Reader — Book V: Chapter 12

That’s right. I divided Reader, the slim Bukowski knockoff that has ballooned into a Dickensian epic, into five sections. I’m in the homestretch — book five, the chronicle of my time reading for a distributor. Today, I wrote a chapter about my experience buying a new car, a potentially misguided attempt at a Carverian “quietly profound moments from everyday life” scene. Sadly, I am neither Raymond Carver nor Raymond Chandler nor even Raymond Burr. If you believe the profundity of the scene is lost on you because you haven’t read the preceding 137 chapters (you read that right), you might be right. But chances are, it’s just not there.

Nevertheless, enjoy. Or try to.


The gaggle of salesmen had their eyes on me from the moment my old Concorde shuddered into their parking lot. They surrounded me as the automatic doors slid open, each vying for the opportunity to sell me the car of my dreams.

“I have an appointment with John,” I said to the one who looked like he had the most authority.

“Who?” he asked, baffled. “Oh, John-David?”

“Um… Yeah, I guess so.”

They paged John-David, a tubby Asian kid — he looked younger than me — with hair spiked and moussed into a faux-hawk. He approached me with excitement, shaking my hand enthusiastically and saying, “So, you’re interested in the ‘09 Civic Hybrid?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, follow me.”

I followed him to a lot behind the showroom, filled with a vast array of Hondas. The Civic was white, not my first choice, but I didn’t care much about color. My focus was on utility. I wanted a hybrid, I wanted a Japanese manufacturer, I didn’t want a Toyota, and I couldn’t afford a Nissan Altima Hybrid (nor could I find one for sale anywhere in the U.S., although they advertised it on their website). My Toyota bias had nothing to do with the recall fervor that had recently hit the news. In my research, I simply found that Honda and Nissan offered more bang for my buck and more impressive feats of engineering.

John-David opened the driver-side door for me, frantically removing some papers from the map-holder in the door. While I started the engine, he got into the passenger seat and excitedly pointed at the navigation panel. “Take a look at that.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t really like the whole GPS thing. I’m kind of a map nerd.”

“Hey, you don’t have to use it for that. This also controls your Bluetooth, and…” He tapped a few buttons on the screen. The display transformed into an image of a battery, a motor, and a gas can, with illuminated arrows circling like a hillbilly family tree. “It shows you how much gas you’re using.” He looked at me, toothy grin expanding. “Let’s take ‘er for a test drive.”

I pulled out into the back roads of the business park the dealership abutted. It had a smoother ride than I thought it would, because (John-David explained) the electronic stability control was standard. The motor purred quietly and died at stop signs.

“What do you do?” John-David asked.

“I read scripts,” I replied.

“Mmm.” He didn’t have anything to add.

Eventually, he asked, “Is work consistent?”

“I make a lot,” I said. “Don’t worry.”

John-David laughed. “I’m not worried, Stan. Just making conversation.”

When I finally pulled the car back into the dealer lot, John-David asked, “What do you think?”

Truth be told, I loved it. I wanted to play it cool, though, so I shrugged and said, “It’s nice.”

“It’s the best car you’ll ever own,” John-David insisted. “Why don’t we go back to my office and discuss options?”

“Sure,” I said.

He had a drab, gray office that he presumably shared with every other salesman in the dealership. That meant it lacked the personal touches I usually saw in offices — no family photos, no posters of cats hanging from tree branches, no bobbleheads. Just a long, empty desk with a computer monitor affixed to it. Like everything else in the dealership, the office smelled of old rubber and motor oil.

John-David rattled off a list of features that may or may not have been impressive. I didn’t care. I found the car on their website, measured it against my research, and determined that if I could wedge my fat ass into it, it would be a great car to own. He had to tell me every detail, though, so the price they prominently advertised on the website wouldn’t shock me.

Finally, John-David wrote it down on a piece of paper and slid it across the desktop.

“What do you think?” he asked before I had a chance to look at it.

He had scrawled: 25995.

I looked back at him. “Are you kidding?”

John-David’s face fell.

“This is the exact same price on the website,” I said. “I thought you were gonna give me a deal.”

He smiled again, knowing he was still in it. “You’re right. Sorry, you know, my bosses — they make me start with the sticker price.”

“Sure.”

“I’ll tell you what I do. I’ll go talk to the floor manager and see just how low I can sell this for.”

“All right,” I said. “Let him know I won’t be paying more than twenty thousand for a car.”

John-David’s eyebrows shot up involuntarily. To his credit, his smile didn’t falter this time. “I’ll see what I can work out. Okay, buddy?”

He disappeared. I stared at the number on the desktop. I’d never bought a car from a dealership before. I’d inherited my first car from my great-aunt; I’d bought my second and current car from one of my dad’s coworkers. I hadn’t dealt with financing or car salesmen or any of the other bullshit. The fact that my car still ran — barely — was my only real pressure point. I wanted a new car, but I didn’t need it — not yet. Still, I wanted to take care of the car situation before I did need a new one.

John-David returned, smiling mechanically. He sat behind the desk and said, “I know you said you won’t spend more than twenty thousand. I talked it over with my manager, and here’s what we’re willing to do. It’s not quite where you want to be, but it’s fair.”

John-David took back the sheet of paper, crossed out the original figure, and wrote the new one. He slid it back to me: 22996.

“All right,” I said. “I’m not gonna pay that.”

I stood, extending my hand toward him.

“Thank you for your time.”

“Wait!” John-David exclaimed, refusing to shake my hand. He stood to match me and added, “Do you know what kind of deal you’re getting, Stan? This is one dollar over invoice.”

“That may be,” I said, “but it’s an ‘09, and you’re rolling out the ’10s. You need to get rid of this car.”

“Yes,” John-David agreed, “but we can’t go below our cost.”

“Sure you can,” I said. “What would you say to me if I were buying this exact same car on December thirty-first?”

“But… It’s not December thirty-first.”

“Pretend it is. Would you go below cost just to get rid of it before the New Year?”

“I can guarantee your car will not be here by then.”

“Then why is it here now?”

John-David was stumped, possibly because the question I asked made almost no sense. After a long, blank stare, he asked, “Can I show you the new Insight? That might suit your price range.”

I’d just lost the negotiation. Luckily for John-David, I’d researched the Insight — Honda’s answer to the Prius — and decided it would be a suitable second choice. I said, “Okay, I’ll take a look.”

A graphite-colored Insight sat in the crowded showroom. The stick read $19,995. I wondered if I could get it down to $17,000.

“The sticker price is wrong,” John-David announced as he pulled open the passenger-side door. “Because we’re near the ocean, it comes standard with a seacoast protection coating, but that brings the price up just a little bit.”

“How much is a little bit?”

John-David shrugged and got inside the car. I followed suit. It was certainly smaller, but I didn’t need a big car as long as I fit in it without looking like I’d just graduated from clown college.

“You didn’t need navigation, right?” he asked, pointing at the navigation-free console.

“No,” I said.

“We usually sell these around twenty-one five,” he said.

“Usually? Didn’t you just get them in?”

“Well… Yeah, but — “

“I’m not paying over twenty for this car.”

“All right,” he said brightly. “I can draw up the paperwork. You don’t want to take it for a test drive?”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” I said. “It’s a Honda.”

I realized it was a stupid move, but I’d been there for nearly two hours. I just wanted to go home.

“That’s right. It is.”

He brought me back to his office and started the paperwork while he consulted with his manager, who insisted I go for a test drive. They didn’t want me coming back tomorrow saying they’d sold me a lemon.

John-David’s eyes lit up when he told me about the test drive. “You’ll get to see how they get cars out of the showroom. It’s very cool!”

“Uh-huh.”

I had to admit — to myself, not to John-David — that it was sort of cool. Somehow, the panes of glass surrounding the doors recessed to provide enough width for cars to drive in and out. John-David let me drive right out of the showroom.

We went around the block quickly. I found the Insight a bit louder than the Civic, and the ride was rougher — I found out later that the highly touted electronic stabilization did not come standard in the Insight — but I deemed the car fine and returned to the dealership to finish the necessary paperwork.

After filling out an endless stack of repetitive forms, John-David brought me to the financial guru, an ex-salesman with Coke-bottle glasses and the sort of hairstyle that suggested he was much happier as a financial guru than a salesman.

“You had a trade-in, right?” the financial guy asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Of course,” John-David said. “We’ll go take a look at it right now and give you a value estimate.”

“Thanks,” I murmured.

“So,” the financial guy said when John-David left, “you went for the Insight, huh?” He said it like I’d just made the worst mistake of my life.

“Yeah,” I said. “Motor Trend said it was decent. Not as good as the Prius, but I don’t want a Toyota.”

“Good man.” Clacking keys on an old mainframe terminal keyboard, he added, “Yeah, this Insight should be a lot more successful than the last one. The engineers sure learned their lesson after that one.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. I thought the Insight was a new car.

“People just aren’t ready for cars that look like spaceships,” he continued. “So the Prius is Toyota’s answer to the Insight One, why not ape their successful design for the Insight Two?”

No wonder they moved him to finance. He was the worst salesman of all time. I’d started reconsidering my purchase before I’d actually signed anything.

“Of course, the gas mileage isn’t nearly as good, but you can’t have everything.” He paused, and then said, “The eight-year extended warranty — that’s eight years in addition to the standard warranty — is an extra three thousand. If you buy it, you get free oil changes at any Honda service center for free, for life. It extends the warranty on the tires, the power train — well, let me show you the brochure.”

As he rummaged through his desk drawer for the brochure, he said, “This will add a lot of value to the car if you decide to sell it down the line. People want to know it’s protected.”

He slide a thick, glossy brochure across the desk. I glanced through it and shrugged. “Sounds nice.”

Suddenly, I’d agreed to buy the extended warranty. I didn’t realize it until he tilted the old terminal monitor in my direction to show me the monthly payment: $421.47.

I’d done the math in my research, and this was about one hundred dollars higher per month. I realized that I’d misunderstood APR. I’d based the rate on the annual cost of the car, not the full cost of it.

Instead of arguing, I seized up. Thoughts flooded me — pros and cons of the extended warranty, whether or not I could afford the monthly payment, whether or not I wanted a car badly enough to simply buckle, whether or not I should just agree with what they said. It would be easier that way, certainly. I also wouldn’t feel like I wasted my time — time I didn’t really have to spend dicking around at a car dealership — the way I would if I just walked away.

“That’s fine,” I murmured, even though I had no idea if I could afford to lose an extra hundred dollars a month.

“Great,” he said. “We’ll just wait for — “

John-David poked his head into the office and said, “Our guys say your car is worth three hundred.”

“Blue Book value is five hundred,” I replied instantly.

John-David shrugged. “You can take it home with you.”

“Fine,” I growled. “Three hundred.”

“Great,” the financial guy said, entering the amount in the computer. It reduced my monthly payment by about twelve cents.

“You’ll need to clean it out when you’re done here,” John-David said before disappearing again.

The finance guy printed agreement after agreement, of varying sizes and colors, on a dot-matrix printer. I signed everything in silence, and the financial guy released me to clean out my car.

I didn’t have much in it but garbage. I’d cleaned out all the valuables before I left the apartment. It depressed me. As the sun fell behind the hills and wispy gray clouds threatened mist, the experience felt gloomy and wrong. I’d taken a bath on the price, I’d purchased an extended warranty I didn’t need because I was too much of a pussy to argue, and I would drive home today in a car with a sticker price of $19,995 that I’d paid $23,995 for. And I had to give up my beloved Concorde, loaded with memories. Of college, of the road, of Natalie, of Anne, of mindbending commutes and kick-ass tunes. My Concorde had character: a mustard-colored glaze on one of the door panels, a remnant of several epic weekends spent attempting to glue the panel back to the door using various adhesives; the light outline of the Chrysler pentagon logo, which had fallen off years earlier; a pencil eraser stuck in the hole where the radio antenna once lived (it broke because I forgot to retract it before getting a car wash in 2001); dotted coffee stains all over the interior…

I didn’t want to make new memories in a new car.

I wanted to soak in the old ones.

When I finished shoving all the crap into a garbage bag Honda had graciously provided, I returned to the showroom and sought out John-David. Smiling, he rushed to me and shook my hand.

“You might think we’re done here,” he said dramatically, “but today is the beginning of our relationship, not the end.”

I never saw him again, although he did call me a year later to celebrate the anniversary of my car purchase by trying to sell me a new CR-Z.

Posted by D. B. Bates on January 16, 2012 6:18 PM