Something’s Been Bugging Me

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It’s not like it used to be.

Or so I’ve heard, I wasn’t there for it.

You used to have an even shot of common-sensing your way through auto repairs decades before I was ever born. In fact, the first check engine light was called an Idiot Light. As in, “something’s wrong. Gee, think so, idiot?”

Now a car runs on computers. That check engine like flicks orange, it can mean any number of countless problems. You open the hood, and there’s a big tangle of wires. Plastic veneer covers the key components you need to reach. Nothing looks wrong. Nothing looks accessible with typical screwdrivers or wrenches either. Sleek unassailable surfaces greet you.

Replacing a Headlight

But let’s pull back and talk about a simpler light. A headlight. Replacing a lightbulb is so easy that if you want to make a joke about how dumb somebody is, you ask how many of them it takes to change a lightbulb.

Surely you twist the old one out and twist the new bulb in before the cops pull you over.



A guy I know, a guy who knows more about cars than anybody wanted to replace the headlight on his girlfriend’s Volkswagen. He’s a guy who can restore and modify a 60s truck from the frame up. The headlight fix is almost, ALMOST beneath him.

He popped the hood and saw an absolutely unreachable socket behind the burnt out bulb. He opened the repair manual, and saw you had to remove the entire front end to reach the bulbs. It was a thirteen-step job per the manufacturer.

Who cares?

Well, now you can’t fix the issue for the price of a dollar fifty bulb. Now you can’t keep bulbs in your glove box and pop new ones in when they die. In fact, the manufacturer would like it very much if you took time out of your weekend or workday to bring the car in just to change a headlight.

Why is it Like this Now?

By the time you’ve researched and developed a car, paid engineers, designers, emissions counselors, marketers, shippers, manufacturers, regulation consultants, regulatory fees, crash test costs, and things you can’t imagine go into making a vehicle, your margin is slim.

This is even true on a car that’s $32,000 five years used. A great deal of money gets made in repairs. How do you squeeze a little more money out of your product? You design a car that needs plenty of repairs. Something that doesn’t threaten life and limb like a faulty brake but still gets you pulled over like a headlight makes a profitable problem to maximize.

The Less the Customer Can Do, the Better

That’s fine if you’re the car company, but now I’m the absolutely egg-faced chump bringing a car into shop for nothing but a burnt out lightbulb.

It’s other little things. Cars ride lower on average. They want it so you HAVE to lift it with a jack. You can’t just scoot under there. Does it bottom out more often? Good. That’s more repairs.

Want to change spark plugs? Change the oil? You need the proprietary wrenches. Is the wrench for sale? Is it worth your time and money to do all that arithmetic comparing buying new wrenches to bringing the vehicle into shop?

I’ll tell you right now, I didn’t grow up fixing cars.

That said, is is the story of my first project truck.

It’s a blue 1994 Ford F-150. It has 84 thousand miles, and that mileage is probably real given the decent condition of the upholstery and pedals.

If the dial had been reset, the upholstery would have been chafed to ratty rags by the long-term friction of the driver’s body. It’s got a manual four-wheel drive with a big joystick to engage it. Not one of those dinky plastic buttons they’re doing now.

I’ve got help from somebody great with vehicles, an engineer who grew up taking every machine you can think apart and putting it back together.

The to-do list:

  • Replace rear left spring shackle
  • Replace muffler
  • Bypass smog pump
  • Fresh tires
  • Oil change
  • Transmission fluid

I’m sure the list will only grow, but I’m looking forward to learning. There’s an ugly history with the auto giants of the world and the average American who would like to fix his own car. See, back in the day, the auto giants were lobbying to make it illegal to work on your own car. Illegal. Home repairs were eating the profit margin.

Ever seen that meme floating around about how Republicans were the party that lobbied against mandatory seatbelts? Reasonable laws like that were the headlining door keys to mandates that brought the cost of a brand new truck from $3,200 to $65,000.

A few red-faced red staters railed against this march of progress. The auto companies said, “just take out a six-year loan instead of three.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Yeah, the ballooned price of a vehicle loses the spotlight to student debt and the housing crisis but it’s there, and it’s not going to get any better.

What were your lofty aspirations when you were a kid? Forget astronaut, let’s just say you just want to do things for yourself because you like to. To that aim, I say, “good luck.” Big forces are machinating against you. On the other hand, if the role of spectator and consumer is all you’ll ever need, there’s a comfortable, comfortable future ahead of you.

When they couldn’t ram that no home repairs law through, the giants realized they could get the same effect through the power of technology. Now a new Toyota Corolla has more lines of computer code coursing through it than a supersonic fighter jet.

Devil’s Dues

The engines are more efficient. A computerized engine can detect humidity, altitude, O2 levels, and countless other factors to optimize engine efficiency in a way a purely mechanical engine never could. Hooray. Our air isn’t as bad as China’s, where there are no emission’s laws. Again, hooray. Clean air is good, truly. I write that without irony, for people who need that clarified.

Still, it’s good to be able to do things for yourself. The more people like that there are, the better off everybody is. Having the option of doing a fix yourself will get you farther if you break down somewhere without cellphone service. I drive through places with no cell phone service often.

A headlight should not be something you need to bring the car to a mechanic for.

The Journey Starts

I got an OBD that pairs with my phone. That’s the scanner that your cop shop will plug in to read the error code. I used it to diagnose and replace my mass air flow sensor. First fix I ever did myself. That was on a Kia Sportage I don’t own anymore.

Now I’m going to repair this F-150 and drive it across country.

To be continued


Odd Jobs & After Hours | What’s Your Book About?

I’m publishing a book titled Odd Jobs & After Hours soon. It should be available in paperback by March 1. The e-book edition will follow that shortly. Still figuring out if it should become an audio book.

The title is exactly what the book is about.

It’s a collection of the type of stories you run into in between leaving home and getting your feet under you. Scary rented rooms, evil bosses, psycho roommates, after-midnight shifts, rugby games, squatters, poachers, and more.

It’s written. I’m dealing with all of the final details. After that, it will be very easy to grab a copy on Amazon.

For now, here is the intro page of Odd Jobs & After Hours.

“Feel the heat of molten metal.

Hear the clang of hammer and anvil.

Be bowled over and skid across a muddy rugby pitch.

Taste the kiss of the sea.

Work odd jobs & after hours in the big city.

Get thrown out the apartment window.

Join the all-night, coked-up film crew.

Meet the vegan poacher woman, the psycho roommate with a hatchet, and the world’s greatest salesman before he explodes. Bloody your hands with the worst of it.

These stories are a tin mug dipped into the river of life to draw up one cupful you can’t catch again. It’s like every portion and none other at the same time.

It’s a hot day, and I pass the mug to you.”

Unknown Destination

Death, baby! Death.

That’s what’s was on my mind here in the unmanly station of second seat on a moped hurtling down a rolling Colombian highway, somewhere in Medellín.

But beyond the mild seating indignity is the discomforting presence of twelve chainlink fence posts sitting in the truck bed to the front left of us.

If you like this story, grab my book Odd Jobs & After Hours for stories you won’t find online.

The posts in the truck bed are a mere arm’s reach away, as Colombian roads are much narrower than I-95, and the vehicles are smaller than the Ford F-150 by a long shot. The hollow ends of the fence posts are dark as gun barrels; they seem capable of lance-like flight at a sudden stop. This helmet with its scratchy visor simply isn’t enough.

Cars and trucks merge on and off the highway with all the order of popcorn kernels on a red burner rocketing upward to burst and bloom.

Now Colombia’s mountains are a joy to see, a delight to hike, and no doubt a thrill to motorbike through, but second seat gives you no control over your fate, it’s more of an act of surrender to each steep tilt and turn.

Why then, am I here? I was promised a monumental and world-famous piece of Colombian history, something I would never forget seeing. My friend and guide at the hostel, Andy, told me about it, but he didn’t tell me exactly what it was or where we were going. Who can say no to a mystery? Off we went.

We finally shoot off an exit and roll onto commercial streets, followed by a short road with little development on either side of it.

Surprisingly, we then pull into the parking lot of a church and park there. Where are we going? Confession?

We walk around to the back of the church to a cemetery.

“Now you will come face to face with a man who shaped this nation.”

We walk over well kept grass, then a border of black marble with white patterning, then a bed of white polished stones till we finally come to a black headstone with cursive gold lettering.

“Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria.”

Here they are, six feet below. The bones of a guy who drowned Colombia in blood. The wealthiest criminal in history.

Now here I am, a Gringo whose mental image of Escobar is the Netflix actor more often than his historical face, but our fellow visitor to the grave feels much closer to Pablo.

The other visitor is a bald, heavier guy in an old collared nightclubbing shirt, jeans, and black dress shoes. He is keying himself up, tipping forward on the balls of his feet, trying to absorb the atmosphere around the grave.

He speaks suddenly, his story bursting out of him like shaken up soda. Must be something about my appearance, because he knew to use English.

“I am Escobar’s blood,” he says. “I am his nephew.”

Andy the guide and I nod, and give him a little space.

“Yo brother, this guy’s trash,” Andy mutters to me. “Every bastard in Colombia calls himself the son of Escobar.”

Maybe he’s Pablo’s blood and maybe he isn’t, but pacing and prowling around the white stones on Pablo’s grave, the so-called nephew is surely hunting for a haunting, the type of haunting that will bring him, perhaps, a little respect.

Nephew baldy seems to think Pablo is Scarface or Don Corleone, the type of gangster he can admire on the far side of a flatscreen.

And admittedly, it is hard to process that here lies the grinning coke warlord who murdered nearly the entire Colombian police force in a single night and bombed randomly targeted pharmacies. After all, if Pablo couldn’t have the whole world, no Colombian could have baby formula. It’s difficult to believe it was all real, and not too long ago.

But if Escobar’s tomb by day is chilling and suspect, consider the following scene by night.


Same church, same graveyard, bright moonlight shining on the same white pebbles, and black marble border. But around midnight, a gathering begins. Do you hear the chainlink fence rattling? Figures in hoodies are clambering over it. There’s a low murmur of hoarse voices. Pablo’s acolytes are assembling for a street seance. Andy is hanging back eagerly yet uneasily, as am I.

The guys in hoodies walk up to Pablo’s grave, and unzip their backpacks. Out come clinking, tubular glass objects. A flick of a lighter, and orange firelight show some of the objects to be Virgin Mary and Lazarus candles, and others to be 40 malts. One incense stick in a sandalwood board with a curled end. Flame for wicks, for the incense tip, and a blunt which they pass to the left in their circle.

Now silly with liquor and screwy with weed, they sit in dark communion with Pablo’s bones. With enough chemical distortion, it seems believable that Escobar’s ectoplasm will ooze out between these white polished stones. He will give you a Mercedes and me a speedboat, and we will all live in penthouses. He will be our father, he will once more be El Patron. We have nothing and he had everything, and for that magic trick, we will ignore his every wrong.

Like for nephew baldy, Pablo is something of a folk hero to them. But if you ask most Colombians, under these polished white stones are the white coals of Hell.

Well, burn all the candles and blunts you want, it doesn’t look like any ghosts are coming out tonight. But what does manifest is sidelong looks, and a cold, weighty sense that Andy and I do not belong here.

So quietly, we leave.

Midnight at an Outdoor Gym in a Foreign Land

Enjoy this story, and for stories you won’t find online, grab my book here.

After a few strong shots of (what’s that powerful pre-workout called? Ah, yes. Tequila.)

Yes, after a few shots of tequila, my friends and I are at an outdoor gym in the bustling, humid downtown of Medellin called Parque Lleras. It’s midnight.

The yellow streetlights are shining through the mist, and the whole wide nighttime world is a little silly and a little whirly. We’re capping off our first night out on the town. We’ve been holed up for COVID measures for a day or two, and now we’re uncaged and running a little wild.

The city is surrounded by rainforest landscape. Overhead, big green jungle palms are luffing a little bit. There’s a creek somewhere nearby. We can hear rippling water, but we can’t really see it.

Under the palms, there are barbells, pull-up bars, and dip bars. The weights have chains on them so you can’t steal them. All the metal bars are painted yellow. We’re in our night out collared shirts, dress pants and shoes. Not exactly gym wear, but who cares?

I’ve got a deadlift bar that’s linked to a big rattling chain running to the ground. I’m yanking the bar upward. We’re all counting each other’s reps in Spanish.

Uno! Dos! Tres!

Two Colombian gym bros are pumping chained-up barbells in the corner laughing at the drunken Gringos.

Cuatro! Cinco! Seis!

Then a new friend of ours, some mobile phone millionaire who expatriated, is wandering out in the middle of the road, walking off some soreness from the squat rack.

A yellow cab whips around the corner and screeches around him.

“What? Come at me bro!” screams the millionaire, arms spread out.

And what intoxicant can make a creature of flesh and bone look at two tons of 65-mile-an-hour metal and say, “come at me bro?” It’s Colombia. Use your imagination.

All is well once more, but we just have to keep it that way. It’s clearly time to go home, to get off the street.

We say sorry and gracias to the gym bros in the corner.

They laugh and say no, no, thank you guys.

And on that note, we stumble back to the apartment.