WED, 23 JUN 1999
I WAS SCHEDULED TO RIDE my Grand Am to Knoxville on Thursday. With nearly 150,000 miles on the car (double that, since it was American), I was more than 5,000 miles beyond the Jiffy Lube Next Scheduled Oil Change sticker posted on my windshield. Something like wisdom told me to get an oil change before hitting the road for the 3-hour trip.
So during my lunch break, __z___e trailed me up Roswell Road; and I took the car - not to Jiffy Lube - but to Atlanta Oil Express, which was a little closer by.
More importantly, they were running a special:
WEDNESDAY OIL CHANGE
A dozen or so cars were lined up at the three service bays. It was a zoo.
"I'm so glad I had you follow me," I said to __z___e. "There's no way I would've made it back in an hour for lunch."
But as I took a look at all of the cars lined up in the service area, I questioned if they would have enough time, even after 4 hours, to get to my car before I got off from work.
"Are you sure," I asked the cashier, "that you can have me done by five?"
"Five o'clock?" he said, "No problem!"
I handed him my keys.
AT 5:15, WE PULLED UP to the Atlanta Oil Express. Though still buzzing, it was not quite as frenetic as before. I saw my car parked off to the side. I went in to retrieve my keys and pay for my services.
"Nope," said the oil tech, doubling as cashier, "don't see it."
"But my car is right out there. The green Grand Am."
"Oh," he said, as if suddenly tapped on the shoulder. "I'm sorry. It's not in the system."
"I mean, whoever took your order didn't enter you into the system. Your car didn't get done."
My eyes grew maniacal and wide. I felt my hand trembling. I scanned the wall of hanging keys. I wanted mine back, especially the jagged house key... to slice his neck.
But before I could commit a criminal act, he said, "I tell you what, bruh. You got 10 minutes?"
I wasn't thinking clearly. But what I was thinking was that it was after five. That the whole city was getting off from work. That the streets would be flooded with cars, all thirsty for oil.
I would waste at least an hour going to another place, waiting for the cars that were already ahead of me in line, and then waiting for them to change my oil.
I'd already had a long work day and had errands to run before my trip. I just wanted the day done - to get some rest.
I snapped. "Ten minutes! For what?"
"Give me $15 dollars, and I'll get you done in 10 minutes."
"But how long is it gonna take you to get to my car?" I said, with controlled rage.
"That's what I'm saying. Give me $15 and I'll get you myself. No wait." His look put me momentarily put me at ease. It was the look when a brotha is giving you
I sat in the waiting area with the TV. I caught up on the latest robberies in southwest Atlanta. And, sure enough, in not even 10 minutes brothaman was handing me my keys.
"Thanks, man. You don't know how much I appreciate this."
I felt so good about it, I gave him a five dollar tip!
WE WERE HEADED 75-NORTH, APPROACHING the Tennessee state line, making good time just before 4 in the afternoon, when it happened.
"Hey," I said to Ja___, my traveling companion, dozing in the passenger seat, "my oil light just came on."
"Well," he said groggily, "when's the last time you put oil in it?"
"Yesterday," I said. "I just had an oil change yesterday. Something must be wrong with the gauge." I looked at the other needles and dials. "Or is there something else that could be wrong?"
"For an oil light? Not that I know of. But let's just keep an eye on it."
Grooving to Maxwell, we rode on past another exit - through Rednickville past sky-high signs for BP and HARDEE'S and SUPER 8. But the oil warning light remained lit.
"I don't know, Marv_n," Ja__ said, "oil ain't nothin to play around with. It could tear your engine up. Why don't you pull over so we can take a look?"
But before he could finish his sentence, the engine started ticking. This can't be good, I thought. And I pulled over to the side of the highway, a hundred yards or so before the oncoming exit ramp. It was nearing 4:00, and I had to be in Knoxville by 8.
What if the car needs repair? What if it needs a part? What if the mechanic can't even get to my car today?
Who am I going to call an hour-and-a-half from Knoxville and an hour-and-a-half from Atlanta? What am I going to do?
I popped the hood. Ja___ withdrew the oil stick.
"Whoa," Ja__ said. "I've never seen an oil stick this clean."
"But I just had the oil changed," I said, confused. "It had to have oil in it. I mean, how could the car run from Atlanta all the way to Chattanooga without any oil?"
We examined the pavement underneath the car and behind it. There was no black liquid to be found.
"Well, let's just get to the next exit here and get to a gas station," Ja___ said. "We can get some oil there. See if that fixes the problem."
We turtled down the right-hand lane and down the exit ramp. The engine continued to tick-tick-tick - menacingly as a bomb. Fortunately, there was a gas station immediately to the right. I pulled the car, which was now grinding, up to a gas pump. Before I could even turn off the ignition-
"It shut off," I said, my heart pounding.
"I didn't turn off the ignition. The car shut off by itself."
I tried to restart the car, but there was only a dry cough. Ja___ looked under the hood again, while I went inside to buy oil.
"The oil stick is clean. I just had an oil change yesterday," I recounted to the man working register. "We've driven up from Atlanta and we had no problems until just now." Suddenly, I saw, scribbled in the wrinkles of his reddened face, what looked like... words.
I felt helpless. "Do you know where the nearest mechanic is around here?" I asked.
"Well, you're in luck. There's one right up here, not a half mile up the road," he said. "I don't have parts to fix it if you have got a serious problem, but I can take a look at it if you'd like."
He rang me up for the four quarts, then followed me outside. I emptied the oil into the engine. It was a feeble attempt to reclaim my masculinity.
"Try to crank it up," graybeard said. I quickly obliged. I was relieved to no longer feel like I had to be in charge of the situation.
I turned the key. My heart fluttered. The car cranked!
I got out of the car with the engine running. Graybeard leaned his ear toward the machinery to try to decipher the ticks.
"Sounds like you might have some damage," he said. "You should take it up to the mechanic." Without warning, Graybeard dropped to the ground, startling me.
He inspected beneath the car. "Yup, a steady stream of oil," he said. "Looks like you've got yourself a leak."
My heart dropped. Even if I couldn't make it to Knoxville, would the car at least make it to the mechanic? Ja__ and I got back in the car and ticked on up the road. About a half mile, we veered right at the V as graybeard instructed.
The auto shop was a junky grease spot, a free-standing shack with cars on bricks. It was on a road which was off of a road, which was off of the main road (if you could call the main road a main road) and in the woods. I parked the car, and I wondered when was the last time they had seen Black people - if ever. What will they do to my car? More importantly, What might they do to me? Luckily, I had Ja__ with me. I felt a little more secure.
I replayed the last half-hour to one of the mechanics.
"We're on the road to Knoxville, and we're trying to get there by 8. Do you think it's something you could look at today?" I didn't have the courage to ask if I thought it was something they might actually be able to fix.
"Yeah, we'll take a look."
There was no waiting area, so Ja___ and I hung out in a ditch on the side of the road. The north Georgia sky was overcast. Feeling something wet, I looked up.
"The last thing we need right now," Ja___ said, "is rain."
"You see this," the mechanic said to me, as I stood in the garage.
"This is your oil filter. It's covered in oil. This here's a clean one. Whoever changed your oil in Atlanta didn't screw the filter back on tight."
"Yep, you're really lucky that you stopped driving when you did," he said, "because if you had kept driving, your engine would have locked up. Possibly caught on fire. The entire underside of your car is covered in oil. All we've done is replaced your filter. I'll just charge you $25.
That ticking you're hearing in your engine is permanent. It's been damaged. You should take this old filter back to the people who changed your oil and demand that they pay to have your engine replaced."
"My engine? Replaced?" I was in disbelief. "You mean to tell me that I need my whole engine replaced?"
"Well, it's not gonna get better on its own. Besides, their liable. It's their fault it happened. Just take your car back, show them this filter, and show them your receipt from me. Also, show them the receipt from the oil change they did. You do still have your receipt, don't you?"
"Yeah," I lied.
The truth was, I didn't get a receipt.
Why? Because I got... A HOOK-UP! That clown at Atlanta Oil Exchange didn't ring me up. He never entered me into the system. He pocketed the change for himself, and - most importantly - he f*cked me over!
I drove the car to Knoxville, where I ended up winning the Individual Championship in the 1999 Southeastern Regional Poetry Slam. My ticking Grand Am also safely returned me back to Atlanta.
For the next month, the ticking continued. And that July my car FAILED its emissions test.
I ended up spending over $400 for a rebuilt engine - out of my own pocket. That's $400, plus $25 for having my filter replaced, plus the cost of having to rerun my car through emissions - let's just say it added up. So much for a $15, move-to-the-front-of-the-line oil change.
What a price to pay for getting the hook-up. And to think, I gave him a $5 tip!