Mr. Fixit Goes to Vegas

An inveterate do-it-yourselfer settles in Sin City, and finds it utterly helpless

In January 2009, on Interstate 95 near Daytona Beach, Fla., my car blew up in a most spectacular fashion. I was headed north for a weekend of camping, three kids in the car, a canoe on the roof and pulling a small trailer. As I accelerated to merge on to the interstate, I heard a flapping sound that I took to be tie-down straps that had worked loose. When it got louder, I knew it was time to pull over and check the load. When there was an explosion from under the hood and smoke filled the car, I knew the straps weren’t the problem.

I pulled over and hustled the kids into a ditch, thinking the whole car might go up in flames. My wife, following behind in our other car because there wasn’t enough room for everything in one car, parked behind me.

“What happened?” she shouted. “A huge ball of flame shot out from under the car!”

What happened, I discovered later, is a connecting rod bearing seized, causing the connecting rod to break and punch a hole in the engine block, a golf-ball-size chunk of which lay smoldering in the dry grass nearby. When most people say, “My car blew up,” they mean a belt broke or a hose popped and the car overheated. No big deal, really. But throwing a rod is the automotive equivalent of a massive heart attack—you drop dead on the spot.

We called a tow truck, spread out a blanket in the ditch and played Scrabble for two hours until help arrived. I spent the time doing the calculus in my head: Fix the car or junk it? On one hand, it’s 13 years old and has 165,000 miles on it. On the other, I just put new tires on it and it runs beautifully; or at least it did.

While most people would happily send such traitorous transportation to the junkyard, I agonized for weeks over the decision, losing sleep and taxing my family’s patience. Finally I announced my decision: I’m fixing it. I found a used engine at a junkyard, rented a hoist and, with the help of a buddy, swapped out the engine. That was 20,000 miles ago, and the car still runs beautifully.

I relate this tale not to brag about my mechanical prowess—anyone who can read a recipe can install an engine, the real art is in rebuilding one—but to establish my bona fides as a do-it-yourselfer. Not only do I mow my own lawn, do my own taxes, paint my own walls, fix my own plumbing leaks and even tackle some light electrical work, I’ve brought more than a few cars back from the grave.

It’s an ability born of economic necessity, refined through trial and error and now practiced proudly even though my station in life has improved and I could pay people to do things for me. But why would I? There’s pride in a job well done, or at least done well enough and way cheaper than someone could it for you. Every success builds confidence, until you pity the soft and weak who let themselves become enslaved to service providers. “If only they’d paid attention in auto shop back in high school,” I chuckle to myself when I see a tow truck driver changing a flat tire for some hapless soul. “What if this were Equatorial Guinea? Think your precious AAA would come to your rescue there?”

Everywhere I’ve lived—and I’ve lived in a lot of places—there are like-minded souls, the widespread cult of the DIYer. We shall inherit the earth, get it rotating again, congratulate ourselves on all the money we saved and crack open an ice-cold Pabst. But now I live in Las Vegas, a city that to my mind is the anti DIY-capital of the country.

I can only conclude that it’s a mark of shame in my neighborhood to do your own yard work, judging by the fact that exactly one of my neighbors does. Maintain a pool? A black art best left to the professionals. The same goes for changing your own oil, which is both mysterious and gross. Who has the time?

But in Las Vegas, anti-DIYism goes way beyond the basics: There are companies that will stand in line at the DMV for you, buy your groceries and put them away, and arrange the clothes in your closets. If I look long enough, I’ve no doubt I’ll come across a firm that will chew your food for you.

Until my big project—Evolving Without Arms: Las Vegas and the Culture of Helplessness—gets funded, I can only speculate about our city’s apparent DIY disdain. Part of it may be the weather and part of it may be the homogeneity we seek in our plain-vanilla suburbs, where a home that looks exactly like every other is not only the norm, it’s in the rulebook. Doing it yourself encourages doing it differently, and we can’t have any of that, now can we?

But I suspect there is a larger issue at play here; I suspect that our city is a harbinger of growing cultural disdain for knowing how things work. Our national admiration for people who make things has been replaced by adulation of people who entertain us. And this being the Entertainment Capital of the World and all, there is way more adulation to accomplish in a day than there is time. You walk my dog, I have a Kardashian birthday to attend!

The people who founded Las Vegas were hard as steel; they had to be to knock a city together in the middle of a blast furnace. We dishonor their legacy every time we pay someone to trim our nose hair.

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