Friday, January 21, 2011

Design Flaw

Much as I love the Éclair, there have always been a few things about her that I could do without. One is the automatic windows. I like the kind of windows you have to crank up and down, and that you don’t have to turn on the ignition to roll up if you forget. Also, I would have preferred a stick shift, and I’d have loved to have a moon roof. But the most irritating feature of the vintage 1990 Honda Civic four-door sedan is its newfangled (at the time) seat belts, with their two-pronged approach to pinning you in your seat: a lap belt and a separate shoulder belt that automatically slides back and strangles you when you turn the key in the ignition. (This design was short-lived: in later models, the two belts were combined into one.)

There is also an annoying beeper that tells you when the seat belt isn’t fastened. My Rockaway car-sitters, T & T, called last week to say that it was beeping nonstop, even when the seat belts were all securely fastened, and asked if there was some trick to turning the damn thing off. Apparently the Eclair had been beeping since New Year’s, when I left it parked with one rear wheel up on the curb (I was sober; it was the snow banks that were at fault). Mr. T. solved the problem by turning the radio up. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stand it on the five-hundred-mile trek across Pennsylvania, so last Friday, when I went out to Rockaway to pick up the car before leaving for my literary debut in Cleveland, I drove straight to my mechanic, Sir James Bulloch.

“All we’ll do is disconnect it,” Big Bulloch said when I described the problem. And that was all I asked. He put a mechanic to work on it, and right away it was clear that it wasn’t going to be easy. They had to bring the car inside and put it on the lift. It was about noon, and I was hoping to get back to Manhattan and on the road before rush hour. I went for coffee, and when I got back, maybe a half hour later, Baby Bulloch was in the office. “That must drive you crazy,” he said. Then I heard it: she was still beeping. I suddenly remembered something I had to do and went across the street to the liquor store. When I got back, the garage was blessedly silent. “They had to take the whole panel off,” Big Bulloch said. “They’re just putting it together now.” He said I would have to buckle the seat belt manually. As the automatic seat belt had never been my favorite feature, I didn’t mind. He charged me forty dollars and threw in a gallon of windshield-wiper fluid.

Anyone who has ever ridden shotgun in the Éclair will probably be pleased to hear that not only has the beeper been disabled but the entire shoulder-belt assembly has lost its will to throttle. You can buckle it, but the belt doesn’t ride back against your throat. The bad news, of course, is that it’s illegal to drive without the shoulder belt (I have been stopped for not wearing it), so it is extra important not to do anything that might attract a cop’s attention, like run a red light, for instance (which I would never do), or make a U-turn (which I would do only if it was strictly convenient) or speed (which this would be a good incentive to give up).

I was on the road by about three-thirty, and everything was going according to plan until dusk fell. For some reason, the dashboard lights weren’t working. When I’d asked, back in Rockaway, what might have caused the car to beep without ceasing, Bulloch had shrugged and said, “Could be a bad module.” I pulled into a rest area and made sure that the headlights were on, wondering what else might have gotten disconnected. While not mechanically essential, the dashboard at night is a sign of intelligent life, and I missed it. Without the dashboard lights, I couldn’t see how fast I was going or how many miles I’d gone or how much gas I had left. It was as if the car had had a stroke.

I got 177 miles into the trip before stopping at a Days Inn in Danville Pennsylvania. The gas tank was nearly empty. The next day, in addition to the stroke symptoms, the car developed Parkinson’s disease. It shook violently, especially at low speeds (my solution, of course, was to speed up). In Cleveland, I drove straight to the neighborhood mechanic, Wally, who told me I needed two tires. I asked him to take a look at the dashboard lights, and he was able to fix that problem, too. "I plugged in a module," he said. I snuck back into New York, on my new tires, between two storm systems, and found a parking spot that is good until next Tuesday or maybe longer, depending on whether the Mayor keeps having to suspend alternate side parking on account of snow.

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