June 24, 2015

Oil, that is. Black gold. Texas tea.

Oil light

Let me start by saying that the past 4 to 6 weeks have been crazy and my attention has been focused elsewhere. Like, for example, my domesticated-feral tabby Geronimo showed up one morning with an eye injury (to his already injured-healed over eye) so profound that it required an emergency vet trip and two more trips to a kitty eye specialist. Then Neal’s post-surgical wounds, which had been healed, became unhealed and I’ll spare the grisly details but that required several more trips to the Larkspur specialist. In the same period, the bathroom toilet broke at the base, flooding the floor. And then the refrigerator stopped working, resulting in the spoilage of all the dairy products and frozen foods with which I’d recently stocked it. Finally, I was informed not once but twice that I’d lost my health insurance: the first time the notification was in error; the second time, it wasn’t.

Needless to say, all of these little crises came with a price tag and demanded all of my focus. Which is why, this morning at 9 am when I take my aged Saturn to Rigo, my mechanic, to explain to him what I let happen, I hope that he — and the Gods of Transportation — will show me some mercy.

Monday night as I was driving home from work south on Highway 101 in no traffic and zipping along at a brisk 68 mph, my Saturn started making a tapping noise. A scary-ass “uh-oh something’s wrong” tapping. Because the car is very old and I’ve recently had to replace the head gasket ($1,000!), I immediately jumped to the conclusion that I simply shouldn’t be driving it so fast. However, Tuesday morning as I was driving back into Santa Rosa, suddenly an ominous thought formed in my brain and spread like a wine-dark stain on a white shag carpet. I broke into a cold sweat as the realization hit me: I HAVEN’T CHECKED MY OIL. The oil hadn’t been changed or checked since the head gasket was replaced, precisely 3,500 miles ago. Old as she is, my car needs at least one quart of oil added between changings, sometimes two.

Suddenly I knew with dread and certainty why my car was making noise. I decided I didn’t even want to wait until I got to Santa Rosa, but decided instead to pull into a retirement community a few miles up the road. I reasoned that a community of elders would surely have at least one full-service gas station. As my Saturn tap-tapped its way down the highway, my stomach knotted itself so many times I imagined that my intestines had turned into a macrame plant hanger. As soon as I got into Oakmont I saw, on my left, like a shining beacon, a gas-station-turned-auto-repair business. I pulled in, parked, and walked up to where several people were sitting on a bench outside, waiting for their cars. A pleasant-faced man in his 50s saw my approach. “Excuse me,” I said, “is there any way someone can check my oil and add some if it’s low?” My mind would only let me assume “low” as any other possibility (“gone”) would lead to visions of my poor recently-deceased father spinning furiously in his grave. The man said “Sure!” in a way that made me want to hug him.

He disappeared inside his garage, came out with a few bottles of oil and a rag, pulled out the dipstick, put it back in, pulled it out again, and said: “Empty. Bone dry.” He looked at me.

This is the thing that every driver knows MUST. NOT. HAPPEN. I learned it from my father at age 15. “Whatever you do, make sure you check the oil and keep it changed.” I knew this. I KNEW THIS. I swayed a little and grabbed his arm, and said, “Oh my god in holy heaven.” I couldn’t even imagine what he was thinking of me, given what I was thinking about me — and I know and like me.

He added several quarts of oil to my car while I stood by thinking, “I’ve killed my car.” I couldn’t have felt any worse if I’d forgotten to feed my cat and was watching a vet giving him intravenous fluids, trying to undo the damage that my neglect had caused. Well, okay, that would be worse. But self-recrimination coursed through me like a fever.

I thanked him profusely, paid him, and got back on Highway 12. I turned off the radio and the air conditioning and listened to my engine as I drove. I’ve been driving this Saturn since 1997….I know her every purr and ping. The tapping was gone. Everything sounded normal. I prayed all the way to work, “Let it be okay let it be okay let it be okay please please please thank you thank you thank you.” As soon as I got to my office, I Googled, “I let my car run out of oil how screwed am I?” One response said that a mechanic should change your oil and see if there are metal shavings present which, presumably, would mean a death sentence. Almost all responses said the car’s engine was likely ruined. I called Rigo and arranged to take my car in at 9 am this morning.

There’s nothing else I can do. It will either be okay, or it won’t. And I can’t even say that I’ve learned a lesson because it’s a lesson I already knew, one that’s as ingrained in me as “look both ways before crossing the street.” Rigo will tell me whether I got away with it or not.

Meanwhile, a big shout out to Vaughn at “At Your Service” in Oakmont. If you’re ever in the Valley of the Moon and need some vehicular maintenance, throw some business his way. I don’t know what he was doing when I got there, but he dropped everything to help me. He was the best part of yesterday.
6:35 PM – UPDATE: Rigo said he did find metal shavings in the oil filter. He also said that, nevertheless, my car sounds otherwise fine and “should be okay.” A little thing: He always puts one of those “next oil change” stickers up in the corner of my windshield. This time, I noticed, he wrote it in red ink. I don’t mind. My Dad, who died in January, always looked after me, his youngest. Now that he’s gone I’m especially grateful for any extra support, even if it’s something as simple as reminders in big red letters.

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