Sunday, March 13, 2011

If your car has to break down, do it in Georgia

The purple pin marks Jesup, Ga., where they treat you like neighbors.

I discovered Southern hospitality somewhere south of Macon, Ga. The rumpled little cashier in a service station surprised me by looking at me in a friendly way and saying, "How y’all doin’ today." I hadn’t been greeted like that since attendants pumped gas for you. She said it like she meant it.

"Well, I’m fine. How’s yourself?"

"It´s a blessèd day," she replied while making change. Then she looked at me, smiled and said, "Come back and see us again real soon." Like I was her neighbor. I was smiling all the way back to the car.


We were driving from Atlanta to St. Augustine, Fla., for the weekend and making good time.

A little farther on we took a shortcut off the interstate, and in Jesup, Ga., the clutch pedal went soft a couple of times. Finally the pedal wouldn’t come back up we couldn’t get the car into gear.

We were stranded right in the middle of a five-lane highway with cars whizzing past on both sides. Fortunately it was in front of Duckworth’s auto service. Cindy went in to get help, and two mechanics came out to give us a push into their lot.

When we described the problem, Ben, one of the mechanics, said it sounded like the clutch’s master cylinder or slave cylinder had failed. "We don’t fix those, but I know somebody who does."

Hop to it

It was noon on a Friday. Ben called Lonnie’s Auto, and someone there said he could take a look at it, no promises. Then Ben called a towing service.

The truck, from Grant Lewis Towing, arrived in five minutes. We hopped in and chatted with the driver, Terrance, while we rode a couple miles to Lonnie’s, a dumpy looking place with an unpaved parking lot. The tow was only $45, which to me was a pleasant surprise.

Inside Lonnie’s we were greeted by a wave of cigarette smoke and a big guy in a ball cap with a phone in each ear.

We waited till he was done, and then Cindy explained that her cellphone wasn’t working and could she make a long-distance call to tell the person we were visiting that we would be late. "Sure, come on in," said Lonnie (because that’s who it was).

Take my truck

The phone call done, Lonnie asked us if we had had lunch yet. It would take him some time to take a look at the car, so why didn’t we borrow his big old truck, a monster Ford F-150, to go to "the best place in town," Jones’s Kitchen, and get something to eat.

One of the mechanics drew us a map, and in a few minutes we were on our way. Jones’s Kitchen was an $8 all-you-can-eat buffet for very large people with oversized appetites. We loaded up our plates with nameless but intriguing fried foodstuffs, elbowed our way into one of the few open spaces at the family-style serving tables and chowed down. 

It was all good. When we got back, Lonnie and his brother, Leland, were at work. Before we knew it, the car was ready. Lonnie said the problem was that something called the proportioning valve had failed and leaked all the transmission fluid. The car is a 2001 Toyota Camry with 89,000 miles on it. He  called the Toyota dealer an hour away to ask what to do about the valve. The dealer’s mechanic told him they didn’t have the part and just to bypass the valve.

Two hours, no waiting

Lonnie lifted up the hood and showed me the offending valve and the thin metal tube he had installed to go around it. The clutch now worked fine. Total cost, $60.30, no extra charge for the long-distance phone call and loaner truck. The whole business had taken two hours.

If we had the same work done in any big city, I’m guessing that the tow would have been $100, the car would have been on the dealer lot for a week while they sent to Tokyo for the proportioning valve, we would have had to call a taxi to get us home, and we would have arrived there hungry. Final bill probably $675 ($250 for the part because they don’t make them any more). Dealer cash registers are calibrated, I’m convinced, so they cannot record charges of less than $500.

But most of all, we would not have been treated like real human beings with a problem, the way we were at Duckworth’s, the towing service, Lonnie’s and Jones’s Kitchen.

 If you ever do have to have a breakdown, I recommend you do it in Jesup, Ga.

And, by the way, there is such a thing as a proportioning valve. I looked it up. It’s supposed to remove any hint of vibration when you engage the clutch. But we don’t even miss it.

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