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Commuter Hell

Welcome to Commuter Hell

We are not what you would call car people. The last time we owned a car was back in Slippery Rock, PA in the winter of 1991. It was a junker that we picked up for $500 to get us back and forth to school in the winter. By the early spring, we found out that the car's transmission was being held in by a block of wood. In the late spring, we sold the car to a used car dealer, made a couple of hundred dollars and decided that we got the better end of the deal.

I didn't even get my license until 1993.

Now, we live in a city where every family owns at least one car… and since most Hartford residents work in the surrounding towns, it's necessary. So, in preparation to moving to Hartford, Janet and I tasked my mother with the search for a car.

A few days after calling her, she had found us what seemed to be a perfect car, being sold by an upstanding car dealer with a good reputation in the community. $1500 later ($1000 for the car, $500 for needed body work&#41, we were the proud owners of a 1993 Honda Civic DX.

That was early May. Fast forward to May 27, the day we picked the car up from the body shop… and the first time we ever saw the car.

First off, the car is a bit dented… which we found out is because it was stolen and found abandoned on the street by the police. It's missing the passenger side mirror… which isn't the biggest problem, because the passenger side door isn't the same color as the rest of the car (the car is navy, yet the door is charcoal&#41. It's dirty, smelly, and the radio doesn't work. We were quite unhappy.

The 10 mile drive from the shop to the house was a nightmare. The car rattled, creaked and started to overheat. Janet (who was driving at the time&#41 said that it felt like the car was going to stall at any moment. We made it back to the apartment and just sort of shook our heads in disbelief: we owned yet another junker.

It's now three weeks later and our perception of this plucky little Honda has changed. A fill-up with premium and some dry gas took care of the stalling and rattling problem… and a good dose of water and coolant took care of the overheating. Heck, even the door color isn't a problem because it helps me find the car in the parking lot to my office. Sure, the wheels need to be aligned and the radio needs to be replaced, but all in all, it's mechanically sound… and that's all that matters to me. Every day I put almost 50 miles on my Civic, and isn't really giving me any significant trouble… I just need to give it high-test and a give the radiator its weekly refill (no, it doesn't leak… we're still trying to figure this one out&#41, and it rewards me by getting me to work on time.

I think I like owning a car.

But as essentially a first time driver, dealing with the other thousands of cars on the street is an interesting challenge. This chronicle will tell the story of the people, places and general annoyances involved with my time behind the wheel.

— Avery

Entries are in descending order


Friday didn't start out being a bad day. The morning traffic into the office was light and I was able to accomplish a ton of stuff at work. So, when the option of leaving the office a little early was brought to my attention, I really felt like I had earned an early reprieve. All I had to do is stop off in Farmington for a quick meeting at 1:30 and then I was off to start my three-day weekend.

The drive from my office in Southington to the office in Farmington is a straight shot on I-84. It's about nine miles there, and then another seven miles from the Farmington office to home. I left Southington at 1:00 and made it to Farmington at about 1:15. The meeting ran until 3:00pm and I figured that I could be home by 3:30, all goes well.

I came out of the office driveway and headed towards the I-84 on ramp. One traffic light, a quick left turn and boom, I would be on the highway.

Well, the boom was right.

As I turned onto the on-ramp, I started to accelerate to highway speed. The Finneman Road on ramp is deceptive, because you start building up speed on a straightaway, but then there is a tight-radius turn to the right to actually get on the highway. It had just started drizzling a few minutes before I got into the car.

When I started to approach the turn, I noticed how sharp it was… so I took my foot off of the gas pedal in order to slow down. By the time I had to start turning the wheel for the turn, I felt like I needed to slow down even more, so I gently eased onto the brake and started the turn.

It was at that exact moment that the car decided to misbehave for the first time. The back of the car started to spin out. Damn that centrifugal force! I was heading towards the embankment.


That boom was the sound of my 10-day-old car hitting a yellow and black right hand turn warning signs as I headed into a small, grassy ditch at the side of the on ramp. I checked myself… I was fine. I checked the situation… I was out of the line of traffic. I grabbed the cellphone and took a look at the car.

All the wheels seemed inflated, and there was nothing pressing into the tire wells, so I figured that the car was probably still driveable. Then I assessed the damage. The sign had slammed into the passenger side door, about 5 inches from my head, broke off and smacked the hood. The door was totalled and there was a nasty dent in the hood. Someone came by and asked if I was OK. I said that I was fine and that I thought the car was driveable.

I immediately got back into the car and turned the engine on. It turned over and the CD that was in the player came on. At least the car seemed to be in order. Then I called *SP for the state police to see if there was anything I needed to do. The officer asked if anyone was hurt, to which I responded that I had knocked over a sign. He asked for the location of the accident and told me to call the non-emergency number once I got home.

Then I called GEICO. After ten minutes of waiting on hold, they took my information and told me to go home and call from there. I put down the phone, took a deep breath, put the car in reverse to get out of the holes the wheels made in the dirt, turned the steering wheel to the left and threw it into 1st gear. I was back on the road and heading onto the highway.

By the time I got home, it was near 4pm. I called Janet to tell her that I was in an accident and that I was fine. Then I called the state police, where a sympathetic Officer Foley told me to come to the Hartford Barracks to file a report. Another call to GEICO to file the formal claim and get an appointment with the claims assessor and I was done with the critical worries. It was now time to take a look at the damage again.

The rear door was crushed. It still opened and shut, but it would have to be replaced. The bottom rocker panel was shot, and there would be some dents that would need to be pulled out. The car only had 400 miles on it and now it looked like it had gone through hell. I spent the next half-hour sitting on the porch trying to compose myself.

Janet made it home around 5pm and then we were off to meet with Officer Foley. We got in, waited in the waiting area for a few minutes, and an officer came out to talk to us. He presented me with two options:

  1. He could issue me a ticket, start a formal investigation and charge me for the damaged sign
  2. Since nobody was hurt, I could leave and the DOT would fix the sign

The officer explained that people take those signs out all of the time. I asked him if there would be anything wrong with taking option #2, and he told me that there is no problem. We left, figuring that we have just saved him an hour's worth of paperwork.

We meet with the adjustor on Saturday, and he estimated that we did about $2500 worth of damage to the car. When I explained what had happened, he told me that what probably happened is that the drizzling rain made the seeped-in oils on the highway leech out, making it like black ice. It was a freak convergence of a number of factors that caused the accident. I left feeling a little better, but still nervous to be in the car.

It's now Sunday afternoon. I'm still kicking myself in the ass for getting into the accident, but I'm happy that nobody was hurt and that the damage was relatively minimal. Still, my perfect little virginal car has been deflowered… and it will never be the same again.

At least I don't have to worry about the first scratch anymore.

If you haven't read yesterday's entry yet, let me summarize: the car is dead. On the way to work on Monday, it overheated. That afternoon, when I tried to turn on the car so I could drive it to the repair shop, it wouldn't even turn over. The alternator/generator light was on and the oil light was an angry red. It was done for. Kaput.

Ricky at Eddie's Evergreen had assured me that someone would look at the car Monday night, and would get back to me with a status of what was wrong with the car and how much it would cost to fix it. For some reason, I had a gnawing feeling that this was going to be yet another debacle… where the car would be in the shop for weeks and that even if the repairs went well, that the car was going to become a regular customer at Eddie's.

So, when I got home Monday afternoon, I started calling around to car dealerships to see what sort of financing I could get on a new car. The numbers looked good, so I knew that if the Civic was destined to be a problem child, we had options. Monday night came and I called Ricky. His response was that he was busy and wouldn't have a chance to look at it until Tuesday morning. I made a decision that if I didn't hear from Ricky by noon, that I would hit the car dealership on the way home.

Tuesday. Noon. No call from Ricky. A call to the service station gets me the following response from the maintainance desk: "We're swamped, but we'll get to it this afternoon" Ok. Does Avery smell the bullshit here? They sold me the car less than a month ago and now they're balking on fixing the car which is still under warranty? Something was seriously wrong with both the car and the people at Eddie's who sold it to me. No more negotiation… time to get a new car.

I had been researching cars on the internet, and decided to look at a Kia Sephia. The Sephia is a Korean interpretation of the Honda Civic, but with a larger engine, better warranty and a lower price tag… almost $4000 less than a similarly-equipped Civic (power steering, AC, automatic transmission, extended warranty, etc&#41. The local Kia dealer was less than 10 miles from my office, so I called Joe, the salesman at Crowley Auto and made a 4:30 appointment.

3:30pm: Called Ricky, he said that he was busy and that he would call me back in five minutes.

3:55pm: Called Ricky again, asked why he didn't call me back. He informs me that Mike is working on the car and will have some information for me soon.

4:00pm: I'm in the car and on my way to Crowley. Enough is enough.

I arrived at the dealership on time, and Joe (the salesman&#41 immediately had me in the driver seat of a Garnet Red 1999 Sephia. It felt just like the Civic, except for the fact that this car had its tires aligned and didn't smell like burning anti-freeze. A 5 mile test drive later, and I decided that I could see myself driving this car. For the heck of it, I also test drove the Kia Sportage, their entry level SUV, but the gas mileage and handling weren't what I was looking for.

5:30pm: While the paperwork was being processed, and I was on the way home to pick up Janet so she could test drive the car. But first, I needed to make one quick stop.

6:00pm: I arrive at Eddie's so I can get the registration and front plate off of the Civic. I pull in, expecting to see the car in one of the service bays. It isn't. It's still sitting where the tow truck had left it at 2pm on Monday. Fuming, I get the paperwork and spare plate out of the glove compartment (which is still sitting on the passenger side floor&#41 and ask for Mike. Mike tells me that he's been busy and will get to it Wednesday morning.

7:00pm: Janet and I are back at Crowley, and Janet gets behind the wheel. No problems (though she has a little concern with the acceleration from a full stop when the A/C is on&#41, and we tell Joe to finalize the credit application.

7:40pm: We're at the desk of Barry Savage, the credit officer to sign our life away and get our temporary registration.

8:00pm: With the paperwork complete, Joe takes us to see our brand new car… a 1999 Sport Blue/Grey Kia Sephia.

17 miles later, I'm pulling into the driveway, smiling. It was the right choice for the right price, and I couldn't be happier.

Car fall down, go boom.

When we last left off, I was quite content with both the explanation of why the car had been overheating. The car was running fine, and everything was good. At least, everything seemed to be going well.

On Saturday (6/19&#41, we decided to make a trip up to the Great North Eastern Brewers Festival in Northampton, MA… which is about 48 miles North of Hartford. During the hour-long trip there, the car was running perfectly… the engine hummed and the thermostat needle never went above the mid-point. Everything seemed fine.

Fast forward three hours. Janet and I return to the car and start it up. The needle rises to the mid-point, but stays level. Since the needle tends to drop when it hits highway speeds, we weren't concerned and started off towards home. Somewhere near Springfield, a full 35 miles away from home, the needle rockets towards H. Oy. Either we pull off and let the bugger cool down, which will take a couple of hours… or we could keep on driving and risk damaging the car. We decided to take the third (and most uncomfortable&#41 option: we cranked the heat so we could siphon some of the heat off of the engine and cool it down to a driveable level. The combination of driving at 65 MPH and blasting the heat was enough to keep the needle from hitting the H… though it did little to cool our tempers. We pulled into the house, killed the engine and popped the hood. Steam and hissing: the signs of general unhappiness eminated from the radiator, Janet and me.

Sunday morning we woke up and I puttered around with the radiator: I flushed the radiator, bled the air bubbles from the line and refilled the tank with the proper mix of coolant and water… and everything seemed to work fine. Janet piled into the car and we were off to run our weekend errands. By the time we made it two miles to the intersection of New Britain Ave and South Quaker, the needle was reaching for the H and white wisps of smoke started appearing from under the hood. We pulled into the parking lot behind Omni Comics and popped the hood. This was not good at all.

I decided to run into Omni to see if we had anything in our subscription box and while I was there, the store manager told me that the service shop at Pep Boys might be open. He gave me directions and I went back to the car to see if it would even start. It did, even though the engine was hot. Luck was with us and the needle stayed barely out of the red for the half-mile trek to Pep Boys. Their service station wasn't staffed for repair work since it was a Sunday, but I was able to pick up a Honda Civic repair guide… and we left for home to start diagnosing the problem.

With the help of the garden hose, the car cooled down quickly, and I was able to start going through the trouble-shooting checklist. I checked the fuses, and watched the car idle to see if the cooling fan kicked in. I pushed where I was supposed to push and I prodded where I was supposed to prod. The end result was that for a half of an hour, I waited for the car to start to overheat so I could figure out if it was the water pump or the thermostat, but the needle never rose beyond the midpoint. I decided to call Eddie's Evergreen Mobil Monday morning to get the car looked at.

When I left for work on Monday morning, the car was fine for the first 15 miles of the 17 mile drive. The needle hovered in the safe range, and all seemed fine. However, when I slowed down for some traffic, the needle went right into the red. I pulled in to witness steam pouring horribly out of the hood. Five minutes later, I was on the phone with Ricky at the service station, discussing the situation. He recommended that I get the car in as soon as possible, and that he would put in a new thermostat. I agreed that this was a prudent course of action and scheduled a 1:30 appointment.

At 1pm, I left the office and went down to the car. Time for the post over-heat check… check the pressure cap, add more water, look for any obvious cracks or leaks in the radiator. Everything looked fine. I sat down, inserted the key and turned the ignition.

Nothing happened.

Ok, something happened: the oil light (I checked the oil Sunday and it was fine&#41, alternator light and the battery light all came on… which was interesting, as they had never come on before. The car wouldn't even turn over. It was dead. One quick call to GEICO insurance, and a tow truck was sent out to drag the car (and me&#41 to Eddie's. Ricky had no idea what was wrong, but promised that he would call with an update Tuesday morning. In the meantime, he suggested that I get a rental car. So, I dialed 800-RENTACAR (Enterprise&#41 and picked up a Dodge Neon for the duration of the repair time.

When I got home, I started to think about it. The overheating probably did some serious damage to the head gasket… and the car needed some pre-winter body work, a new paint job, new tires and a paint job. The Civic would cost me about $1500 in work over the next six months. So I started calculating the cost of a new car. Janet arrived home while I was looking through the phone book for new car dealers. I called one dealer near my office and talked to a sales rep. Within a few minutes, I was pre-approved for either a lease or a low-interest rate financing for a new car. It's now lunchtime on Tuesday… the Civic is still DOA and I have an appointment with the salesman at 4:30pm. Maybe by this time tomorrow, I'll be in in my own brand new car.


I really don't think that it should smoke like that.

Though the Civic has been a real trooper for the last few weeks, it has developed a bad habit of overheating. So, every day I would add in a few liters of water/coolant into the radiator… and the car would be fine… unless I got stuck in rush hour traffic on the way home, in which case the car would invariably overheat and would be well over the H by the time I pulled into the driveway.

But yesterday as we drove back from furniture shopping in Manchester, CT, it pinned at the H almost immediately as we pulled out of the parking lot. That, and the car started stalling. We knew that there was a problem. That was confirmed as soon as we pulled into the driveway and saw steam pouring out of the hood. Now, I'll be the first to tell you that I am not a gearhead, but even I knew that something was wrong.

Needless to say, I was disturbed. I was pacing around what was about to become a half-ton paperweight wondering how I was going to get into work today. However, after a quick refill with coolant, the temperature dropped to a normal level and I was relieved. I also decided to take the car into the dealership for a check.

Now, I'm a cynic (like you don't know that by now&#41. I believe that everyone is out to screw you… and that if they're extending a hand in friendship, they probably have a knife in the other hand, just waiting to stab you. Add to that my normal fear of mechanics, and you have a potentially nervewracking experience.

Ok… let me clarify. I'm not scared of mechanics like some people are scared of clowns. It's just that I feel so helpless around them. I know nothing about the workings of my engine, and they can essentially tell me that it needs $1000 worth of work, when in reality it only needs a $10 piece of wire or something. So this time I decided to do some research on the internet to see what was causing these mysterious problems.

I came up with three possibilities:

  1. The thermostat is shot. Internet price for a thermostat: $40
  2. The fan motor is shot. Internet price for a cooling fan: $160
  3. The wiring is shot. Internet price for that: a whole heckuva lot

Plus, none of those solutions even came close to explain why the car is stalling. Oy.

4pm. I arrive at Eddie's Evergreen Mobil on Farmington Ave, ready for what was sure to be the reaming of a lifetime. I pull in and ask for Ricky, the mechanic who certified the car before purchase. I explain the problem.

To make a long story short, within a half of an hour, he finds the primary problem: an air bubble in the radiator kept the water from flowing between the radiator and the engine. He bled the air out, and the car immediately sounded better.

Then he broke the bad news.

When the car overheated, the head gasket tore, allowing water to leak into the cylinder. That's what caused all of the water to evaporate, which made the car overheat even more, and it also made the car stall at low speeds. He poured in a can of sealant, waited another 15 minutes and turned the motor on again. Better.

Ricky told me that the tear might have been small, and that the sealant would be enough to fix it… but unfortunately, only time will tell. However, if the head gasket needs to be replaced, his exact words were: Don't worry about it, I'll take care of you.

Suddenly, I'm not so afraid of mechanics anymore.

Posted in Chronicles.

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