March 29th, 2005

Living in Andersonville

Since the radiator was fixed, the car's had some trouble getting going. It's started fine, but no matter what time of day or ambient temperature or even whether I'd already been driving it recently, the engine would be chugging a lot in a low unsteady idle for a minute or two, before kicking into a high idle to warm up. And it may even have needed progressively more time to warm up once it kicked into the high idle. But they did tell me when they fixed the radiator that the car was due for a tune-up, which they said could wait for my next oil change (due in June), so I thought maybe that's all it was and I just needed to get the tune-up done sooner than that.

But of course, I was always running late in the mornings and didn't get around to calling them. Then, Friday night, I was driving home from a friend's place - actually driving downtown first to drop someone off - in cool rainy weather, so I had the blower on low set to hot air to keep the windshield from fogging. It took about 15 minutes to get downtown, and just as I was getting there - and telling the friend I was dropping off all about my radiator trouble - I realized that the blower was still blowing very cold air, when it should've been hot by then. That made me glance at the temperature gauge and see that my car was running very hot and about to overheat. Fortunately I had just arrived at the friend's place so I could stop the car for a moment. Then I tried starting it again and putting the blower on high, and the temperature gauge did drop back down. I was able to drive home and got hot air out of the vents, so it seemed the immediate crisis was averted, but now I clearly had no choice but to talk to the mechanics.

Conveniently, I didn't need the car all weekend. Monday morning I checked the coolant and it was full, so that wasn't the problem. I walked to the mechanics and told them about my problems and made an appointment for this morning, still thinking Friday night might've been a fluke and I could drive to work. But the car was more reluctant than ever to get warmed up, and as I started heading to the highway, the temperature gauge seemed to be wandering upward. I did not wait very long before turning the blower on full blast, which seemed to steady the temperature gauge somewhat, but all that came out of the vents was bitterly cold air. By the time I got to the highway entrance (at the Montlake Bridge), I just felt too uneasy about getting on the highway, so instead I looped around and headed back to my place, thinking I could still turn again and head for work if it seemed like my car was getting under control. But it never did, although it did blow hot air as I drove up a couple of the large hills on my way home - which was not, in fact, reassuring.

So I brought the car to the mechanics today. The verdict: I have a broken internal cylinder head gasket, which is basically causing combustion to occur in my coolant system. I still have no idea what a head gasket, or any other kind of gasket, is, but I do know This Is Bad. This is "we have to pull the top half of your engine apart, send the broken part out to a specialist machine shop to see if they can fix it, and replace a few other parts along the way" bad. This is an estimated $1,500 (pre-tax) bad, with potential for another $500 or so if the head gasket isn't actually fixable. Oh and I got a later call that my exhaust manifold cover or some such thing is also cracked, though that just adds another hundred or two dollars to the total.

The current value of my car if it were in good condition is only about $2,500, so it seems like the repairs aren't worth it. But, the mechanic assures me the car is otherwise in good condition - and it should be, with the upkeep I've done - so with the repairs it should last a while longer, and in any case it's worthless to anyone without them. But, the car is ten years old and has over 140K miles on it, so I should expect more major systems to need major repairs. But, it's easier for me to pay off these repairs now than to put that much or more money down on a new car* and also take on monthly car payments. In fact, I cannot afford to put that kind of money down and take on monthly payments right now, because I'm still paying off my braces. As it is, I can pay off the braces over the next three months - sending my final payment in June - but then with these car repairs added on to it, my other credit card is going to take another five months to pay off at the same rate, a rate that's already leaving me too close to overdrawn for comfort at the end of each month. And that should put me at about the point where the rest of my dental work gets done, work that hopefully, but not certainly, will be covered by my medical insurance.

Given these considerations, I'm having them go ahead with the repairs. I still have to do my taxes as well. The past few years I've had to pay, and I'm just hoping it's just a couple hundred dollars this year.

(*And I do mean a new car. My current car was used, and it was very reliable, but I also had to pay $15,000 (including interest) for it. I highly doubt I can find a good used car for under $10,000 - I certainly couldn't eight years ago the last time I was looking - and if I'm going to pay that kind of money then I damn well am buying a brand new car. The sad part is, my current car troubles actually have me wanting to buy a new one, but as I said, I just don't feel I can take that on yet...)