Thursday, December 22, 2011

To Do it Yourself or To Pay the Man - The Eternal Struggle

I grew up in a society of do-it-yourself, self-sufficient agrarians who refused to pay someone for a service they could do themselves. I serviced most everything on the beat up old vehicles I drove in high school - the brakes, the tires, oil, anti-freeze. You name it, I could probably find a way to do it myself. I pulled the engine, replaced the gas tank, fuel lines, and carburetor on my pickup, all with the help of my grandfathers and a book.

But upon getting a job that required a great deal of travel, I was forced to discard the truck for a more fuel efficient form of transportation. Since buying my Toyota Corolla in 2007, I probably have not popped the hood in a vehicle more than a dozen times. It is not that I don't want to understand my vehicle. It is the fact that I have lived in apartments, without easy access to garages or tools that make performing maintenance on my vehicles possible. It is the age old conflict - do you pay for the convenience of having someone else perform basic repairs to your vehicle, or do you save money by doing it yourself?

This argument digs deeper than the convenience versus cost argument. Robert Pirsig, in his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, refers to this dichotomy of personality when he dilineates "Romantic" and "Classic" thinkers. The former would prefer to let someone else perform the maintenance, and merely wants to enjoy to vehicle as it is. The latter actually seeks enjoyment from the process of understanding, taking pride in the knowledge and intimacy they share with their vehicle. This is the struggle that lives within me.

Tires are Expensive

There is no getting around the fact that tires are expensive. Every sixty thousand miles or so, a new set of vulcanized shoes need to be slapped onto the old commuter, and it is painful to the pocketbook. Last week, it was my cars turn to pick up a new set of radials.

I priced the wheels out at several Chicagoland shops, and was physically ill from the prices I was quoted. In every case, the gruff shopworker on the other end of the line promised me that he was giving me a great deal, throwing the balancing in for free, and giving me the best tires on the market. Yet every price quote was through the roof. Then I remembered that I was going to be heading to Southeast Iowa for Christmas. So I called a couple of local tire shops from my old stomping grounds. After a few minutes on the phone with a gravelly-voiced man who sounded old enough to be my grandfathers grandfather, I found four quality tires, at a third of the cost that these big city shops were promising. I ordered the tires, knowing that I could mount and balance the tires and my grandfathers shop. I was in like Flynn.

I got into the Hawkeye State mid saturday morning. After trading the bald-tired Toyota for my grandfather and his rusty old pickup, we headed over to the shop to meet the agricultural curmudgeon that I'd spoken to earlier in the week. We paid the man in earnest money, grabbed the tires, and jalopied our way back across the drab rolling farmland of Lee County. We left the tires in the back of the truck and forgot the whole issue of replacing the tires in lieu of a hearty Christmas dinner and the warmth of family. The tires could wait until tomorrow.

The next morning, after an off-key bout with a sleepy church choir, I took to the task of changing my tires. We successfully removed the front two with the help of a clugy old floor jack that liked to slowly lose altitude as it held the car in stasis. My grandfather hoisted the tire onto an ancient machine that bore the marks of a thousand beatings and the dirt of at least thirty years of sitting in the same position amid all the bulldozers, hay bailers, tractors, combines, and any other peice of equipment that may have passed through that shop. The pneumatic tire mounter groaned as we popped the old rubber of the rim, and grated as the iron bar attempted to pull the black tire over the metal wheel. Three times we tried to convince the tire to join its circular counterpart, and three times we were unsuccessful. Finally my grandfather had the idea to check the size of the tire that we were trying so hard to put on the rim.

It was an inch shorter than the tires we were replacing.

Evidently, the centogenarian who sold me the tires misheard the rim size and gave me the wrong tires. I returned the tires, replaced the old rubber on the Toyota, and disappointedly drove five hours back to the city, where I went took my car to my local repair guy and shelled out the exhorbitant price to replace my tires.

Sometimes you are just better off paying the man to do it yourself.


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