Even though I’m a guy with a solid pair of XY chromosomes, I will freely admit that I know very little about mechanics—specifically any sort of mechanics that involve engines. This ignorance starts with the basic “how does this even work” and trickles down to the complexity of parts that make things with engines function at all, such as pistons, rods, tie rods, bow tie rods, rod stewarts, all the other rods, and the whimsical assortment of oil viscosities with their mysterious numbers and Ws. In short, place me in front of a dead car with the hood open, and you may as well ask me to translate a Russian newspaper into Gutnish.
Given this stunning lack of mechanical knowledge, I like to keep things simple, and our cars have always reflected this banality. My wife drives a very dependable vehicle that is so common in both color and make, that it blends seamlessly into parking lots. The color may as well be called Metallic Asphalt, and I will often spend hours wandering around looking for our camouflaged car.
Fingers will then point in so many directions that one would think that every car on the road was a Metallic Asphalt CR-V. This would be the ideal getaway car for bank robbers, who could park at a police station, count the money in the front seat, and then sit back and eat a pizza. Nobody would notice them.
Last year, we had to get new tires for the car, and we got them at a place that has bottled water and microwave popcorn in the waiting room. They also have coffee, satellite TV, baskets of granola bars and free WiFi. In the modern age, a well-stocked waiting room is just as critical as competent mechanics.
Buying new car tires is the least glamorous way to spend several hundred dollars that I can think of, so most of us would rather do this as seldom as possible. The tires were priced fairly, and the service also included free rotations, and should some sort of roadside puncture occur, they would cover that as well. He had me at the free popcorn, but what caught me completely off-guard with the sales pitch was that they also included free air. My brain backpedaled a beat while I tried to figure that one out. Free air?
Oh no, not free regular air. Special air.
Special air. It even sounded italicized when he said it. I’m intrigued. Tell me more.
This special air that they would fill the tires with for free was nitrogen, and was so extraordinary, it even required a little green ring on the valve stem that would alert me to the absolute specialness of this tire air.
“Gasp!” I said out loud. Just like that. “Gasp!” I couldn’t help myself. Not only does our camouflage-ready Honda alert us when the tire pressure is too low (I have no idea how it does that) but now, with nitrogen, that air pressure is supposed to be more stable. It will be magical, right along the lines of a Skittles rainbow.
As I said earlier, I’m not that bright with mechanics, but many years ago, I took a biology course in college, so I know a little bit about nitrogen. Funny story—I only took this class because I heard that halfway through the course, we would get to unlock a stainless steel coffin and look at a dead body. This was all in the name of science, of course, and since the body had already been autopsied, all we were allowed to do was open flaps and peek inside. It was essentially a human Advent calendar only instead of chocolate you got a kidney.
So thirty-five and some odd years later, I recalled two things about science. That the myelin sheath is critical to the nervous system (I killed on couch Jeopardy with that one), and the regular air that we breath every day is about three-quarters nitrogen. The rest is oxygen, water vapor, and a few other gases. It’s the cocktail that makes life on Earth along with properly inflated car tires possible. Impressive, right? I received a rock hard C+ in that class, but this more than qualified me to ask why, exactly, were they putting straight nitrogen in my tires.
The tire guy gave me a rote explanation as to the benefits of why, and since I didn’t have to pay extra for it, I didn’t really care. I bought the tires along with a written and verbal warning not to mix regular air with straight nitrogen air or some sort of cataclysmic molecular disaster would occur. Not a Hindenburg level disaster, but it wouldn’t be pretty. Thank goodness for that warning, because I was picturing myself leaving a gas station air pump with all four corners of the car in flames. On the plus side to that, the car would be a heck of a lot easier to find in a parking lot.
Since a greedy woman with several bottles of water and a handful of granola bars had control of the remote, I was watching Rachael Ray on TV when they finished putting on the tires. The counter man came out with the keys, called me up to the counter, and told me that I was all set, but that I needed to come back in fifty miles to have the lug nuts re-torqued.
“Really? I mean, by the time I get home, I could turn around and come back and have fifty miles on the car. Don’t you guys torque these things down with guns of some kind? I used to kick the lug wrench to tighten mine, and the wheels never came off. Not once. Didn’t even wobble. I’ve been driving for forty-four years, which is way before tires and wheels became a symbiotic science project, and I have never had anything re-torqued. Maybe you guys should start kicking these things on.”
As soon as I said this, I knew that I had become that guy; that older guy who blathers on about when kids did homework by firelight, and walked twenty miles uphill both ways to school. I stopped myself just short of saying that bread used to be fifteen cents a loaf because that’s when I saw the coma starting to glaze over his eyes.
“OK … I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said awkwardly. He then dropped the key in my hand.
I told Mrs. G. about this mandatory re-torqueing, and she was all concerned that if the car didn’t go back, she’d be on her way to yoga class when all four of her tires would spin off and roll down the road towards Buffalo. This would force her to not only miss yoga, but she’d have explain to the AAA tow truck guy that her negligent husband failed to have the wheels re-torqued—and she’d have to do all this while standing in the road next to her wheel-less car while wearing yoga pants, her weird yoga headband and ballet flats. It would probably be raining. Hard. Monsoon level, most likely.
So the car will go back because Mrs. G. is diligent about safety and about cashing in on free stuff, but mostly because Rachael Ray was planning on making pork tenderloin. I needed to see how she did that.
As much as I hate to say it, the air pressure in these tires has been remarkably stable, which is what the nitrogen is supposed to do, so with the free rotations and the top off of nitro, these tires should last another thirty thousand miles or so. I’m sure by then, they’ll be filling tires with the next new thing. Probably plasma or liquefied gummi bears, and I’ll just nod and say go ahead. Fill them with Reddi-Whip if you have to.
Who am I to say what works?