The mechanical bull

My “Check Engine” light is on again. So I unlatched the hood and took a look. Sure enough, it was still there. It looked good, too. Right where it’s supposed to be. In the middle. Lots of hoses and wires and belts all over the place. They were a little dirty; but hey, I live on a dirty street. You have to expect a little dirt might get under the hood. That’s enough checking for me. Still, the light wouldn’t go out. Where’s the “OK, I checked it” button?

Of course, that would be too easy. I’ve fallen into the “Check Engine” scam and there’s no escaping it.

“What could cause the ‘Check Engine’ light to go on?” I asked my mechanic.

“Oh, lots of things – my kid starting college, the wife buying new living room furniture, that vacation we want to take to DisneyWorld, my daughter deciding to marry that bonehead she’s been seeing – it all depends. You’d have to bring it in.”

“Is it OK for me to keep driving it?” I asked.

“Sure, I don’t need the money that fast.”

“I kind of meant would it be safe for me to drive it or do I need to have you look at it right away?”

“I never thought of it that way. Let me think. I’m sure it’s safe. What’s the worst that could possibly happen? Your car suddenly stops dead on the interstate while an 18-wheeler full of steel girders going 65 is tailgating you? You wouldn’t even feel it. By the way, have you filled out that donor card on the back of your license? Not that there’d be many good parts left, but what’s left of your skin could still be used to help many people. Don’t be selfish.

“A thousand things could make that ‘Check Engine’ light go on, from something as simple as a loose gas cap to a leaky head gasket. I’m guessing leaky head gasket because I just bought a condo in Boca.”

“But is it dangerous to drive with that ‘Check Engine’ light on? Please. Give. Me. An. Answer.”

“I hate to get into the hypothetical. It could mean so many things: it could mean that your car is no longer under warranty; it could mean you’re late for an oil change; it could mean that you should bring it back to the dealer so he can show you all the new stuff in his showroom that will make that piece of junk you’re driving now look like a Third World jitney; it could mean that the ‘Check Engine’ light needs to be replaced.”

“So you’re saying it’s just a big scam?”

“Not at all. It’s probably that catalytic thingamajig that reduces emissions. I’m pretty sure you can’t pass inspection if that’s not working.”

“But you’re the inspector.”

“Yeah, it’s funny how that works. It’s almost like I could make up anything I wanted to about your car and you’d have to pay it to get that light to go off.”

“There’s no way I can check it myself?”

“Please. This takes sophisticated equipment and years of training.”

“The kid at the parts store said he could do it.”

“Did I say years of training? I meant 15 minutes. But he can’t fix it.”

“I’m trying to figure out how much this is going to cost me.”

“What can I tell you. It could run anywhere from a day at the spa for the wife to a new paint job for my house. Somewhere in that range. But don’t worry, I won’t do any work unless you approve it.”

“Maybe it’d be cheaper to buy a new car than to keep throwing money at this one. Eight hundred here, 600 there, it’s starting to add up. Haven’t you replaced everything on this car at least once?”

“Hardly. You’ve still got the original back seat. And the ashtray and cup holders work fine. Are you sure you want to take such a drastic step? Keep it another year. My kids want those iPhones.”

Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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