Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Used Cars from Hell

Here's a look back at my ill-fated adventure in used car shopping back in 2008. When I wrote this, it looked like I would have a happy ending but alas, this car was destined to be snatched off the street in front of my place only 15 months after I bought it. After that, I failed my eye test at the DMV and decided that maybe it was time I became a frequent flier with Lyft, Uber and the local taxi companies.

Buying a car was the last thing I thought about doing this year. My perfect, pristine little 1994 Honda Civic was running just fine and getting great gas mileage so why bother? Then one day last month I went out to get into my car and it wasn’t there. Since mine was one of the most-stolen cars of the year, I can only figure my baby met an untimely death in a chop shop, with no one to appreciate the immaculate care I had taken of her. RIP.

After a month of wrangling with the insurance company and a rent-a-car I didn’t like (but they paid for) I finally got a paltry check reflecting the average market value of my model. This check was supposed to “replace” what I had lost. Sounds fair, right? Until I started shopping for a replacement.

I started where everyone starts, with CraigsList. They had an ever-changing lineup of Honda Civics claiming various years, features and prices. The variety made me dizzy and also reminded me that the last time I looked for a used car was pre-internet. I Googled “How to buy a used car” and came up with several interesting and informative sites. The most intriguing advice I got was to subscribe to something called AutoCheck, which for a modest fee lets you run a make on any auto’s VIN number and get its history. Well, most of it anyway. I ran my departed vehicle and it checked out great but did not mention the most important thing you should know if anyone tried to sell it to you. That it was stolen. Oh, well.

So I went back to CraigsList and started checking out the ones that I could actually buy with the meager funds I had on hand. Some of the owners posted pretty pictures of their cars and stated they were “in great condition” but alas, they had to part with them because they were “moving out of town.” Most failed to mention the more important details like whether the car had automatic or manual, A/C, power steering, brakes, stuff like that. Things I’d rather hear about instead of how good the mileage is. All Hondas get good mileage, OK?

I called or e-mailed a few and requested their VIN numbers so I could check them out. Some had them, some didn’t. Some knew whether their vehicles has power steering and brakes, some didn’t. Some didn’t even know their vehicle’s history as revealed by AutoCheck. Which really makes me want to buy their car. I found some owners who didn’t even know as much as I did after I ran their car through AutoCheck.

After finding a few really flakey private sellers, I decided to try the dealers. Those guys have to stand behind what they sell, right? Uh, maybe. If you can afford to go to the high-end dealers with the high-priced cars, OK. You know, the ones who sell new cars, too. On my budget, I was dealing with the kind of outfits that were located on a piece of rented asphalt on a busy street with a few sad vehicles baking in the sun.

I found three dealer vehicles that sounded promising. They checked out on AutoCheck, had the features I needed and the photos looked fairly attractive. So I enlisted a friend to take me out to look at the three promising picks last Saturday. Alas, up close they didn’t look nearly as promising.

The first was a black 97 Civic with a fairly clean record located at a dealer in Santa Monica. Seeing this car brought it home what I was really up against. If this is the only kind of car I can afford, kill me now. The “dealership” was located in an alley and its “inventory” consisted of a few cars, all over ten years old. The Civic was black and had a bad paint job and an interior that suffered from too much wear and too many amateur attempts at touch-ups with a spray paint can from WalMart. It looked rode hard and put up wet. On the plus side, the engine sounded fine but I couldn’t get past the feeling this car had lived at least 40 years already.

So next to the second “dealer” in Mar Vista. This one was slightly bigger – more cars, its own website. Unfortunately, still D-list cars. The Civic I was there to check out had an obviously new white Earl Scheib paint job and duct tape holding the brand-new windshield in place. I didn’t bother to ask what happened to the old one. But the price was right so we took it out for a spin and found that the engine light refused to go off. Bad sign. Time to move on to number three.

The next car was located in Rosemead, way the hell out on the freeway. I didn’t realize how far until we set out. Way out. This one was an unfortunate shade of purple, which I hoped meant it might be a good buy. Wrong. It was kinda hard to check out because it was blocked in behind other cars and didn’t seem to have been moved in quite a while, judging from the layer of dust. After I got inside, I didn’t want to move it, either.

The interior looked as though a large family of raccoons had been nesting there since the last time it was moved. One outside mirror appeared to be held on with duct tape and there was a gaping hole in the dashboard. I wish now I had taken my camera along on this excursion so you could compare what these cars really looked like with the dealers’ photos. Think more PhotoShop than Mariah Carey’s last album cover. I don’t recall what the engine of the purple bomb sounded like because I was so dispirited by the realization of what that insurance check could buy, I just wanted to go back home, get drunk and take a nap. That night I had nightmares about spending the rest of my years in a trailer park with one of those vehicles rusting what was left of its life away out front among the pigs and chickens.

But I got up the next day determined to give the private sellers a second chance. One was selling cheap but had a salvage title. I was so depressed I was willing to give them a chance until a guy in the valley posted an ad with really nice photos of a cute little 1995 two-seater Honda Del Sol at a reasonable price. I ran the VIN number and it still looked promising. Best of all, he was going to be in the area the next day and offered to drive it over. So I agreed to look at one more car Monday.

Being prepared for the worst, I was pleasantly surprised when the car looked just like its photos, including the interior, which sported one minor rip but was otherwise clean. This Honda was such a step up from the previous candidates that I was willing to drop $70 taking her to visit my longtime mechanic Steve. After an hour or so and watching three guys examine everything there is to examine about a used car, Steve pronounced the cute little Del Sol sound with only a couple of minor problems that did not affect how it ran.

So for my insurance check plus $200 plus $300 in state taxes and fees, $30 to AutoCheck and $70 to Mechanic Steve, I’m the somewhat happy but mostly relieved owner of a sporty little blue-green number that’s easy to park and gets great gas mileage. I think to be really happy, I need to take the top off and drive her to the beach.

How to Eat Like Po' White Trash

I was strolling the virtual grocery aisles of tonight putting together a grocery order for delivery tomorrow. Yeah, I’m lazy. I was checking out the canned goods and ran across the heading for beans. One was “Pork and Beans.” I thought, “They still make this stuff?” Van Camps Pork and Beans was a staple at my house growing up that I had long forgotten because I haven’t eaten any in years.

There are a few special delicacies my folks raised me on back in Alabama that I gave up when I got old enough to read labels and see whatthehell it was I was eating. I realize now that these “foods” appealed to my folks’ Depression-era sensibilities because they’re all really cheap. You can also eat most of them straight out of the can or on a Ritz cracker – the only kind we had at home. I may get nostalgic for this stuff but I have no desire to eat any of it. I can get my daily quota of salt and fat without eating cat food disguised as “meat.”

Those Van Camp’s Pork and Beans were probably the healthiest of the bunch if not the most tasty. You can buy a 15 Oz. can at Vons for just over a dollar and make three meals out of it with only 1 gram of fat and no cholesterol. Be sure to serve some fried bologna with your Pork and Beans to relive those happy memories of being in jail in Biloxi, MS.

One step up from plain ol’ Pork and Beans is another meal-in-a-can from Van Camp’s called Beanee Weenee, which not surprisingly consists of beans with pieces of chopped weiners. Eat these for a few days and ramen soup from the 99 Cents store will taste like a gourmet treat.

Moving down the food chain, we come to the All-American lunch meat – Spam. Vons sells a 12 Oz. can of Spam for $3.25 and each serving contains 16 grams of fat and 790 mg. of sodium. That doesn’t count the Wonder Bread and Hellman’s mayo you need to cover the taste of the Spam. Be sure to wash off that ham-flavored Jello first.

The next sort-of meat from my childhood was Armour Vienna Sausage. Not to be confused with real sausage. A 5 Oz. can costs a whopping $.60 and three sausages have 11 grams of fat. The ingredients as listed by the label include Mechanically Separated Chicken, Water, Beef, Pork, Salt, Corn Syrup, Less than 2% of Mustard, Spices, Natural Flavorings, Dried Garlic, Sodium Nitrite. Yummy! My folks kept these in the cabinet all the time so I could have some whenever I wanted. If I had kids (which I don’t) and put a can of these in his/her lunch box, how fast do you think CPS would be circling my house with bullhorns? But since back then they also put Coca-Cola (the real thing) in our baby bottles, we already had cast-iron stomachs by the time we could chew.

One step down from Vienna Sausage is Potted Meat. Not surprisingly, Vons doesn’t stock any potted meat but if you really have a Jones for it, will sell you a case of 48 cans of Armour Potted Meat for $19.69. This is obviously a real bargain since “potted meat product” consists of Mechanically Separated Chicken, Beef Tripe, Water, Salt, Salt Less than 2% of Mustard, Natural Flavorings, Dried Garlic, Vinegar, Dextrose, Sodium Erythorbate, Sodium Nitrite. Let’s face it – this sort-of meat pate is Friskies Mixed Grill for humans. Be sure to stir in a little pickle relish before you plop it on that Ritz cracker.

I confess to actually eating the previous dubious delights when I was a kid but it gets worse. There were things my dad would eat that I haven’t touched to this day. That’s saying a lot since if you drag it out of the ocean and it isn’t actually still moving, I’ll probably try it.

Next up are canned sardines, with which my dad smelled up the kitchen frequently. Vons has Chicken Of The Sea Smoked Sardines In Oil - 3.75 Oz. for $1.00 a can. They have 13 grams of fat and I would rather slurp down an oyster that’s quivering and staring at me. Especially if there’s Tabasco sauce, horseradish and a lot of cold beer involved.

I’ve saved the worst for last. My dad loved a uniquely Southern dish called Brains and Eggs. Most folks like this for breakfast but he’d eat it anytime. North Carolina Congressman Howard Coble
 shared his recipe for this delicacy:

2-1/2 Tablespoons bacon grease 

4 eggs 

1/3 cup whole milk 

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 

1/4 teaspoon salt 

1 can (5 Oz.) pork brains in gravy (Rose Brand preferred) 

Melt bacon grease in an iron skillet on low heat. Add pork brains to heated grease. Stir with a fork. Add salt and pepper and stir. Whisk eggs and milk together. Increase heat and add egg mixture to brains. Scramble to desired consistency. Serve immediately over toast.

Predictably, Vons doesn’t sell pork brains but I found a site where you can buy Rose’s Pork Brains with gravy, 5 oz. for $2.54. One can, which is about 2/3 cup, has only 150 calories and 5 grams of fat but has 3,500 mg of cholesterol or 1,170% of your daily recommended intake. Bon appetite.

My parents both lived to ripe old ages. I have no idea why.