12/07/2008

What I Did On My Summer Vacation,
Part 2

More on my post-retirement adventures.


Part 2: Living Tight:

When I retired, our income dropped by about a third. (That's from my base pay with USPS; if you count in the overtime money I earned each year, which varied from a couple of thousand dollars a year to -- once -- over ten thousand dollars, the percentage was even higher.)

This meant that, even paring expenses to the bone, we'd run five or six hundred dollars short every month. Our general-purpose savings (as opposed to our investment savings) would keep up going for a number of months, but *sigh* yes it really was necessary to look for another job.

("Hey, Bruce," you ask, "Why retire from the Postal Service if you had to turn around and find another job a few months later?" Because, I say with another sigh, the toxic management environment in the Postal Service finally just got so bad, so consistently, that even with taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs , continuing to work there was putting my health -- both physical and emotional -- at risk. I haven't had to take any anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds since retiring. I miss the work; I always got a lot of satisfaction out of delivering the mail, and doing it well. I miss some of my customers; I miss some of my co-workers. But my overall feeling at leaving the Postal Service is simply one of relief.)

As part of that "paring expenses", we put book-buying on hold, and got all of our reading material from our local library. (Hilde reads a lot of books, so we'd already been a frequent library patron, but putting off actually book-buying probably saved at least $50-$75 a month.) We get movies from NetFlix, so put off any visits to the local cinema-plex too. We dug down in our big chest freezer to use up some of the stuff that had been buried for a while ("Hmmm, a roast from 2003? Yep, probably time to use this."). We planned shopping trips to maximize efficiency and minimize mileage.

We've always been fairly frugal in our lifestyle, but we ramped up and tightened down everywhere we could.

There were three areas of expense that, if we could have eliminated any one of them, would have brought our tightened-up finances almost to the break-even point: The mortgage payment, the monthly costs for Hilde's and my prescription drugs, and the Unexpected Expense Of The Month Club.

The Unexpected Expense Of The Month Club is something I've complained about before: I don't remember joining, I don't like the selections, there's no "Don't Send" box to mark on the reply cards, and the membership is non-cancellable. The costs vary from month to month, but we seem to almost always have at least a hundred to two hundred dollars in UEs every month. And then, once or twice a year, one of the Big Meanie UEs will come along -- usually involving major car or house repairs -- and raise the average monthly UE expense up to around $600 a month.

I was hoping that the next Big Meanie coming down the UE pipeline would hold off a few months, until I was re-employed and getting an expenses-plus income again.

And then our minivan was stolen about the beginning of August.

The good news: It was recovered two days later, across town in Tempe. The bad news: It needed repairs, not only to the ignition lock (which had been ripped out, and the van started with a crowbar inserted into the hole) and steering column, but several instances of body damage and a torn bumper (it looked like they'd taken it off-road for a bit and driven it thru some shrubbery or other vegetation). And... the engine now had a bad knocking sound it hadn't had before.

The insurance policy had a $500 deductible, but we hoped that would be the limit of how much the experience would cost us.

Unfortunately...

Let me see if I can say this forcefully enough:

Do not, ever, allow your car to be taken to Gerber Collision in Mesa, Arizona. Not even when your insurance company tells you they're one of their authorized service dealers.

Do not, EVER, allow your car to be taken to Gerber Collision in Mesa, Arizona.

Do not, EVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, allow your car to be taken to Gerber Collision in Mesa, Arizona.

That engine knocking? After the body and ignition repairs were done, I was told to change the oil a couple of times, and the knocking would take care of itself.

Right. Our son Chris drove the van back across town from Mesa; by the time he managed to get it into our driveway, the knock-knock-knock had become a BANG!-BANG!-BANG!, with the van rocking with each bang.

At which time it became clear that the auto thief had not just driven the van hard and put it away wet, but that the last thing he'd done before abandoning the vehicle was rev the engine until major damage was done. (Thanks a lot, asshole.)

After a phone call to my insurance, the van ended up being towed back to Gerber to have the engine replaced.

Yes, back to Gerber. I did not feel comfortable about this, and probably should have insisted the van be taken to a service dealer that specialized in mechanical work, rather than back to one whose specialty was bodywork.

The bodywork Gerber did was fine; I haven't any complaints about that work. But subsequent events proved that my instincts were very, very right about being wary of sending the van back to Gerber.

When the van was sent back to Gerber, it did not have a power steering leak.

When the van was sent back to Gerber, it did not have a cracked radiator.

But it did when it came back home.

Before the van was sent home the second time, the customer rep at Gerber did tell me there was a power steering leak, and asked if I wanted them to fix it. By this point, I just wanted the van home, and out of Gerber's shop (there'd been, in the interim, a number of frustrating delays in getting the engine replacement finished), and I figured that any other place would be better to get the power steering leak fixed. So I said no to their fixing it.

Now, from the conversation with the customer rep, I'd gotten the impression that this was a fairly minor power steering leak, one that would probably involve replacing some seals.

The morning after the van's been brought back home for the second time, I go out front, and underneath the van... is not some drops or splotches of power steering fluid, but a puddle, about a foot-and-a-half wide and four feet long.

This is not just a "leak"; this is a catastrophic failure of the power steering system.

This makes the customer rep at Gerber's telling me he was going to do me the "favor" of having the van towed back home, rather than my having to come across town to pick it up again, make more sense. I suspect the real reason he had it towed from Mesa to Glendale was because he didn't think the van would make the trip by itself.

By this point, I've learned my lesson. Chris, when he still had his own truck, had a mechanic he trusted. So we poured new power steering fluid into the van and took it to that place.

What the mechanic there told me was this: The power steering leak was probably caused when the old and new engines were swapped out of the minivan. If you're not careful when hoisting the engine out of or into the vehicle, the power steering pump can get smacked against the side of the engine compartment, damaging the fitting and causing a major leak like the van now had.

It was also that mechanic who also discovered the cracked radiator, cracked at the base of the hose fitting near the radiator's top side. This was another piece of damage that could have been caused by carelessness in hoisting an engine out of the compartment.

And it was also that mechanic who discovered that three of the four engine mounts were broken. Now, this was certainly a pre-existing condition; the thick rubber of the mounts was cracking and separating, badly. But what was unbelievable to me was that Gerber's mechanic could take out the old engine, and put in a new engine, without noticing the blatantly visible damage to the engine mounts. If I hadn't taken that van to a new mechanic, I might have had the damn engine fall out of the vehicle a month or two later. What a piece of fun that would have been.

In short, my quality-of-service rating for Gerber Collision is deep, deep, deep into negative numbers. The cost of repairs for the damaged power steering and radiator, which Gerber most likely caused, was nearly a thousand dollars over and above the $500 deductible I'd already had to pay.

Gerber Collision: DON'T GO THERE!

(Have I told my insurance company about all this? Actually, no; it's been nearly three months since all this happened, and it's only now that I can remain calm enough to write about it. Maybe now I can write Liberty Mutual and tell them just how less-than-wonderful their "authorized service dealer" turned out to be.)

At any rate, having that Big Meanie of an Unexpected Expense come along made my returning to work rather more urgent than before.

1 comment:

mjlayman said...

Ack. I had my engine replaced a few years ago because it was cheaper than a new car and the rest of the 22-year-old minivan was in good shape. I have really good mechanics just a few blocks from the condo and since even that's too much for me, they bring me home after I drop it off, and come get me when I pick it up.