I don’t know who to blame for this one, but I am looking for candidates.
And I might just run them down.
The State of California wants me to stop driving my car. Not because I drive badly—I have no tickets on my record and enjoy very low insurance rates. Not because I’m getting old–I’m not even 50 (yet). No it’s because a machine that they made me hook it up to told them my car is a Gross Polluter.
My registration was due payable in September 2003. My reminder notice said that I had to take my ’91 LeBaron Convertible, with 157,000+ miles on it to a Test Only Facility. Not just a garage with a Smog Check symbol posted, but a Test Only garage. These are as plentiful as English-speaking, living dentists who will honor the Smilesaver 600 Plan (wink, wink).
The Test Only garages have no incentive to discount since they are spaced every four counties apart. I’m looking at sixty bucks out the door—if it passes. Being the punctual person am, I went to the nearest Test Only Facility—luckily only a mile from me—on August 31st. I’m figuring, one day to make an appointment, the next day to get it “smogged” as we call the testing procedure here in California (or ColliePhoneEya, as our Governor says it). Anyway, the “mechanic-slash-proprietor” of this establishment isn’t in the garage when I get there promptly 2 days before my registration is due. Another guy at the station sees me staring blankly into the dark garage—which incidentally smells heavily of excessive hydrocarbons, the parts per million at which I wouldn’t even want to begin to speculate—and empathetically (or was it just pathetically) calls out, ‘He’s in the trailer!” and points over my shoulder to the area beside this gas station here they usually stack bald tires and Pepsi crates. However, at this location, this was where the mechanic-slash-proprietor lived: in a detached trailer, roughly the size of a Rubbermade broom closet.
I hesitantly knocked on the door of this silver, over-inflated aluminum can, and was immediately greeted on the welcome mat as Jerry Lewis in Charles Nelson Reilly glasses steps all the way from the back room to the outside door mat in one step.
“You here for a smog?” he grumped, lifting his chin and then scrunching up his nose so he could see me through the lower half of his bifocals. Taking this and a few other sensory cues to indicate that I was standing too close, I stepped back and thrust forth my DMV paperwork.
“It says here, sir—”
“I’m booked for the next five days,” he said, turning his head away and showing me his stop-sign palm.
“But I need to get my car smogged by the day after tomorrow…”
“Go to the DMV and get an extension,” he counseled. My registration would be overdue by the time I got through the line at the DMV if I started yesterday, I thought.
But to the DMV I went. Directly from the Test Only Facility.
I got an extension to the end of September, and within two weeks I came back and got Jerry Lewis to test my car, which failed, so I applied for another extension, since I didn’t have any money to pay for the Test Only Facility Smog test, much less the repairs. Somehow it isn’t comforting to hear “You only failed by a little bit.”
“By the way,” he asks, “how old is your cat?”
I frowned, rotating my head slightly on an imaginary nose-axel.
“Your catalytic converter.”
“Oh… I dunno… five years?”
“Yeah, they’re good for about three. It’s about $300 to replace one, and there’s about a 70% chance that’ll fix your problem.”
“Oh,” I gurgled, feeling like I might well up right in front of a whiskery man who has a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves torn off at the shoulder, and no particular definition to his arms. “Is there any bad news?”
“No, it gets better. California’s Consumer Affairs wants to help you with your problem. Regardless of income, they will pay for your car to be fixed —all you have to pay is the first $100, and they cover the rest. Here’s an application.” That’s where the second extension came in handy. It took a while to get “approved.”
At the end of November, I squeezed in an appointment to the even more rare CAP Repair Service—which, as it turns out is licensed and authorized by the state to take my hundred dollars regardless of how gullible I might happen to look at the moment of my appointment. I had to drive 8 miles for this service. At the end of the day, I returned and this authorized CAP mugger told me my car was ineligible for the CAP program. “It’s burning oil, and the CAP program only covers emissions system repairs. I just got off the phone with the State a few minutes ago. They won’t do it.”
“What about my hundred dollars?”
“It’s not yours anymore. And I get an additional $32 from the state for the inspection.”
“Well, what do I do now?”
“Well, there’s an 80% chance that if you replace the cat, it’ll pass smog, but you’ll ruin the cat in a month, if it’s burning oil.”
Seeing this as the cheapest of my options, I got another extension through December and had the cat replaced at Warner’s Muffler Shop in Oceanside, where oddly, I was met by the nicest, friendliest, most patient and explaining people I have ever met at an auto repair facility. I wish I had more muffler work to do, just so I could go back there. This was a busy shop, but an incredibly nice young fellow named Brett had plenty of time for me, and got my old cat off and a new cat welded on in 20 minutes.
I took it back the next day to Jerry Lewis, and long story short, it almost passed closer this time.
So I came home and called the state to find out what to do.
I got a helpful $6/hour state worker practicing English as a Second Language to ‘splain to me that I could make an appointment with a—I am not making this up—Referee to see if I can get a waiver, if I qualify.
“What does it take to qualify?”
“You have to have failed smog, been declined by the CAP program, and spent up to $450 on emissions repairs by a Licensed Emissions Facility.”
“Well, then, I qualify!”
“How much have you spent?”
“Not including testing. Just in repairs.”
“Oh. $186.63 for the new cat,” I said smuggly, using my new jargon ever so knowingly. “And another $100 on the CAP progra—”
“Repairs only. You have to spend up to $450 in repairs from a Licensed Emissio—”
“Yeah, I get it. So what if I’m broke and can’t afford to have already spent the $525 that I already spent which has done nothing to improve my car or Air Quality, which therefore leaves me unable to comprehend spending up to $450 more on a Licensed Emissions Facility to take their stab at it and report to me that it burns oil? What do I do then? Huh? Huh?”
“Well, sir, I am not authorized to tell you what to do with your car, but you can’t legally drive it in the state of California.”
“But it runs fine! It looks good! It doesn’t smoke. It’s really quiet and the engine is clean. Jerry Lewis told me I missed by this much! What am I supposed to do, throw it away? I have underwear that’s in ten times worse shape and clearly worse for Air Quality, and I wouldn’t throw them away yet!”
“Well, sir, I am not authorized to tell you what to do with your car, but you can’t legal—”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it…”
So, I get to drive my beautiful, red Chrysler LeBaron Convertible with a 6 cylinder, 3.0 liter engine for less than two more months, thanks to another extension from the DMV, and then I have to set it out at the curb with the recyclables.
I hope it doesn’t get hit by the guy two doors down with the rusty ’67 Ford truck that takes 15 minutes to warm up every morning at 4:00am and sounds like the Space Shuttle until it finally puffs and spits its way down the street.
That would just be more than I can handle.