Wednesday, November 19, 2014

My Wheelchair Van Adventure

Sometimes things go smoothly with auto repairs. Other times, things just get weird.

In Maine, automobiles must pass an annual safety inspection. Our two-year-old wheelchair accessible van was months overdue, placing us at risk of being issued a ticket. On Saturday of last week, we finally scheduled an inspection.

The van failed due to excessive wear on its two front tires. The rear tires were acceptable. When we got home, I called a number of stores to compare prices. The last place I spoke with had a fair deal, $140 per tire for a high quality product. Kim stood beside me and whispered, “Ask them if that is the installed price.” I did. It was. I made an appointment for one o’clock the next day.

The pre-Christmas shopping crowd was out in force on this Sunday in mid-November. Parking spaces in this busy part of town were difficult to find. But our van has handicapped license plates, so we parked in the front row, like we always do, and walked into the tire store.

“My name is Mitch Sturgeon, and I have an appointment for my van.”

“Yes, I have your information right here. It looks like you’re all set. We are very busy today, so please give us a couple of hours.” We had plenty to do nearby, so the wait would not be a problem. For at least the fifth time in the previous couple of months, I went to the Verizon store and fondled a new iPhone 6 Plus. This time I succumbed to its charms. My new phone should arrive tomorrow.

When we returned to the tire store later in the afternoon, we were delighted to find that the work on our van was complete. We expected a bill of around $300. “That will be $748,” the mechanic said, cheerfully.

“I’m afraid you have the wrong bill. We just had two tires changed,” I responded, matching his cheerfulness. I wasn’t at all concerned. He had obviously picked up the bill for some other vehicle that had a brand-new engine installed. Common mistake.

“This is the right one. Changed four tires on a 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan…”

Smiles faded. Attitudes shifted.

“No, no, no. I explicitly told the gentleman I spoke with on the phone yesterday that I wanted to change the two front tires. Somebody screwed up,” I said.

And Kim added, “Even then, I thought these tires were supposed to be $140, installation included. How do you come up with $748?”

My wife is a very tolerant person. Give her slow service at a restaurant and she will teach you a hard lesson by cutting your tip from 20% to 18% (and then rounding up to the nearest dollar). But don’t even think about charging her full price for a beer she ordered five minutes before the end of happy hour. She studies every check to make sure we are never overcharged.

I instructed the mechanic, “I need you to put those two rear tires back on the van.”

“I can do that, but you should know that those rear tires are bald also.”

“All four tires are bald?”

“Yes, all four tires are bald.”

“Please show me these bald tires.”

“All four tires?”

“Yes, all four bald tires.”

When we eventually found the tires in the tire trash heap, it was clear to me that two of them had a lot of tread left and two didn’t. The mechanic disagreed. He tried to give me a lesson on how tires wear. I wasn’t buying it. We agreed to disagree. I again insisted that he put two tires back on. Kim again insisted that we address the issue of the extra charges over and above $140 to per tire, no matter how many tires we purchased.

And then we got the break we were waiting for.

“My manager has authorized me to work with you to figure out a way we can keep those four new tires on your automobile,” the mechanic said.

First, Kim went after all the extra charges – balancing, installing, valve stems, disposal fees, roadside assistance insurance for flat tires (I’m not kidding), and double time labor rates for Sunday installation (I think I’m kidding). I went after him for their negligence in installing two tires too many. We talked him down to $450 for the four tires. Kim and I decided this was preferable to putting a couple of two-year-old tires back on the van.

All was forgiven. Smiles returned. Friendly banter resumed.

I sometimes wonder if I benefit from the “cripple factor” in negotiations like these. I hope not, because I despise the idea that people may feel pity for me. I don’t think of myself pitiable. But if people do cut me some slack, it may a legitimate manifestation of karma (I don’t believe in the mystical, universal scorekeeper manifestation of karma).

As we walked out of the store toward our van, a most disturbing thought popped into my head. At first I tried to suppress it, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to. Next, I tried to keep it to myself out of embarrassment, but it was too juicy not to share with Kim.

“You know, I called so many tire places yesterday…I’m not sure I ever told these guys I wanted two tires and not four.”

Kim stopped walking, turned toward me, and considered the implications of this potentially game changing admission. She responded with, “Don't feel guilty for one second. They still tried to screw us with all those extra charges and by telling us our rear tires were bald.”

That’s my girl.


  1. You go Kim! Stand your ground.

    And for those of us who can't stand, yes there is a cripple factor. I hardly pay for my commute to work, and it is half price and I can certainly afford it. Makes me think of this SNL skit from way back:

    Michelle (bestadmom)

  2. I'm like Kim -- Don't mess with me or you'll lose! I'm not nasty, nor do I shout, but I get my point across. I think it's the teacher face!

  3. Always good to have an ace in your pocket!

  4. Michelle, it's great to hear from you. I guess you're telling me I need to embrace the cripple factor. I loved the Eddie Murphy clip – I think I'll go to the bank today and give it a try.

    Muffie, yes, it's the teacher face. Sometimes she gives it to me and I remind her that I'm not in middle school!

    Daphne, yes, an ace in the pocket certainly helps in negotiations.