This post was previously published in my other blog, Not Another Wave.

Erica and car
Tango, Cheyenne Mountain, and me in the parking lot at work.

Before I begin this post, it needs to be stated for the record that I have a lot of pride. I’ve always been the person who couldn’t stand to ask for help because that would somehow imply weakness on my part. As a toddler, I threw a huge temper tantrum once because I couldn’t pick up a pumpkin that had taken both my parents to lift. My mother offered help, and in response, I shouted, “NO! I DO IT MYSELF!” Unfortunately, the “do it myself” attitude has persisted relatively intact into adulthood with me. The reason I mention this is because I recently purchased my first used car- a 1999 Honda Accord- and despite being careful, it wound up requiring four separate trips to the mechanic in the first two weeks I owned it.

For the first several days after this whole mess began, I felt like a little girl that people had taken advantage of (and pardon that dangling participle). The first round of repairs on the car didn’t last and it began to seem like the mechanics were taking me for a metaphoric ride. When the car issues began happening, I immediately blamed myself for being such a good target. “Of COURSE you got fleeced by the dealers,” I said to myself, “you don’t even know your way around under the hood!” Then, when the first round of repairs cost $1,200.00, I told myself, “This would’ve been a lot cheaper if you knew how to check these things yourself.” In short, this left me feeling like I had something to prove- not just because I’m like that as a person, but because I felt like I needed to prove that not all women are dumb about cars.

This is where the “I’ve got a huge independent streak” opener comes in. I want to be sure to emphasize that my feelings on this matter are definitely compounded by my own personal tendencies to be hell-bent on the “do it myself” method. I tend to feel horribly incompetent even when I fail at doing typically female-gendexed things by myself, like cooking or managing to keep my apartment clean, so this isn’t 100% gender-related. But there is a distinction to be made between feeling personally incompetent and feeling gender-ally incompetent. This car situation left me feeling the latter. It isn’t just a personal shortcoming that I didn’t know much about cars; it’s the feeling that if I had been male, or a man, and gone to buy that car I might have been told more about its potential pitfalls, under the assumption that I’d know what the dealer meant. It’s also the feeling that the mechanic would’ve been more upfront with me about the state of the emissions system in my engine. Let’s be honest: four (or more) leaks in eleven days doesn’t sound particularly stable to me. And maybe I could’ve been spared a lot of frustration if, “man to man,” the mechanic had told me at the beginning that there were extensive repairs needed.

The flip side to the coin is that gendered expectations go both ways. If I were a cis man, the mechanic and the dealer might both have assumed a certain amount of mechanical prowess on my part. The dealer might have tried to sell me a flashy muscle car, presuming that I (and it?) ran on testosterone alone. The mechanic might still have downplayed the extent of the car’s problems, but for different reasons. And, as we ought to know, penises don’t come with basic mechanical skills rolled up inside. Having different plumbing and/or a different gender identity wouldn’t change my auto skills. But it’s hard to wind up in such an awful situation, knowing that my sex and gender identities probably haven’t helped me in the slightest in my attempts to get a functional car for my money.

I suppose the bottom line is that, in addition to changing systemic attitudes about sex, gender, and cars, we need to empower ourselves to avoid being the victims of dealerships and mechanics looking to make a few extra dollars. Everyone should know their way around under the hood. Everyone should also be able to read the assessment tests that mechanics perform when that awful check engine light comes on, and at least be able to Google the solutions that can be applied. And finally, everyone should know the “lemon laws” in their state, so if they wind up with a car as terrible as mine…they can get their money back. Here are some quick suggestions for Go Girls who are taking on the world by wheel:

  • Know the fluids in your car. This includes oil, brake, transmission, and windshield wiper. Know what they look like when dirty or clean and how to refill or replace them when they get low.
  • Carry a basic repair kit in your car. This should include a small pressure gauge, jack, tire iron, spare tire, and a set of jumper cables. It should go without saying that having these is only helpful if you know how to use them.
  • Remember to check the pressure of your tires- especially the spare!- on a regular basis.
  • Have your car’s manual available to you. That can help you know when maintenance is likely to be done and how your car will remind you.
  • If you live in a cold climate, carry sand, an ice scraper, a towel, and a snow brush in your car. Tip: sand is easily carried in a (carefully rinsed and dried!) plastic milk carton.
  • Consider subscribing to a group like AAA, which not only gives you great discounts while on the road, but also provides travel guides and affordable roadside assistance in case of emergency.
  • If you’re getting ready to purchase a car, have a mechanic that you know and trust give it a once-over before the final sale.