Better sleep “in” it

Transportation in New York generally requires only a MetroCard and a pair of shoes that don’t have holes in the soles. (That way, one can navigate a rainy day with minimized discomfort. Holey soles wouldn’t necessarily bother me in a drier climate.)

Here, however, transportation requires that I not only know what an alternator does, but also accept that when it gets replaced on a car run by a computer, the part must “re-learn”–the mechanic’s word–how to interact with the engine through multiple “drive cycles,” so that it doesn’t stall out when the RPMs drop too low at stoplights or turns or when idling in our driveway or when I look at it the wrong way. In other words, this car has a mind of its own, when it has absolutely no right to.

As everyone knows, shoes have no minds, and their souls are only of the material kind. And, therefore, they are easy companions. They are like dogs, cars are like cats. Or something like that.

We had to replace the alternator two days ago, and it took a day and a half of remedial lessons for Karen and me to teach the part how to do its job and to play nice with the rest of the car. This meant we had to treat the automatic transmission like a 5-speed manual. On Bandera Highway, I could drive it in 4th gear or “D,” but coming up to a red light at Loop 534, I’d down shift to third, then second, and then, if the light hadn’t changed, I’d either put it into neutral and rev the engine while slightly coasting toward the car twenty feet ahead of me–it’s basically zero grade road there–or if stopped, I’d have to keep the brake applied with my left foot and rev the accelerator with my right. Keeping RPMs above 1000.

The greatest test of my mettle was dealing with Hill Country Dry Clean Super Center yesterday on Sidney Baker.

The store is sunken about 15 feet below street level, which means that the in and out ramps are just that: ramps. Ramps are college level. We are dealing with a pre-K after a new alternator.

I had choreographed my day so that I’d work at Pint and Plow and drop my shirts to be cleaned on the way home, so that my turn into the small lot was with the flow of traffic and not across it, and my exit would be likewise, when I’d continue on down to Loop 534 near the YO. As I was approaching the store headed northeast on Sidney Baker, two pickup trucks with perfectly good alternators had partially blocked the exit ramp leading out from the all-too-small parking lot. I gently made the right turn in but had to slow to a point where my power went out–the alternator’s amps dropped below 15, which shut off the battery and thus the car (at least that’s how I understand it; I’m still working on how to get a good shine on my instep). I then coasted in, and since it was downhill, I turned left into the lot and right into a parking spot, made all the more difficult since the power steering was out now, so I had to man-handle the car like it was my 1998 Ford Contour, whose only asset was that it, like the two pickup trucks now delightfully on their way, had a working alternator.

After dropping my shirts–which, at $2.75 per shirt here compared with $2.25 in New York City, will cost me over the year as much as a new alternator–I then had the task of getting out of this pseudo-ditch. The task presented itself like running up a muddy hill wearing plastic bags over your shoes. The trick first is to start the car, rev the engine while in park, and then throw it into reverse and back up past the blind spot created by the large white pick-up to my right without hitting another customer coming in from behind me.

Did that.

Then, throw it into second to keep the RPMs up and head up the ramp on the left to get back onto Sidney Baker.

At the top, stalled out.

Wait for traffic with the engine off. Traffic stops at the red light by Tractor Supply Company. I start the engine, rev it, throw it into second and step on the gas. My back tires bark as I practically fishtail out onto Sidney Baker headed northeast. I follow these practices successfully all the way home.

A few months ago, my brother-in-law kindly replaced the car’s starter after it had gone out when Karen was at the small H-E-B. He did this there in the parking lot, in a slight drizzle, while I sat inside, pretending to be of moral support. Because, seriously, I know about shoes, ok?

Karen knows more about cars, and yet, when purchasing this one, she unwittingly texted the previous owner what should have been the key attribute we’d look for in a car…


She wrote to the owner that she wanted to sleep “in” it before buying.

This is wise.

Because while it is always good to make a decision after sleeping on it, it is even better to sleep in a car before buying it, because you never know whether that is exactly what you’ll be doing when a part fails and the car subsequently refuses to learn its job.


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