Well, suffice it to say, it's been an interesting couple of weeks around here. About three weeks ago, my mother-in-law who lives out in Buffalo managed to crack up her venerable steed. As she was rounding the entrance to US-219, she caught and edge and her beloved 2002 Saturn SL2 met its untimely end with its nose all up in the guard rail. Luckily, she was unharmed in the accident but the Saturn wasn't so lucky.
Naturally, the discussions ensued about what she was going to do about transportation. Being here in New Hampshire, a solid 450 miles from my favorite "All America City", we had a few discussions about what she'd do when she got her check from her insurance company. Would she strike out on her own and try to find something cheap and cheerful on the local Craigslist? Would I find her something here in NH and drive it to her? Would she just load up a U-Haul and move to NH to be closer to us and be done with that God-forsaken city?
I browsed the Buffalo Craigslist with reckless abandon, amazed with the crap that came up in our sub-$1500 budget. It wasn't like New Hampshire, where people trade cheap cars all day and a guy like me can fall into a late 90s Volvo for less than two payments on my old Mini Cooper. Armed with a list of possible contenders, I took a PTO day from work, loaded up the wife's Jetta and headed west.
We left Manchester nice and early, taking NH-9 up and over the boring expanse of southwestern New Hampshire out to VT-9. Every mile that passed through speed zones of varying slowness made me pine for the stillborn Interstate 92, cursing the NIMBYs that shot it down in the 70s under my breath as Spotify pumped New Order over the Bluetooth. It wasn't until we hit Brattleboro that we made our first attempt at breakfast. The Dunkin' Donuts right before the road got fun only managed to infuriate us with the idiocy on the other end of the order box, so we continued across the short end of Vermont and into New York before we tried again. With breakfast behind us, only 350 miles separated us and my wife's hometown. Now it's worth mentioning at this point that she wasn't originally planning on coming with me, but decided at the last minute to surprise her mom and younger sister. An uneventful blast down the Thruway put us in Lackawanna mid-afternoon.
When we arrived, I parked the car in the driveway and went inside. My mother in law was absolutely beside herself with happiness that I had come to help her find and negotiate a deal on her next set of wheels. My wife, who I had dropped off about half a block away, called my sister in law and told her to go look in the car for something she claimed to have forgotten before I left. As she rummaged through the trunk she said to her "who's that girl in the yellow hoodie standing down the street?" and the surprise came to a head. With that fun behind us, we all went out for a late lunch and began our final stages of strategizing the next day's marathon run of private sale shopping hell.
The next morning, we set out bright and early to go look at a 2003 Saturn L200 in Tonawanda. She had been in touch with the seller, who we figured out through a little googling was a fly-by-night used car outfit operating out of a sketchy old motel, and had made arrangements to look at the car. In the pictures, there was a lot of snow on the back of the car; in the flesh, the whole back end looked as though it ran afoul a parking pylon. The little portly man came waddling out towards us and spoke with an uncharacteristically high voice ( kinda like this guy) . We took the Saturn for a ride, despite the punched-in rear end. This car was not a winner, so we left and intended on drowning our sorrows with some coffee at the Timmy Ho's around the corner.
Next up was a 2001 Olds Aurora - we found it whilst stewing over the bucket of suck and fail the Saturn L200 ended up being in the Tim Horton's parking lot. So we headed north towards the falls to look at this car. Remember: on Craigslist, the pictures don't always show the whole picture. We located the car... sitting in the back yard of house at the address we were given, full of garbage and sitting among trash bins. I promptly blocked that guy's number and kept driving.
The 2000 Olds Intrigue from my initial search was next. When we arrived, the car was nowhere to be found. In an ideal world, this would have meant that the car was actually running and had plates; maybe the owner took it around the block to scrub some lot rot off the brakes. No. This car was sitting in the back yard where it had been sitting since the owner bought a, ugh, Prius. It started right up, effortlessly, and ran very smoothly. Unfortunately, without plates, a way to get it out of the driveway and with a sizeable rust issue coming to a head under the rocker covers, we passed on this one as well.
Next up was a 2004 Taurus. Not the one that I had found. No, this one had just popped up on Craigslist that morning with 113k miles, a little rust, and a reasonable asking price. On the surface, this all looked pretty damn good! I asked the gentleman where we could see this marvel of automotive optimism on our otherwise overcast and crappy search... the McDonalds on the corner of Genesee and Bailey. That should have been my first sign, had I known it was the absolute worst part of the city. Naïvety aside, we pressed on unabated and met the young man at the aforementioned diabetes dispensary.
After a quick pitstop, we waited for the young man to show up with the car. The overcast skies had turned to freezing rain, and the roads were getting slicker. Time was starting to become a precious commodity if we were to make a deal happen. The Taurus rolled in, with a dealer plate slapped on the back and it looked like a good thing. Buying from a dealer would mean that she would be in possession of her car later that day, and this whole nightmare would be over. We took the car for a ride and it all seemed rather nice. We learned that the coil pack had been replaced, and as such, the check engine light had been on recently but cleared from the repair. The car was an ex-Police car and checked all the boxes, so we figured it'd be a good one to make an offer on. Now I wasn't too keen on giving this guy one thin dime until we had some assurance that it would be inspected and ready to go, so I made the guy sign a promissory note of sorts stating that the car would be fully inspected before we took delivery. I had his signature and in turn, his word; not a cent had been committed.
Well, it turned out to be a good thing that we didn't give the guy anything. After we got back to the house, we switched her insurance policy to cover the Taurus and waited for the guy to call us to pick up the car. Two hours passed, no word. I called him up; "Hey man, I'm just going to do the inspection now but the readiness monitors aren't cleared yet." So we continued to wait. Day turned into night, and our hope dwindled. It seemed as though this deal was going to fall through, so we jumped back on Craigslist. I put some skin in the game and offered up some of my own cheddar to help get a deal done - $1500 just wasn't going to cut it in the rough and tumble world of cheap motoring in B-lo. We called on a dozen more cars, and even went to go look at another Taurus.
Just when we thought that our McTaurus over on Genesee and Bailey was in a bad neighborhood, our last showing of the day put us down the street from an active drug deal around 10pm. I got out of the car and let my wife, mother-in-law and dog lock themselves in the Jetta. This Taurus was running on the street, and the owner was nowhere to be found. This one looked as though the owner had hit everything but the lottery, and had completely rotted rear quarters. Just as soon as I had sent the text saying "Hey, I'm here", I was sending an "...and I'm leaving." We went back to my mother-in-law's to do one last push for Craigslist.
I was exhausted. Exhausted probably can't even describe, in retrospect, just how defeated and depressed I felt. I was losing faith in humanity because of a search for a cheap and cheerful hooptie to get my mother-in-law through the next few months until she packs up her shit and moves to NH to help my wife build her business. I called on one last car.
10:45pm: "Hello. I'm calling about your 1999 Honda CR-V. I am very interested in coming to take a look at it, we have cash, looking to make a deal happen first thing in the morning. No matter what time you get this, please call me at 603-xxx-xxxx - I am only in town until tomorrow late morning."
As I drifted off to sleep, my phone rang. We had an opportunity to look at the CR-V about 20 miles outside of Buffalo proper. I knew at that moment that if this didn't pan out, that the mission had been a failure and I'd either a) have to stay another day or two to find a car, b) go home and come back the next weekend (FORESHADOWING!) or c) buy something back in NH and drive it back the next weekend. In my dreams, my past as a car salesman haunted me until I woke up at 5:30a to get ready to drive my sister-in-law to work.
We all piled in the car (Sans the Mrs., she got to sleep in) and headed to Tim Hortons to drop off my sister-in-law for her shift. We then headed to the town of Clarence where the little happy Honda waited. As we rolled up to the farm where the Honda sat, I was overcome with a sense of calm as the sun crept over the horizon. We happily chipped the ice and snow off the faded red crossover as the owner told us all about the work he'd done on it recently. We took it for a spin and it performed flawlessly on the snow and ice covered roads in the country - this was it! Managed to whittle the price down from $2100 to $1800 and drove it home that morning.
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! We all parted ways later that morning and Jess and I headed back to NH, resting on our laurels for having done a great deed by helping her mom get into a new car that would last for a few years. We got back to NH in time to get some laundry done and get prepped for the week ahead.
You'd think that all was well and good in happy Honda land, but nothing in life is ever as easy as it seems.
Fast forward to Friday (this past Friday): As my work week wrapped up, and the Smuttynose Durty started flowing like water at work, I looked forward to the rest and relaxation that had been usurped by my adventures the weekend prior. I stepped away from my colleagues for a minute to break the seal, and my phone started ringing. I figured it was my wife wanting to know when I'd be home, but it was not.
"Carl, you'll never guess what happened to my car", my mother-in-law sobbed, "I turned the wheel and I heard an awful crunch; next thing I knew the front end of the car was on the ground!"
"Ok, send me a picture of what happened and I'll see what's up"
I knew that she couldn't afford to bring it to a shop. I packed up my stuff for the day, bid my
fellow beer aficionados coworkers adieu, and headed home to discuss the plan of action with the Mrs.
Well, suffice it to say, about an hour later I had booked a hotel in Utica and was heading west once again. I blasted down the Everett Turnpike towards Massachusetts, took I-495 to I-290 to I-90. Surprisingly, I was not very tired and made it to Utica in decent time. The Red Roof Inn gave me a place to rest my head for the night and I was back up and on the road at 6:15 with a quick stop at a breakfast joint around the corner from the hotel first.
Full of a most epic sausage and cheese omelette, hashbrowns and coffee, I made a bee-line for B-lo. Three hours later, I was rolling up in Lackawanna where I found a broken CRV where just shy of a week ago, I left her with a running one. Sure as shit, the lower ball joint had sheared off at the control arm, taking the CV axle and sway bar link out with it. After enjoying a cup of coffee with my mother-in-law, I set to work on the Honda.
A quick trip to the local Autozone provided all the stuff I needed to get the job done. All told, about $140 in parts were procured and the goings on got going on. I removed the axle nut with relative ease (anyone who's done this on a P80 Volvo, you know that feel) and jacked the truck up in situ. The driveway was encrusted in ice, and it was about 20°F out - I suited up in layers, donning cheap work gloves to keep my hands warm and relatively gunk-free.
All told, it was a pretty routine job. That is, until it came time to replace the ball joint. Honda, in their infinite wisdom, decided some time ago that pressing a ball joint into a steering knuckle and having the bolted part go into the control arm was a good idea. Clearly, the boffins at Honda wanted their technicians around the world to be very well versed in machine shop skills and problem solving. The loan-a-tool front end service kit just wasn't cutting the mustard in terms of pressing this thing out. I went inside for lunch, and called around to a few different shops. Luckily, there was a Mavis Tire about a mile away that said they'd be willing to help me press out and press in the new ball joint! Result.
I jumped in the Jetta after having placed the entire steering knuckle from the CRV in the trunk, and took a drive over to Mavis. The guy at the counter pointed me in the direction of the guys in the shop, who promptly took the knuckle out back with the new ball joint as their lunch arrived. I knew I had a bit of time before I'd see the knuckle again, so I sat and waited. After about 20 minutes, the manager called me up to the counter and wrote "$40" on a post-it note. I handed him the cash and he handed me a steering knuckle with a fresh new ball joint. Now, I was in the home stretch!
The Honda went back together nice and easy. When all was said and done, $140 had been spent and her CRV was back among the living once again. I spent the rest of my day relaxing ahead of the drive that lay before me the next morning.
I was up and out the door at 6:17am, knowing full well that I had a major winter storm hot on my heels. I had to abscond from the impending winter doom as fast as I cold, or else I'd be at the mercy of every other driver on the road who presumably sucks at winter driving. Luckily, this was not the case as I made excellent time until I hit the Massachusetts state line some 4 1/2 hours later. Gone were the courteous drivers who only drove in the left lane to pass, who moved over for people merging on the highway; replaced with the cell phone attuned zombies who continue to make Massachusetts the worst place to drive. At one point closer to home, I was minding my own business, cruising along nicely in the middle lane when all of a sudden there was a Prius doing 45 while its "driver" ate chips. I think the second trip to Buffalo was less about losing faith in humanity, as it was losing faith in drivers.
I made it home in enough time to spend some time with the Mrs., make some spinach and artichoke dip, and watch the Patriots #finishthejob. Hopefully I will not find myself in an icy driveway 450 miles away anytime soon.