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Thursday, August 30, 2007

When Free Is Not Enough

“Bernie, this is Connie Goodcustomer.”

“It’s nice to hear from you. Did your trip go okay?”

“We had a problem with the Crown Vic. Not anything you worked on,” Ms. Goodcustomer said with a sigh. “The AC went out just as I hit the all nineties, all the time climate on the way back, and I had the dogs in the car.”

“That is bad,” I commiserated. I’d found loosened bolts on their driver’s side upper control arm, causing the Crown Vic to make a metallic thud noise when braking, before they left on the trip. “Weren’t you and your husband going to only make one more trip in the Crown Vic, and then get rid of it for a new vehicle?”

“Oh, we already bought the new one, and it’s beautiful,” Connie told me excitedly. “I just wondered how much it would be to fix the Air Conditioner on the Crown Vic. It started making noise, and quit cooling. Do you work on that?”

“Yea, but when they start making noise, the cost can be astronomical,” I replied, and told her about a similar vehicle I had done a week ago which ended up costing over a thousand dollars.

“Wow,” Connie gasped, “that much?”

“Why don’t you get rid of the Crown Vic now, and forget about it? With over two hundred thousand miles on the original engine and trans, coupled with the age, it’s going to turn into a Black Hole.”

“We know,” Connie sighed again with regret, “but my husband was going to give it to a co-worker.”

“Great, what’s the problem then?” I reasoned. “Give it away now. It runs, and it just passed smog. Dump it.”

“Uh… but… she’s a single mom, and kind of needy.”

“Well, boo hoo,” I reply without hesitation. “You and your husband are doing the mom a favor giving a running vehicle to her at no cost. We don’t need AC around here most of the time anyway.”

“She lives in Concord,” Ms. Goodcustomer adds, naming a known Northern CA hi temp area.

“What has she been driving?”

“A…a borrowed old pickup truck,” Connie answers reluctantly, seeing where I was headed.

“There you go. She’s used to no AC. If she whines about the AC, throw in a little cheese with the deal,” I counter coldly. Some days I feel like I’ve heard every one of the million stories in the naked city. “What happens when you pour in a small fortune fixing the AC and the transmission gives up the ghost? If she complains about the AC, she’ll sure want you to make good on the trans and engine. Maybe you should just cut to the chase and buy her a new car now.”

By this time, Connie was laughing.

“Okay… okay, I get your point,” Ms. Goodcustomer is still chuckling. “My husband thought it would be nice to give her a car with AC.”

“You two have worked your butts off, saving and driving old cars till you could afford to buy a new one. It’s working out just in the nick of time before the old Crown Vic goes to the happy hunting ground with all your hard earned money inside. Don’t crab your good luck, Connie. You’re getting out from under the Vic at the right moment, and it’s not like you’re charging anything for it.”

“I think we’ll take your advice. Thanks Bernie.”

“Hey, enjoy that new vehicle.”

Sometimes being generous can progress past the good deed category into self-flagellation. :)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Shadow and Substance

“Look at this,” a medium height, dark haired woman in her forties ordered, as I greeted her at the big shop door when she walked in off the street.

I took the advertisement postcard from her, and quickly read through the ad for oil, filter, and lube. It listed the total as $19.99. I smiled, thinking maybe I ought to start taking my car over to them for service, since I can barely pay for the oil and filter at that price.

“Well?” She urges, seeing me grin in appreciation. She folds her arms across her chest expectantly.

I admit I’m not the greatest expert on body language, but I’ve been around the block a few times. This lady’s attitude seemed a little too much of a rebuke, considering I’d never laid eyes on her before. I handed her back the card, if for no other reason than to get her out of the Nurse Ratchet posture.

“Great price,” I comment agreeably.

“Can you match it?” Ms. Ratchet asks pointedly. “I only live six blocks from your shop, and it would be nice to get my car serviced here, but I don’t want to be ripped off.”

I suppressed the laughter; and other annoying, haughty, mechanic type mannerisms, my time in this business has made me susceptible to.

“The simple answer to your question is no,” I answer with the truth in a proper subservient tone, “not even close.”

“Why not?”

“Ma’am, you’ve read thousands of store ads in your adult life,” I try to reason amiably. “It’s called a loss-leader service to get you and your car in the door. I don’t do advertising like that. I’ve never offered sales on anything I do here. My price for lube, oil, and filter service starts at over double that.”

“Oh, so they’re the crooks for offering a bargain,” Ratchet counters animatedly shifting on her feet and leaning forward with flyer in hand.

“I didn’t call anyone a crook. Loss-leader advertising is perfectly legal. I just don’t…”

“I’d like to talk with your manager. Is he in today?” Ratchet cuts me off.

Okay, she nailed me with that one. I’ve been working my place alone for so long, Ratchet throws me off balance with an obvious customer ploy I haven’t heard since I worked at K-Mart garage back in the early seventies. I almost told her to wait a second while I went to get him, walked in the office, and walked back out in my manager persona. Too obvious.

“This is a one-man shop, Ma’am,” I curb the anti-social behavior.

“I know how this works,” Ratchet says knowingly. “I bet your manager doesn’t know you’re turning away business.”

Well, this is getting interesting. I look at the clock. Nope, I don’t have time to cultivate this relationship. I gesture for Ratchet to wait a moment. Quickly walking into the office and grabbing a business card, I return and present it to her, pointing at my name in the upper right hand corner with proprietor next to it.

“That’s me, the proprietor,” I tell her in good humor, wondering if she’ll make me show my driver’s license. “I’ve worked here since 1976, and owned it since 1983.”

“Sorry,” Ratchet says apologetically. “I’m used to getting the shuffle at repair shops.”

“No problem, but I really don’t give discounts of any kind. On the other hand, I don’t leave oil filters loose or strip pan plugs when I do a lube, oil, and filter. I also check belts, hoses, tires, and lights with the service. If I find something, I’ll note it on your invoice with a price for fixing it, and let you know if I think it’s a safety concern.”

“So do these guys,” Ratchet points out, again waving the flyer with a smile.

“Yep, it’s very possible the only extra thing you get from me is the charge.”

“You are closer,” Ratchet laughs at my unwillingness to barter, holding up my card as she walks out. “Maybe I’ll give you a call.”

Be still my heart. Hey, I can’t curb internal sarcasm.

“Anytime Ma’am, thanks for stopping by,” I say out loud. Thanks for coming by, I’m thinking. By interacting with me so entertainingly, you’ve been entered into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into... Bernard’s Blog. I know, I know… a cheap Rod Serling rip-off. My bad. :)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Instant Gratification

“Hello…helloooooooo…” a lady called out from the front of the shop as she held a small white dog on leash.

I was in the middle of fastening a gasket onto a water pump with quick drying cement. I acknowledged her with a wave, smile, and nod.

“I’ll be right with you, Ma’am,” I called out. I was wasting my breath, because with a big sigh, she yanks her dog along toward me. We live in an instant gratification society.

“I just want to ask you a couple questions about my car. It won’t take but a minute.”

“Go on back out to the front, Ma’am, and I’ll be with you as soon as I finish setting up this gasket.”

“Can’t I just talk to you from here?” She asked, as exasperation flooded into her voice.

Sure, I’m thinking; because I’m trapped, and can’t walk your butt out to the front until I get through with my gasket task. I made sure she was standing in a safe spot, and ignored her. She talked on, but I have a gift for being able to tune out anything. If I screwed up the setup on my water pump job, I’d be spending a few hours for free redoing it later. The setup only took another forty-five seconds, a life time for the instant gratification crowd. As I finished, I heard ECC light, and 85 Nissan, so she was just now hitting the high points. I gestured for her to walk her very well mannered dog out to the front. When we were past the ‘No Customers Past This Line’ line, I turned to face her.

“So, what do you think is wrong?” She asks, sure I would know exactly what was wrong with her car.

“You have an 85’ Nissan with an ECC light, which is short for Electronic Controlled Carburetor. Anything in the computer system, feeding information to the on-board computer can cause the ECC light to come on. Even a bad diode in the alternator can trigger it. I’d have to make you an appointment to…”

“Can’t you just tell me what’s wrong, and…” she interrupts.

“No,” I cut her off. “You’ll need to make an appointment to leave your car off for…”

“It runs fine. It’s just the damn light,” she interrupts again.

I give up on information, and quote her the diagnostic time to find out the problem. The Pentagon thinks they control Shock and Awe.

“The car’s not worth that!” Ms. Impatient informs me.

“If you think that’s a lot, you should think about another vehicle, because most of the repairs on that system are costly.”

“If I go ahead with the work, will you wave the diagnostic fee?” Ms. Impatient asks with a straight face.

Not a penny.

“No, the diagnostic fee will be in addition to the repairs,” I reply, as her dog looks up at me with what seems to be compassion. “Let me get you one of my business cards so…”

“Never mind,” she sighs once again, turning toward the door. “I just asked a simple question.”

I look up at the clock. Well, fifteen minutes of wasted shop time, but more ammo for my blog. :)

Friday, August 10, 2007


I saw this on the News Forum page and thought it would look good anywhere, even here. :) On to my blog subject.

The guy drove in with a 1978 Cad Seville, and I knew I was in trouble. I’m probably the only guy for a hundred miles who still works on these pieces of crap, so whenever one of my fellow automotive artists gets a call on one, they send it here. The conversation usually follows the same path as it did today after my usual ‘personable’ greeting.

“Yea, how much to check this out,” the short heavy set guy asks, leaning on his door with an irritated look.

“It all depends on what kind of problem you’re having with it,” I answer, knowing he’s probably been all over town, hence the irritation.

“It stalls constantly once it’s warmed up, and the brake pedal goes to the floor before the damn thing stops,” Unhappy Cad answers disgustedly.

“There’s a couple of ways you can go on this, Sir. The first is to dump this now before you put another dime in it, which is what I recommend, or pay me to check it out and give you an astronomical fee to fix it,” I answer truthfully.

“I’m not getting rid of it,” Mr. Cad retorts angrily. “I just spent almost two grand getting the transmission fixed. How much to do the diagnostic?”

I tell him, and he’s stunned. I’ve done more of these than I care to say, and I know the weak spots intimately. The parts are practically non-existent, but I still have a few internet resources supplying parts for the beast. It will take me at least the two hours I charge to confirm what’s wrong and get him a credible estimate. If Unhappy thinks he’s stunned now, wait till I give him the figure for fixing it.

“I’ve already had it checked out,” Mr. Cad argues, assuming I just fell off the produce truck yesterday. “It just needs a tune and rear brakes.”

“I would suggest you take it back to the shop where someone arrived at that conclusion and pay them to fix it,” I reply ‘personably’. :)

He’s stuck, and we both know it.

“Look,” I reason, after a moment’s uneasy silence, “cut your losses and dump this car. It’s a black hole for money. When I check it out, I will invariably find more than you ever wanted to know about what’s wrong with it.”

“I was offered three thousand for it,” Unhappy thinks I’ll care.

“Take it, did you save the buyer’s number?” I prompted him, because I don’t care.

“I’ll get it checked out somewhere else,” Mr. Cad states, slipping back into the driver’s seat. “You’re too expensive.”

Yea, but I was personable, I’m thinking as he backs out. If I’m good this weekend, and I say my prayers, maybe he won’t be in next week. :)

Wednesday, August 8, 2007


I’m sitting in my office paying bills, and a woman walks in from the street. She’s dressed in one of those ‘Little House On The Prairie’ dresses with sandals, and her graying hair is tied back in a ponytail. I figure her age for somewhere between late forties to middle fifties, medium weight and height. I’ll call her Birken Stock. Birken has one of those huge smiles that seldom leaves her face.

“Hi, can I help you?” I ask, as she looks around the office, and checks out my family pictures and certificates on the wall.

“Yes, I’d like to make an appointment to have my 02’ Honda Accord serviced. I see you graduated from Cal State Hayward.”

“Yea, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” I reply jokingly. “What kind of service did you have in mind, just a general oil and filter change, or something more?”

“I’m coming up on 60,000 miles, and in the maintenance manual there are a lot more things to be checked at 60,000. I’d like to get some idea what the service would cost me.”

“Sure,” I already have my notebook computer open, so I get into my repair and estimator software. In a few moments I’m able to give her a price.

The smile disappears.

“Tha…that’s almost as much as the dealer charges,” Ms. Stock gasps.

“Actually, it’s nearly a hundred dollars less,” I correct her, because I keep up on these things; “but many times I am as expensive as the dealership, just not on this particular service, although I do everything they do.”

“Can I pay by installments?”

“No, but I take all major credit cards,” I reply, adding my little joke about offering credit, “I have a deal with the money lenders: I don’t lend money, and they don’t fix cars.”

“Do you have loaner cars?” Birken asks, and the smile is nowhere to be seen.

“No,” I answer. It’s a fair question.

“Let me guess,” Ms. Stock says caustically, “you have a deal with the car renters: you don’t rent cars, and they don’t fix them, right?”

“Yea, something like that,” I laugh appreciatively as Birken volleys my little joke back at me.

“When I drop off the car, can I get a ride home? I live in Berkeley. It’s only ten minutes away.”

“No, I’m sorry, but I’m too small time for any of the perks you can get at the dealer or larger repair garages. This is a one man shop, so when I’m out of the shop, the shop’s closed. On the other hand, I am able to offer lower prices because my overhead is lower.”

“You certainly don’t offer much in the way of personal service,” Birken sighs.

“Only on the vehicles,” I quip. “Although I have customers from all the surrounding cities, I’m mostly a neighborhood repair shop. Many of my customers can actually walk home from here. Do you still want the appointment?”

“Can I have one of your cards? I’ll call you when I decide. My neighbor recommended your shop to me. She said you were good, but not very personable.”

I laughed again, and nodded. Fair enough. In this business, it’s better to be good than personable. Besides, I’m a little personable. I hand her a card.

“Thanks,” Birken says, turning to go out the door, and then stops. “I’m curious. Why didn’t you go into teaching with your English degree?”

“I actually got the degree as a backup in case I hurt myself on the job. I like fixing cars and trucks. The technology’s constantly changing, so it’s never boring. I always figured teaching would be boring.”

“I’m a teacher,” Birken smiles, and walks out.

Oh boy, I just slid a couple more notches on the personable scale. :)

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Brother Paul

My younger brother Paul and me long ago.

This will be a too much information post today, so if it bothers anyone, now’s the time to bail out. It took me a while before I could do this. My younger brother Paul died last week. I had gone to Ohio last month in order to meet up with my other brothers and sisters, and see Paul because he was dying of cancer. It ended up with us taking him to Cleveland Clinic emergency so he could get a feeding tube put in because the tumor on his neck was closing off his throat. So ends the bad part of the post.

Even lying in a hospital bed, Paul cracked us up laughing without even being able to talk well. My sisters and I were sitting around his bed as he slept the day after we browbeat the clinic into admitting him, because he was dying of starvation and dehydration rather than the cancer. A priest came in, and walked around me to Paul’s bedside saying he had come to give Paul communion. He woke Paul, and began the ceremony. We all prayed with him, and the priest left. As soon as the man was out the door, Paul pushes himself up on his right arm, cocks his eyebrows up with this hilarious look of confusion on his face only he could do and says: “I’m sleepin’, and I wake up, open my eyes, and there’s a priest. I’m thinkin’ what the hell did I do now?”

The smirking look of incredulity Paul wore through this one line had us laughing so hard tears were streaming down our cheeks. When I could talk, I added my usual smart ass line to his; which he and I could do for hours from when we were little kids only a year and a half apart in age.

“Yea, Paul, he probably looked like the conductor on a train in that black outfit. Tickets, tickets please, and brother, you didn’t have a ticket.”

“Hell,” Paul retorts, “I thought he was the Reaper.”

After me and my sisters howled for another few minutes, Paul takes his plastic spoon, and uses it to help him get the wafer of communion down. We’re watching him worriedly as he has a tough time.

“I was kind of surprised you took communion with the trouble you have swallowing,” I said as he finally gets the wafer down and sips his ice water.

Bern, I ain’t in a position to be refusin’ any help right now,” Paul rasped out smiling. “I got to cover all my bases.”

On the last day before I came back to California, his last line to me was the one out of the movie Ghostbusters, “I’ll see you on the other side.”

Man, he had guts.

I wrote this poem for Paul last Christmas after he told me he had the tumor, and attached the above picture to it. He told me he made the picture into his screen saver.

My brother, I remember well the days,

Together mimicking heroic ways.

We battled unseen monsters in our youth,

Minds’ imagination powering truth.

With swords of wood, slashing through brush,

Blackberry vines fell beneath fevered rush,

While journey of jungle laden plight,

Hatched within our furtive young sight.

We beat back all challengers to our crown,

Of world beaters on our neighborhood ground.

In battered, aging plight, we fight on still,

Tattered shadows facing life, cold and shrill.

We hold our precious gains in gnarled fists,

No time wasted on Don Quixote’s trysts.

We have faced life’s demons without fear,

Sometimes with regret, but with vision clear.

We lived as men do, with all their black faults,

But conquered most without religious cults.

We believed in God beyond frigid smiles,

As trudging over barren, blood soaked miles,

What lurked in dark realm of bitter sorrow,

Could only delay our grasp on tomorrow.

With Christmas inside our beleaguered souls,

We pushed away thoughts for whom the bell tolls.

Barroom lights framing Christmases long past,

Shared with a man, whose fate was cast,

To lead two small boys, one dark, one light,

To manhood, without fear of endless night.

Now, in graying mist of winter’s cold scheme,

Let us remember our shared youthful dream.

Paul and I were big Clint Eastwood fans, so I’ll end this post with a line out of the movie Outlaw Josey Wales he’d like: “He was born in the time of blood and dyin’ and never questioned a bit of it. He never went back on his folks or his kind. I rode with him. I got no complaints”.

Friday, August 3, 2007


I looked up from the 1999 Plymouth Voyager I was working on, and saw a late nineties Ford Escort roll in the front door I recognized. It belonged to a guy who had made an appointment for servicing two weeks ago, but never showed up. I’ve written about the three strike program, where if the customer makes three appointments and breaks them without calling, they’re history. This guy falls into a different category: the kind who makes appointments for a specific date, and then shows up exactly a week late. I’d like to tell you this type is rare, but it’s rather common. I’m sure there are a variety of reasons for this phenomena. Unfortunately, my interest in why people do what they do died about fifteen years ago. They do something goofy, and I automatically compensate. Mr. Ima Weeklate gets out of his Escort with a big smile. Yea, good luck with that.

“Hi, Bernie, I’m a little early for my appointment, but I thought it would be good for getting the paperwork done,” Ima tells me enthusiastically.

“Actually, you’re exactly one week late,” I counter. “Your appointment was for last Friday at 10 AM.”

“No way!” Weeklate shakes his head in disbelief. “You’ve made a mistake.”

“Well, let’s go look,” I reply, opening the office door.

“Are you saying you won’t take my car in today,” Ima is aghast.

“I can’t take it today,” gesturing for him to come in the office. “I already have an appointment for ten which will be coming in any minute.”

“I’ll wait then,” Weeklate states emphatically. “I made the appointment for…”

“Let me show you something,” I break in gently, pointing at his appointment date last week. “See, I know people lose track of time; and things can get confused, so I write down the date and time a person makes an appointment when I put them on the calendar.”

Ima’s whole countenance fell, when he looked at the calendar.

“Here’s a lady, who made an appointment just before you did, and she…”

“Yea… okay… maybe I made a mistake,” Weeklate laments.

“I can fit you in Monday at this time,” I offer.

“Okay, if that’s the soonest,” Ima agrees.

“Yea, it is. I have all I can handle for today, but I’ll see you Monday the 6th,” he sees me write today’s date, and the time next to his appointment on the 6th for his service.”

“I’ve never seen anyone date stamp an appointment before,” Ima remarks, looking over my shoulder.

“See you Monday,” I reply, getting back up out of my chair and walking Weeklate to the door. “The 6th.”

That’s strike one, my friend, I’m thinking to myself as I watch him back out. :)