When I was almost 22—just two days after graduating from nursing school—I drove to Virginia, sat for my nursing boards there, and got my license and first nursing job. While working evening shifts at Mount Vernon Hospital, I moved into a one bedroom apartment just off of Route 1 that I could afford on my nursing paycheck. Before signing the lease, I toured the apartment and complex—in the daytime, because that's when the rental office was open. In a neighborhood like that, one should always tour in the night hours and weekends. That’s when the criminals and cockroaches come out. At least one should hang out in the parking lot between 1 and 3 a.m. to watch the action. (That won’t help with the cockroaches, but it might give you a hint of what you can expect when you come home after your evening shift and turn on the kitchen light and see hundreds of black spots race back into their hiding places.) (Plus one tour at any given time won't prepare you for when the entire building next to yours explodes because of something fishy going on in the basement.)
A few months into my life there, my car started making an awful noise. I took it to a nearby chain car shop. When the mechanic asked me at the initial check-in how many cylinders the car engine had, I scrunched up my face and asked, “What kind of number would that be? Like 4 maybe? 20?” He had me then and he knew it. When he called me back with the repair estimate, apparently the entire engine needed to be rebuilt for a couple thousand dollars, and if I didn’t do it immediately, any second the car could throw a rod and kill me if I drove it even five inches. I called my dad in tears, wondering how I was going to come up with two thousand dollars and asking what I should do.
He laid out for me a game plan. Over the phone, he taught me how to take off (and put back on) the battery cables and how to clean the battery terminals, how to check the spark plugs, plus a few other tricks to make sure I’d done what I could. He told me how many cylinders cars can have and what mine had. Then he instructed me about what kind of shop to take it to and what to say. I drove into the new repair place—a privately owned small town type—and told the guy how the car was behaving, what I’d done, and what I thought he might check. His eyes widened and he said, “You did all that, yourself?” I answered with confidence that I indeed had. The repair was less than $100.
Later in the year, my starter started to go. As in, it started to fail. It certainly didn't "go." But it only failed if the car was warm. Something in the starter expanded with the heat and it "froze up" and wouldn’t turn over or make a sound. But if the car was cold, it started up just fine. I discovered this the first time after a day that I’d been over in D.C. on a Sunday for brunch and sightseeing with a friend. After brunch, I zipped home to change for work, and when I went back out to my car, which had just been running fine, it wouldn’t start. It had a manual transmission, so I could pop the clutch to start it if I needed to. Two guys were walking by in the parking lot outside my apartment building. I said, “Hey there.” I smiled. They smiled, like the didn’t mind the attention from a young lady. I said, “My car won’t start. I need a push so I can pop the clutch. Will you please help me get it over there so I can roll it down that hill?” A little startled but willing to assist, they helped me push the car while I steered then hopped in. We got her rolling. I popped the clutch, she started right up, and I waved and yelled thanks out the window and drove off. I think I probably still owe them five bucks or something.
From then on, I always parked at the top of the parking lot pointed out and downhill. I also never showed my ignorance so blatantly again to people who were in a position to take my money. And I always considered what went on in the wee hours before I signed on the line.
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