I hadn't driven my car for a few days, but as I turned out of my street, I knew that noise was not a good one. Already late, I happily noted it dissipated as I accelerated.
If you know everything there is to know about cars, you might as well quit reading now. This is for those who don't. For those of us who turn the key, who obey the little sticker telling us to get the oil changed, who answer the automated call to bring it in.
The thing is, you don't have to be a gearhead to know what your car is telling you. It talks to you all the time. What you do have to do is be attentive, be rational, and to not put your head up your butt when you hear a noise like squeeeeee.
The squeeeeee was definitely not a going-away noise. The old days of cars needing to warm up is over; I can't shake off weird sounds from all over my vehicle the way my dad used to, as if a car, like a person, rose slowly and creaked until the blinds were open and first cup of coffee got downed. I pulled into a parking spot, and knew this was about my steering. I wasn't going anywhere. Except, I was in the middle of a small town on a Saturday afternoon, attending a friend's book signing.
I pushed the thought of my wounded car to the back of my mind, and tried to concentrate on the world of books and writers and all those other things that don't go squeeeeee. As the novelist sat signing books, I chatted to a friend of his.
"So, you know anything about cars?" I asked, nonchalantly. I'd known the man 10 minutes. He raised an eyebrow, which I took as permission to carry on. "My car is going squeeeeee. I'm thinking steering," I finished. He agreed squeeeeee could indeed mean steering, and that I shouldn't drive it any farther.
My mechanics of many years standing are used to this. We were still driving my late mother's 1994 Intrepid when it was 15 years old, and I had the cornucopia of sound effects down to an art. I would call the garage to explain if it was making the diggity diggity diggity sound of a gasping solenoid, the ruh ruh ruh of a fading battery, or the lonely, tiny click of a dead starter. My car was talking to me; I was merely translating.
Maintenance is always cheaper than repair. Always.
There is no upside to camouflaging that weird thumping noise by turning up the radio. Sometimes when you drive your car every day, you fail to notice the gentle eroding of some components. Your brakes feel fine to you, until you get in a friend's car or a rental, and wonder why the brakes are so damned touchy. They're most likely not; yours are probably just spongy, but you haven't noticed. By the time you hear a nasty grinding sound, you're down to rotors and will wish you'd noticed your un-touchy brakes.
I find car owners, regardless of their mechanical aptitude, usually know more than they believe they do. Like knowing that you have a cavity in a tooth because of where the pain is coming from, a driver can usually identify a weird sound or pull in the steering, often knowing even which side. If your transmission is bucking or lagging, you feel the difference. You may not know why, or to what extent, but you can usually tell the difference between right and not right.
Listen to your car. Don't dismiss a new noise or feel. Walk around your car and look at it; do this at night, too, to note any bulbs burned out. Check your tires. If you don't know how to check your tire pressure, learn. How often have you seen a car on the road with a nearly flat tire, the driver oblivious? Just looking will tell you that. Drive with your window down periodically – winter can cocoon us and muffle a sound that might be more readily evident in warmer weather.
Cars are generally far more reliable now than they've ever been, especially for the turn-the-key-and-drive brigade. Keep to the manufacturer's recommended schedule, and most problems will be averted long before your safety is at risk. But as my squeeeeee reminded me, things happen, and you are ultimately your own best early responder.
Oh, and that novelist? He's also a mechanic. He diagnosed my power steering fluid leak and got me to safety. I bought an extra book.