I was fighting a weight machine in the Hollywood Bally's when my cell phone vibrated. It was a man from a big-chain tire shop, but not the guy I'd left my car with 20 minutes ago. That first guy, Joe, had been all about the tires, which made sense, since I had left my car there to replace my original set. But this other man interrupted my workout in a confidential voice to speak about something that was far more important, even, than the lifetime side-puncture warranty Joe had tried to sell me — my front struts. These, he insisted, were only minutes away from disintegrating. The man assured me he could replace them — for around $1,100 — even as I continued my struggle with the Abdominal Snowman. The choice was mine — he was only concerned about my safety. He let that last part sink in, the way a kidnapper does during that all-important first call: We've got your Jetta, Mr. Mikulan. What you do is up to you. I just wouldn't want anything to … happen to your car.
I never make snap decisions involving more than $50. The struts would have to wait, I said, until next payday — my standard leave-me-alone line. My caller offered a line of credit. Interest free. He was — had he mentioned this? — thinking of my safety. Eventually the man realized I wasn't going to cough up more money today and told me my car was ready for pickup.
Only chumps heed the warnings of auto-repair chain outlets, shops that sucker you in with a $25 oil-change coupon, then suddenly find you need a new transmission. But they have your car, and their skilled hostage negotiators can make even the most far-fetched doom forecast sound credible. Six years ago, this company's chief rival in the tire-chain world gave my car an equally bad bill of health (also remediable for $1,100), when I arrived to pick it up after a $25 oil change.
Chain outlets are a reasonable repair alternative to dealerships and are often convenient to your work or gym. But nothing beats a local mechanic, preferably one within walking distance of your home. Donny Wong's Far East Auto Service occupies a tiny, grimy structure near Dodger Stadium and has been a godsend to budget-minded car owners in the area since the 1980s. Donny looked over my car's struts and found the chain shop's warnings groundless — as he had the rival's alarms six years before. Time and time again, I've brought my cars to Far East, convinced by a chain mechanic or by my own paranoia that something was expensively wrong, only to have Donny work some folk magic and fix it for a fraction of the cost — sometimes for free.
People love Donny, a native of Vietnam, because over the years he gets to know your car and develops an empathy for it as though it were one of your kids. He'll excitedly show you the carbon buildup on every spark plug he replaces and point out exactly where a fan belt is wearing down. He doesn't need to look up your old work orders on a computer to remember your car's moods and tics — they're all in his head. Donny's meticulous attention comes at a price, though: If you let changing your car's oil slide for too long, he's all over you like a traffic cop — or your kid's dentist.