If mechanics worked like doctors

So it takes three weeks to get a mechanic to check out your car, during which time you’re rescheduled four times.

“But I have to get to work, and the electrical system is totally malfunctioning! I don’t know why and I’m afraid it might catch on fire or something!” you tell the barely-apologetic receptionist, who tells you that if your car isn’t working at all, you can go to an emergency mechanic’s shop, where they’ll tear out all of the wiring in your dashboard and hook your starter subsystem directly to the battery. “You won’t be able to use your lights or your signals or, of course, your radio or dashboard electronics at all,” the receptionist tells you, “and you might not be able to replace your wiring the way it was, but that’s the best I can tell you. Do you still want me to schedule that appointment?”

And here you are, three weeks later. You arrive five minutes early for your appointment with the mechanic, and the receptionist — maybe the same one, you can’t be sure — hands you a clipboard with a form full of questions about your car, your car’s history, your car’s previous owners…it’s a lot of information, but it’s reassuring: somebody‘s going to take all of this into account. It won’t be like those other times you went to the mechanic.

You return the clipboard to the receptionist. A half-hour of reading articles in Redbook about how to figure out what season you are later, another receptionist pops her head out from behind the garage bay door. “Can you park your car in the garage for me?” she asks, and vanishes. You duly retrieve your car and park it in the garage. “Wait here,” she says, “the mechanic will be by in a minute.”

It’s not a minute. It’s not ten minutes. It’s fully forty-five minutes later when the mechanic finally comes into the garage, moving fast, looking at the clipboard with your information. “Hi,” he says, and shakes your hand. He seems to deliberately make eye contact with you, as if it’s something they taught him in mechanic school. But he only holds it a second, and then returns to your clipboard.

“So what seems to be the problem here?” he says. Hesitantly, you start telling him. “About a month ago, my car started making weird noises when it started.”

“Uh huh.”

“Then the lights, you know, the dashboard lights and the headlights started dimming–“

“Uh huh.”

“I checked the battery–“

“Uh huh.”

You wait a second, a bit nonplussed. He hasn’t looked at you the whole time and doesn’t particularly seem to be paying attention.

“I checked the battery, and it’s fine, so I didn’t know….”

“Uh huh,” says the mechanic. “Well, from what it says here, it looks like you have a blown alternator.”

“No, but I actually replaced the alternator six months ago–“

“Uh huh. Well, it’s probably still the alternator. Just to be sure, though, I’m going to need to run a complete set of diagnostics on your car, just the standard stuff: full engine check, transmission check, electrical check of course, and then we’re going to go ahead and put it in a wind tunnel to make sure it meets manufacturer aerodynamic specifications–“

“Do we really need to do all that? I mean, couldn’t you just look at the alternator, if you think that’s what it is?” You’re a bit nervous. You don’t actually have comprehensive insurance, just collision.

He smiles, a touch patronizingly. “We want to get a good, complete picture of where your car’s at, mmokay? Otherwise, we might miss something.”

“So how much will all of that cost?” you ask.

He shrugs. “I have no idea,” he says. “It depends on a lot of factors, you’d have to ask my receptionist.”

“You don’t know how much it costs to run these tests?”

“Nope. That’s not really my department. But once we’ve run them, we can figure out exactly what’s wrong with your car and how we’re going to fix it, okay?”

He’s walking towards the garage door. He’s actually just walking away from you towards the garage door. “My assistant will be by to get you all checked out,” he says over his shoulder, and then he’s gone, leaving you staggering against the side of your poor, damaged car.

Another half-hour later, the assistant shows up. Or rather, pops his head in the door. “Follow me,” he says, and you do, to a small room with an aging computer on a desk. He sits behind the desk. “Do you have comprehensive insurance?” he asks. You tell him quietly that you don’t. He sighs. “Okay, so you’re paying the full amount.” He consults your clipboard, upon which the mechanic has apparently left some notes. He types for a few moments and then his printer spits out a small pile of papers, which he hands to you.

You pick them up.

You read down until you see the total for the battery of tests the mechanic has ordered for your car, the battery of tests you’re fairly sure you don’t need.

You suddenly feel dizzy. It’s more than you paid for the car in the first place…and you bought the car new.

“There’s also the cost of your consultation with the mechanic, which you can see here,” the assistant says, turning over the paper in your hand.

You look at him in abject horror, willing him to open his mouth and justify this incredibly ridiculous expense, which — if your dazed calculations are correct — suggests that the mechanic is charging roughly $400 per minute of his time.

He doesn’t. He just nods again. “Of course, that includes the cost of the mechanic’s assistant looking at your car while it was in the garage, before the mechanic showed up, and opening the hood.”

“Did they do anything to it?”

“Oh, no. We’re not qualified to do anything, we’re not actual mechanics. He just made sure it wasn’t actually on fire.”

“I could have told you that!”

“Yes, but you’re not a mechanic, are you?” He smiles, and it’s clear that he’s apprenticing to the mechanic in Advanced Condescension.

He hands you another, worryingly large stack of paperwork.

“Now, we can set you up on a payment plan….”

You nod, resigned, and sign away most of what you’d planned on earning for the next six months.

“Okay, I’ve scheduled you for an appointment next week to bring your car in and do these tests,” he says. You look up in astonishment.

“You’re not doing them today?” you ask. He laughs, genuinely amused. “Oh, God, no,” he says. “Our testing facility is backlogged. But we’ll get you in there.”

“And how long after that ’till the test results come back?” you ask through numb lips. He shrugs. “I really couldn’t tell you,” he says. “Not even ballpark?” you ask. He shrugs again. “Probably three weeks,” he says, “if you’re lucky.”

“But I’m afraid my car is going to catch on fire or something, or just break, and I need it to go to work!”

He shrugs a third time. “If it’s really that serious, you can take it to the emergency mechanic.”

“Can they fix it?” You’re hoping he’s going to tell you something different from the receptionist did on the phone, but again, he just shrugs.

“Probably not. They’re not really trained to do diagnostics. They’ll probably just tear out all the wiring and hook it–“

“Straight to my battery, right.” He shrugs again. This guy is a master of shrugging. “That’s just the way it works,” he says.

He leads you out the door, to where your car is now sitting, forlorn, in the parking lot. You thank him — for what, you’re not entirely sure — and get in, turn the engine. It makes the funny noise and you want to turn to the mechanic’s assistant and shout Here! That’s the noise! Did you hear that?

But he’s long gone, and so you pull away, watching the lights of your dashboard instruments pulse rhythmically as you putter towards work.

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