My cousin Buddy Levak could literally take an entire car apart and put it back together. He could sell anyone a used car. He considered himself such a superior driver that he once pulled a police car over, took the badge number of the officer and reported him as a road hazard.
Neighbors took their cars to Levak the way they would go to the doctor. He had more stature in the neighborhood than the councilman or the priest.
Then, one day in the early '80s, when I was having trouble with my car, I stopped by to see him. The car had a cough. I figured he would give me a family discount and make it go away. His response was a pivotal moment.
"I can't do that anymore," he said in a forlorn tone. "They make cars with computers in them, and you just can't fix them the way you used to do."
Just like that, an era was gone, along with the togetherness that linked a neighborhood over a carburetor's settings, an imbalanced tire, a broken fan belt or the squeaking sounds from behind the glove compartment.
Today, the admirable thing in the neighborhood is the ability to deal with high-tech tribulations.
The other day, for instance, my computer refused to go online. No matter what icon or button I clicked, the connection evaded me. It was like a car that would not go in gear.
There was only one thing to do, and I dreaded it like a dental appointment. I had to call Dell for help. I knew calling Dell was like dialing hell. Plus, they bill you for the agony.
I got some coffee, took a deep breath, looked up the service-tag number and called. The music was soothing. The initial exchange was polite, though barely intelligible, for the voice was heavily accented and far off somewhere on the globe.
"May I call you Michael?" the thin, reedy voice pleaded. "Tell me your problem, Michael."
I patiently explained my inability to reach the Internet. He explained it was probably AOL. No, I said, I've checked that. We repeated the procedures I'd already tried in vain.
"Michael, you give me a few minutes." The music came on. I wondered how good this guy is. I'm calling him, and he's calling someone else. Not good.
After a few minutes, he came back. "Michael, I want you to unplug everything you have connected to the computer."
I crawled beneath the desk, clutching the phone in one hand and groaning from unaccustomed exertion. I sifted through dust balls, ancient Post-its, crumpled clippings and a piece of stale cookie. There were so many wires, it was like spaghetti under there.
"Michael, are all wires unplugged?" my distant friend asked.
"Almost," I said, and then Sophie the dachshund poked her cold nose in my ear and started to lick my face. "Damn it, get away!" I told the dog.
"Michael, that was not a civil remark," said the clarinetlike voice. Then I heard a click and he was gone. I knew then why there will never be world peace.
I called back and got the same sing-song routine until the line went dead again. Four hours had gone by.
I needed a drink. At the Winking Lizard on Miles Road, I saw my friend Al Cook. In my exasperation, I told him about my problem. Cook is a quiet, polite man not given to exaggeration.
"Oh, I can fix that," he said offhandedly.
The next morning, Al stopped by the house, examined the computer and declared the situation puzzling. Apparently Dell's failed fixes had further complicated matters.
Over the next few days Al dismantled the computer and began a series of tests, keeping careful charts of his findings.
As I looked over his shoulder, I felt the same frustration from years before when my cousin spoke of the mysteries of a gasoline engine. The mysteries of wireless were far more elusive.
And then, with a click of the mouse, Al solved the problem — dueling wireless cards prevented the signal from reaching the router.
"Where did you learn that?" I asked in jubilation and amazement.
"I used to work on car computers," Al said.