I brought the old copier paper box into the house and set it down on the floor next to my desk, an old roll top I found on Craigslist over the summer for $30. In the box were the hastily-tossed contents collected from my old Honda Element the night before, the vehicle I’d said over the years I’d never get rid of until the day she stopped running.
As it turns out, the Element was more loyal to me than I was to her—like a mistress cast to the side after a newer model comes along. She never once left me on the side of the road, failed to crank, got stuck, slid on the ice, or needed costly repairs. But still, I’d stood right there, alone, in a dimly lit parking lot, on an unseasonably cold late September night, putting years’ worth of memories into a box while the dealership’s business manager happily prepared my paperwork in his office. I figured I’d just go through the stuff when I got home.
A tub of Clorox disinfecting wipes. Ten validated bank deposit slips. One very thick Carolina Hurricanes winter glove. One ice scraper.
Why is it that so many things have changed over my adult lifetime, which legally started in the late 1980s,but for some reason, buying a car has not? I can buy any book ever printed without leaving my computer. I can check prices on any item on any shelf. The veterinarian will come to my house. The doctor will email my prescription to the drugstore. With a few clicks, the grocery store will make my shopping list based on a card I have scanned every time I visit.
However, just like it was when I bought my first car the summer after I turned sixteen—a previously wrecked Chevrolet Chevette with 59,000 miles on it, purchased for $4,200—I still have to go through the same system. Salesman and Sales Manager. And when the process is over, I’ve been leaned on, pumped up, backslapped, left to wait, winked at, done a favor, given the best deal ever, and feel like I need a long shower. Because the business of buying a car is oh-so-dirty.
One white, narrow box that used to hold baseball cards, which are now gone. My daughter’s white and blue hair brush. One 3x5 notecard, with a child’s handwriting, listing potential names for puppies.
I decided to re-invent myself about 18 months ago. It seems like this happens about once a decade. Graduate school had been in the back of my mind for almost 20 years. I almost went to East Carolina University for history in 1992, going so far as a meeting with the department chair. He said to figure on about seven years to finish, part-time. Too long when you’re 23. English came up in the mid-90s, with the same timeline. Babies and a photography career came along, but I never stopped writing. Good thing, because after an all-time best sales year in 2007, the business went off a cliff, like so much of the national economy, and almost took me with it. And once again, my path crossed with an ECU professor, this time in creative writing. Three knocks on the door, it was time to answer. This meant an hour-plus commute to class in Greenville, North Carolina, on a great car, albeit one that managed to get just 19 miles to the gallon. By the end of the semester, I started having heretical thoughts. Something had to be done. School was great; $85 a week on gas, not so much. After a summer of selling off guitars and retirement accounts to keep the bills paid, the schedule on campus would double for the fall, as would my fuel bill.
The red Honda Element, paid for when times were good, would have to go. It would not be easy. Red Elements were “short runs,” I’d been told by Honda dealers and seen as evidence; only about 5 percent of production that year. In that car, I had become like Norm from the TV show Cheers. Everybody in Nashville, my hometown, knew me and the car, and every day was like a parade with me waving at folks who could see me coming. It was comfortable, versatile, and dependable. My kids thought it was cool, and I know how quickly the clock was ticking on that mindset. My wife said it was “so you.” Pragmatism would have to supplant ego. I started shopping.
One rain poncho, new in the pouch. Two bug catchers from an outdoor science kit my boys got for Christmas. One collapsible police baton. One coupon for a discount on tires at a store in Wilson.
I began searching the Internet for a possible replacement. New certainly out of the question; it was a matter of how old would I have to go. If I were to let go of “Ellie,” there would have to be one special replacement. Not overtly sexy, but smart. Kind of like swapping out the full-figured model for the shy librarian. But librarians can be sexy, right? Especially ones that get 50 miles per gallon.
Quickly, that narrowed the search to Honda Civic Hybrids or their Toyota counterpart, the Prius Hybrid. I tried to keep this search under wraps, but some of my friends found out and questioned my manhood. Secretly, I became infatuated with these two cars. They could save me money, and confound people who wanted to stereotype me a certain way because how could a conservative love the environment, buy a green car, be for getting our troops home, hate government overspending and waste, be against stimulus spending, be pro-life, pro-Social Security and pro-Medicare? It would be so much harder for my liberal friends to go after me and my conservative friends would now have to keep a wary eye on me. Nirvana.
I first spotted a great deal from a dealership in Raleigh, and emailed them for a test drive. Come on down, they said, check us out. We have the best deals around and we treat people right. I took my four-year-old as insurance. Not only is he cute, but far more observant than I; plus, he has no qualms about passing gas, having bathroom emergencies, or threatening a good ol’ tantrum with a signal from Dad that We need out, son.
We arrived at the nice, modern dealership with a cavernous showroom to drive the Prius with less than 20,000 miles on it and a price tag of $15,000. A salesman glad-handed us at the door and disappeared to get the key. He came back shortly.
“Good news and bad news, Mr. Bradley,” he said. “The bad news is we sold the car over the weekend. They just haven’t gotten if off the Internet yet. You know, we’re so busy and all.” There was one other customer in the building. “But the good news is, we have a 2010 model still here that is just $7,000 more.”
He actually said that. It takes confidence to reach for a 40 percent increase in a sale in the first 15 minutes you meet someone. He became less cheerful when I asked for clarification: was he going to offer me the 2010 for the price of the 2005?
My son and I sat in the car, and I used my iPhone to pull up another dealership in the city, one that had lots of used Prius models on their website. They advertise constantly on a Raleigh TV station, touting honesty, the best deals in town and not being like the other dealers.
We pulled up in the lot and instantly, out of nowhere, not one but two salespeople descended on us. I asked about the used Prii (this is the plural of Prius, according to Toyota) since they were nowhere to be seen. The two salespeople split up; one to an office, another back to his desk. He never came back. The first salesman returned and invited us into a high-tech, spotless “branch office” on the sprawling dealership campus.
“Well, we sold those you saw on the Internet over the weekend,” he said. “But we have some great 2011 ones out there. We’re so busy, we can’t keep up with that Internet stuff.” I was the only customer in the building. It was 11 a.m. There were eight employees sitting at a table discussing the previous weekend’s football games.
I took his business card, the one he forced on me, and didn’t look to see if he was still watching when I tossed it in the trashcan on the way out. We left.
“Why are we leaving, Daddy?” Lowell asked.
“Well, buddy, let me tell you about something they call Bait-and-Switch…”
One children’s book shaped like a John Deere tractor. Six ballpoint pens. One pair of drugstore sunglasses, with the left lens missing.
Things weren’t much better in the small, scrappier towns of eastern North Carolina either. As we left Raleigh, you could track income levels dropping all the way out to Tarboro. Housing developments were traded for trailer parks, gas and food at exits every few miles swapped out for the endless pines in the median and lining the edges of Highway 64. Even the condition of the roads change as you edge progressively eastward—smooth blacktop dropping off to old rumbly gray dropping off to patched up, cracking asphalt, as if those in the more monied part of the state need reminders to away from here unless they’re headed to the beach.
In Tarboro, we stepped inside and back in time. Faux wood paneling, popular about 45 years ago, covered the walls of the showroom, which was cramped, messy, and dreary. This dealership bragged about “no-haggle” pricing, which is just a nice way of saying “we don’t negotiate.” We drove a six-year-old Prius, one that made me wonder if it had been state’s evidence once. It wasn’t clean, there were mysterious stains and the engine light would not go off. While we were assured it was simply a “sensor” that needed replacing, we weren’t buying that story or the car. The offer for my Element was about $2,600 less than the Blue Book value for “barely running.” I asked about a reduction in the price of the car. We were assured by a paper “run from the Internets,” the saleswoman said—that this car was the best deal for 150 miles. I laughed, shook my head and walked out. Before I got home, there was an email from the sales lady urging me to come back; she had convinced the sales manager to raise his trade-in price $2,000, “just for you, Mr. Brinkley. And, you saw that Internet’s paper—the Prius is a rock bottom price.”
Which brings up another point: does anyone really believe that it is you and the salesperson fighting the evil office ensconced sales manager? That you, a total stranger off the street, or the “Internets,” has bonded so tightly and quickly that the salesperson feels a need to rebel against the boss—the person who signs his or her check every week—and side with you for The Best Deal Ever?
A rewards card from an auto parts store. A notepad. A small pouch of tissues. Business cards I never gave out.
I guess I’ve never had much patience at car dealerships. The last time I car shopped, I was asked to leave after waiting for an hour for the salesperson to go battle the sales manager. When I walked in their office, they were talking about their favorite TV shows.
“Hey, I hate to interrupt you guys,” I said, “but I have things to do. You got a price on my trade?”
The sales manager took his feet off his desk, his hands out from behind his head, and sat forward in his chair. “Well, you’ve got a V8 and nobody wants those things with $2 gas. You’d have to be crazy to buy one. We can’t pay people to take them.”
Having listened to a salesman hammer down the guy in the next cubicle over, pushing a Highlander V8, that by pre-2008 standards got about 12 miles per gallon, I pointed to the other customer. “Have you told that guy?”
“Hey, why is that man pointing at me?” I heard the guy ask.
I stuck my head out of the sales manager’s office.“They just told me you’d have to be crazy to buy a V8. They can’t give them away. There’s a heads-up for you.”
The sales manager told me I probably needed to leave. On the way out, I saw the Highlander guy get up and follow. It shouldn’t have, but it felt good.
A pack of electric fence clamps. About $8 in change. An empty box for a phone charger.
I would have bought a Prius in Kinston. Growing weary of the whole process, I lucked out and got a part-time Holiness preacher as my salesman, and I laid all my cards on the table upfront.
“You’ve got what I want. It is the nicest car I’ve driven since I’ve been looking. Your price is fair. Give me $9,600 for my Element and I’ll drive it home. Trade-in value is $11,000, worst case. Full retail is $12,800.”
Off to the sales manager.
Surprisingly, back with the sales manager, a man who defied the stereotypes I’d been experiencing. I wanted to like him. I really did.
“Hey, Mr. Bradley. Nobody will buy anything with that kind of mileage, so we’re doing you a favor at $8,500. And the deal on this Prius is unreal. Unreal. I can’t believe it has been here so long. So can we do business?”
“Gentlemen, I appreciate you being straight,” I said, trying to remain, well, straight. “There’s no hard feelings on my part, and I’m not trying to be a jerk, but $9,600 is my only offer. It’s getting late and we all need to go home. It’s the end of the month, I can drive either car home. You pick.”
I drove home in my Element.
The next day, the preacher/salesman urged me to come on back and grab that car before someone else did because there was no way it could be there much longer. I asked did that mean they had met my terms. No.
After I bought somewhere else, the preacher/salesman emailed me and told me he’d gone to bat and got me the deal I wanted. I was in class and couldn’t respond immediately. So he left me nine phone messages on my cell, at home, and at work, within a 15-minute span. It was, after all, the end of the month.
In the end, I called an old friend who had a Civic Hybrid on his lot. The same guy I always end up buying from, a friend who does business with me and whose family I know both socially and professionally. I gave him the same offer. He said he couldn’t do it. I said okay, maybe next time, and was getting ready to hang up.
“Well, hell, Mike, okay.”
So I drove to the biggest dealership in Wilson, and spent a total of about an hour there, including the time it took to clean out my car. Two employees had to spend about 20 minutes apiece with me. And the company made money on both ends of the deal. It really isn’t much trouble to buy a car.
Before I went in to sign the papers, I flipped the tailgate down on my Element. I sat for just a second in the cool air, and the weird, greenish glow of the car lot lights. It was almost eerie with no one else around. It had come to this; I was all in. No one knows that when they weren’t around, I’d named her Ellie. I’d had her longer than I’ve had two of my kids. She’d been driven to a couple of hundred farms, a Stanley Cup finals, to funerals, to bluegrass shows. I’d hauled hay, dogs, and yes, even goats in the back, and briefly even considered transporting a newborn calf (she wouldn’t fit in the dog carrier; almost, but not quite).
All my stuff, the things I’d carried and those my wife and kids had carried over almost a decade, fit in a small box that sat next to me. We had some good times in that car, and it was always the “date night” choice when my wife and I could get a babysitter. I looked over my shoulder and the black rubber interior seemed clean, empty for the first time since I drove her off the same lot years ago. Was I really feeling sad about a couple of tons of inanimate steel? Was I about to have a weak moment?
“Hey, let’s see if we can get that parking permit off the windshield,” the salesman said. “Didn’t you say that thing was expensive?”
I drove the Civic home. According to the instrument panel, I managed 42.9 miles per gallon. The salesman said I’d have to learn that driving a hybrid is a little different, and once you learn the tricks, the numbers would just keep going up. I pulled into my yard, drove up the hill, gathered my book bag, and the box of things from the Element. Just as I was about to walk across the yard to the front door, I stopped, balanced the box on my knee and ran my hand through the items. Satisfied, I opened the Civic’s left side back door and tossed the ice scraper on the floor. It was chilly out, and I’d need it soon enough.
Michael Brantley has been a freelance writer and photographer for more than 20 years, and is an adjunct English instructor at Barton College. He founded and edits the literary journal, WTF: What The Fiction. Michael has an MA in English from East Carolina University and has been admitted into the MFA Creative Writing program (Creative Nonfiction) at Queens University of Charlotte.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: My Honda Element was part of my identity. It was an unusual model for my county, much like me. All of the changes that were going on, professionally, in my life were getting turned upside down. I realized that letting go of the car and moving on to something that was better for me would be tough, and mirrored my life at the time, so it seemed a natural fit to write about it.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: When I started newspaper “stringing” in high school, my best editors stressed to me that I had to get the reader’s attention in the first paragraph if not the first sentence. If I didn’t do that, it wouldn’t matter how good the writing was later in the story. I have tried to stick by this.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: My process is always being tweaked in some way, because it seems like I’m always picking up or learning something new I can apply to my writing. Basically, I start with an idea in my head and try to round out where a story/piece will go. Once I have a beginning or destination, I start scribbling down notes of what I want to make sure I work in. A lot of this happens in the car.
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: Organized is probably a stretch. Our family is full of readers, and we generally arrange by type, but there are stacks to read, stacks to trade, and stacks in progress. Books are in every room. From my wife and I to our 11-year-old, 6-year-old and 4-year-old, we all prefer the printed word on paper.