Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Question 28

Mazda 2

Don’t forget Question 28,” he said. It would be the most important one in the entire survey, he insinuated, and would help determine, in large measure, the rating that the manufacturer would give the dealership in the coming year.

You see, I was buying a new car.

This has happened to me on occasion throughout my adult life, of walking into a car dealership with the intended purpose of leaving in a brand new automobile, the best possible situation being one in which both salesman and customer feel that they got the best end of the deal.

I suppose this is the closest thing we have, in contemporary urban America, to horse trading. Oh, sure, you could drive way out to some rural location where equestrianism is more the norm, sit in some large sheet-metal barn and listen to a fast-talking auctioneer trade off a mare or foal or nag. That’d be real-to-life horse trading. But surely, somewhere back in the age prior to the automobile, folks must have experienced the same need to upgrade their means of transportation, held much the same displeasure at the prospect of having to muster up the courage to ride into town to do business with a horse trader, someone whose business it was to swindle you out of as much money in the transaction as possible. Kind of reminds you of the new-car buying experience of today, no?

I wonder if our forefathers ever heard lines such as “What’ll it get you to ride out of this corral on a new painted pony today?” Or if they were required to pay a visit to The Finance Guy prior to saddling up the old mare for the ride back to the ranch? Or offer you that special undercoat treatment, or the extended warranty, or the insurance against loss of valuation, or the one where they promise to keep making your payments in the eventuality of unemployment. The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, we are told. Or under the hood (or bonnet). On second thought, it might not be such a bad idea to, at the very least, take her for a test ride, kick her tires (hoping she doesn’t kick back), see how far she’ll go on a bucket of oats.

It’s not like I’m actually hurting for vehicles sitting in my driveway, mind you. Both of us, my wife and I, work at jobs outside of the home, on different schedules at opposite sides of town, so there’s no getting around the fact that we need several vehicles. One of our vehicles, however, is 14 years old, a faithful member of the stable that’s eventually going to be needing some major work. It’s a high-efficiency vehicle (a VW Jetta TDI diesel car) that’s a great commute car for those 30-mile round trips to work. Hence the reason why I found myself yesterday sitting in a local car showroom, dealing with the horse traders once again.

I remember my first car-buying experience, decades ago. I was young and naive, and probably got taken to the cleaners. But the thing that stands out in my memory is taking the test drive with the salesman, when the car ran out of gas on the interstate. Keep in mind that in 1981 people didn’t have the convenience of cell phones with which to call for assistance. The salesman, a young guy like myself, insisted that we both climb over the chain link fence that lined the freeway, up and through a slope of landscaping shrubs, to an adjoining office building from which to call the dealership and have someone come out with a can of gas. Right.

Hell no,” I said. “How about this: I sit in the car and listen to the radio while you go get us some gas? I’m the customer, remember? And the customer is always right.” He made a rather disagreeable face, yet sauntered up to the fence, scrambled over it, dress pants and ironed shirt and tie notwithstanding, and some minutes later a truck pulled up behind the car with our gas.

I did end up buying that car, perhaps out of guilt; after all, guilt and salesmanship go hand in hand,  comprising most of Chapter One of the High-Pressure Salesman’s Handbook. Or, perhaps the experience of running out of gas on the freeway during the test drive (like a memorable first date) served as a reminder that, contrary to that wonderful new-car smell that tends to put us (as if under the influence of some drug) into a temporary trance of euphoria, cars soon after purchase become as dirty and cluttered and comfortably familiar as one’s living room couch. They lose their luster of newness while simultaneously becoming as familiar as an old shoe.

We got into this habit of naming our cars, perhaps in an attempt to personify them, like family members or pets. I think it was something my wife has always done, her first car being Smiley, an old VW bug. When we married she was driving Clarise, an early-1980s GM crap-box. The name seemed appropriate, kind of frumpy and middle-aged. Myself, I’d never named my vehicles before, but my Toyota truck soon became known as Akio (a character from a local Toyota commercial, years before the dealership was bought out by some regional mega-chain) and, years later, the Ford Ranger that replaced it became known as Bubba. The Jetta has been known, for these last 14 years, as Deiter, named after that Saturday Night Live character of Mike Meyers’, the German dance club host, while the wife’s Subaru is known simply as Sparky. And so, now we have this cute little silvery Mazda 2 in the driveway, and I haven’t the foggiest idea what to name it (He? She?). I suppose a name will come eventually, kind of like taking a newborn baby home from the hospital and waiting for it to tell you it's name. It’s intended to be an inexpensive, high mileage, five-speed stick-shift go-cart-like city commuting car. It doesn’t have quite the highway efficiency of a new VW TDI, but then again it’s also $10K cheaper. Oh, and just to reinforce my point: remember those old-time family horses from a bygone era? They, too, frequently had names given to them. So we’re not entirely out on thin ice with this car-naming thing.

It’s funny (and sad) how cars have come to dominate the landscape of contemporary America. Entire infrastructure have been built up, since WWII, around the presumption of cheap cars fueled with cheap gas. In our neighborhood, built at a time (the early 1960s) when the biggest threat were H-bombs, not mad Islamists, the typical family only had one car, and the houses were built accordingly. We now see situations, like ours, of driveways (and even front yards) cluttered with cars, every adult-aged family member requiring their own form of transportation. Out here in the Wild West, with it's wide open spaces and frequently harsh climate, the alternatives of motor scooters or transit buses just don’t seem to work as well as they might in a more condensed urban environment. The West was built up around the automobile, it would seem. 

Yet I am reminded of a gentler era. Our daughter lives in an historic part of town, in a neighborhood of victorian-era homes built in the 1880s and 1890s, after the railroad came to town, a neighborhood devoid of driveways and garage doors, just nice landscaped yards and sidewalks and screened-in, elevated porches. The more utilitarian parts of one’s domicile were hidden out back, accessed via alleyway behind each row of homes, in whose backyards are standalone garages, most of them originally carriage houses, and from which trash would be picked up (or originally just burned) out of sight from the gentler, more formal front setting. These neighborhoods were designed around the idea that the utilitarian aspect of one’s life should be out of sight, that aesthetics were just as important to real estate development as are statistics of how many lots can be crammed into a parcel of land. 

Nowadays, these older, once genteel neighborhood streets are cluttered with rows of cars parked curbside, the rear alleyways now little used, their fences and gates sagging or falling down, while on trash days the already crowded curbs out front are further jumbled with plastic trash barrels which, after being emptied, are haphazardly dropped in crooked misalignment to fall over on their sides like a row of drunken sailors. It seems we’ve traded the aesthetics of a bygone era, where cars (or horses) were hidden from plain sight, for the ugly convenience of the ubiquitous automobile that seems to multiply like an infestation of roaches.

One begins to appreciate the extent of the automotive infestation present in our culture when you take a drive, out of town, to the rows and rows of salvage yards, piled high into the sky, gleaming in the harsh light with bent and tortured masses of sheet metal, from every conceivable brand and make, formerly centerpieces of one’s domestic suburban life, like family members, perhaps even with given names like Clarise, Akio, Bubba or Sparky, but now dismembered, unassembled, deconstructed into atomic bits and parts that might become donor organs for someone else’s aging or ailing family sedan. The life-cycle of the automobile resembles some Asimov-like future dystopia where our once mechanical servants have come to dominate the culture, like some mechanical infestation of unhindered cybernetic inbreeding gone awry, fueled by wars of empire and conquest in far-off corners of the globe whose names become mere abstractions intoned by the talking heads of the tele-screens.

Mazda 2

I tapped out these words this morning, letter by letter, onto the glass screen of my iPad while sitting in bed, after which I walked out to the driveway into the cool, brisk air, where there it sat, this shiny, silvery little subcompact, and I’m smitten all over again and don’t regret the least bit my decision, and of the presence of a new family member; although my dear wife is beginning to mourn the eventual retirement of Deiter, perhaps to another home, or a project for some bio-diesel enthusiast, or to the salvage yard and that pile of discarded components that we don’t want to think about right now. 

Cars, I remind myself, are a necessary evil, the most considerate choice being not to own one at all; but until there exists some reasonable alternatives, we’ll continue our contribution to the trashing of Spaceship Earth, a question that I ponder, with all of these other thoughts, while awaiting The Survey and Question 28.


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