THE POWER OF IGNORANCE

Andrew Nudge was a classic name for a car salesman, effectively evoking modernity and Dickens in just two words. He presided over the front desk when I entered Prestige Nissan in April of 2007, intent upon being the first to purchase a hybrid Altima. I’d read about the car in the morning paper, and it kindled dual desires to obtain a new car and do something for the environment.
When I arrived moments later at the dealership on southbound Route 17, I was pleased to see the car parked prominently on a grassy knoll adjacent to the showroom. “Hybrid” said a balloon attached to the rear-view mirror. “Check it out!” said a cardboard sign leaning against the front fender. How wonderful, I thought, that Nissan was promoting this new technological wonder. Though I assumed there would be a selection of colors to choose from, the featured car was an appealing shade of grey, doubtless dubbed “titanium graphite,” or a similar indicator of jet-age razzmatazz. My excitement soared.
I realized an Altima was not to be confused with a Ferrari, or a BMW. Some would have said it should not be confused with a Honda Accord. My goal, however, was to obtain a hybrid, with its gaudy miles per gallon, without resorting to a Prius. While I lauded Prius drivers from day one and have also admired the design improvements Toyota has made in the intervening years, my sense of the pre-2007 Prius was that it rendered its driver, whoever he or she might actually be, with all the cachet of a retired librarian. With apologies to retired librarians everywhere, that was not an image I wanted to project. The Altima looked like a regular car.
“Good morning,” I said to the aforementioned Nudge, identified by his nametag.
“Hello,” he responded with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, his bald pate reflecting more light than his limpid eyes. As he emerged from behind the desk, I noted he was wearing a pale blue sports jacket over a plaid pair of pants. His shoes were scuffed, and he personified an air of non-success.
Perhaps, I thought, he is beaten down by the vast majority of customers who cross the threshold, the “tire-kickers” and “just-lookers.” Clearly, he did not think I was a serious buyer. “He’s going to be one surprised and lucky car salesman,” I said to myself.
“I’m interested in the hybrid,” I said, indicating the car just outside the door.
“Are you?” he asked, skeptically. “Why?”
“Um, I saw it in the paper this morning and I’ve been waiting for a car to compete with the Prius?” I said, his question causing me to doubt my own motive.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
“The Altima?” I asked.
“No, the hybrid,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’ll pay $4,000 more than for the non-hybrid, and you’ll never get that money back,” he said.
“But the paper said there’s a $2,300 tax credit,” I responded. “At 38 miles per gallon, I’ll make back the difference in two years.”
“There’s a tax credit?” he said, downcast. “I didn’t know that.”
“Yes. May I please test-drive the car?” I asked.
Nudge shrugged reluctantly. It was as though a line of eager customers brandishing wads of cash were waiting in the background when, in fact, I was the only one present.
“I’ll get the key,” he said, finally, convinced I would not be dissuaded. He disappeared behind a partition. I wondered if I could switch to another salesperson. I knew my wife would have requested the manager by now. I glanced around at the options sitting at their desks or surrounding the coffee machine. There were several who appeared to have started their careers selling Studebakers; several others appeared too young to have drivers’ licenses. A middle-aged man daubed at a coffee stain on his stomach that also served as a shelf. I decided to stay the course with Andrew.
When he re-emerged, Nudge looked like a prisoner heading to the guillotine.
“Are there other colors?” I asked.
“No. That’s the only one,” he said, opening the dealership door and passing through ahead of me.
“Good thing I like it,” I said to his back. I shuddered to think of my late-father’s appalled reaction if he would have heard me: “Never tell the good-for-nothing you’re satisfied,” he would have scolded.
We only had to walk a few steps to the Altima. Nudge held a plastic oval that did not sport a traditional key.
“I hate these fobs,” he sputtered. He hesitated at the door handle. Then he pulled on it. Nothing happened. He pressed several buttons on the fob. A beep was heard. He tried the door again; it opened.
He climbed into the driver’s seat. “I’ll back it onto the pavement,” he said.
I saw him hesitate. He was looking for a keyhole on the dashboard. There was none. I tapped on the window. Slowly, he realized he could not open the window. He finally opened the door.
“What?” he asked, red-faced.
“It’s a push starter,” I said, recalling the newspaper story. I pointed to a circular button.
He pushed the button. Some lights appeared on the dashboard. He pushed it again and they went dark. He pushed it again and the lights appeared. Flustered, he pushed the button again.
“It won’t start,” he declared.
“It’s supposed to be silent,” I said. “It’s electric.”
Nudge rolled his eyes and shook his head. He punched the button once more, with anger, and conceded: “It’s on.”
We took the car for a test drive in near-total silence. While I wanted to focus on the performance of the exciting (to me) hybrid technology, I could not avoid contemplating how it was possible that a salesman was not aware of the selling points of his own inventory. At a minimum, how was it possible he did not even know how to start the car or that there was a tax credit available? Didn’t they have seminars or instruction pamphlets? What do salespeople do during those long hours of waiting for a live customer to appear?
The car drove quietly and effectively. I was delighted, but elicited neither enlightenment nor enthusiasm from my salesman. Sensing his discomfort and misery, I almost began to feel sympathy for him. But then I concluded he had no one else to blame. In spite of himself, Andrew Nudge was destined to make a sale that day.
“I’ll take it for twenty-four,” I said, referencing the list price, when we returned to the dealership.
“But then we won’t have a hybrid to show other customers,” he said.
“Are you saying you don’t wish to sell me the car?” I asked, exasperated.
“No, I guess I can sell it,” he said, “if you really want it.”
It occurred to me that Andrew might be “negotiating.” Perhaps, he was trying to make the car harder to get, more exclusive, so that I would pay more. After a wordless pause, he pulled out a sales slip and slowly completed it. Seeing him in action, I couldn’t wait to get home with my new car and look up “ignorance” on the internet. Indeed, there were hundreds of applicable quotes. A tiny sampling follows:
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of our ignorance.” Confucius
“The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about.” Wayne Dyer
“Nothing is more terrible than to see ignorance in action.” Goethe
“Ignorance is always afraid of change.” Nehru
I think I understood where Andrew Nudge was coming from.

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