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Whining about whining

December 21, 2012
By BOB SEIDENSTEIN , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Cars, like people, can have eccentricities. And having owned nothing but used cars (almost all of them well used) I've become an expert of sorts on the subject. For sure, I haven't seen all the oddities cars can offer, but I've seen my fair share and probably yours too.

My current ride, a '98 Volvo, is a sound car, but it has quite a few quirks. Of course, there are quirks and there are quirks. And the car variety can, like people's, run the gamut, from the enchantingly amusing to the downright evil.

When it comes to car eccentricities, though they can't have evil motive, they sure can have destructive results. These are the ones that start as a little clinkita-clinkita-clink under the hood and end up with a huge Clankata-Clank-Clank!, followed by a massive metallic mashing and a $3,000 rebuild. If you've driven old cars long enough, you've heard - and paid for - what I'm talking about.

Luckily, while my Volvo has more eccentricities than the British royal family, they (also like the royals) are benign.

The interior lights are kaput. They could be put back in first-class working order, to the tune of $300. I put them in first-class Dope-ish order for $3.95 - the cost of a flashlight.

Dashboard warning lights come on and go off, with no relationship to what they're supposed to be warning me about.

There's a thermometer on the dashboard that's always accurate within 12 to 28 degrees.

The driver's seat, which is controlled electronically, sometimes automatically resets itself.

But all those things don't bug me, probably because I'm the only one who knows they're happening. However, there's one thing my car does that's known to everyone when it occurs. It's a noise from under the hood that comes and goes at the weirdest times.

It starts as a soft whirring noise, at the lower end of the scale. Then it sounds like the third speed on a ten-speed blender. Finally, it breaks into an ear-splitting whine, somewhat akin to a commercial table saw.

When I first heard it, I was puzzled but figured it was just a fluke and it'd never happen again. When it happened again, I started checking all the gauges, warning lights, and the car's performance itself. Nothing seemed to change, so I just figured it was something odd and harmless. What it was I didn't know, but I didn't worry about it.

This didn't mean, however, I didn't want to find out what it was, and to that end, I had the crew at Evergreen Auto check it out. They did and reported it was a secondary air pump, and it really had no effect on anything. This of course raised a question: If a shrieking secondary air pump doesn't have any negative effects, why did I need it in the first place? Just in case you're wondering, I was too lazy to ask, and instead just did what all car owners in denial do - I assumed everything was A-OK with my secondary air pump and I was going to keep driving the car till it wasn't.

My denial strategy has worked so far, but it does present embarrassing moments, the greatest of which happened last week.

As I said, the air pump goes into whirring/whining mode only by fits and starts. There's no pattern of when it occured. I can be driving around contented for weeks, and then - wham! - with no warning at all, it sounds like I'm behind the wheel of a 3,200-pound Mixmaster.

When it hits, everybody in earshot knows it. And the only people not in earshot are the permanent residents of Pine Ridge Cemetery.


Praying for invisibility

So last week I'm driving on Main Street, right in front of the Blue Line, when the whirring starts. When I stop at the crosswalk for some pedestrians, the whirring has turned into its rendition of The Banshees' Wail, and when it does, I spot a familiar face in front of the bank.

"Sweet Baby Jesus," I blurt, "No, not him!"

"Him" is Dick Demerse.

Now to clarify: I've known Dick all my life, literally. When I grew up, he and his wife were my neighbors, and they are two of the nicest people ever to tread in shoe leather. They've always been unfailingly friendly to me and whenever I think of them, it's with lifelong affection.

So why was I freaking out? Simple. Dick is a Master Mechanic. And like all the MM"s I've known, he's a perfectionist.

So what's wrong with that? you ask. Well, nothing, if they're working on your car. But the MM's all share one trait: They look at the owners of poorly maintained cars the way the rest of us look at child- or animal-abusers, as in "How could he ever allow something like that to happen?"

And, frankly, I couldn't handle the idea of hitting bottom on Dick's M.E.M. (Mechanical Esteem Meter) - especially when the noise, as horrid as it sounded, was not due to my inattention or carelessness. In fact, it's the exact opposite -?I've always taken scrupulous care of my cars, so they're dependable for their entire, long lives. But of course Dick doesn't know that about me, so what's he to think, other than I'm a perpetrator of Car Abuse Syndrome.

I thought maybe I could sneak past Dick, but when I looked at him, he was staring directly at me. I gave him a weak waggling of the fingers and kept going, cringing all the way.

Then I stopped for gas at the corner stop and shop and as I was manning the pump, who should walk up but Dick.

"Hey," he said, "your car is making a really odd noise."

"I know," I said.

And then, desperately trying to get back in his good graces, I explained exactly what it was and how it wasn't destructive, and thus how I'm really a responsible car owner - no matter how it looked or sounded.

Dick's a pretty quiet guy, so he just followed what I was saying, nodding along.

I'm of course not a quiet guy, so I had to talk.

"As soon as I saw you and knew you realized I was driving the car, I knew you'd consider me an idiot."

"No," he said, in his usual laconic way, "I wouldn't consider you an idiot."

I was reassured by his reply till I got home and thought about it some more. Then I realized if he thought I was a sloppy car owner he might not have considered me an idiot - he might in fact have considered me far worse.



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