[This piece appears in the July issue of Louisville Magazine.]
I'll Talk to My Manager
I recently performed one of my sacred duties as an American: I bought a car.
With gas prices reaching near-Tommy-Chong levels, I wanted something economical. So I ruled out vehicles that are popular for their ability to plunge down the side of cliffs to those canyon-floor soccer matches, such as the Range Rover, the Hummer, or the new 2006 Nature's Bitchslap.
But I'm more than just an environmentalist and a cheapskate. I'm also a Kentuckian. So each morning when I take the bridle off my spirit, I want to get behind the wheel of a car with some zip-tang.
My first choice was the Toyota Prius, a hybrid electric car that not only gets 60 miles per gallon, but also makes all your jokes about the Halliburton Corporation up to 75% funnier. Alas, the Prius is so popular that there's a 6-month waiting list and all customers must sign a promise not to hum Woody Guthrie tunes in the showroom. True story: the clamor to buy a Prius is so frenzied that one dealer I won't name (but who may or may not rhyme with Shoxmoor Shoyota) offered to sell me one for a $10,000 premium over the sticker price. Thanks, no. Even with the spectacular gas savings, it would take five or six more wars for me to recoup that kind of dough.
I also looked at the Honda Civic Hybrid, a shlumpy compact car that offers all the gas savings of the Prius but none of the sleek sanctimony. I just didn't think the Civic would properly accessorize the "Overcompensating for your SUV" bumper sticker I had on order, so I ruled it out. Also, my spirit found it too bridling.
Finally, the Volkswagen Jetta came into my life. Stylish, peppy and efficient, it seemed like the perfect car for a gadfly who was taught by nuns. I fell deeply in like. My first choice was the diesel version but, like the Prius, they're harder to find than a capitalist at an Earth Day picnic so I settled for the gasoline model.
Now, there are few things in life that conjure the proverb "Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas" quite as perfectly as car salesmen. It's not that they fib and it's not even that you know they fib. It's that they know that you know that they fib and they fib anyway. It's as if they don't want to disappoint you by being honest.
The other unpleasant aspect of the car-shopping experience is the incredible time-suck of it all. In the time it takes to get from that first greeting -- "Hi, I'm Todd and I'll be pulling your leg..." -- to that moment when you can finally pry yourself out of Todd's deathgrip, your children can grow up, learn to drive, and need cars of their own. There's the friendly chitchat, the faux interest in your needs, and the tedious explanation of options, acronyms and statistics designed to make comparison shopping impossible.
To mitigate that problem, I solicited the advice of friends who claim to enjoy car shopping. This was a bad idea. I soon found out that if there's anything worse than car shopping, it's listening to advice about car shopping. I found myself awash in more opinions than a gay couple in church. I did get one brilliant piece of advice from my brother in law, though. He suggested thinking of the car-shopping experience as theater.
Not only does this trick make the experience entertaining, it also gives you a sense of empowerment. Because the sales pitch is so thoroughly predictable, I felt not only like an actor in a play, but like the playwright as well:
Ruggedly Handsome Car Shopper: Hi. I'm looking for a blue Jetta
Car Salesman (points to green car): Here's a blue one!
The shopping-as-theater concept worked like a dream. Behavior that formerly seemed annoying or creepy became comical and gripping. Will he claim to be offering it at invoice price? Oh, yes, he did! Will he call over the manager to browbeat me? Badda bing! Another character for my play! Is there an outrageously expensive extended warranty available? Boo-ya!
I ended up buying my Jetta from a convincing thespian named Mike over on the Less Cloudy Side of Louisville, where spirits tend to be a tad more bridled. Mike's performance was inspiring. He nailed his lines. He hit his mark. He broke a leg.
And the curtain fell.