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, and focus group approved procedures and luxurious interior décor. 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 acres.
Sadly, Minako is looking for nothing 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. Fingernails: Well trimmed and immaculate. No talk about diagnostics, mechanical repair, nor 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. They whisk her car out of sight to an inner sanctum, where they mysteriously restore it to mechanical splendor. The carpet guy and chrome guy have done their job and returned the spotless vehicle. The repairs have been completed with human hands or by robots. It’s impossible to know, and my wife doesn’t care. She pays her exorbitant bill and receives back her perfectly functioning car.
I begrudge such progress. It’s a sanitized process that leaves out too much.
She meets nobody who cares about her car and leaves knowing no more than when she arrived. The entire dealership experience is a series of cost-benefit analyzed motions. She leaves unaware of the engineering marvel and technical wonder that take place under her car’s hood. All she has is transportation.
Koko is my overweight, unshaven, hands-on car guy. No starched shirts or manicured fingers. Koko is a nuts, bolts, axle grease aficionado. He fights a daily life-and-death battle—dueling with all the well-financed, national auto dealerships. The future of one-person auto repair garages is not looking good. While I would not take my every car 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 what’s causing my motor to go clunk clunk.
We don’t meet on plush, deep-pile office carpets. Our discussion 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 is not washed, I hear a squish squish sound when I walk.
But Koko is an empowering and enlightening man in a way the BMW clerk never will be. I get to understand technical problems explained by a man with a lifetime of mechanical expertise and passion. Koko is an inspiring, authentic, humorous human, and I feel richer for the experience.
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 have to consider this. “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.
Grease is part of my daily life. I owned fast-food hamburger restaurants. Purchasing and disposing of hundreds of gallons of vegetable oil waste each week is expensive. Cooking oil was a lot to dispose of, so I modified my twenty-year-old Mercedes SD into a grease-burning diesel. You expect repair costs with any vehicle that old, showing high-mileage. With the engine modification to burn French fry oil for 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 involves 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. Unlike my wife’s annual checkups, I see Koko on a semiweekly basis. I don’t receive a bill for services so much as I run a bar tab of sorts that gets settled up when the burger business is profitable.
“Why must you become pals with an auto mechanic?” Minako wants to know. I reply,
“Koko is coming over tonight in his overalls to have supper with us I hope you don’t mind. He’s really very nice,” But she knows I’m joking. She’s not a car person, prefers dinner guests with clean hands and nails. I continue to put up with her grumbling, secure in the knowledge that she’s missing something.
Every squish squish meeting with Koko has empowered me. I know how my car works and can repair it myself.
I have learned a pile of off-color jokes, see 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 that is not inviting?
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. All the designer décor and donuts 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 dirt and grease. I choose not to avoid them. No matter what BMW guy wants Minako to believe, grease happens.