COAL: 2002 Nissan Altima – Unreliably Reliable

Unreliably Reliable


When I was trying to turn my life around and felt like I had nothing. This unreliable car was the only thing I could rely on.

My plan was in motion, I was ready. I mentioned my plan to coworkers and they were happy. I mentioned my intent to my manager who jokingly said “You can’t leave”. It’s funny how sometimes people try to hold you back. It felt bad hearing that but I could not be stopped. I was angry about what had happened and I had to do it, I had no choice, I had to succeed.

I acquired this car by talking to regular that worked for a small car dealership on auto row in Alhambra. I mentioned I was looking for a newer car, he suggested I come have a look and he would hook me up.

This car had a beautiful original gray metallic paint job that shined like beauty only seen in the most beautiful of women. I was in love as soon as I saw her; I called her Nancy Nissan. With no hesitation I began the process to make her mine.

A lot available for a reason


Beauty is sometime only sheet metal deep, within 2 weeks the engine went bad and failed to start. The selling dealer picked it up and agreed to split cost as I had a 50/50 warranty. I paid $1500 to repair a leaking head gasket. All was well so it seemed. A month after that repair the engine was again leaking coolant and having a hard time starting. On good faith and my relationship with the dealer I gave up another $1500 for another head repair. It was good for a while after that.

The auto parts store had implemented a new rule that added “points” to being late. Sometimes business was slow and I was asked to come in later. This would add points to my account but they would be adjusted by the end of the week by the manager. I was at another store in Alhambra at this time and managed to turn it profitable from its previously under performing status. The manager had gotten caught performing some type of scam that I can’t recall. He had gotten fired earlier in the day. Before that, I was told to come in later that day. Because I was technically late that day it put me over on points. The system had not been perfected yet and the only person that could reverse or remove those points had been fired. So I was fired as well that day. It was a shock but truly a blessing, I already had a start date for automotive school. Not how I wanted it to go down, now I needed another job closer to school.

Chassis Assembly Plant, South Gate, California


I found a ridiculous job at a radiator distributor in Carson that wanted me to be a cashier but not handle cash. The type of job where they don’t roll up the gates all the way up and are surprised when someone hits it. So that’s how I got fired from that job.

I found a new job posting on Craigslist for Inter-modal truck chassis assembly. It was through Kelly services, a job agency where apparently the term “Kelly Girl” comes from. So I became a Kelly girl and began working assembling truck chassis in South Gate.

The chassis came from China in 5 main pieces; The main ladder frame, the gooseneck (where the semi-trailer hooks up to), bumper, axle/wheel assembly, and landing gear. I started off on bumpers, there was no real written process on how to accomplish this.

A coworker named Aldo and myself came up with a super efficient method to prep everything before hand to cut down on installation time. Aldo was a no BS kind of guy that would give it to you straight the way it needed to be said. To this day we are friends and I ask for feedback on many of my life decisions. Only a year older he has wisdom beyond his age.

The work was back breaking and fast paced at full production. Many did not make it through first break due to the laborious nature of work. It became a brotherhood for those that stayed. We had varied situations in life but bonded by being a team accomplishing something. We lost one of the guys in the process, long story short the guy was known to be high/drunk at work and was crushed while trying to separate goose-necks that came in packs of 5; they weigh around 1000 lbs a piece.

We made around 10,000 chassis and it fills me with pride to this day to see those chassis rolling down the streets or highways. If you see yellow or orange inter-modal truck chassis from U.P. or J.B….We made a lot of those. What also fills me with pride is the feeling that the job turned us from boys to men.

Survival Food, I always have some just in case


I was making money but was paying a lot of bills due to having joint accounts with the Ex. For a couple of months I did not have money for food at work/school and survived off ketchup and chili packets until I could get home at the end of a 19 hour day. For lunch I went to sleep in my car, fuel was the only thing I could afford, because I needed it to get to school. After the past due bills were paid I had around $5 a day for food/drinks. From then I survived on the dollar menu from various fast food restaurants or the 2/3 piece and biscuit from Church’s chicken. I still managed to lose weight with this diet.

The street I lived on for 2 years.


As always traffic in Los Angeles was and still is a mess. I tried to go home after work but driving back to Long Beach from Highland Park during rush hour just added more time to a commute that would take 15 minutes from South Gate. The best option was just to find a quiet street near school and wait for school to start.

That’s how I pretty much ended living in my car for 2 years. I would make it home every night but slept around 2-4 hours before it was time to go back to work. The relief came weekends when I would catch up on sleep, weekends I would sleep around 14-16 hours; the kind of sleep where you wake up in darkness and try to figure out if it’s AM or PM.

With an in-dash DVD player it wasn’t that bad. Leather not good for summer.


It was a depressing situation. Mom got me an in-dash DVD player for the Altima. It made the car a home away from home. I lived next to a truck yard where the constant roar and beeping of trucks kept waking me up. To this day I have sleep problems, any little abrupt noise wakes me, a survival instinct I think.

It was a cat-astrophe


The engine problem came back. I began checking my fluid levels on my car around this time. That’s how I found the coolant mixing with the engine oil. I had no warranty now, my saving grace was looking at the Recycler magazine for someone that would work on the 2.5 Nissan engine. I found one advertisement that would repair it for $1495, with rebuild-able core of course.

I took a chance and of course the price in the ad was not the price I paid. I had to get the whole engine rebuilt this time, at the low price of $2500. I was a little more suspect at the nature of the repairs and inquired. They showed me some parts that seemed not to be the right ones for this car, and of course the tech that performed the repairs was not available at the time. They did however determine that the catalytic converter was causing the issue, so they removed the catalyst material when they rebuilt the engine for longer life.

The catalyst issue is a well documented problem with this vehicle, along with some screws in the intake that come loose and get sucked in to the engine. I only found out about it after the repair was made and I started looking online. Nissan was apparently reluctant to replace engines when they failed. Online forums are full of people who had to go through a long battle to get them replaced under warranty. I failed to do my research and got burned; another thing I learned in life.

I sometimes look through my 2 gigs of memes and wonder…Did I save them or did they save me?


While living in the car was depressing, I began to work on myself from within. I began to think positive. One thing that helped was memes. They’re funny, silly, and offensive, but they made me laugh and forget about my situation. Many of them were very inspirational.

The meme that kept me going


I’m a big fan of Bill Burr, although funny there’s wisdom in his comedy. You can tell he failed, learned from mistakes, and used it to his advantage. Another thing I got into at this time was electronic dance music, or EDM as the young kids call it. With uplifting beats, inspirational and relatable lyrics, it also helped me feel better.

With the catalyst removed I could no longer receive fresh air through the AC while driving. The engine lasted a long time in it’s condition, around one year. I began taking longer trips out to the desert on weekends just for fun, to get out of the city, this was also good for my inner well being. I checked the oil one day on the way back home and there was no oil in the engine. I did not know how long it had been that way. I quickly added oil at the next gas station outside Redlands California. I checked the oil again when I got home, a good 60 miles or so. Again the dipstick was empty.

The writing was on the wall. I had around 6 more months of school to finish. I needed to keep this car alive, it’s all I had. I began feeding her a steady diet of cheap oil every 2 days to keep her alive. I did not fail her and she did not fail me as long as I kept on it. This car became almost human in my mind, a true friend that made it with me through tough times. Her voice became the EDM music that I would play trying keep both our spirits high.

The Forbidden Chocolate Milkshake


It kept on getting worse, the next thing was the coolant hoses swelling up and sweating oil through the rubbery pores. Inspection revealed coolant and oil mixing in the radiator. I still needed this car. I began a weekly Saturday ritual of flushing the coolant oil/mix, replacing it with plain water. This helped, but I needed a better solution.

I finally finished school and was hired by a forklift company. I wanted to work for Nissan but lift trucks paid more and by the hour. I finally made it. I began buying parts to properly repair the car. It was my way of showing gratitude to this machine that despite many issues it never let me down when it mattered. A machine that made me believe cars can have souls. The plan was to remove the engine in my driveway. I acquired a dealer repair manual in PDF form online. It stated the engine and transmission assembly had to be removed from below. It was the final blow to our relationship, after we had been through so much.

I decided to sell it. It’s almost like the car knew something was up. I had one last trip I wanted to take. It was a birthday party in Vegas. I took the day off, it was raining and I decided to stop and buy a cheap sweater. The store did not have what I was looking for. I backed out of the parking space and the car never drove forward again. The money I was going to use for the Vegas trip was instead used for a tow truck.

My dog Taffy. More reliable than an Altima.


When I got home I was informed that my dog had also died that morning and was already gone. I never got to say goodbye to the best dog a guy could have.

I replaced the transmission, gave the car a waxing, and took glamour shots of the car. The parts for repair were already there. It quickly sold on Craigslist to a mechanic who did not mind and appreciated how beautiful the car looked.

I appreciate this car to this day. Despite it’s many problems and personal situations I was facing; I would never trade every time she did let me down, every time I could not sleep within, every silent teardrop when I got sad, or hefty bill that came my way. Because in the end, It was all worth it. It showed me that I could face and overcome life’s obstacles. And more importantly it got me to my next COAL.