The Mercedes Club

(Essay)

A few years ago, when I had invited my friends over to my house, I noticed that my driveway looked like a showroom at a Mercedes-Benz dealership. More than a status symbol, I figured that a principal reason my friends were buying these cars was the free scheduled maintenance offered at that time by the manufacturer. Can you imagine that? No more worrying to find a Jiffy Lube near your home for an oil change or Joe’s Garage across town that has a master mechanic who understands the knock in the engine of these expensive automobiles. No sir – none of that. At scheduled intervals just take your car to your dealer, hand over your keys and say, “Do your thing. I will see you in the evening. And guess what? I won’t owe you a penny.”

Aah! Maintenance! Do you remember the early 1980’s when cars were simple? No electronic ignition, no sound system with twelve speakers or programmable radio stations. Forget about the GPS. The driver had to get out of the car and walk to the other side to adjust the passenger side mirror. I was so happy when I bought a new compact car, a Toyota Corolla, with a radio that had two buttons, one for AM and the other for FM.

In those days maintaining your car yourself was considered not only a macho thing, but also the sensible thing to do. Why pay $9.90 for an oil and filter change when you could do it yourself for about a dollar. Why pay $39.90 for a tune-up when you could do it yourself for less than $10? You just had to know a few basic things about cars.

That’s why I enrolled in an evening auto mechanics class offered at a local high school in Commack, New York, where we lived. I bought the basic tools of the trade from Sears:  a filter wrench for oil change and a light strobe for engine tune-up. I learned how to drain the engine oil, how not to over tighten the filter, how to place a chalk-mark on the fan on the engine block and adjust the carburetor until you only see one mark under the strobe when the engine is running. It all seemed so easy.

Yes, seemed easy. My first experiment with an oil change was an adventure. The wrench I had bought had a straight handle and I could not reach the filter in my small car. Everything under the hood was so crammed. No matter what I did I could not get the filter off. After about half an hour I decided to take my car to Joe in the Exxon station down the road. He pulled out a collapsible wrench from his pant pocket and went to work. I asked him to change the oil as well, as long as he was “in the neighborhood.”

When the car was hoisted up the ramp and the oil was draining I also noticed that the drain plug on my car was at the opposite end of the engine block than the car we had used in the auto mechanic class. That meant that I needed two ramps to back up my car to drain the oil. “I am glad I didn’t buy those $10 ramps that were on sale at Pergament,” I said to myself. “Otherwise I would have to learn to back up on them while reversing my car.” What if they were not aligned and started sliding as I was backing my car? I had read stories in Newsday about those darn things collapsing. Who needed all that trouble? Suffice to say that my efforts to be a do-it-myself car mechanic did not last long. I had the strobe in the original carton when I sold it in a community yard sale.

We had some good times in that car. We made some memorable trips from Long Island to Killington, Vermont. On our first trip we scaled the height of Pico Peak. There we were, with melon daiquiris in our hands, admiring the spectacular natural beauty from above. Then a dark cirrus cloud came from nowhere and we were in the midst of it. For a minute we could not see the person two feet away. We were in a white mist. We will never forget that experience.

Those were the days when it was fashionable to make and serve exotic drinks, not just beer and wine. We did not want our friends visiting our house to think that they already had the drink du jour on their last visit. On one such occasion, when we had almost perfected the art of making a martini (we used to “stir it” not “shake it” – the James Bond aficionados among you will get my drift), we offered it to our friends in a party in our house. We were having a good time, and may be had one too many, because soon everyone stopped and wondered aloud why we were talking so loud?

Oh, how nice it would be to be young again. Now-a-days, when I go to a party and have a couple of Coors Lights and am reaching for the third one, I hear this divine voice from somewhere, saying in Marathi: “Purey Aata,” meaning “enough now.” It sounds distinctly like my wife, but she denies having said anything of that sort. “What is this?” I say to myself, “Do I have to worry about maintaining my body now? They said drinking in moderation is good for you. But the voice is right. As we get old, we do indeed need to maintain our health – watch our cholesterol, blood sugar, weight, stress. You name it.

In 1992, when we moved to Virginia from Commack, we purchased a brand new house. We did not want any maintenance headaches. We loved our small, split level house in Commack that had a white picket fence and a pentagon shaped backyard with hedges surrounding it. Do you know how many times we painted the house inside and out? I can count at least a half-dozen times. In the beginning we did it with the help of a two-year old and a six-year old who displayed their artistic bent by painting murals on the walls.

It took me two whole weekends to trim the hedges in the backyard. I still remember the one whole month it took us to strip the aluminum-based, Mylar wallpaper from the master bathroom. I made numerous visits to the hardware store and got acquainted with all types of strippers (this is a liquid to remove the paper, not a person, in case your mind is wandering) and the steamers. But we did it ourselves. I also remember the time when we had an extension constructed at the back of our house. The builder was willing to install a parquet wood floor for a price that we thought was outrageous. How hard could it be? So we did it ourselves, over four weekends and at a cost of $200 more than what we would have paid the contractor.

When we moved to a new house in Virginia, we thought our maintenance chores would vanish. But we were so wrong. The chores are plentiful with a larger house to clean and a bigger lawn and garden to tend.

After we had lived in the house a few years, I noticed that the gutter over my garage was making a strange dripping noise. I went out in rain to see it overflowing at two locations. Why was it doing that? Upon climbing up there on a ladder, I found that the granules from the roof were clogged in the down sprout as well as in one other section. I had to run a snake to clean the bend so water could flow again. “It happens all the time,” my neighbor said. “Great!” I said. “I hope this is not the beginning of a maintenance cycle.”

On one weekend, when I had just finished mowing my lawn, my son, who now lives in New York, called and wanted to know how I was passing my day. It was particularly hot and humid that day.

“I did the usual things,” I said. “Mowed the lawn, edged the borders, cleaned up the yard.”

“Dad,” he said. “Why do you keep on doing these things? You may get a stroke.”

“Maintenance, maintenance,” I said. “One has to do these things to maintain your property.”

He is right. I can have someone do these chores. But if I own a house, where is the pride of ownership? Where is the satisfaction of having done things myself to make it look good?

Sometimes I feel there would be technological advances when everything will be self-sustaining and people won’t have to maintain anything. When and how it will happen is a difficult question indeed. Oh, sure, there will be an answer, and I wish it comes in MY lifetime. And if it comes, I will be a true, card-carrying member of a “Super Mercedes Club” where everything is taken care of and I don’t have to work and pay a dime for maintenance. I will be free from chores. Then, I will sit back in a chair on my deck, enjoying the sun, smelling the flowers from my garden, and wondering how to maintain my psyche.

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4 thoughts on “The Mercedes Club

  1. Jim: I wrote this a few years ago and revised it recently. When I first showed the title to my friends they were skeptical of what I was going to write. But then they liked what I wrote.

    Like

  2. Ashok,
    I can attest to every thing you mentioned in this story as the absolute truth. I have been witness to many of those events. I still fondly remember our drowning in the clouds on top of the mountain in Vermont, Pico peak; the cocktails we had in our hands, – – – -.

    Subhash Kulkarni

    Like

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