Monday, September 26

AAA Roadside Assistance Kinda Sketchy in Jacksonville

You can blame the pandemic or the recession or the great resignation, but my latest experience dealing with AAA in Jacksonville was quite a bit worse than my last, even though it did end up with me getting back on the road. Here's the story.

My car had an error code along with three hard starts leading up to the problem. The error code had to do with the oxygen sensor or catalytic converter, so I wrote the hard starts off as having to do with a failure in the emissions or exhaust system, which I was planning on addressing. Besides, the car started, just kind of weirdly. But that's all really besides the point, since my car was starting and running, and then it was dead: no start, clicking, lights flashing, etc. I had all the classic signs of a dead battery. I've owned about 20 cars in the last 30 years, and I've put new batteries in all of them, so I have seen the signs. The hard starts were not starter-going-bad starts, and I didn't have the gradual depletion associated with a bad alternator. Basically, I was 99% sure a jump would start my car.

The AAA experience for getting help is actually pretty good. You call the number or go online, they send you a text, you fill in a quick form, and then they send you a link to a map with your helper's location. Except this guy wasn't really on the map...it kept saying he was down in the Murray Hill area, 20 miles away. And then he was on the 95, and then at 45th and Moncrief. Then back in Murray Hill. I don't understand that. At some point, my jumper guy called and said he'd be 45 minutes. His name showed up as something like Milli Vanilli, so that's what I'll call him. Even though I couldn't track him on the map and he seemed to alternately be in Murray Hill and Moncrief Park, eventually, he just showed up. It took like an hour or hour-fifteen from when he called.

He was driving a little white car, but I don't recall seeing any AAA or other markings. Milli Vanilli jumped out of the car wearing an orange vest and knowing my name, so I figured he was legit. I popped the hood. He grabbed a handheld jump starter that seemed well-used, sporting some duct tape as a battle scar. The guy didn't have a flashlight, but he hooked the cables up and told me to give it a try. Almost. He played with the cables. Again. More playing with cables. I noticed the dome light never got much brighter as he screwed around under the hood, but he kept trying to find the right connection and telling me to try it. To me, it didn't seem like his jump starter had enough juice, or maybe there was corrosion in the cables. But Milli Vanilli was the professional AAA sent me. 

When he declared he'd give it one more shot by ALSO hooking his own car to the battery, I wondered if he'd ever done that one before. I sure had never tried two charging sources for a jump, and I'm not even sure that it would help. It didn't. 

Milli Vanilli then told me it wasn't the battery and I would need a tow. He said he wasn't a mechanic but it might be the alternator. I told him it was the battery and maybe his jumper was weak, but then he got a bit in my face and said his jump starter could start a semi. Taking it any further would not have helped me, so I just went back to my car as he angrily unhooked all his charging devices. He told me I'd have to call AAA again to start a new request, now two hours into my ordeal.

I started the process again, requesting a tow. AAA said I'd get it at 7:42 am, about an hour after I should have been running my kids to school. But now it was after midnight. Just me and several homeless folks hanging out in a parking lot. Since I had a dead battery, it took a full minute of playing with the window to get it to go back up so I could lock the car and try Walmart for a portable charger. 

Just as I was heading to Walmart, however, Ryan called. He was the tow truck driver, but he also asked about what was happening with the battery. I described the situation, and he said he'd give the battery a shot before towing me. Apparently, my basic AAA plan got me 5 miles of towing, so I would owe $85 on a tow to my house from 20 miles. Luckily, Ryan was only 30 minutes away rather than the 7 hours estimated by AAA.

Ryan showed up with a light, a battery cleaning kit, and tools. He made sure the connections were good, got his jumper out, hooked it up properly, and jumped the car on the first try. Since he was heading back my direction, he followed me home to make sure I made it, which both of us knew wasn't totally necessary as the alternator was working properly (he checked). Ryan had also shown up on the map when I requested him, and I followed him all the way to my location. So he was professional from start to finish, just two hours later than I wanted.

What's crazy is that Milli Vanilli only exists in order to help people with battery, tire, and gas issues. He's not a mechanic, and I appreciate that, but it would be good if he could properly assess and then jump a dead battery. It's like if he worked at McDonald's and his only job was to put the fries in the fryer, get them out when it beeps, and salt them, but he kept forgetting the dang salt. And then telling the customer that he knows salt and salt's not the problem.

I'm not saying that the next time I have a battery situation and need AAA that I'll ask for a tow truck right away, but it's tempting if those are the only employees who know what they're doing. Also, I'm not totally sure what was wrong with Milli Vanilli's efforts, since Ryan was so thorough. Was it a bad charger and a stupid idea to add his car to the series, a bad cable, or battery corrosion? I've had all three issues in the past. I'm somewhat responsible if my battery was corroded, but I think that's part of car jumping 101. That and having a flashlight.

If you have AAA and need roadside assistance, I wish you the best of luck. If you get a call from Milli Vanilli saying he's on his way, you're going to need it.

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