Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Smog, Smoke, Wind & Fire (Part 1)

This two-part post is off-topic, no poker or Vegas talk.  Although I can connect it a little bit to Vegas because it concerns my transportation to Vegas, if that's not too much of a stretch.  Or just consider this one of my posts about something crazy that happened to me and I thought it was interesting enough to share with my readers.

It all started when I asked my friend Woody for advice on getting a new car.  My Camry was 16 years old and had over 262K miles on it.  It had served me well, but it had several things needing repair that would cost me some serious coin.  When I realized that spending anything above the price of an oil change on the car would be more than it was worth, I decided that I had to look to getting a new car.

To my astonishment, Woody offered me a once-in-a-lifetime deal on one of his cars.  It seems he had an extra car that he or members of his family had had for a long, long time. He had spent a lot of time, effort and yes, money, fixing it up.  Now I don't want to reveal the make and model of the car, but let's just say that it was a top-of-the-line luxury car that originally cost probably three or four times what I had paid for my Camry.  And yes, it was actually older than my Camry.  Again, I don't want to say exactly how old it is but the production date started with a "19" and not a "20."

But Woody loves to fix/maintain his cars and he had basically spent the last year or so rebuilding this car.  As he explained to me, virtually everything about the car was new (transmission, steering, catalytic converters, drive shaft, stereo etc, etc, etc). This is actually one of his hobbies.  I had ridden in this car many times over the years, including very recently.  It was a state-of-the-art car when he originally bought it new, and it had been brought back to virtually its original glory meticulously by Woody. And there wasn't a mark on it.

And he didn't know what to do with it because Woody and his wife, LM, are only two people and they had four cars, counting this one.  Essentially, they didn't have a place to keep this car and so Woody offered me a too-good-to-be true deal on it.  Now if it was anyone else making me this offer, I'd also be looking to see if the Brooklyn Bridge was part of the deal, but Woody has been a close friend for some twenty years or so (and his wife and I have been friends for even longer) and I knew I could trust him.  And I knew if he said that everything had been replaced in the car, it was a fact.  All the issues I had with my Camry had already been repaired on this car, and it was a much better car to begin with.

But one of the pearls of wisdom my late father imparted on me was, "Never buy a used car."  And all this time, I never had. Of course I was a bit skeptical.  So Woody offered me another deal—try the car for awhile and see for myself how I like it.  How could I refuse?

So I left my Camry in front of his house (since I had never mastered the art of driving two cars at once), picked up his car and tried it for myself.  Well, it is a helluva car. The thought that I could have a car of this quality without having to come up with a huge down payment and then have to make large monthly payments was stunning.  So, a week later I was on the phone to Woody saying, "Let's do this!"  Now it was less than two weeks before my next planned trip to Vegas so I wanted to get this transaction completed before then so I could take my "new" car to Vegas.  Besides, I wanted to finalize this sweet deal before Woody came to his senses. 

There was also the matter of the Camry. Since I'd always bought new cars before, I always traded my old car into the dealer when I bought a new car.  I had never dealt with trying to sell a car before and I dreaded it.  Especially since one of the issues with the Camry was that it needed a new catalytic converter and it wouldn't pass a smog check.  And you can't complete the title transfer of a car without a smog check (keep that thought it mind). 

Well, Woody came to the rescue there too.  When I say that he restores cars as a hobby, I don't mean that he does all the physical labor himself.  He mostly figures out what the car needs, finds the parts (usually online) and then when he gets the parts, he goes to a repair shop that is ok with just doing the labor and not selling him the parts.  As such, he knows the owners of half the repair shops in the L.A. area.  He thought of a couple of shop owners who would be willing to take the Camry off my hands and do the repairs for cheap (since that's what they do anyway).  The very first guy he called sounded interested.  Woody named a price that was the minimum I'd accept.  Again, I'm not saying what it was but it was at least 2-3 times what I thought I could get for the car and about 4-5 times more than I could possibly get if I traded it in for a new car.  The guy said he'd look at it and see.  If that didn't work out, Woody had another guy he would try.

So last Monday I drove the car that was soon-to-be mine over to Woody and LM's house to complete the transaction.  The agenda was for me to empty out my Camry, head over to the DMV, file all that paperwork on Woody's—I mean, my—car, then drive the Camry over and drop it off at the shop Woody's pal owns.  He'd check it for a day or two and see if he was interested in buying it himself or perhaps finding a buyer.

As it turned out, I picked a bad day to do this.  We had been having some great weather but this day suddenly a cold wind hit us and when I got to Woody's, it was quite a pain to unload all the crap in my car.  Now although I am a total slob by nature, for years I always kept my cars very neat.  But once I started travelling to Vegas on almost a bi-monthly basis, I just kept keeping more and more stuff in my car all the time.  So there was just a ton of stuff to clean out of there.  And it was 16 years worth of stuff that had been accumulating.

Fortunately both Woody and LM helped and the biggest problem was preventing things from blowing away during the transfer and also keep the garbage bag open in the face of the severe wind.

But we finally cleaned it all out, stopped off for a quick lunch, and then headed to the local DMV, without an appointment.  Fortunately this DMV, located in their neighborhood, is one of the best-run, least busy DMV's you can find.  And so it wasn't a ridiculously long wait for us to be called.

We should have been on our way soon after we were called to the window except for one thing—the car I was buying required a smog check.  Ugh.  I had thought about that but I noticed the car's registration was just renewed in the past month or so.  Since the smog check is required every other year, I assumed that if Woody hadn't mentioned it, the car had been smogged within the 90 day window (so that a check wouldn't be necessary).  Actually when the lady at the DMV mentioned the smog check, Woody assumed that too—but she checked and it turned out it hadn't been done in over a year.  There was no way getting around it.  We would have to get the car smog checked in order to complete this transaction.

I suppose we could have gone anywhere to get the smog check, they have these places all over California, probably plenty within a few minutes from this particular DMV.  But Woody has relationships with many car repair places and wanted to use the one he normally goes to.  Unfortunately, this place was clear across town.  Not to worry, Woody assured us, it was only 2pm and we had until 5pm to get back to the DMV to close this transaction. Plenty of time.

OK, fine.  And then LM realized the place Woody wanted to go was near the place where I was going to drop off my Camry for possible sale.  She suggested we take two cars and kill two birds with one stone—I mean trip.  So we dropped LM off at her house, picked up the Camry and were on our way.  I didn't know where we were going so I just followed Woody, and when we got to a car place, I honestly wasn't sure if it was the place for the smog check or the place we were dropping off the Camry.  Turned out it was the place for the Camry.

Now there's no way to tell the rest of this story without mentioning something that all the car places we were about to interact with had something in common.  And that is, English is not the most frequently spoken language at any of them.  Spanish was much more common at these places, and that is pretty much true of the neighborhood they are all located in.

So as Woody was looking for the owner of this establishment, most of the workers seemed to recognize Woody and said hello to him. Woody returned their greetings in Spanish.  Woody knows some Spanish (mostly slang words) and for that matter, he knows more Yiddish than I do (he is not Jewish).  So he is multi-lingual.  But they all knew him.

Finally he found the proprietor and showed him my car. The proprietor greeted Woody like his good friend. He looked it over for five seconds and said that he would check it out and see what he could do.  And with that, I handed him the keys to my Camry and we took off.  It was a little weird to say the least.  I left my car in his shop, handed him the keys, and didn't get a single piece of paper, no receipt, no nothing.  I am not used to doing business that way but I had complete faith in Woody.

Next we piled into the car and headed over to Woody's car smog buddy.   Who, just like the last guy, greeted Woody like his long lost friend (and in a combination of Spanish and English).  After the pleasantries were over, Woody explained what we needed and the guy said he couldn't help us this day—we should have called.  It seems he has three bays to do smog checks, but only one of them can do the extra tests required for a car as old as this one.  And that bay was not working this day.  Damn.

Woody asked if there was another place in the vicinity, surely there were lots of them.  The guy pointed up the street to a gas station.  "Ask for Jorge.  He's my son."  Cool.

So we went over there.  And asked for Jorge.  "He just left.  Should be back in around 40-minutes."  Well time was a wasting and we didn't want to wait for 40-minutes.  Besides, when someone says sometimes will be back in 40-minutes, it could be closer to 60-minutes.....or not at all, right?

Any other places we could get the check done immediately?  Yeah, tons of them, he said.  He mentioned the name of the street in the neighborhood where they were a dime a dozen.  So without a specific place in mine, we went to that street and just started looking for the smog check sign.  We found one and noticed the bay was chained off, but Woody went to talk to the guy there.  I didn't hear the conversation but Woody got in the car and explained to me that the guy said he had been closed down by the state inspectors.  Apparently they had recently been out in full force and were closing the places down aggressively because (they claimed), their instruments were off and needed to be adjusted.

Hmm....this was getting to be more difficult than we ever imagined.  We were 0 for 3.  We were thinking of heading back to Woody's neck of the woods to find a place when we passed by another shop.  We inquired there.  Nope, they too were closed down by the state.  Yeesh, 0 for 4.  But as we passed by the guy, he did say to us, "nice car."  Except he called it by the exact model of the car.

At this point I started Googling smog check places to see if I could call one and ask if they could do it.  The trouble was, I wasn't sure if these places I was finding were ones we'd already been to!  Then we drove past another one.....It was too late to turn in, so we pulled into a strip mall, parked kind of illegally and Woody went over on foot to see if they could do the smog check.  Well guess what....they could!  On the fifth try we finally found a place who could do the smog check on this older car.

We had to wait and were told to wait in the office, we couldn't see what the guy was doing or even if he was testing the car.  The time was getting near 4pm.  I was wondering if there was a chance in hell of us getting back to the DMV by 5.  I was also wondering if we got there at 4:55pm would we be ok, or if, at 5pm sharp, they would just close down and send everyone waiting to be helped home.  This was the DMV after all—everyone's least favorite bureaucracy.

Well we were waiting in the office and we kept waiting. And waiting.  And waiting.  It seemed to be taking way too long.  And I saw that the time was approaching 4:30 and realized there was no way we were going to make it back to the DMV by 5 even if that would.  There was just no way this was going to be completely finished today.  If we got the smog certificate now, I'd have to make another trip to the DMV on my own tomorrow to clear the title.  And recall that the DMV was close to Woody, not me.

Finally the guy came into the office.  And the first thing he said to Woody was, "Are you undercover?"  Ugh, I figured out what that must have meant.  Eventually, the guy made it clear he thought that we were undercover inspectors trying to trap him into giving us a certificate that wasn't warranted.  WTF?

Woody of course denied this because it wasn't true. It turned out that the issue was the catalytic converters.  The guy (who for this story we are going to call "Jesus") said that he couldn't read the numbers on them, which is part of the test, and therefore he couldn't pass the car.  But he was implying more, that there was something wrong with them, that they were somehow "illegal" catalytic converters and Woody had done something not kosher (pretty sure that Jesus didn't use the word "kosher.")  And then he thought—I guess because he knew the inspectors had closed down some other shops in the neighborhood—that we were with the State and just trying to trap him and bust him!

This was all bullshit.  Woody explained to the guy that those were legitimate CC's that he had bought online, they were certified for CA use, and that he had paid a local shop to install them.  He said he could even produce the receipt for them.  He asked the guy if he had put the car up on the lift to look for the numbers (Woody was sure they were there).  The guy said no, that's not part of the test.  Shops aren't required to have a lift to do smog checks but this shop had one but he refused to use it.  He asked if he would put the car on the lift so that he (Woody) could look for the numbers.  But the guy refused.  All he did was give Woody a pamphlet from the Bureau of Automotive Repair (the agency in charge of smog checks).  And he sent us on the way.

Well the place Woody had the CC's installed was not far from where we were so we headed over there.  Of course, the shop was in the process of closing for the night.  But he told the owner the problem and I think this was the point where it was first considered that the shop may have installed the CC's upside down.  But that shouldn't matter and all that meant was that it was just a little harder to see the numbers.  BTW, the car passed the test in every other way, meaning it wasn't polluting the air, which is the whole reason for having the damn smog checks in the first place. 

There was nothing more that could be done, this now officially became a two-day project (at least).  Woody figured we would get back to this shop first thing in the morning, have the mechanic put the car on the lift, show Woody the numbers on the CC's and then—well, not sure what the next step was.  Perhaps have this shop call the smog place and tell the guy where to look for the numbers?  Or take pics of the CC's so we could show them to Jesus?

That's it for part 1. You can now find part 2 here.  Oh and have you heard about the Southern California wildfires?  They play a big part in part 2.


  1. My guess is....

    While other cars break, a bends.

    Or possibly a late 90s Japanese lux sedan by Lexus or Infiniti???

  2. Hmmmmmm..... how about... While other cars break a -blank- bends.

    1. Sorry, Lester, this isn't a contest!

      All I'll say is...it definitely isn't a Yugo.

  3. Rob - I'm certain your father was a good man in many regards. However, his advice against buying a used car is questionable. You seem to be a cost-conscious consumer, overall. Rarely will buying new be the most fiscally prudent move :-)


    1. Ha ha. I know the arguments. My father was biased based on personal experience...he used to say, "If you buy a used car, you are buying someone else's problems.'

      But keep in mind, the last time he had actually bought a used car was probably in the early 1970's--and before that bad experience, it was mostly likely in the 1940's!

    2. My dad used to say... "Us McGregor's don't get the first 100,000 miles out of a car, we get the last 100,000 miles out of a car"

  4. I am having a hard time figuring out how it ends. Does a new catalytic converter fall on the river to counterfeit the two cars?

    1. Haha, Anony. All I can tell you is the dreaded pocket Kings did not play a part in this story!