The mechanic’s human touch

Fixing cars is increasingly digital, but there's still plenty of grease, fluid and oil to go around

Within the course of five minutes, Carrie Bleser looked fixedly inside the driver's seat, surveyed countless variables under the hood, left and returned twice from a parts storage area. Dressed in blue workpants and a gray-and-blue-striped shirt, she bounces from area to area, mild-mannered but confident in her work.

At first glance, her actions look like a trial-and-error search for problems in a customer's truck, but Bleser insists that it's nothing of the sort. Among computer diagnostics, the owner's repair requests and her own findings, it's methodical, she said.

"It's not guess and check," she said, her seriousness betrayed by a flip of her ponytail. "Nope. It can't be."

Bleser, an Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)-certified technician, works at Parent's Auto and Tire Store at 3610 Lyndale Ave. S. The shop atmosphere is light, friendly. Metal guitar riffs on local rock radio station 93X spill from speakers placed near each lift. Mechanics, many with cigarettes hanging from their mouths, greet each other on trips amidst the parts storage room, the front office and the lifts.

Well-organized rows of tools fill 19 drawers in a hulking orange chest against the wall. The chest doubles as a workbench.

Right now, Bleser is repairing a black Dodge Ram 1500 truck, a steel behemoth with the hood raised and all four tires lying on the ground. The truck needs a few days' worth of work, she said, as she wheeled a cart filled with bottles and tubes around the workbench. Hand on hip, she pressed the lift button and watched the truck rise 6 feet above the ground.

She inserted a tube from the cart into the chassis near the rear axle, and jet-black fluid poured down through the tube into a funnel, wedged atop a red gas canister. Bleser is replacing the differential fluid, which she says looks like oil but is much heavier. This fluid is in poor shape.

"It's supposed to look yellowish, sort of like snot," she said, smiling. "So, out with the old and in with the new."

After changing the fluid, Bleser lowered the truck, hopped up on a brown milk crate and peered under the hood, aided by a small flashlight. She's trying to find the source of the "check engine" light problem, she said. She worked with two computer and electrical diagnostic tools, and then stepped down to the oily floor.

"I have to find the wiring schematic," she said, striding off toward the front office.

Bleser didn't grow up with a mechanical background, she said, except for tinkering with motorcycles as a teen. Six years ago, she was a waitress just looking for something new.

"Mechanics was the only thing I had been consistently interested in for years," she said, so she entered the Automotive Service Technology program at Lowry Hill-based Dunwoody Institute.

After graduation, she worked two years at Tires Plus for field experience, and during that time, she received her ASE certification.

There are myriad specialized postcertification tests available, from the automotive and truck repair series to the collision and parts specialist series. A technician can gain a title of "master technician" after passing eight tests in any given series. Bleser's already passed four tests in the automotive series, but she's in no rush.

Some people say it's important," she said, "but I'm getting plenty of experience here."

After getting her feet wet (or oily) at Tires Plus, Bleser began searching for something more challenging; she looked no further than Parent's.

"It was the first place I applied to," she said. "It has a great reputation, and it's a smaller shop with no big corporation dealing."

She has worked here for a little over four years now, and she says she is happy with the job and the atmosphere. Bleser wouldn't elaborate on her salary but said with a smile that the money was much better than any job she had had as a waitress.

Bleser returned to the truck and again raised it on the lift. Another worker walked over. Bleser introduced him as Dan Jenkins, another ASE-certified technician, middle-aged with withering brown hair and a round, warm face. Jenkins smiled a bashful greeting, and the pair stepped underneath the chassis.

"This truck isn't mechanic-friendly at all," Jenkins said as he peered upwards at sections of metal illuminated by Bleser's flashlight beam. His comment became clear as the two carefully navigated tools around the truck's thick underbody.

They worked for 10 minutes, much of their conversation drowned out by the din of mechanics changing tires with air guns in the far service bays.

Jenkins has been in the business since the '70s, Bleser later said of him. "Dan's my guru. He teaches me stuff all the time."

When the two emerged from under the truck, Jenkins gave Bleser a bit of parting advice.

"Check the freeze-frame data for when the trouble code was set," he told her. "Replicate the data, and run some tests."

Freeze-frame data is stored in a car or truck's computer, including RPM, vehicle speed and fuel system status. When a problem occurs, the computer stores a trouble code, which can alert mechanics to a specific malfunction.

Bleser lowered the truck to the ground and returned to the workbench. She said even in her four years as a mechanic, she's seen a rapid evolution of technology. Checking automobile on-board computers is a frequent practice.

Automotive technology is a lot to keep up with, she said, but even the most profound advancements haven't altered the core of her work.

"Underneath all those [electronic] components, you still have a car," she said, "and the engine still works mechanically."

When Bleser isn't buried underneath hoods at Parent's, she's at her Southwest home with her boyfriend, a fellow mechanic whom she met at the shop two years ago. He's now working at Car-X, she said. The two are restoring a '73 Dodge pickup.

Bleser is done with this truck for the day -- she needs additional parts, she said, and the truck's owner needs to OK a few additional repairs. But her work is far from over. She has an hour left before quitting time, which she can spend either cleaning or working on other vehicles.

"There's always something to do," she said.