It’s February 2012. My learners permit is burning a hole in my pocket and I’m armed with all my savings, from birthday and Christmas money, a little babysitting money, and what I had left from my job as a busboy/girl that I had for nearly a year and would quit within a month or two claiming I needed to study and “it was too much”, code for, “people are assholes and I don’t want to deal with their dirty dishes anymore”. On top of that I also had guilt money from my paternal grandfather who had given my sister a used CRV three years before.
I had stalked Consumer Reports’ website almost since getting my learners license. The information I had gleaned was swimming around my head. Age ranges and preferable mileage for my limited price range, safety concerns, white cars where the last likely to get pulled over for speeding. I’m worried that a large car would make it hard for my to see small children, and I have just endured a drivers ed class where I was berated with horrific true life stories of toddlers dying in parking lots. I wanted a used sedan with mileage under 100,000. Surely those would be everywhere! I could drive home in a new car today!
I walked confidently up to the dealership flanked by my parents. We had had to wait until a Saturday so my dad could come too. I couldn’t drive home alone, so I needed mom to drive her for back, while dad rode with me. It didn’t matter. I was still unbelievably cool. Hopefully I would be the proud new owner of a used white sedan before the day was over. I was living the dream.
Almost immediately a sales rep walked up to us. A middle aged man, average height, slightly overweight. “Hello sir, can I help you?” He greets my dad. Okay, that wasn’t ideal, but we were in a car dealership, of course it wouldn’t be assumed that I was the customer. I was a fifteen year old girl. Now, it we were in a Justice, the tables would have been turned. But here, my tall male father looked large and in charge. Before I said anything, my dad shook his outstretched hand and instead of introducing himself said, “Actually, my daughter is the one looking at cars today.” He turned to me, as if that settled it.
Yes! I thought. Go dad! I felt in charge once again. I offered my hand and gave the salesman a firm handshake, the one my sister describes as unreasonably strong. (What? I wasn’t mad. He made an honest mistake. But I had lost the upper hand by his assumption. This was a business deal. I had to assert dominance.) I introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Leila!”
“So what kind of car are you folks looking at?” He asks, looking once more at my dad. Before my dad could say anything, I told him, “A used sedan, relatively low mileage.”
Finally he looked at me. “Well young lady,” he said in the tone of a school teacher, “mileage refers to the distance a car travels. If you’re looking at a used car, there will be miles on it.”
Okay, now I’m beyond mad. How could I have possibly given the impression I didn’t know that? I began to stammer slightly, which for all I wanted to convey righteous indignation, just reads as young and nervous. “Y-yes. I said lo-low mileage. Not no mileage.” I’d like to see cars under 100,000 miles please.” I’d even said relatively low mileage. Was this guy thick or did he just have low expectations of teenagers? In my head I began constructing a backstory for this bitter old man.
He gives me a look that just says “whatever kid”, and starts talking to my dad again. I don’t remember what was said, just small talk about cars I think.
He takes us around the lot, my parents making a point of following a little ways behind. I walk past a black truck, but he stops me. He rattles off some of its supposed assets, but when he stops for a breath I politely tell him that I’m looking for a sedan, not a truck. He tells me I should be more open-minded, and that the truck “matched my purse”. Polite but firm was not working on him. What would posses him to think all girls cared about was what color their car was? How dare he? (Dramatic and over-generalizing, remember?) I had researched for this. I told him what I wanted. The customer was always right, unless apparently, the customer is a fifteen year old girl. Then, please, dismiss whatever comes out of her mouth. You’re an old white man. You know everything.
I smile at him politely. “I also have a black jacket. I could match my new truck to any outfit. Summer or winter!” I walk away. He is not amused.
We walk around a little longer, but my heart isn’t really in it anymore. Finally we go inside so her can “show us some cars on the computer”. I want to leave at this point, but I don’t. What if he finds my car? He doesn’t, obviously. He points to the price under a car’s picture-a price above the budget I gave him-and told me slowly, “that’s the price”.
My mother, God love her for this, had been sitting in a generic waiting room type navy blue chair with a pinched expression through all this. She stood up suddenly as if his words and their patronizing tone had physically pained her and announced, “I left the oven on.” She walked out the door, slinging her purse over her shoulder with a finality I envy to this day. We followed her, and in my mind, I have her a round of applause.
It was the weekend after next before we tried again, this time at a different dealership. If anything, I was more determined to be completely in charge. But it went much more smoothly. I spoke to a helpful salesman that directed his conversation to me when I introduced myself and said I was looking for a used sedan with fewer that 100,000 miles on it. We looked at a few before he showed me the car. It was perfect. A white Mazda 2001 626 with the tan leather interior and a 6 cylinder engine with 67,000 miles on it. And it was a steal. Mom discretely checked online and confirmed that yes, it was a steal. My mom took the test drive in my place. I sat up front with my dad and the salesman in the back. At one point I almost cracked up at the sight of my sweetheart of a dad sitting in the backseat. I think it hit me at that moment that I was thinking about buying this car that I couldn’t get home alone in. My mother was test driving, not me, and I’d need my dad to sit in the car again and tell me how to get home. I felt impossibly young, and impossibly old.
I loved the car. It drove well and would suit me well. Its tires were flattening from sitting on the lot so long. Its air conditioning, I would find out later, was filled with tiny pieces of black plastic mesh that my dad and I would spend part of another saturday vacuuming out of the vents. But the dealership had to want it gone, and I could afford it. It was perfect. I told the salesman I wanted to buy it, but only if I could get it for the listed price, and no more. He agreed easily and I continued, including taxes and the tag. The absolute total.
He gave me an inscrutable look, but tool me inside and seated me in a white plastic chair at a white plastic table. He had me initial a slip of paper that said I would buy the car if we got it down to the price listed.
He left, and as he was gone, I ran my tongue around the edges of my braces, convincing myself that they weren’t there. I was twenty three and glamorous. Something that shouldn’t have worked, but almost always did. He came back a little while later with a man he introduced as his manager. The manager explained to me why what I was asking was impossible.
This deal wouldn’t make sense for us.” He told me. “We have to be able to make some money on our deals. You understand.” He was appealing to my “better nature”. He gave me a figure and said it was just the lowest they could possibly go. He assured me it was a good compromise. I disagreed. I nodded understandable. Both men smiled a little, happy to make a deal.
“Thank you both for your time.” I said as I stood. “But I’m just not interested in the car at that price.” I shook both their hands, then walked away.
I hadn’t made it ten steps before they called me back. Maybe they could work something out, they said. I came back to the table, figuratively and literally for the first time in my life, and sat down. “Can you ask your dad for the money?” That was their idea? Ask my dad? No. I laughed. “Ask my dad? That’s hilarious! Why would he give me more money?”
That was no reflection on him. But we had agreed on the amount. I had my saving and the money I got from my grandfather. My parents had surprised me with a sum of money as well, which was unexpected and nice. But my laughter was genuine. I pictured walking up to my parents and asking them to also cover the difference. They basically already had!
Now, what these two guys didn’t know, ahas that I could afford their price. But then I would have fifty bucks to my dame. Murphey’s law would have hit me hard. I’d have the car two days before I’d have to replace the timing belt. I told them as much.
“What? This car?” was basically the response. “What’s wrong with this car?” Well, the tires needed to be replaced. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that I didn’t know what was wrong with this car. I just knew it would be something I wouldn’t see coming. They offered to through in new tires. “Great!” I said. “If they’re included in the listing price.” I could feel the hatred. The manager disappeared while the salesman had the misfortune of getting to try and convince me of the merit of taking the deal. Saying things like, “one owner car” to a girl that just didn’t care.
The manager, my dad told me later, had left to find him, wandering around the show room with my mom. He had all but begged my dad to take over negotiations. My dad had refused. It wasn’t his car, he said, to his everlasting credit.
Meanwhile, I left that little plastic table two more times, stating as brightly as ever that, “It just isn’t worth it to me at that price.” The weird thing was, it really wasn’t. As much as I liked that car, I wouldn’t even want it if I had to pay a penny over that price. I had assigned it a fairly arbitrary value, and that was all it was worth in my mind.
Finally, I left in my new car. The car, taxes, title, and all, cost me exactly the asking price. They even threw in detailing. The tires however, I would eventually buy myself. But I drove off happy, my dad riding shotgun, secure in the knowledge that two adults now resented me, but just maybe, they respected me too. I turned on the air conditioner, full blast, coating myself and my dad in fine black confetti.