My wife, Minako, returned recently from the BMW dealership.
Her experience was hygienic, businesslike and efficient. The “Dealership Visit Experience” was a study in time motion, focus group approved procedures and luxurious interior decor. Nobody discusses transmissions, tires, or fuel-injection pumps with her, nor would they soil her ears with discussions of greasy, auto engineering topics. The three-story plate glass dealership building is a work of architectural sculpture sitting on five landscaped.
Sadly, Minako is looking for no more than trouble-free transportation. She gets a visit to auto repair Disneyland with free coffee and donuts. She will never even see a mechanic.
The service attendant receives her in his climate-controlled, carpeted office. His wardrobe—dark suit; white, starched shirt; and tie—is spotless. His fingernails are well trimmed and immaculate. No talk about diagnostics, mechanical repair, or oily things that smell. No, no, no. Her car is in the hands of a digital, all-knowing, celestial force. The dirty fingernail guys know everything they need to know as soon as she drives in the door. The onboard diagnostic chip has transmitted everything relevant to the dealership’s master file.
Minako hands the keys to Mr. Fashion Plate. Her car is whisked out of sight to an inner sanctum, where it is mysteriously restored to mechanical splendor. Carpets are vacuumed. Chrome is polished and the vehicle is returned. The repairs might involve human hands, or it might be done by robots. It’s impossible to know. My wife doesn’t care. She pays her exorbitant bill and receives a perfectly functioning car.
I begrudge such progress because much is lost in this sanitized process.
She meets nobody who cares about her car and leaves knowing no more than when she arrived. Her entire dealership experience is a series of time-motion studies, customer surveys, and cost-benefit analysis. She leaves clueless as to the engineering marvel and technical wonder that take place under her car’s hood. She gets is transportation.
Koko is my overweight, unshaven, hands-on car guy. No starched shirts and manicured fingers. Koko is a nuts, bolts, axle grease aficionado. He fights a life-and-death battle—dueling with all the well-financed, national auto dealerships. The future of one-man auto repair garages is not looking good. While I do not take my 300SL to Koko, I am his ally in this battle.
If I wait in the empty office for a few minutes, he yells at me, “I’m back here in the shop, under the lift. Come on back.”
He doesn’t spend time in the office. He is the clerk, the supervisor, the counseling technician, the mechanic, the cashier, and the owner. When I interface with the gruff Mr. Koko, I learn why my motor is going clunk clunk.
No plush, deep-pile carpeted office. Our meeting takes place under the lift with our heads bumping the exhaust pipe. Grease is everywhere. It impregnates Koko’s rumpled overalls, his tools, and the parts boxes. Unless I’m wearing gloves, I don’t care to shake hands with him. On cold days, because his grease-slathered cement floor has not been washed, I hear a squish squish sound when I walk.
But Koko is empowering and enlightening in a way the BMW clerk never will be. I get an understanding of technical problems, explained by a man with a lifetime of mechanical expertise and passion. I’m exposed to an inspiring, authentic, humorous human.
I raise the subject of climate control or complain that it’s unbearably hot in the summer. Koko informs me, “The building is temperature controlled by the weather. It comes in through the open windows. Hot in the summer, yes. But I make up for that by letting in the cold of winter.”
“Wow!” I consider. “Why didn’t the dealerships think of a good idea like that?” I guess they are so busy eliminating grease, they can’t think of anything else.
I’m not averse to grease. It was once part of my daily life. I owned a bunch of fast-food hamburger restaurants. I purchased and disposed of hundreds of gallons of vegetable oil waste each week. Grease was expensive to dispose of, so I modified my twenty 1986 Mercedes SD into a grease-burning diesel. You expect repair costs with any old, high-mileage car. With the engine modification to burn French fry cooking oil fuel, it also required additional maintenance.
“What the hell have you done to screw up that beautiful engine?” Koko wanted to know when I first brought it in.
Since cooking oil congeals below eighty degrees Fahrenheit, I must tap the hot water out of the radiator and pipe it next to the fuel tank and lines to keep them hot and flowing. The technology is unimportant except to say my conversion means Koko and I are bonded together in a long-term, expensive relationship. I’m paying most of his kids’ college tuition, his mortgage, and his retirement fund. Our relationship is a close one. Rather than my wife’s annual checkups, I see Koko on a semiweekly basis. I don’t receive a bill for services. I run a bar tab of sorts that gets settled up periodically.
“Why must you become pals with an auto mechanic?” Minako wants to know. She’s afraid I’m going to bring Koko home in his overalls to sit down with us for supper. But I know she is joking. She’s not a car person, prefers friends with clean fingernails so I put up with her grumbling. But she’s missing something.
I have been empowered by every squish squish meeting with Koko. I know how my car works and can repair it myself.
I have learned a pile of off-color jokes, seen what it takes to run a small business, and picked up a bit of wisdom with which to navigate my life from a man whose perspective is not available at BMW. Do I enjoy the smell of gasoline and motor oil, walls piled high with dirty old parts, and furniture you would never want to sit down in? Why yes. Yes, I do. That is what auto repair is all about. You can’t just wallpaper over it. Auto engines are inherently dirty. Designer decor and perfume can’t alter that fact.
Koko is an opinionated, talented, entertaining guy. He’s also a fun guy. Some of life’s authentic experiences come with grease and mess. I choose not to avoid them. No matter what BMW wants Minako to believe, grease happens.