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COMMITMENTS : You Give It Gas and It Goes, Right? : When it comes to cars, she knows the bare minimum. And, frankly, that's all she wants to know.

August 08, 1994|JANET EASTMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I'm not trying to stereotype any genders here, but most of the men I know are more intimate with their cars than I will ever be. They seem to understand what makes them go. I just know to step away when the fire trucks arrive.

Most men know the name of every part of a car and its function. I just know how to set the trip meter before I take off to San Francisco and how many Tony Bennett cassettes I can stow in the glove box.

Men read the owner's manual. I listen really carefully as the salesperson goes over everything before she hands over the keys.

Men love to receive car-related gifts. I cried when presented with new tires on my birthday.

Men like driving a sports car because of the way it accelerates down the open highway. My boyfriend loves the speed of my convertible MR2, but I mostly enjoy the cruise control . . . and the 50,000-mile warranty.

Men baby their cars in a manner that makes some women in their lives envious. The same man who thought nothing of handing me the dog's ratty bed mat to dry off from the pool insists on using a clean terry towel to clean his dipstick.

Men fill up with gas before the gauge hits the quarter-tank mark. I fill up when my tank is as dry as Death Valley.

A man will get into my car and before we're in second gear he'll ask: "What's that noise?" Hmm. Could it be the loose quarters rattling around in the ashtray? That bottle of Merlot in the trunk? A litter of stray kitties born under the passenger seat? What noise, exactly ?

A man will open the hood of my car and like a heat-seeking missile go instantly to a buried area in the dark and say, "Here's the problem." I could stare into that abyss all day and be able to tell you only that they used a lot of black.

The men I know avoid problems with their cars by doing something called "regular maintenance." I'm an organized, responsible woman who knows to toss away a tube of mascara after 21 applications to prevent bacteria build-up, but I drove my last car for 21,000 miles without an oil change. Coroners refer to acts like this as "delayed homicides."

My treatment of cars has at least been consistent. When I was 16 and newly licensed, my dad let me drive the family's disposal car: a 10-year-old blue VW bug that I believe came from the factory with dents in its fenders. Dad seemed to use paste and Ace bandages to patch up the wobbly thing.

He was a good weekend mechanic, except he took too much time to put everything back together, so, of course, I seldom brought needed repairs to his attention. For six months I didn't have a working battery but rather than tell Dad, I found it easier just to park on top of a small hill and push start the Bug a la Fred Flintstone. But after I spent one long, rainy winter without brake lights, he impounded the car long enough to fix everything. It was a sad spring.

I have never pampered a car because I expect only one thing from it: to get me to where I want to go. In exchange, I give it endless amounts of gasoline. It's a fair deal.

I pay such little attention to cars that when they "act up" (a euphemism I use as if they are balking children rather than hulking bulks of bolts) it usually means one thing: I can't afford to go to Hawaii after all.

When something doesn't seem right--and it gets my attention--it's usually when the car comes to an abrupt stop on the top of Mt. Washington or it limps along for weeks with something equivalent to a thorn in its paw. Either way, I generally misdiagnose the problem.

I drove around for days in a car I thought was in need of an alignment. I reached this conclusion because years before I had a car aligned and it no longer listed to one side like the S.S. Minnow, as this one was now doing. I vowed to make an appointment with the mechanic but I never got around to it, what with all that leisure-time driving I was doing between Santa Barbara and San Diego.

A few days later I was taking my friend Patrick to lunch and as he strolled toward the passenger door, his eyes dropped to the front right tire and he quickly--and correctly--assessed the situation: "You know, your tire's almost flat."

A flabby tire? Snap: That's easy to fix. All it takes is air. I drove to the nearest gas station and as the attendant was plumping up the tire, he offered this advice: "Every morning I walk around my car and check that everything's fine." That sounded solid to me.

"Great," I said, as I jumped into the driver's seat with my foot positioned to stomp on the gas pedal. "I'll be back through again in the morning."

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