Monday, November 22, 2010

Car troubles

Before I begin this post, it needs to be stated for the record that I have a lot of pride. I've always been the person who couldn't stand to ask for help because that would somehow imply weakness on my part. Case in point: as a toddler, I threw a huge temper tantrum once because I couldn't pick up a pumpkin that had taken both my parents to lift. My mother offered help, and in response, I shouted, "NO! I DO IT MYSELF!" Unfortunately, the "do it myself" attitude has persisted relatively intact into adulthood with me, and it's important that I mention this now as I begin a horrible story.

On November 11, approximately eleven days ago, I purchased my first used car. I wanted to play it safe- while I'm not a complete car idiot, I'm definitely no mechanic or car connoisseuse- and so I selected a 1999 Honda Accord. The price was right, the car was fine in the test drive, and all my online research about the ups and downs of this year, make, and model were fairly positive, so I thought I'd made a good choice.

Eleven days later, I'm not so sure. It's spent seven of those eleven days at the mechanic, having a myriad of leaks in its emissions system repaired. Every time I drive it, it seems, that obnoxious check engine light turns on and the saga grows ever longer. At this point, if I weren't sure that I've spent more on the car than I'd get from a trade-in, I'd bring it in to a nearby Honda dealership and explain that the hassle was theirs from this point forward. But for the first few days, the most striking thing about this car problem of mine was not least, not really mechanical.

For the first several days after this whole mess began, I felt like a little girl that people had taken advantage of (and pardon that dangling participle). I felt like I'd gone to the independent dealership vulnerable, and that they hadn't cared a whit about my needs- they'd simply seen a female with a debit card and had cackled with glee. Similarly, after the first round of repairs on the car didn't last, I felt like the mechanics were taking me for a metaphoric ride. When the car issues began happening, I immediately blamed myself for being such a good target. "Of COURSE you got fleeced by the dealers," I said to myself, "you don't even know your way around under the hood!" Then, when the first round of repairs cost $1,200.00, I told myself, "This would've been a lot cheaper if you knew how to check these things yourself." In short, this has left me feeling like I've got something to prove- not just because I'm like that as a person, but because I feel like I need to prove that not all women are dumb about cars.

This is where the "I've got a huge independent streak" opener comes in. I want to be sure to emphasize that my feelings on this matter are definitely compounded by my own personal tendencies to be hell-bent on the "do it myself" method. I tend to feel horribly incompetent even when I fail at doing typically female-gendexed things by myself, like cooking or managing to keep my apartment clean, so this isn't 100% gender-related. But there is a distinction to be made- a strong one- between feeling personally incompetent and feeling gender-ally incompetent. This car situation left me feeling the latter. It isn't just a personal shortcoming that I didn't know much about cars; it's the feeling that if been male, or a man, and gone to buy that car I might have been told more about its potential pitfalls, under the assumption that I'd know what the dealer meant. It's also the feeling that the mechanic would've been more up-front with me about the state of the emissions system in my engine. Let's be honest: four (or more) leaks in eleven days doesn't sound particularly stable to me. And maybe I could've been spared a lot of frustration if, "man to man," the mechanic had told me at the beginning that there were extensive repairs needed.

The flip side to the coin is that gendered expectations go both ways. If I were a cis man, the mechanic and the dealer might both have assumed a certain amount of mechanical prowess on my part. The dealer might have tried to sell me a flashy muscle car, presuming that I (and it?) ran on testosterone alone. The mechanic might still have downplayed the extent of the car's problems, but for different reasons. And, as we ought to know, penises don't come with basic mechanical skills rolled up inside. Having different plumbing and/or a different gender identity wouldn't change my auto skills. But it's hard to wind up in such an awful situation, knowing that my sex and gender identities probably haven't helped me in the slightest in my attempts to get a functional car for my money.

I suppose the bottom line is that, in addition to changing systemic attitudes about sex, gender, and cars, we need to empower ourselves to avoid being the victims of dealerships and mechanics looking to make a few extra dollars. Everyone should know their way around under the hood- and, thanks to a (female) former mechanic friend of mine, I now do. Everyone should also be able to read the assessment tests that mechanics perform when that awful check engine light comes on, and at least be able to Google the solutions that can be applied. And finally, everyone should know the "lemon laws" in their state, so if they wind up with a car as terrible as mine...they can get their money back.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. I am a man (well last I checked anyway) and know not a whole lot about cars. Interestingly, I feel the same way about computers as you do about cars. Everybody should be able to do certain basic things. You may not need to be a nerd or anything, but certain things are so basic that it almost falls into the realm of common sense. Especially for a device or vehicle that, honestly, gets used everyday and is an integral part of everyday life (especially outside of cities, I hear you can get away without a car in those god awful metropolis'). Just out of curiosity did you get a carfax vehicle history report?