do anything, and the last time you worked on it, I had you change the air filter, and the guys who change my oil said you didn’t do it. I’m sick of you guys charging me for work and then not doing it and stealing my money! SICK! OF! IT!”
Ooooh boy. I had the tech roll it back in the bay to check out these new claims. The driver’s window worked perfectly, the defrost made the glass nice and toasty warm, and an inspection of the air filter showed it looked practically new. The tech brought me the repair order back with the text “THIS F**KING CAR IS FINE” scrawled over it. I called the customer once more, steeling myself for either another barrage of complaints or his trademark brand of shouty craziness.
”Sir, we’ve looked over the car, and the window’s behaving itself for us and we’re getting good heat out of the defroster. My tech pulled open the filter housing, and it’s got a new-ish air filter, the one we put in the last time you were in.”
Him: “Which window did you look at?”
Me: “We checked the driver’s, as you asked.”
Him: “NO. It’s the front one, on the left.”
Me: “Sir, that IS the driver’s window. And it’s working alright for us right now. We’re not getting any unusual noises from the motor or the regulator, and it seems to be moving up and down quickly and smoothly, just as it should be.”
Him: ”How come every time I bring my car to you, you can’t find anything wrong with it?”
The real answer was that nothing was wrong in the first place, and that this customer had some form of borderline personality syndrome. But, instead of suggesting that it wasn’t a mechanic he needed to be visiting on a weekly basis, I lied.
Me: “Sometimes that is, unfortunately, the way of things. We joke that cars are scared of us and they behave themselves when we’ve got ‘em, so…”
He bellowed his way into the middle of my sentence.
Him: “That’s not a very funny joke because some of have to work for a living and…”
I cut him off.
Me: “I’M AFRAID, THOUGH, we have to be able to reproduce the conditions in order to figure out what’s wrong, otherwise we’ll never be able to identify what has failed. We can keep the car overnight and have another look at it in the morning, or you can come grab it any time you like, your choice. You’re still under warranty for a while yet, so if these problems crop up again, we’ll gladly have a look at it.”
Cue a bunch of huffing and not-quite-words. I was getting pretty fed up with this conversation.
Me: ”Sir, here’s the deal. Everything you’ve been concerned about on this car is perfectly fine and works great for us. We have, once again, found no areas of major concern with the car whatsoever and you can come and get it any time you like.”
An hour later, he stomped into my office, demanding the keys.
”Sir, before you go, I’d like to show you something.”
I walked him out to where I had his car stashed in the parking lot, cautioning him of the slippery ice. I popped the hood and clicked open the air box.
”This is your air filter, you know, the one you accused us of not having changed? When this style of air filter is new, it’s bright white, and when it’s old, it’s nearly black with dust. Doesn’t that look pretty new to you?”
Him: ”I suppose it does. But you just put a new filter in there today after you got caught trying to scam me!”
Me: ”And we somehow embedded a few hundred miles worth of dust into the fibers? I suggest that rather than us trying to scam you, it’s your oil change place trying to charge you for a filter you didn’t need. We’re an honest shop. We make a good living without having to resort to scamming customers over a $20 air filter.”
This was not strictly true. We were not an honest shop, but my bosses wanted to scam people on big ticket items, like selling lemons and trying to get people to do big expensive repairs on cars that didn’t strictly need them. An air filter just wasn’t even in their sights.
He sheepishly agreed, and then refocused his righteous anger into a minimally-coherent tirade against said oil change shop. Just then, none other than The Raver slid by on his way to get a jump box. To my horror, the customer decided The Raver’s moonwalking looked like great fun, and decided to try sliding after him. He made it approximately three feet before he fell on his ass and began screaming.
”This parking lot is dangerous! I could have broken a bone! I think I broke my tailbone! My neck’s broken, I know it! My wife is an attorney, I’m going to sue the company for everything it’s worth! He shouldn’t be sliding around like that!”
I had encountered his wife the last time the car was in. She most certainly was not an attorney. Based on my brief conversation with her, she did not even appear to be sentient. Also, as an aside, suing a s#!tty little used car dealership for all its worth is not really going to get you very far considering how often our payments to vendors bounced. But, irritated as I was with him, I am only mostly a sociopath, so I reached a hand out to help him up.
“I’m sorry, Sir. It is slippery out here, what with the ice and all. We’ve been trying to get the landlady to spread salt over the lot all day, but she hasn’t done it yet. I can give her your information if you need it. C’mon, let me help you up.”
I helped my customer off his tail and into his car, and thinking the encounter was done with, I started walking back to the office. Behind me, I heard his car pull alongside and his window roll down.
”I’m not done with you yet, and don’t you ever turn your back on a customer!”
I sighed and slowly turned around to face him. There wasn’t anything more to be said on either end, so he paused, searched for some words, and then snapped his gob shut. He punctuated his not-sentence by trying to do a big angry burnout, but his front tires just whirred impotently against the ice.
Just then, The Raver, having observed the commotion at the bottom of the lot, slid by, between his car and myself. As he glided past the customer’s window he belted out,
The Raver stopped a few paces in front of his car, held his arms aloft like an Olympic skater, did a bow, and then moonwalked his way across the rest of the parking lot. I have never laughed so hard in my life.