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Girls Auto Clinic Owner: 'I Couldn't Find A Female Mechanic, So I Had To Learn'

Patrice Banks is now a mechanic, and the owner of a successful auto clinic, but there was a time when she avoided taking her own car in for routine maintenance.


Other segments from the episode on January 9, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 9, 2018: Interview with Patrice Banks; Review of the book "The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden."


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When one of those warning lights in your car turns on or you're hearing disturbing noises coming from the engine, the stress might get even worse when you get to the auto shop. If you don't know and trust your mechanic, you might not know if you're being overcharged or charged for things you don't even need. And for women, it's often even more stressful because the garage is such a guy atmosphere. And let's face it, a lot of women don't know much about cars.

These are problems my guest Patrice Banks is trying to address. One year ago, she opened the Girls Auto Clinic Repair Center in Philadelphia, a shop with women mechanics. To make the shop more appealing and convenient for women, she opened an adjoining manicure-pedicure-blowout Salon. Now Banks has a new book called "The Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide," which offers basic information that women - really, everyone - ought to know about their car.

The book also tells Banks' story. She grew up poor with a single mother. She knew nothing about how her cars worked, disregarded maintenance and felt stupid when it came to cars. But eventually, she realized she didn't need to feel incompetent. At the time, she was a successful engineer at DuPont, where part of her job was performing what's called root cause failure analysis on million-dollar pieces of manufacturing equipment. She says it required doing things like climbing up into towers a hundred feet in the air in coveralls, a hard hat, and steel-toed boots to check on huge tanks filled with hydrochloric acid. She wanted to do something empowering for women and for herself, and she wanted to be an entrepreneur, so she went back to school, and studied auto mechanics and started working toward her goal.

Patrice Banks, welcome to FRESH AIR. Give us an example of something that happened to you when you took your car into the shop, and you were uncomfortable or you felt like you were being taken advantage of in some way.

PATRICE BANKS: Yeah, millions of times - any time I went in for an oil change, right? You go into the quick lube place, and you're expecting to spend $35. And they come out, they want to show you filters, this is going to be 40 bucks, and you need these fluid flushes. And I had no idea, you know? They'd look at me and say, what type of oil do you want? And I'd say, isn't that something you're supposed to know? Like, synthetic or regular - and they'd try to upsell you on the more expensive stuff - and using terms that I didn't know if it was helpful or not, you know?

There were times when I was probably not being taken advantage of and I said no because I had no idea. But most of the times, it was upselling on filters. Do I really need that air filter every time I come in for an oil change? So even things like that - but I have one really bad experience where I had a light flashing on my Ford Explorer dashboard. I had no clue what it meant. It said O/D. And it was a pretty new car, only a couple years old, and so I took it to a dealership. And they told me it was going to cost $2,000, it needs some sensor replaced, but it was located on the transmission, and they had to take the whole transmission apart. And I'm thinking, this car is only, like, three years old, and I have to - and I was still paying a car note, and I had to pay $2,000 for a repair.

GROSS: What does the O/D light mean?

BANKS: Overdrive off - now I know what it means. It's something related to the four-wheel drive. And so it was something I didn't even really need to have unless I wanted to use the four-wheel drive on the Ford Explorer, right? And so...

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait, so they redid your transmission when it had nothing to do with...

BANKS: Well, it was an electrical component that had failed and needed to be replaced, but it was located on the transmission, and they had to drop the transmission pan...

GROSS: Oh, oh.

BANKS: ...And all this other stuff to get to it just to replace it. And so that's why it was costing all of this money for them to do it. And I thought it had to be done, and it...

GROSS: But it didn't have to be done?

BANKS: No, if I didn't want to use four-wheel drive, no. And so that's something, like, they should've educated - listen, if you want to - you still use your four-wheel drive, yes, make sure you get this fixed right now; we can disable it; it's not a big deal. But they're not concerned about that. They want $2,000.

GROSS: OK, so a lot of women have problems when they take in their car. Most women don't decide, therefore, I'm going to start my own garage.

BANKS: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: You decided, therefore, I'm going to start my own garage. Why did you want to do that?

BANKS: So I - yeah, I didn't really look into starting my own garage at first. I was looking for a female mechanic. I didn't - you know, I had a great career at DuPont. It wasn't like, yeah, I'm going to go be a mechanic now. I knew that I wanted to learn more about my car, and I want - I was tired of feeling helpless and having to go talk to a guy. I'm talking to my girlfriends, asking them what their feelings are, and they're like, yeah, my car - I always feel taken advantage of; I don't know anything.

And so I'm like, there's a lot - there's a need, right? I did a small little test research with friends and people around me, and I said, there's a need for something like this. And that's when I decided to create a business that was going to cater to women and help them with this information and resources. But I couldn't find a female mechanic, so I had to learn it. So I thought, well, I'm going to have to learn this myself, and I'm going to go back to school and learn. And that's when I decide - yeah.

GROSS: So that's what you did.

BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: You went back to school. You studied auto mechanics.

BANKS: I started a shop. And so it wasn't really the initial idea to start a shop. I didn't get that idea until I started talking to my cousin. I have a cousin named Peach, and she's about my age, a little younger. And I'm just telling her, I'm looking for a female mechanic. I'm telling her my experience, and she said, you know, I always wanted to be a mechanic. Growing up, you know, she has a very similar story to mine - single mom, grew up really poor, and her mom couldn't afford to get the car fixed every time it would break down. It was an old car. They'd have to walk really far to school, and her mom would have to walk to work.

So she said, I always wanted to be a mechanic so I could fix my mom's car. She gets to high school, talks to her counselors and teachers - I want to be a mechanic - and she's discouraged because she's pretty, she's tiny, she's too petite, you're not going to make money. She said, I always wanted to have my own garage with a nail salon. I'm like, let's do it. Let's do it because I want to educate women. We're having these problems. We need empowerment.

GROSS: And do their nails (laughter).

BANKS: Yes, let's do it. So I started looking at schools to enroll in, and I started telling everybody, I want to open a shop; I want to cater to women; I want to help women when it comes to their cars so they're more confident with the choices they make. And everyone just thought, yeah, duh, right? Why hasn't this been done before? That makes tons of sense.

GROSS: So did your cousin become a mechanic too?

BANKS: She did not. So, you know - because she was in school at the time already and had kind of had a new path that she wanted to take out instead of just - she wasn't in a position to just change her career and what she was doing. I was already working as an engineer for 12 years and looking for my passion, so - and a way to make my contribution. So I was ready for it. And I told her, I'm going to go on and do this. And she said, go ahead. So yeah, I enrolled in school, and I started taking classes at night while I was working during the day at Delaware Technical Community College. I was the only girl with a bunch of boys - 19-year-old boys. That was interesting.

GROSS: You were - what? - 30.

BANKS: I was 31.

GROSS: OK. So when you decided that you're going to complete the auto school, start your own shop, you said you couldn't find any women mechanics when you were looking for somebody to fix your car, so how are you going to find a mechanic to help you in your shop?

BANKS: Yeah. I love this question because I was telling people, I'm going to open a shop with female mechanics, and I can't find a mechanic. So I'm in school, and as soon as I'm learning, I can't wait to teach women. So while I was still in school, I started teaching workshops and car care workshops. And I was doing them for free every month. Whoever shows up, you want to learn about your car, you're going to learn on your car.

And the word started getting out, and I didn't have to find any of these women. They found me because somebody would tell them about me. You got to check out this woman. She - I gave a TED talk. I started getting some press. And I was always talking about, I want to open a shop with female mechanics. And this was two years before I even opened. I was like, this is my dream; this is what I want to do.

And all of the women came to me and emailed me or showed up at a workshop saying, this has been my dream; I always wanted to have a shop; I didn't know where to start; I'd love to work for you; I'd love to help you; I believe in what you're doing. I have five female mechanics at my shop now, and they all found me. I didn't have to look for them. And they're incredible.

GROSS: Did you ever try working in somebody else's shop?


GROSS: How'd that go?

BANKS: So I - absolutely. So once I went back to school to learn how cars work, I said, I need to learn how to run a business. And that's an interesting story too because I was offering to work for free. I was still working at DuPont. And I said, I just want to learn. I have all this experience. I'll help you with your business, anything you need me to do. I'm going to work for free. I'm here to learn. I was turned down by three places before the fourth one said yes, and the fourth one was a shop called Guys Auto Clinic here in Philly. And I worked there for free for two years and just learned how to run a shop. It was a small, small, small shop with a smart head technician, the guy who ran it.

GROSS: I'm just going to stop you here and say that Guy was actually the name of the owner.

BANKS: It's the name the owner.

GROSS: It wasn't, like, the Men's Shop, the Guy's Shop, right?

BANKS: Yeah, it was - Guy was the name of the owner, like ghee (ph) - French, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

BANKS: Yeah, but that's where we got Girls Auto Clinic from, right? So it's an interesting story because I was turned down, like, three times. People said no, and I'm like, but I'm willing to work for free, you get that? And they were like, nah, you're going to take my customers. One guy's wife didn't want me working there. Another guy just didn't think I was going to be good enough.

GROSS: Because of jealousy or...

BANKS: Yeah, because I was a woman and she didn't want a woman working - yeah. But it was just meant to be - start something at Guys Auto Clinic, so - and then I went to another, bigger shop. He was a small shop in West Philly - one bay. I knew I needed something a little bit bigger because I wanted my shop to be bigger. So I went and started working for free at another shop called Keller's Auto and he's in Roxborough, Philadelphia, and he had a lot bigger operations there. And I ran the shop for him - the front of the house - and learned a lot about how to start up and run a shop. And I was working there for about four months, and he was getting really frustrated because he had some workers who just weren't reliable.

And one day, he had just had a really bad day, and he goes, I want to hire you full time. I'm still working for DuPont, by the way, like, making, like, a hundred grand a year. And he's like, I'll pay $600 a week. I was like, oh, all right, well, this is it; I either need to make the decision to quit my job and take this next step or I may never do this. And so that's when I - the next day I went in and told my boss at DuPont, this is my - I gave them a month.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patrice Banks. She's the author of the new book "Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide," and it's a guide to understanding your car, and it's also her personal story about how she got started running an all-women's garage. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Patrice Banks. She's the author of the new book "Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide." And in addition to writing this book about cars, she also started an all-women's auto repair shop, which is called Girls Auto Clinic. And it adjoins a mani-pedi salon with blowouts.


GROSS: Why did you want to combine the two?

BANKS: It's funny because, you know, you don't realize how you manifest some of these things in your life earlier before I even had this idea. Me and my girlfriend that I worked at - with at DuPont would go to this specific Jiffy Lube on our lunch break because there was a nail salon next to it. We'd drop our cars off, and we'd walk next door, and we get our nails done. And we thought we were just...

GROSS: While you waited for your car?

BANKS: Yeah, while we waited. So we just thought we were the smartest people because it's lunch, we're killing three birds, right? We're getting lunch. We're out for lunch, we're getting our oil changed, we're getting her nails done, and we're back at work, you know, all in about 45 minutes to an hour. It was fabulous, and we would do that, like, every couple of months when we would need our oils changed. And I started thinking about opening this shop.

And remember I told you, my cousin was like, I always wanted a nail salon. And I'm like, that just makes sense because women, we hate going in to get our oil changed. It's always a chore. It's always a burden. But we look forward to doing things like getting our nails done. And so I thought it would just be cute and just - it's kind of like the cherry on the top when I tell people, I have a shop that caters to women - full-service auto repair, all-female mechanics. They're like, whoa. I'm like, and there's a nail salon there. And they're like, what? I'm there.

GROSS: (Laughter) Let me see your nails.

BANKS: Oh. I need to get them redone, actually.

GROSS: Let me see. OK.

BANKS: (Laughter) I'm embarrassed.

GROSS: All right. They're kind of, like, half-polished.

BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: Polish is flaking off.

BANKS: ...Because I'm getting that done today. I'm actually getting them done today. This was over Christmas break.

GROSS: All right, but here's the thing. If your hands are kind of taking out spark plugs and changing oil, it is not the perfect work for, like, a...

BANKS: Manicured nails.

GROSS: ...Finely-shaped nail and a manicure and everything.

BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: The two don't seem, to me, to go together very well.

BANKS: Yeah. My employees love getting their nails done. And it's great because our nails get so dirty at work, we can just go pop next door and get a nice, fresh manicure, right? My shop foreman, she's also a cosmetologist and does nails herself. She's coming in with the stiletto nails, right? She - they rock it. There's no stereotypes, like you can't have the heels, right? You can't wear makeup. You can't have nails and be pretty. These women are just themselves. And some of them don't wear makeup or nails, but some of them do, and it - that's not - doesn't stop them. It doesn't make them less of a tech or less smart, right?

GROSS: So what are the ground rules that you set? Like, a customer comes in. Like, you're all about, women should be comfortable here. And we all know - and I think this is true for men and women because most men don't know how to fix their cars, either.

BANKS: Yeah, they don't. They don't. They don't.

GROSS: And now that cars are kind of half-computers - and it's not even, like, the people who used to know how to fix cars can fix cars now because they're so computerized, and you need special diagnostic equipment. So whether it's a man or a woman who takes their car in, what are your ground rules to try to make them feel comfortable in a way that you felt you were never comfortable when you were bringing your car in?

BANKS: So first, like I said, people are coming in, especially women, with that guard up. And in order to get them to trust you, you have that let that guard down, right? And so No. 1 is just listening to them and respecting their opinion - looking at them when they're talking to you, right? A lot of times women just say, they don't even listen to me. They've already kind of zoned them out that they're not going to get it. Stand in front of them and talk to them.

And I make sure that they don't leave without feeling comfortable about spending their money. They - I want them to say, yes, my car needs this; I believe my car needs this, and this is how much it's going to cost. So we take them out to the shop and show them. Mechanics do a lot of diagnosing from hearing, seeing, feeling and smelling. So if we can hear, see, feel and smell it, so can you. So I'm going to show you what I'm looking for or what I'm feeling for so you feel comfortable, and you know this is what's going on with my car, and, yes, I need to get this replaced. And so it's just about transparency, communication.

GROSS: I think you and I are opposite types when it comes to getting cars repaired - at least, the old you - because you write about how the old you would ignore the warning lights. You'd be driving on totally bald tires.

BANKS: Oh, gosh (laughter).

GROSS: And I see a warning light, and it's like, oh, my God...

BANKS: Got to take it in.

GROSS: I got to drive this, like, right now to take it in because I don't want to die (laughter). You know, I'm automatically going to, like, worst-case scenario, like, the engine's going to overheat and explode or my tire is going to be flat in five seconds or, like, something's going to go terribly wrong. And I forget where I was even going with this.


BANKS: We're opposites on how we take care of our cars, right?

GROSS: Yeah, but I think there's a lot of, like, fear that brings people like me, anyways...

BANKS: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...To the repair shop.

BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: You want to be - you want the car fixed, and you want to be reassured that you can take that long trip or even the short trip without worrying that something is going to go terribly wrong and you're going to be stranded at night.

BANKS: Right.

GROSS: ...In your car, or worse yet, crash into something.

BANKS: Right.

GROSS: So I think there's probably a lot of psychology you have to deal with, too - just reassuring somebody, you're safe.

BANKS: Right. We know there is that fear and that anxiety, that they have no idea. And they don't. They have no idea what's going on with these cars. Cars are very complex and have thousands of parts, you know? Our job is to make sure that your car is safe and that you're happy with all the choices that you make. And so we make sure that when we communicate to people, we're giving you the information that you need to make the right choice so you know that you're safe.

GROSS: So you didn't grow up around cars. Your family didn't have a car. Your mother was on welfare a lot of the time. When she did work, she sometimes would walk 4 miles to and from work.

BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: So she couldn't afford a car. You were raised by a single mother. How old were you when you got your first car?

BANKS: I was 16.

GROSS: That's pretty young.

BANKS: Yeah, I was the first one to have a car in the house.

GROSS: How'd you afford to buy a car?

BANKS: I worked three jobs. I was definitely - my mom wasn't an empowered woman, and I don't know...

GROSS: Was or was not?

BANKS: Was not an empowered woman. And so I kind of had to step up and be someone in charge at the house that did things.

GROSS: What was not empowered about her?

BANKS: She was just always looking for a man to love her. I mean, growing up, we were - you know, suffered physical and sexual abuse from her boyfriends. And she wasn't educated. She never had really great jobs. She was always just kind of worried about chasing a man and getting love and not really, how do I love my children? How do I be a better person? How do I empower myself to make my contribution?

And so for that reason - you know, she has kids, but I was kind of the only one in my family to make it out. Most of the people in my family were like that, growing up poor and as a minority. I didn't see many examples of success stories. But I just always knew that I wanted to get out of this place, and if I was going to get out, it meant my education and working hard.

GROSS: Did it mean a car?

BANKS: ...And a car. My car was freedom. I couldn't wait to leave the house. I hated being in a very unstable, abusive household, so I was always trying to leave. And I put my energy into positive things like working to get a car so I could go to college so I could get out and never come back. That's kind of how I looked at it, yeah. So I was 16 when I was the first one to have a car, and I worked three jobs when I was in high school. I was a hustler. I had my own insurance at 16 and my own car, and it felt good. I felt like - you know, like it was the freedom, and you couldn't tell me anything because I was 16 years old and kind of already taking care of myself.

GROSS: If your mother had boyfriends who abused you, did you have to make sure that they never came in the car with you? Because the car - a car can be...

BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...A kind of bubble in which somebody can abuse you.

BANKS: Yeah. At this point, when I was that age, it wasn't happening anymore because I wasn't having it. Most of that stuff happened when we were kids and more vulnerable. As I got to be more of an adult, I was more outspoken towards it. Yeah, and I would fight back, and so - yeah.

GROSS: Did your mother know?

BANKS: Yeah, she knew that. Yeah, she knew. I mean, those were her - we would tell her. I mean, and she was there when the physical abuse and stuff was happening. And, you know - and other people in my family aren't as lucky, and I still struggle today with my family and just them not being able to see their value and their worth. And they're, you know, going through a lot, and it's difficult.

GROSS: How many siblings do you have?

BANKS: I have two from my mom's side and four from my father's side - actually, five from my father's side. And so - and yeah, none of them are really doing well in terms of making their contribution in life and being financially - and healthy. They're all struggling with their own demons like, you know, my mom was. So I'm just really blessed to be able to know what it takes to get out and use the skills. It wasn't just about being smart. I was willing to work hard and also be bold and courageous. Like, I'm going to buy a car at 16, you know? I didn't know what I was doing. I asked a friend who bought a car to help me, and I just believed it was something I could do, and I did it.

GROSS: My guest is Patrice Banks. Her new book is called the "Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide." We'll talk more after a break. And Maureen Corrigan will review Denis Johnson's posthumously published collection of short stories. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Patrice Banks, who started an auto repair shop in Philadelphia that employs women mechanics with the intention of creating a garage where women wouldn't feel embarrassed if they didn't understand what was going on with their car and wouldn't be too intimidated to ask questions. Now Banks has written a book called the "Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide," which offers basic information that women - really, everyone - should know about their car. The book also tells how Banks went from being what she describes as an auto airhead to really learning about cars.

You mentioned your grandfather...


GROSS: ...In the book - that he taught you how to drive.

BANKS: He did.

GROSS: ...In his old Buick, one of those big boat kind of...

BANKS: Yep. I learned how to parallel park in that thing, so I can park any car. (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, those old Buicks are huge.

BANKS: Like, the little boat - the grandfather car, yeah. I learned it that way.

GROSS: Yeah, a 16-year-old girl in front of the wheel of a big boat like that...

BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you feel comfortable behind that wheel?

BANKS: No. I mean, like any 16-year-old girl, I was just nervous. But I'm glad that he taught me on a bigger car - right? - because then you can kind of drive anything. It's kind of like learning how to drive stick, right?

GROSS: Right.

BANKS: Some people want to learn that first because then they can drive everything. So it was very scary and intimidating at first, but when you get over that - 'cause you will, 'cause you'll learn - you're better off now. So I'm glad that he taught me in that car 'cause I was able to drive bigger cars with confidence, parallel park with confidence before I even moved to Philly, you know? It really helped me, and it definitely didn't make me afraid of these bigger cars. I love trucks now, you know? I saw myself being able to drive and park a big car.

GROSS: So you bought a car when you were 16. You were the first person in your family to graduate high school.

BANKS: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: That's a really big deal. And in your high school, you were the only minority student on the AP track, the Advanced Placement track.

BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: You say most of the other students of color wound up in trade schools.

BANKS: Absolutely.

GROSS: So what was it like for you being the only minority student on the AP track and then being the first person in your family to graduate high school?

BANKS: Lonely (laughter) - lonely and that my stance and my beliefs were often not popular. One thing that my mom did teach me - it's funny because I said she wasn't an empowered woman, and maybe I'm wrong in saying that. In many ways that she was empowered, she wasn't afraid to speak her mind, and she was really into politics and social issues. And I'm biracial, so, you know, we learned really young the importance of everyone is equal. Racism we learned about and how we have to fight it and even women's rights. Even though my mom wasn't an empowered woman, she did - definitely women's health - she taught us a lot about those things.

And so my opinion was really unpopular coming as poor and a minority and a girl, and I was lonely. I didn't have a lot of friends in those classes. But I enjoyed them because I was smart, and I liked to learn. I was curious. I loved debating with some of these other kids and what they thought. I mean, it was - I remember I had a AP government and politics class that was just not some of the things that you would hear kids say, you know? And I loved being able to debate with them. I kind of enjoyed being able to be someone that did not look like them and talk and talk like them but was able to compete - right? - able to hold my own and say, you know, no, I'm good enough. And so I looked at it as almost a responsibility.

GROSS: So your new book is a glove compartment piece...

BANKS: Yeah, yes.

GROSS: So let's talk about some basics...


GROSS: ...Some easy-to-learn things about the car that doesn't require looking under the hood.

BANKS: It's easy to do that, too.

GROSS: All right.

BANKS: (Laughter).

GROSS: So - but we can't do that on the radio.

BANKS: Right.

GROSS: So let's start with, like, should I always buy the most expensive gas? Should I go for premium?

BANKS: Right. No, you shouldn't. What you do need to know - and so one of the first things I talk about is, what's the difference? Do you know the difference? And people don't know, and they just....

GROSS: I don't know.

BANKS: ...Kind of go what people tell - the difference in the grades of gas is the temperature that the engine burns the gas. And so if you have an engine designed to burn 87, which is the regular grade, if you put premium gas in it, you're not doing it any good - right? - 'cause the engine is not designed to burn the gas at that temperature. Now, if you have an engine like, you know, a BMW that's more sophisticated and engineered and high-performance, it's going to need the high-performance gas because its engine was designed to burn it and compress it at a different temperature.

And so there is no, like, if I put the premium gas, it's going to help my engine run better. We have all types of sensors, fuel injector cleaners, things that we can do to prevent that. So yeah, how you know what type of gas you should have is by looking in your owner's manual. A lot of times it'll be on the gas door. But one of the things that I tell women is, like, luxury cars - if you have a luxury car, it's going to be more expensive for the gas, for the fluids, for the repair. Everything's more expensive on it. Keep that in mind.

The most important decision that you can make for your car is the type of car you buy. I see it all the time where women will get a really cute, nice car and especially if it's, like, a fancier one like a MINI Cooper that's a - really a BMW and they can't afford to fix it, like my problem. I had a $2,000 car note and still paying a - you know, or 2,000 payment and still paying a car note.

GROSS: New cars come with a warranty.

BANKS: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: And a lot of people think that if you have a warranty, you have to take it to the dealer for the regular maintenance schedule or else the warranty won't apply.

BANKS: Right.

GROSS: Is that true?

BANKS: That is not true. If it comes to maintenance - and this is oil change, tires, brakes, fluid flushes, things that aren't repairs that need to be replaced - you can take that anywhere even if you're under warranty. Some dealerships are doing this thing now where you can pay for a maintenance package. It's in your car note, so for three years, you'll get free oil changes and things like that, and then you'll want to take it to the dealership then.

But the dealership - you know, you don't have to take it there. I would suggest you would for warranty repairs. If the car repair is under warranty, I would definitely take it to the dealership. But if not, find what I call your PCT or primary care technician. That could be a dealer. That could be a mom and pop shop. It could be one of these franchise chains like a Pep Boys or a Midas. That's more important - is finding the place that you feel comfortable with and taking your car there for everything.

GROSS: My guest is Patrice Banks. Her new book is called the "Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Patrice Banks who runs the Girls Auto Clinic Repair Center in Philadelphia and is the author of the new book the "Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide." When we left off, we were talking about some of the things every driver should know about their car.

All of us who drive have troubles with tires.

BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: They're very vulnerable. They seem so old-fashioned in a way. Do you what I mean? (Laughter) Like, a nail on the road, and you're done...


GROSS: ...You know? But anyways, at what point can, like, a tire actually be repaired with confidence, you know, patched with confidence...

BANKS: Yeah, yes.

GROSS: ...'Cause, like, I'm never really sure. Is this going to hold me more than a few days when it's patched?

BANKS: So, yes, it's going to hold - it can hold you for the rest of the life of the tire. They used to do just the plug repair, just the patch repair, but now they're saying the safest way is to do a plug and a patch combination only. You know, because if you don't, it's going to be constantly leaking, and you may just have a nail that's - you know, you don't want to buy a whole brand-new tire.

What's really important is making sure you keep the proper air pressure in your tire because if it's too low or too high - which I'm seeing a lot now, where people have too much air - you're more likely to pick up a nail. You're more likely to have a flat or a blowout when you don't have the proper operating pressure in your tire, which is around 33 psi.

And so if - when that little light comes on - right? - the little dashboard light that has the exclamation point with, like, a cross section of a tire - it's telling you your tire - your air is low, right? And your tires are like your shoes to your car, and its - that's my - I still have some auto airhead habits that die hard. That's probably one of mine that's still dying hard (laughter).

GROSS: Wait, wait - not putting in...

BANKS: Not putting - yeah.

GROSS: ...Not checking the air pressure?

BANKS: Well, not putting it in when the light comes on. I'll run with that light on for days (laughter). And it's bad - right? - because it's not safe. I'm more likely to pick up these things. You wear your tires out a lot quicker when you do that. And I'm just like, oh, I'll do it; I'll put - I'll stop and get air.

GROSS: You work at a garage. I mean, you can just fill it up when you're at work.

BANKS: I know. I - because I forget. Like, I'll just be running around, and I'm like, oh, I got to leave. Let me get some air in my tires. And I won't even think about it until I'm already out, you know? I got pulled over the other day for having a headlight out. I didn't even know. I was so embarrassed. I'm like, I own a shop (laughter). I know I'm, like, on the go. But it's great because it's great but I still have some of these habits because it's - this is my customer, right? I'm thinking and I do some of the same things my customers do, even though I'm a mechanic. So I know how to talk to them.

I know how to say, listen, I know it's bad. This - I do it. And it also helps with releasing the shame that a lot of women bring with them, the shame of not knowing how to take care of their car, being shamed by men because they don't - right? - and being afraid to ask a question because they're going to feel stupid. And so when they know - listen, I've done this; you can ask me; you know, it's not that big of a deal - they feel so much more comfortable.

GROSS: So because cars are partly computers now...

BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And that's part of the engine and all the dashboard stuff, you need a kind of computerized diagnostic tool to figure out what's wrong and repair it. Do most shops that aren't the dealer have the proper diagnostic tools for a variety of cars?

BANKS: Yes, they all should. It should be. It's pretty much required to have a shop now because every car has that check engine light feature. And one I'll - thing that most people don't know is that check engine light is an orange light. Your dashboard lights are typically color-coded. So if it's red, it's, like, safety hazard - get this checked out right away. But if it's orange, it means slow down, caution, get this checked out.

Your check engine light is orange, and it mean - it's actually required by the EPA because it monitors your fuel usage. You're either - it comes on because you're burning too much gas or you're polluting the environment. It doesn't necessarily mean something's wrong with the engine. And most people don't know that. It's a warning light. You don't need to panic and get it checked out right away unless it's flashing.

And so one of the things that - when they first came out with these lights, a dealer would charge you $100 - right? - to put these computer things, and not everybody had the computers. But then as they started putting them in every single car and requiring them, you've had a lot of companies come out with aftermarket computer diagnosing to help you read the codes that these cars have in them so you can figure out what's going on with that check engine light. I love this - questions around the check engine light, though, because it's really confusing, and its confusing information.

And this is why people don't make the right choice. They go into these places, like a parts store, that will offer them, we'll read your light for free and tell you what you need. That's not a diagnosing. Pulling codes onto a computer to tell you why the check engine light on is not a diagnosing - a diagnosis. It may say code P128 (ph), which is going to tell you - and they'll tell you, buy this; you need a thermostat. And they'll sell you a thermostat and send you on your way to a mechanic.

And guess what's the first thing we're going to do as soon as your car gets in there. We're going to on our computer and read the diagnosing. We're not going to take someone else's diagnosis and fix your car based off of that because we need to make sure it's the right one and that there isn't other problems. There could be two or three problems causing it, not just the one. And so you really need a mechanic to diagnose a check engine light. A small little computer that you plug in that we have, and even these ones that they sell you now that you can personally buy - it's only telling you half the story. You still need a mechanic, so just find your mechanic to do it.

GROSS: What are two or three things that you think everybody should take care of with their own car, even if it's just checking the fluid level and making sure it's OK? So the things that you should take on yourself.

BANKS: Yourself - yeah. The things that everyone should know how to do and take on themselves - and this seems like a really simple, easy one that most people don't even know - is popping their hood to look under their car, right? If you can't do that, you're stuck in the water if your car's overheating. But so just popping your hood so you can do things like check your oil, check your fluids - if - no matter how old your car is, if you are going on a trip for longer than two hours, you want to do a quick check of your fluids, the air in your tire and your tires because that's going to give you a little peace of mind to know, I'm not going to break down.

And if you do break down, make sure you have certain things in the car that are going to help you so you're not stranded. You know, so if the car is over 100,000 miles, you want to know how to check your oil, you want to check all your fluids underneath your car, and you want to know how to put oil in the car. Every car will leak oil eventually. So if you want to keep a car over 100,000 miles, you're going to have some oil leaks. You need to know to check on it, add oil if you can't afford to get it fixed, you know? So yeah, checking oil, checking all your fluids, popping your hood - being comfortable under the hood and what's underneath there - and a lot of times, you don't have to touch things, but just look. Look with your eyes and see - you can see what's going on just by looking at it. That's definitely one thing.

How to put air in your tires - everyone should know how to put air in their tires because it's a very important maintenance part, right? And I don't want to say everyone should know how to change a tire because I don't think it's a skill. I mean, you still hear people say everyone should know. I don't think that's a skill that you should have in order to be an owner because now they've got things like AAA that can - and there's no shame in that.

You try to change a tire, I tell ladies, you're going to get dirty, you're going to break a nail. And that's fine. Some people want to do it because it's about, yes, I just changed a tire; I feel really good. But there's no shame in saying, hey, I'll pay you 60 bucks a year to come out and change my tire if it ever happens because I don't want to be in a business suit on the ground getting grease all over me, you know? Yeah.

GROSS: The other thing with tires is that they're often put on with, like, electric - I don't know what they're called. But the lug nuts are often put on with...

BANKS: With those compressed air, yeah.

GROSS: ...With the electric drills - drill kind of thing.

BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: And they're put on so tight.

BANKS: So tight, you can't get them off.

GROSS: ...That unless you have an electro thing to unscrew it, it's really hard just with a little - one of those little tire crowbar things.

BANKS: Yeah. And I teach, you know, and I - in the book - and there's some videos...

GROSS: Am I sounding really stupid? I sound like...

BANKS: No, no, no, no, no, no.

GROSS: (Laughter) I keep thinking like, I'm giving myself away.

BANKS: No, listen - no.

GROSS: OK, this is going to surprise everybody who knows me. When I was in college, I actually took an auto repair course and worked on my car. And I gave that up pretty quickly because I just kind of - it wasn't for me. You know, I was just never going to get good at it. But I really - I wanted so much to be the woman who was able to do that by herself. And so much time has gone by since then. Like, I feel like totally ignorant now.

BANKS: It's like riding a bike, though. I promise you if you picked up a tool ten years ago, and you haven't since...

GROSS: But the cars have changed.

BANKS: They have. But it's still the same core principles no matter how much these cars change. There's core engineering principles that make things work. You don't need to know the four-stroke engine, but you need to know that your engine needs air. And it needs fuel, and it sets it on fire. That's what makes your car go - these mini explosions, right? And it gets really hot because you have explosions, so that's what the coolant does. It helps cool it down. And it moves and spins really fast, right? Lube - all this lubrication needs to happen. That's what the oils for. So you're not, you know, having all these metal parts rubbing up and down really fast.

You know, so just that type of stuff where it makes sense. They're like, oh, ok. Like, you don't need to know all that other stuff with the compression and the piston rings. It's not important to you. All right, to know if you need to get your oil changed, you just need to know how often you get your oil changed and what happens when there's not oil in the engine.

GROSS: What's your rule of thumb about when to give up a car - when it's not worth spending more money repairing?

BANKS: Yes, this is always difficult - to give up the baby. And it's usually when - well, I tell people that it's going to require a little bit of math unless you just want to use your gut and say I'm over it. But if you're really not afraid to go into the math, and you want to make sure you make the right decision on when to let it go, it's about understanding if you start getting repairs that cost more than like twice the car's worth, then you want to start getting rid of it. So it's knowing how much the car is worth and how much you're spending on it every year to do these repairs or every couple of months. And if it's - the repairs are getting to be more than twice the value of the car, it's time to get rid of it.

GROSS: Well, that sounds like a good idea.

BANKS: And so usually - yeah, and so you'll see people come in with a car that needs a new engine. And it's going to be three grand, and the car is only worth like 2,500. So we're like, nah, (laughter) wouldn't do that.

GROSS: OK, the last question for you - what's the ladies' room like in your garage?


BANKS: We ladies, we like to have fun. And there's two ladies' rooms. There's a guest restroom, which is really cool. We had an interior designer come in and design a salon. And it looks amazing. It looks like a inside of a garage but very feminine and colorful. And we have like a tire sink in there and all these pictures of like classic cars and stuff and just fun things - hooks made out of wrenches. So the bathroom is nice and cute and clean.

Our bathroom for the female mechanics, they thought it would be fun - and we just do it to kind of make fun. You know, when you go into the mechanic garages, they have the calendars with the girls in the bikinis. If you go into our bathroom, they put one up with boys and cars kind of like as a play on it, you know, because we have an all-girls garage. And so now our calendars are of sexy, half-naked men - in the bathroom though. So that's what I look at every time I use the restroom (laughter). But I think it's more like a fun thing for the girls for them, kind of like ironic in a way, yeah.

GROSS: Is it possible some of the women in garage would prefer to look at pictures of other women?

BANKS: (Laughter) Yes, absolutely, we've got two gay women that work with us. And we have a huge community of customers that are LGBT because they feel finally a safe space for us as well where we don't feel awkward and intimidated. And they can come in, and they're welcomed. And they feel comfortable so absolutely.

GROSS: Well, good luck to you. And thank you so much for talking with us.

BANKS: Thank you. Yes, of course.

GROSS: Patrice Banks is the author of the "Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review Denis Johnson's posthumously published collection of short stories. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Denis Johnson was one of those rare writers who garnered critical praise, popular attention and the respect of his fellow writers. He won the National Book Award for his 2007 novel "Tree Of Smoke" and was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Johnson died in May of last year. A posthumous collection of his short stories is just out. It's called "The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Denis Johnson's posthumous short story collection, "The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden," is full of last calls to his readers, signaling hurry up, please, it's time. Take these eerie sentences spoken by the narrator of a story called "Triumph Over The Grave." (Reading) It's plain to you that at the time I write this I'm not dead, but may be by the time you read it.

Of course those sentences leap off the page because Johnson himself is now dead, carried off by liver cancer last year at the age of 67. Johnson always named Walt Whitman as one of his core influences, and you can hear Whitman throughout this whole collection. Like those direct addresses to his future readers that Whitman scatters throughout "Leaves Of Grass," Johnson in these stories anticipates talking across the abyss that separates the quick from the dead.

In his gritty way, Johnson was a believer in transcendence. His 1992 collection of linked short stories called "Jesus' Son," which many critics and readers have anointed as his masterpiece, is about junkies and losers crashing their way along American highways searching for redemption and finding it, sort of. The five stories in this new collection are standalones, but they all share an explicit awareness that death is in the neighborhood. Most of these stories are terrific and, too, the first and the last are out of this world.

I say this not out of deference to the recently deceased, but in awe. When Johnson wrote at reckless full force, his sentences and story lines blasted barriers, discovering those odd places where, as one of his narrators here says, the mystery winks at you. That line comes from the title's story, "The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden," which is one of those out of this world achievements. In summary, it sounds almost Cheeveresque. Our narrator, a melancholy unnamed ad man in his '60s, wonders what his life has been all about as friends around him begin to die off. But that summary gives the wrong impression. It's too pat, and it doesn't convey the peculiar tone of the narrator's life review. He's bemused, compassionate and terrified. After all, he's old enough to know the unexpected is always crouched and ready to pounce, and Johnson's writing style affirms this truth.

Here's a sampling from the opening paragraph, which begins by describing a mundane dinner party and then - well, listen. (Reading) After dinner, nobody went home right away. I think we'd enjoyed the meal so much we hoped Elaine would serve us the whole thing all over again. We sat around in the living room describing the loudest sounds we'd ever heard. One said it was his wife's voice when she told him she didn't love him anymore and wanted a divorce.

That conversation veers way off road, as does the plot. Johnson's images, as you'd expect from a writer who published three collections of poetry, are also distinctive and charged. For instance, in "Triumph Over The Grave," an old writer's fingers are described as looking like eight dancer's legs clothed in droopy stockings of flesh, marching and kicking around the table top in front of him.

Throughout his career, Johnson was also praised for his range. He could do elegy and comedy, magical realism and even Westerns, like his brilliant novella "Train Dreams." In the final story here, the other out of this world achievement, called "Doppelganger Poltergeist," Johnson swirls Elvis conspiracy theories into a witty academic force tale. The result is something I never saw coming, a powerful and poignant tribute to the human impulse to deny death. "The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden" contains the kind of work every writer would like to go out on - fresh, profound and singular. It affirms literature's promise to believers the gift of eternal voice.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Denis Johnson's short story collection "The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


ANTHONY GONZALEZ: (As Miguel) Sometimes I think I'm cursed 'cause of something that happened before I was even born.

GROSS: The Disney Pixar film "Coco" just won the Golden Globe for best animated film. It takes place in a small Mexican town on the Day of the Dead, the holiday to honor deceased loved ones. We'll talk with the co-writers and co-directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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