I still remember my first slow dance.
It was at the Excel summer camp disco, circa 1992. During the day the boys had all decided who we’d go for, so when the evening rolled around, it was just a matter of plucking up the courage. She was a 7, and I was a 6 at best. I was punching above my weight and I knew it – but a bunch of her friends had already been asked to dance, and I figured she didn’t want to be the last one standing. So, I took a deep breath and asked her to dance. She half-shrugged/half-nodded, and then we quickly assumed the position: my hands on her hips, hers on my shoulders. As we moved woodenly from side to side, I spent the duration of the song trying not to stare at her chest. Which was tricky, given how bloody tall she was.
The minute the track ended, our hands dropped to our sides. We exchanged smiles, and retreated back to our respective corners of the dance floor, to the safe gathering of our friends. Them – to giggle among themselves and send girly smiles in our direction. Us – to punch each other in the privates and boast that we didn’t fancy them in the slightest.
Years later, and I found myself using similar tactics in my pursuit of a new car.
More accurately, I found buying a car like entering the dating game. My first encounters were awkward because I didn’t know what I was looking for. But after a few chastening experiences, I had learned valuable lessons and picked up the skills I needed to finally make the right purchase.
My first encounter was with Steven – a nice enough bloke, with a comb-over that didn’t quite conceal his shiny head. Spotting my British accent, he regaled me with the tale of his one and only trip to Europe. A guys-only week in the Canary Islands, which involved alcohol, ladies and few clothes. We took the car out for a spin and I liked it. But it was my first test drive, and I wasn’t ready to commit just yet. We exchanged numbers and left it at that.
I found the same car listed at a used car dealership on Stevens Creek Boulevard. Stevens Creek is a long-ass street in San Jose, where every store seems to sell either a car or a mattress. Tommy was waiting for me out front. He was morbidly obese, and wore a stained shirt which he used to dab at his sweaty forehead. The car wasn’t in the best condition either – it was riddled with dents, chips and scuffs – but it still gleamed in the sunshine and I wanted to test it out. It was a small, two-seater convertible, and it drove pretty well. During the test drive, Tommy – who had just about managed to squeeze himself into the passenger seat – endeared himself to me. He was a decent guy, with a good sense of humour and a genuine knowledge of British culture.
When we got back to the dealership, Tommy’s boss was waiting for us. He was an old-school, fast-talking salesman, who couldn’t wait to tell me how great I looked behind the wheel, and urged us to move inside to progress the conversation. There was a change in Tommy when his boss was around. He seemed nervous, and I sensed he was under pressure to hit targets. So, seduced by the test drive, and feeling some sympathy towards Tommy, I soon found myself sitting inside the dealership, pen in hand, about to sign the sales contract.
And that’s when I had a reality check. The car was a piece of shit that would cost me thousands to repair. I began to stall, throwing out random questions about the sales process. Tommy and his boss continued to encourage me to sign. I didn’t know how to tell them I didn’t want to. So I did the only thing I could think of. I texted Alex and told her to call me urgently.
The moment the phone rang, I made it clear to anyone within earshot that I had to get back immediately to help with a family emergency. With the handset still glued to my ear, I apologized to Tommy and ran out of the dealership.
Over the next couple of days, Tommy texted me to see how I was, if everything was ok at home, and when I’d be returning to the dealership. After a few days he got the message and I didn’t hear from him again. Was it an effective tactic? Yes. Am I proud of myself for doing it? Hell-to-the-no.
I soon found another listing online for a similar car, and drove out to Palo Alto to check it out. John was there to greet me, but before I even had a chance to get to know him, I’d decided the car wasn’t right for me. And this time I was honest. I told him to his face that it wasn’t what I was looking for. He thanked me for my honesty and we parted ways.
And so my search continued, until I found the car I was looking for. The details posted online were comprehensive, the price was Kelley Blue Book-approved, and the dealership was only a 10-minute drive away.
When I arrived I was sent in the direction of Randy. He was in his 60s and tired of the profession. He didn’t care for the sales patter or clichés, nor was he especially bothered about winning my business. And maybe that’s why I went with him. Because in a weird role reversal, I found myself trying to woo him. I did my best to get him to laugh, I shared information about my move to the US and some of the experiences I’d had during the transition. Maybe it was the thrill of the chase. Or the thrill that the chase was finally over.
In the dealership, there’s a tradition they’ve honored ever since they opened their doors. Every customer who completes on the purchase of a car, rings a bell loudly, to cheers and applause from the employees.
Maybe they’re congratulating you on your purchase. Or, more likely they’re celebrating the commission.
All I know is, I rang the bell because I got the Randy service. And if you’re tempted to make a big investment, I suggest you get Randy too.
Supplementary reading: I came across one car dealership too good not to share. I urge you to Meet The Team at Capitol Mazda. There’s Ivan, who speaks English, likes softball and enjoys holidaying in Arizona. Meanwhile, Ralph is into rotary engines, and Nick likes to attend church. Pretty funny and horrifying, all at once.