The day after tomorrow


Car salesmen assume they can get away with being outrageously rude in their efforts to sell you a car, any car, even if it’s nothing like the car you want. They assume this because most people automatically enter into a conspiracy of silence when they are treated badly. The terms of this conspiracy require that they make every effort to carry on as if everything is normal even though they’re being shamelessly pressured and manipulated.

Peggy and I bought our first car together in 1973 when she was 22 and I was 24. She wanted a Dodge Colt station wagon; I wanted a Datsun truck. The Dodge salesman (I’ll call him Vince) was twenty years our senior and a fatherly, soft-spoken gentleman who convinced us that he had our best interest at heart. Still, I demurred. We were “marvelous young people,” Vince said. He wanted to take us to dinner, Vince said. He wanted us to meet his friend, Vince said.

“So, what do we have to do to sell you this car?” his hard-eyed friend (I’ll call him Igor) demanded. Vince seemed dismayed by Igor’s abruptness. “I don’t know,” I answered. “I guess we need to go home and talk about it.” “You said you came here to buy a car; we’ve shown you the best car at the best price; and now you don’t want to buy it?! Why have you wasted our time? You owe it to us to buy this car before you leave here tonight.”

Vince wrung his hands and looked like he wanted to crawl under the carpet. Peggy stared at the wall like she hoped Igor would forget she was there. I made up my mind that I wouldn’t buy an air conditioner in hell from this asshole, yet my concept of politeness required that I stick around for another hour of abuse. Every few minutes, Vince and Igor swapped out. Igor berated us while Vince was out of the room, and Vince treated us like his beloved children while Igor was out of the room. I didn’t realize that it was all a big act until weeks later when the dealership was charged with multiple counts of abusive sales tactics including the Good Cop/Bad Cop routine that we got to witness.

I got so fed up with salesmen on our most recent car-buying search that I went to the lot where Hertz sells its rental cars. “Hertz will be different,” I thought. “The prices will be what the stickers say they are, and there won’t be any pushy salesmen.” I had no really good reason to believe this, other than Hertz’s advertising, of course.

“We have limited garage space, and it’s important to me that we buy something that will fit in the garage,” I told the salesman. The car the salesman led me to see clearly wouldn’t fit. “This car clearly won’t fit,” I objected. His jaw dropped, and his tone was accusatory. “You don’t REALLY need to keep your car in the garage, DO you?”

I can’t believe this young turd is trying to pull that shit on an old fart like me, I thought (why no, I would never overuse metaphors). “Bye,” I said.

He followed me to my van, but stopped short of breaking my legs to keep me from leaving. By the time I got home, he had called twice. Giving your phone number to a car salesman is like giving your phone number to a stalker.

I only got took once by a car salesman. Patty was her name, and she was a redhead who was ten years my senior. If not for her smile that gave birth to fantasies of happily throwing myself in front of a train to save her life, I wouldn’t have been able to take my eyes off her cleavage. The vinyl dash on the used Datsun 610 that I wanted to buy had come unglued. “Patty,” I asked, “If I buy the car, will you take care of having that fixed?”

“Well…I wouldn’t do it for just anyone, but you’ve been so nice that I’ll do it for you—if you buy the car today.”

When it came time to write the check, I reminded Patty about the dash, and asked her to put it in writing (I had read somewhere that that was a good idea). “Snow,” she said with a hurt look, “Do you really think I would lie to you? Please don’t become one of those people who have forgotten what it means to trust.”

I apologized to Patty for hurting her feelings. She said she forgave me, but the pain in her eyes told me only too well that my callous words had threatened to sever the delicate tendril of affection that united us. I apologized a second time, and a third. Finally, her smile returned like sunshine after the rain.

She said she had spoken to the shop foreman, and that I should bring the car back the next day for the repair. When I returned for my “appointment,” no one seemed to know why I was there, and they were incredulous when I told them. “That’s an expensive job,” the sales manager growled, “We would have to take the whole dash out. Who told you we would do it?”

“Patty.”

“Did you get it in writing?”

“Uh, no. I asked her to write it down, but she said I could trust her—she’ll tell you.”

The sales manager’s steely gaze softened. He obviously knew of Patty’s influence over young na├»ve men. “Yesterday was Patty’s last day to work here.”

After much indignant hell-raising on my part, he made good on Patty’s promise, but I vowed to never make the same mistake again. As for Patty, she went on to run her own dealership, and it didn’t take her long either. Even though she lied to me, I still feel all warm and fuzzy when I remember her. You’ve got to be damn good to make your victim like you even after he knows he’s been took.

On to the present. I’ve searched both Craig’s List and various dealers’ lots for months. I’ve analyzed every bit of information I could find about dozens of cars, and we’ve settled on a 1998 Camry. I saw it a week ago when it was $8,990. The dealer has since dropped it to $6,990, and has agreed to take another thousand off that.

Two important things that I try to remember when negotiating to buy a car are: (1) Unless I know it’s a terrific deal, I must be willing to drag my feet even though I run the risk of someone buying it out from under me; and (2) When I’m dealing in thousands of dollars it’s easy to forget that a few hundred dollars is a lot of money, yet a few hundred could a whole lot of groceries. If the wind blew even $20 from my hand and dropped it down a sewer, I would be seriously bummed, yet $20 seems of no more value than a penny when I’m car shopping. At least, it’s easy to think that.

Walt (a former mechanic) drove the Camry today and liked it. Tomorrow, I’ll take it to a garage and to a body shop for their okay and, if it passes, we’ll buy it.

It is now tomorrow.

The mechanic and the body shop foreman liked the car. Still, I took note of the few things they found wrong, and used them to negotiate another $110 off the price. All of the salesmen shook my hand and congratulated me, and I was sent off to sign the necessary papers. Necessary for what, I don’t know. I would estimate that I had to sign my name upward of thirty times. I even had to sign to refuse a lot of piddly things, things like tire damage protection, body sealant, and a sticker on the windshield stating that every window had been acid-etched with an ID number (the etching was done to protect the dealer from theft while the car was on his lot, but the tiny sticker that announced the etching would have cost me $256).

Among all these piddly things that I had to sign, I saw a tiny footnoted paragraph requiring that I agree to settle any and all disputes through a particular arbiter whose office is 115 miles from here. That’s right, in order to buy a car from the mammoth enterprise known as Kendall Auto Group, I would have to not only sign away my rights to the judicial system, I would have to agree to binding arbitration by an arbiter who just might value keeping Kendall’s business over making a fair judgment.

It is now the day after tomorrow.

When I refused to sign, I was told that I couldn’t buy the car. I took the papers home to talk the situation over with Peggy (who was off skiing). She felt as I did, so it looks like we won’t be getting the Camry. Fortunately, I had not given Kendall a check because they wanted my social security number to run a credit report before they would accept a personal check. I wouldn’t provide it unless they agreed to return it when the credit report was completed, but they said they couldn’t do that, so I said I would take them a bank check today.

“So what are the chances that you would need arbitration anyway?” you might ask. Almost none, I should think. If I did, it would be over the little 12-month powertrain warranty that they insisted on giving me in lieu of taking more money off the price. But there is a principal here. A few of them. For one thing, I believe that they stick that kind of thing into a footnote in a gray font on the back of one of dozens of pages so that the customer won’t see it; and that all those superfluous signatures are required so that the important ones will go by un-noticed (By way of analogy, I had a dog that jumped up every step in a football stadium until she reached the topmost step and jumped one time too many, badly injuring herself on the parking lot below). Kendall's is guilty of heavy-handedly stacking the deck in its favor. If I’m willing to forego my legal rights so that they will let me buy one of their cars, shouldn’t I have a say in choosing the arbiter? Couldn’t they at least provide a list of possible arbiters?

I put hours into checking out that car and negotiating a price. I have no doubt but what a lot of customers are so tired and emotionally drained by the time all those papers are set in front of them that they sign despite their misgivings, just so they can take their car and go home. I called Kendall’s business office a few minutes ago to tell the woman who gave me the papers that we weren’t going to sign the arbitration agreement. She was “in a meeting,” so I left a voice mail. I doubt it, but I suppose it’s possible that Kendall’s will let me have the car without signing, but I’m so disgusted with their lack of ethics that I wouldn’t really care.