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Daze of My Life/Broken Down and Brokenhearted

by Kenneth B. Lourie

And so the decision was made to pull the plug, or shall I say, turn off the ignition and stop the bleeding - from my bank account or more honestly from my credit card - and tell my mechanic, Tony, to cease and desist. The VW Passat, my constant companion for nearly eight years and more than 165,000 miles has finally succumbed to the wear and tear of yours truly being behind the wheel.

No more cold winters to endure, no more hot summers to dread, she collapsed on the outer loop of the Beltway a quarter-mile shy of exit No. 41 for Carderock.

I was driving to work one Thursday morning a few weeks back, listening to the radio and minding my own side and rear-view mirrors, when I felt the engine weaken and then stop. Instinctively I pressed on the accelerator to make up for lost speed but felt nothing. I then looked at my dashboard and saw the warning lights all aglow - in red and yellow - and knew I had a problem even though I wasnít in Houston. Realizing trouble was afoot, I knew I needed to break down in the far right lane - on the shoulder - and assess my situation.

I looked into my rear-view window, then glanced to my right before I carefully and slower-ly pulled over and puttered to a complete stop without any traffic-related commotion. I turned the key to the off position and sighed a prayer.

Clueless as to my carís condition, I took a deep breath and attempted to restart the engine. The dashboard lights came back on as per usual, but unfortunately the engine did not. No clicking, no grinding, no whirring, no nothing. I waited another minute, perhaps for divine intervention, and turned the key once again. The result was the same - silence (which is more than I can say for the owner), and no, the engine hadnít overheated nor was I out of gas. Iím not a total idiot, only a partial one.

At this point I accepted that my day had officially changed. I called AAA, and within 45 minutes I was hooked up and heading toward home, where after paying $70 for the tow, I had me and my car dropped off at my neighborhood mechanic, whom I trust. I explained the carís symptoms to Tony and then proceeded to walk home, approximately 20 minutes, where even though I was not in the office, I could still be semi-productive over the phone.

The next day Tony called with his initial diagnosis: The infamous timing belt had broken. To repair it would cost hundreds of dollars, but still a dollar amount within my financial and emotional tolerance. Twenty-four hours later Tony called back with less encouraging news. The engineís compression was low (?) and two valves were damaged (?). To replace/fix/grind (?) those valves, in conjunction with the timing belt replacement, was now going to cost me somewhere around $2,000, assuming no other unseen but reasonable-to-expect-to-find repair was lurking, certainly likely in an automobile with as many miles on the odometer as mine. So I told Tony to delay the repair until I had time to consider my options: Continue to spend money on the old, or start again with something new or less used.

It didnít take me long to decide. Investing that much money in an 8-year-old car just to avoid having a monthly car note seemed penny-wise, but pound-foolish. It would be illogical to think, given the mileage of the Passat, that further down the road more repairs for this old car wouldnít be forthcoming, so I ended it.

Today Iím going over to Tonyís to clean out the remnants of the eight years of my automobileís life, pay for its abbreviated repair, pull off the tags and call a charity to come by and tow her away. Sheís been a trusted ally and a safe and reliable vehicle in my ongoing pursuit of karma - freedom from car payments. I will remember her well, though. She died doing what I loved her doing - being driven while costing me nothing, until...

Lourie is a regionally syndicated columnist who resides in Burtonsville, MD.

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