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12/24/98 The Parking Lot
12/10/98 Mountains
12/01/98 Garage Sale
11/12/98 The Car Salesman
10/29/98 What Is Money?
10/15/98 Sick People
10/01/98 Baseball
09/17/98 Dollars and Sense

The Car Salesman

Recently, my wife and I decided that it was time to buy a new car. My own car had grown so dilapidated that I was depreciating our property value every time I pulled into the garage. So we visited a local auto mall - I won't say which one - to find a replacement. And we did. We found a gorgeous replacement. Right beyond the lion's den of salespeople.

When we arrived at the dealership, it was four hundred degrees outside because there is no ozone layer. The salesmen were lurking in the shade, so the lot appeared destitute. As soon as we started to browse, however, I sensed movement. The way an antelope senses a lion on the horizon. Before I could say, "Wow, this is kind of expensive," the lion was upon us.

"Hi," my name is Steve. Can I put you in this car today?" Man, I hate salespeople. I hate their jargon. I hate the way they write numbers on paper without saying them aloud. I hate their parents for having reproduced. While appraising my watch, Steve delivered a speech about dual-side rock and onion steering, passenger-side air holes, and other features that didn't interest me. Looking at the price tag, I wondered if the car had a part-time job to help pay for itself.

We took the car for a spin anyway because, alas, we liked it. During the test-drive, Steve tried to gain a sense of who we were, where we grew up, and how much money he could siphon from our pockets. He made eye contact with us only because it was a good sales tactic. He complimented our clothing for the same reason. Everything he said had been printed in a manual. This man was a predator who had discovered his niche in the workplace: He was a car salesman.

Unfortunately, we liked the car. A lot. As we drove the 101, the issue became not how much the car cost, but whether our lives could carry on without it. Could we concentrate at work each day having left this precious machine behind, or would one of us eventually go postal and hold the car dealership at gunpoint? Steve sensed our predicament. He also sensed a budding relationship with our bank account.

"The nice thing about this car is that it's safe," he told me. "The engine is designed to collapse underneath the driver during a head-on collision. That way your wife won't get injured." Beyond the four hundred degree shadow of a doubt, I detested this man. He was playing my guilt like a Spanish guitar, serenading my wife all the while.

Returning to the lot, Steve suggested that we go inside to talk things over. Buying a car is not like buying a loaf of bread. It's not as simple as "How much is it and will you accept a check?" The price on the car window is merely a suggestion, a jumping off point for negotiations. There would be compromises and credit checks and "favors." It's a Geneva Summit to discuss the future of your finances. I warned Steve that we probably couldn't afford the vehicle, to which he replied, "No, you just don't have my talent for juggling numbers." (Or treading b.s. for that matter.)

Inside we were greeted by 13 salespeople according to the manual. They smelled our desire for the car and smiled bigger. Steve ushered us in like a fraternity pledge with two hot blondes from the local bar. In the conference room, he offered me a soda. But I knew better. Anything we accepted at this point could only work against us - a soda, a piece of gum, a handshake. I wouldn't hear of it. How dare he even offer.

Steve juggled his numbers for the next 40 minutes until we arrived at a tolerable payment. Somewhere during the arbitration, the word "affordable" had become "tolerable." Steve had broken us down with the craft of Jim Jones. We were out of resistance. We had no will. By the time it was over, I had accepted two sodas and a trial membership to the Spectrum Club. I had become entranced by the vortex of numbers before me, a psychedelic voyage through feasibility. Once we agreed to the payment, Steve had to gain "final approval" from his supervisor (anyone remember Fargo?). When Steve returned, the numbers had changed again and negotiations started all over.

Thirty minutes later, the supervisor came down to finalize the deal. He shook our hands, confessing the sacrifices he had made to "put us in this car." He wondered aloud of his kids would eat this month. I felt like a sweaty pig. I had just prostituted my principles to a revolting game of greed, materialism, and lifelong payments. But if you want a new car, there are no two ways about it. Even now as we drive around town, I sometimes see Steve in the rearview mirror. He is sitting in the backseat with a smirk, purring sweetly as he basks in the afterglow of the big sale. And that is a cost you won't find anywhere in the fine print.


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