Spare Parts in the Junk Drawer

When I was old enough to venture downtown on my bike, one of my friends introduced me to the “junk drawer” at Ernie’s Pure Oil gas station on Plum St. (now Joe’s Mobil).

Whether it was for a washer, nut, screw or bolt, there was a good chance you could find what you needed if you dug deep enough. The usual situation was that one of our bikes lost a bolt and nut needed to quiet a rattling fender. Or it could be more significant such as a nut that keeps a wheel on.

The amazing thing was that we were even allowed to walk under raised cars in their repair bays to get to the drawer in the workbench on the back wall. The mechanics were far too busy replacing mufflers and fuel pumps to bother with us. We were careful to stay out of their way.

Today those same people are “service techs” with certifications to prove it. And in most shops no one but them is allowed anywhere beyond a brightly colored line painted on the floor at the entry to the service bays, especially kids with broken bikes.

At home we didn’t have the wide variety of spare parts that the gas station did but my dad, the King of Cobble, still had a collection worthy of his many jars hanging above the basement workbench. These jars also included mysterious plumbing parts. It was out of necessity because he didn’t have the money to pay to have things repaired the proper way.

So he repaired things with what he had. If he couldn’t fix it, he’d learn to live with it. Or we kids would. The best example is the self-propelled Toro lawnmower that had a poorly designed self-propelling system. Dad couldn’t fix it so just removed it from the extra heavy mower that we kids used to mow lawns for money.

I was thinking about spare parts as I was attempting to fix an elliptical exercise machine I bought during the worst of the pandemic. Word of warning: these things have about 1,000 parts that can fail, just like the people who use them. In this case, I replaced a fiber washer with a metal one and a lock washer to put it back in business. I found the washers by digging through the dumped contents of one of my junk jars.

We don’t fix things as much as we used to. So many products today are designed so you either need to junk out the whole thing and buy a replacement or you need special equipment just to work on them. And repair manuals often are not made available to the public. There’s an ongoing debate about this and laws are taking shape.

An example is farmers who are often not able to repair their machinery but instead must rely on dealers to repair them at inflated cost. That’s a shame because very little matches the words that come from a farmer struggling to remove a frozen bearing.

This applies to cars as well with their notorious idiot lights. The common “check engine” light is supposed to warn drivers that there’s a problem with some component of their car. It’s supposed to apprise you of a condition that could present a hazard if you continue to drive the vehicle. But the indicator light doesn’t tell you anything useful. The condition could be any one of dozens of problems such as the brakes failing or low engine oil pressure.

To find out what specifically is wrong, you need to connect a special code reader to a port in the engine compartment to find the offending code. And even then it may not be helpful. It may point to a problem with a component that’s fine but which relies on another component that the codes don’t identify. The owner’s manual isn’t much more helpful. It basically says “bring it in to your dealer.”

One of our cars recently displayed a solid check engine light and a blinking brake warning light. Even the cruise control light was blinking. The internet is full of advice on things like this. Sometimes it helps and other times it serves as a warning that the repair is indeed beyond your ability to fix it. And today, not much on a car can be repaired with parts from your junk drawer.

The solution in my case turned out to be easy. I filled the tank with gas, tightened the gas cap enough so it clicked once and then drove it a short distance. I shut it off and when I restarted it, all the trouble lights were extinguished.

This fix has something to do with the proper vacuum necessary for fuel intake. So why had the brake and cruise control warning lights been blinking? The observation of someone on the internet was that they are just there to annoy you enough so you’ll do something about it rather than just get used to a solid check engine light.

It’s somehow satisfying to fix something whether with parts from the junk drawer or advice from the internet. But we can’t fix everything, even with a fully stocked junk drawer or the weapon of last resort, duct tape. So taking it to the shop might be the best choice.

But I bet even they have a junk drawer somewhere.

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