FIRST CAR

 

I grew up in a family with no interest in cars beyond basic transportation.  We also lacked knowledge of their mechanics except for the location of the ignition, gas pedal and brake.   My earliest family car memory is of a black and white Buick LeSabre.  It represented, in the early 1960’s, the last of a long line of Buicks for my father.  He embarked thereafter on a twenty year string of Oldsmobiles.  One such car, a gray, hearse-like “Delmont 88,” may have been the only one ever sold.

The experience of driving cars was anti-climactic in our household compared to the trauma of purchasing them.  My father spent seven days a week running his clothing store.  Perhaps, the once-every-several-year car negotiation was his opportunity to avenge the occasional customer who asked for a discount.  Or, since my father never played chess or tennis or any competitive sport, this was his chance to engage in combat.  Whatever his motivation, he viewed the process like war, full of intricate strategy, momentum shifts and, ultimately, his victory.

In the present world of $40,000 vehicles, it is hard to imagine that a weeklong struggle could be waged over $75.  But once, when I was six, that is exactly what happened.  I recall returning to a dealership with my parents for the third or fourth evening in a week and cowering between cars while my father engaged in a shouting match with a salesman several feet away.  I feared they would come to blows.  I was mystified moments later when they went outside to share a cigarette break, while the car in question was prepared for us to drive home.

I never had a personal stake in these efforts until I was twenty-one.  In honor of my college graduation, my parents were buying me my first car.  The three of us traveled to a Toyota dealership where my mother and I seized upon a perky, red Corolla as the car for me.  A toupee-topped salesman sidled over and pointed out that the sticker price was just under $7,000, but “he was sure he could do something for us.”  We could hardly contain our enthusiasm.  I sensed my father’s disapproval, however, as he was skilled in conveying his feelings wordlessly, with just a facial expression.  His eyes shouted:  “Don’t make this game easy for the insignificant and ignorant salesman.”

The salesman led us to seats in front of a small desk.

“Can I get you some coffee?” he asked.

“No,” said my father.

“A glass of water?” he asked

“Let’s get down to business,” said my father, indicating that he was through with the preliminaries.

The salesman took out a form and began to write numbers.  He asked what additional features we might like to have installed on the car.   My father did all of our talking, rejecting with a curt “no” each proposed add-on, such as: rust-proofing, extended warranty, moon roof, power windows, and the like.

“How about a pinstripe?” asked the salesman, finally, without much hope.

“Yes,” interjected my mother.

My father glared icily.

“What do we need that for?” he asked my mother.

“Because the car is for a young man, not an old man, and it needs a touch of youthfulness,” said my mother, determined.

I looked at my father with some apprehension, but he nodded agreeably enough, as though he realized this was not a skirmish worth fighting.

“Yes,” he said, to the salesman.  “Add a pinstripe.”

I took a deep breath.  Everything seemed to be proceeding smoothly now, without a hint of doubt.  I began to picture myself behind the wheel.  In accordance with my up-bringing, before this moment, owning a car had never been a major aspiration.  Still, the freedom the red Corolla represented was growing in my mind.  I sensed this was an important milestone in life, an affirmation of newfound adulthood.

The salesman finished scribbling and passed the paper with pricing across the desk to my father.  Apparently, the fellow was lulled along with me into complacency, and he offered me an obsequious smile.  My father studied the paper for a moment. and then shot out of his chair like the eruption of a long-dormant volcano.

“Let’s get out of here!” he said.  I do not remember my mother’s reaction, but I felt my stomach flip violently.  I began to sweat.  Little did I suspect this was just an essential part of a larger campaign.  The salesman bolted up just as fast and blurted something about “getting the manager.”  We paused at the door as my father told him: “be quick about it.”  He scurried off down a hallway.  After a minute, during which we could see the salesman gesticulating to someone in an office, a round little man emerged with his chest thrust forward like a rooster.  This situation was not going to be enjoyable.

With the benefit of decades of experience, my mother suggested that we wait outside.  In spite of the maturity and autonomy I was just beginning to feel moments before, I agreed.   I did not enjoy any part of the process that my father so clearly relished.  However, we did watch intently through the window as an animated battle raged between my father and the manager, replete with hand gestures and foot stomps.

The salesman stood off to the side with a shell-shocked expression on his face.  I doubtless missed some priceless dialogue, but I saw the discussion conclude happily when my father offered a handshake to the manager and lobbed a triumphant smile towards the salesman, my mother and me.  The salesman smiled back tentatively and the manager’s chest now looked concave.  In the end, the price was several hundred dollars below where it began, and my topsy-turvy stomach was calm.  A Toyota Corolla was mine.

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