This is a story about good roadside service and an honest mechanic at the Unocal 76 station at the corner of Terra Bella and Nordhoff in Panorama City, California.
Ever since I moved to California eight years ago I've been driving five days a week from my home in Palmdale to my work at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. It's a long way -- 65 miles -- but most days a fast trip, anywhere from an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half.
On this particular Friday, March 2, 2001, I'm driving home as I have done four hundred Fridays before this one. I'm listening to an audio book, "Cold Mountain", about a boy and a girl who were caught up in the problems brought about in the South by the Civil War. The boy is a deserter from the southern army, and the girl has recently lost her father and is not married, so life is hard for her, too. When I drive home from Hollywood, I take the 101 and 170 freeways which are together known as the "Hollywood Freeway" to the Interstate 5, a.k.a. "Golden State" freeway. As I listen to the story of the people who lived 150 years ago whose horses knew the way home I think my car also knows the way -- I scarcely need to direct it -- when suddenly the cassette player malfunctions. It senses the end of the tape when in fact the tape had just started. It reverses and begins to play the other side. I slow down and take my eyes off the road for long enough to press the button that changes the tape to the other side, and the story resumes. Then the cassette player turns itself off. I eject the tape to see if it's tangled. It looks fine. I push the tape back in again, and it won't play. Now I start to notice I'm slowing down. I'm going way too slow for the left lane. I step on the gas, but the car won't accelerate. The red lights on the dashboard are lit up. Oh-oh. I put on the right blinker. Nothing. The engine is still running, but it seems to stall every time I stamp on the accelerator. I move into the next lane, and the next one. But there are four lanes here, and I am afraid my car won't go any further. I have to get off the freeway. The right lane is packed with exiting traffic. I have two choices: stop here, and become a road hazard, or cut off one of the hapless commuters in the right lane. I choose the latter. He was clearly not happy with my driving, but I felt I had no choice. At least he didn't hit me. I continued drifting to the right until I was on the wide shoulder, off the freeway.
My engine still running, I test the gas pedal. Every time I press it, the engine practically stalls. The radio doesn't play. The emergency flashers barely light up. The miracle I was hoping for is not materializing. I turn the engine off, and fish in my wallet for the AAA card. I haven't needed this card in the 8 years I've been a member of the Southern California Automobile Club, but today I need it. I call the 800 number, and the friendly voice asks me where I am. Remember, I've been driving this route for eight years. I look at the green sign in front of me. It says "Terra Bella". So like a drooling idiot I tell the guy "Terra Bella". He repeats the question, because he knows I didn't hear it right the first time: "What freeway are you on?" he asks. Now it dawns on me. I don't know. I think back. Well, I was on the 101, I tell the voice, then I merged onto the 170, didn't I? Yes, there has been some construction there, and the exit just before the 170 has been closed for a few months. I passed that. So I was on the 170. Did I merge onto the 5? I don't remember. It seemed like such a simple question. What freeway am I on? I felt like such an idiot. I confess to the kind voice, I don't know. I expect him to tell me that was it, that he couldn't help me any more, I was just too stupid. Instead, he asks me if I can see a call box. I told him yes, there is a call box about 100 yards behind me. He said he would stay on the phone with me until I could get to the call box and read its number. I told him it would take me about 2 minutes to get there. No problem he says. On the way he asks me if I was in any danger, and advised me not to walk in an area close to traffic. I reassured him that the freeway had a wide shoulder, and I wasn't in any danger. When I got to the call box I read him the number: 5-387. What county, he asks. Los Angeles, I tell him. The kind voice tells me a tow truck will be there in less than half an hour.
20 minutes later, the tow truck is here. He asks me questions like where do I need to go. I tell him the symptoms of my car trouble, and he says he knows a good mechanic. I'm thinking I'm not in a good bargaining position, so I tell him fine, bring me there. (May I interject here that the AAA really came through here. The voice was very kind, and the tow truck was prompt and efficient. Thank you, AAA!)
So the tow truck brings me to a Unocal 76 gas station at the corner of Terra Bella and Nordhoff streets in Panorama City, California. This is the mechanic the tow-truck driver knows. It's 6:30 PM by now, and I explain to "Jimmy" and one other guy at the 76 station what happened. They agree the problem is either a bad battery or a bad alternator. The other guy thinks the probability of a bad alternator is 85%. I remember the number, because I thought it was odd. Why 85% and not 80 or 90%? If you're going to quote a percentage that ends in 5, then why not 95%? But Jimmy thinks it's a good chance the battery suddenly went bad. It's an original battery, about 7 years old, which is longer than a battery should survive, even in such a lovely climate as Southern California. I ask Jimmy how a battery can suddenly go bad, and Jimmy agrees the suddenness of the failure argues for the alternator, but here's the thing: "I have a battery to sell you, but no alternator for your car." So I agree, we can try the battery. Jimmy has an instrument that can test the battery while it's in the car. He says my battery is sadly undercharged. He puts a new battery in, and it, too, is undercharged. So he gets another new battery and it's fully charged. "Can you start the car?" he asks, so I start it. Jimmy shakes his head. The instrument says the charging system isn't working. So Jimmy says "I don't want to change your alternator if you just have a bad fuse". Now I'm thinking what kind of mechanic is this who doesn't want to sell me needless things? An honest one, that's what. Jimmy tests each fuse in turn, and, alas, they are all good.
Here's the bad news, Jimmy says: I won't be able to get an alternator into your car until 10 am tomorrow morning. Can you leave the car? Can you get a ride home? Where do you live? I tell him Palmdale. Jimmy says where is that? I tell him about 50 miles north of here. Jimmy says that's a long way from here.
I call my beautiful wife, Catherine, and she agrees to come and get me. It's now 7 PM, and Catherine says she'll get there as soon as possible. Now I realize I'm the only white guy in the entirety of Panorama City. Feeling uncomfortable standing for a long time at the gas station, I tell Jimmy I'm going to the Blockbuster at the corner of Nordhoff and Van Nuys. Jimmy says OK, I'll see you tomorrow.
I peek in the window of Blockbuster. Nothing but Mexicans in there. I wonder if they have all Spanish movies, or if they have English ones, too. Across the street is a McDonalds. Good old American food. So I go in there, and get a number 2 meal. Two cheeseburgers, fries, and a coke. I have a cholesterol problem, so I threw the fries in the garbage, and ate the other stuff. That killed about 10 minutes. By the Blockbuster is a bus stop. I guess I'll wait there. Catherine arrived on time at 8 PM. I was happy to get out of there, even though the Mexicans that passed me were all upstanding citizens, mostly men and women, many with small children.
Next day, I call Jimmy at 8:15 am, and he's not there yet. He'll be there in half an hour, I'm told. So I call again around 10, and sure enough, Jimmy's there. He tells me he put in the new alternator and also charged my old battery. He says the old battery is holding the charge, so he'll put it in my car, and just charge me for the alternator. WHAT AN HONEST GUY! Still, I said to Jimmy the old battery is very old, so you might as well leave the new battery in the car, which Jimmy did. The whole bill came to $255 including tax and labor, for the alternator and battery.
If you're ever in the northern part of Los Angeles, and you need car repairs, I strongly recommend you see Jimmy at the Unocal 76 gas station in Panorama City at the corner of Terra Bella and Nordhoff streets. Tell him you saw a favorable review of his work on the Internet.