It’s said that topping the list of life’s most stressful situations are the death of a loved one, divorce or separation, losing a job, or moving.
Where, I wonder, is buying a car in this litany of life’s trials?
Death, divorce or doomed to eating out of dumpsters and living under a bridge are nothing compared to facing a smiling salesperson in a showroom patting a hood, who says, “I can put you into this beauty today.”
The reason for my dry-mouthed dread is that when it comes to cars, I know I’m out of my depth — drowning, in fact — terrified that the guy who wants to sell me a car has sized me up as someone just off the farm, ready to be schooled on life in the big city.
At the moment, it’s not me facing the need for new wheels, but Mary, who has decided (Read: kicking and screaming) that her beloved 2002 Saturn’s days are way past numbered, just as the odometer has long since flipped back to a line of zeros.
And “beloved” is not too strong a word.
“It’s perfect,” she softly describes her passion, even when the “The Little Red Roadster” is clocking extended periods in surgery and rehab, and there’s no Medicare For All Vehicles.
According to U.S. automakers, 17.3 million new cars and light trucks were sold last year and 39.3 million used cars (previously owned, gently handled, driven by a nice lady who only used it to get to church on Sunday, etc.). In the market for a used car makes the ordeal even more harrowing.
“Don’t buy another person’s problems,” I can hear my father saying, who never bought a used car.
After the Roadster’s last stint in the shop in December, we made a deadline to buy a car in March. The clock is ticking; we’re mapping out the remaining weekends to take the plunge.
Did I mention drowning?
I wish my brother was here and not in St. Louis so he could be our Sherpa. Although Jack knows less than I do about cars, one of his professions was sales, and he knows how to deal. (His explanation on the successful way to sell something — anything — is not to hustle targets, “but find out exactly what they want and give it to them.”)
We once spent a long Saturday going from lot to lot in St. Louis looking for a car. After awhile it seemed we weren’t in the market, but auditioning salesmen. Leaving a Ford dealership, I said, “That guy had some great lines.”
“Yeah,” Jack said. “But did you catch that tie? I could hear it from 50 feet.”
Another guy also rated highly, but Jack decided “his cologne was hostile.”
Our favorite, we agreed, was the salesman who was trying to put Jack into a Chevy and realized he was getting nowhere. He made a closing gambit of appealing to us as fellow patriots. “This is an American car made by Americans,” he slapped the trunk. “Buy this car. Put some foreigner out of work.”
Although he didn’t say “foreigner.”
Finally it all clicked at a Buick lot. Jack and I were in the office with the sales manager ready to sign on the line that is dotted. My brother, reading the fine print one more time, asked, “What’s this $150 for?”
The manager said it was for the undercoating.
My brother threw the contract on the desk. Total outrage. He was standing. What kind of sleazy hustle was going on here? Did he take us for idiots? Charging for the undercoating? “Come on,” he said to me, grabbing my arm and pulling me out of the chair. “We’re out of here.”
We didn’t make it to the door before the manager had us back at the desk, assuring us the undercoating would be on the dealership.
Driving home, Jack turned to me. “What’s undercoating?”
My fears should be unfounded, since the last time Mary and I bought a car the sales person was professional, forthcoming and helpful, although not without eccentricities. Boris, a Russian immigrant, showed us everything and took to heart the maxim of finding out exactly what we wanted and giving it to us.
He was pitching one car hard, and continued for 10 minutes even after we’d said “yes.” But Boris couldn’t stop. An aluminum bat in his hand, he was talking about how sturdy the bumpers were, saying, “I hit bumper with bat, no mark! No mark from bat!”
“It’s O.K.,” Mary said. “We’re buying it. Don’t hit it.”
Boris slumped like a defeated man. “Can I please hit with bat? Once?”
She said, “Yes, once.” Boris gave the bumper a good whack (no mark), there were smiles all around and we went to the manager’s office.
Last night Mary came up with a new idea. “We win the lottery and I have a whole new engine, brakes and transmission put into my lovely Little Red Roadster.”
Sounds like a plan.