I was slowing down for a red light the other day on Pacific Coast Highway when I heard this weird screeching noise, only slightly less irritating than the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard.
My first inclination was to turn up the radio to blot out the offending sound. Instead, I turned the volume down and looked around to see if I could figure out which nearby car might be the source.
But the noise had stopped--until I pressed the brake again. I realized that I was the one past due for a brake job.
I've owned the car for four years now and had not heard a peep from the brakes, so I guess I can hardly complain. And yes, I should have taken it for one of those free brake inspections a year or two ago.
Now, with my brake pads obviously worn completely through, I had no choice but dedicate a day of my life to giving those squeaky wheels the attention for which they so plaintively cried out.
I could take the car to the shop and spend most of the day sitting in a grungy waiting room, reading People magazines from 1978 and snacking on candy bars and pop--$1.75 each, exact change only--from the vending machine while they fixed it.
Or I could take the car to the shop and spend most of the day trying to get around in Orange County with no wheels. I could rent a car, bum rides from friends or load my pockets with quarters, dimes and nickels and take the bus.
It was bound to be a logistical nightmare. So what if I can still remember the days when shops offered loaner cars, or at least gave you a ride to and from work while the repair took place? I remember when gas cost 25 cents a gallon too.
When the screeching started it was late Friday afternoon, so I knew that whatever I decided, the car and I would have to limp home and sit tight until Monday morning, at least, because few auto repair shops are open Saturdays.
I had been planning a Saturday trip to San Diego County, but the car sat in the driveway all weekend, except for a couple of urgent errands to points close by.
Early Monday morning--well, it seemed early to me--I started calling repair shops. I decided against the dealership I had gone to for other repairs. I was satisfied with the work, but it is three bus transfers from my house, and this time that was my only transportation choice, short of renting a car, because there was no one nearby who could give me a ride.
So I started calling shops on or near the bus line that comes within five blocks of my house.
"Can I bring it in today?" I asked the nice man who answered the phone at the first place I called.
"Today?" He didn't quite laugh out loud. "I'm afraid you're a little late for today."
It was 8:47 a.m.
"You have to have your car here by 7:30," the man said.
"How long does it take for a brake job?" I asked.
"About an hour and a half, ma'am."
"Then why can't I bring in the car later? If it only takes an hour and a half, you should be finished with at least some of the cars that were there early by the middle of the day."
"Well, you could bring it later, but then we still wouldn't be able to look at it until the next morning."
"Can I make an appointment for tomorrow, then?"
"We don't do that, ma'am."
"We just don't."
After several similar conversations, I settled on a place offering a long-term guarantee just six miles from my house, two blocks off the bus line.
I arranged my schedule for the next day so I would not have to drive. And before I went to bed that night, I gathered exact change for the bus ride, got out my walking shoes and set the alarm for 6 a.m. I did not want to risk being late.
I made it to the shop on time, went in and told the man behind the counter I needed a brake job.
"Fill this out, and we'll do a complete inspection," he said, pushing a clipboard across the counter. "Then we'll call to get your authorization for whatever repairs may be necessary."
"I know it needs new brake pads," I said. "Can't I just authorize that now?"
"No, ma'am. We'll have to call you for that."
"But I can authorize it over the phone?"
"Then why can't I just authorize it now, in person?"
"We have to do the inspection first, ma'am."
After signing by all the Xs, I walked down to the corner, got on the bus and rode it to the stop nearest my house, then walked the rest of the way and got to work on my computer.
Three hours later, the phone rang. "Ms. Hofmann, you need new brake pads."
"I know. Now do I get to authorize the repair?"
"Go ahead," I said. "Fix my brakes." If the repair guy recognized my feeble Clint Eastwood imitation, he did not compliment me on it.
Finally, just after 3:30, another call: "Your car is ready."
After getting the car back and driving home, I said to myself, "There ought to be a better way to do this."