Last week, GM went bankrupt. Naturally, my wife, Cheryl, and I went to a GM dealership and bought a car.
Her Buick was acting up. Strange sounds, twittery squeaks, leaks all over. We took it to the dealership for a look. It turned into a $2,700 sentence, before tax. I couldn’t tell you why. Mechanics speak one of those rare, extinction-proof languages few people on Earth speak or understand, a kind of awesome gibberish you don’t question because doing so makes you look awesomely car-dumb.
All I knew was that between their age and their centenarian mileage, the cars we owned were all near-death experiences on wheels. Every few months, more repairs. We knew we were in for a new one at some point, if not two. Facing possible unemployment – the swine flu of newspapering, only more common – was the added incentive to do the nutty thing while we still could: Buy.
We never thought we’d chat up a salesman at a GM dealership. We were done with American makes. But his first and middle names were William and James, which was like a sign from God that we were in for a variety on a religious experience. He didn’t know William from Henry but he was an affable, 34-year-old refugee from the real estate bubble. Selling cars for less than two years, he wasn’t one bit pushy, and he instinctively knew to interpret my suddenly more pronounced accent (which happens when I try to suppress panic with fake cool) as a plea for something foreign. Used. And cheap.
Two test drives later, we were enamored of one of those Korean makes, a spare, 2008 model that allegedly had just 4,400 miles on it, that allegedly was driven by a young man terrorized by stick-shifting (being a Third World native, I’ve always mistrusted automatics), and that allegedly was a great buy. No additives, none of those gadgety GPS devices (so paradoxical an obsession for a nation so far adrift) except for some horrendous tinting that gave the thing an air of mob.
What did I know? I pretended to do some bargaining, William James pretended to humor me, and, in the end, the price we paid was, I pretended, fair, rationalizing that with four years left on a bumper-to-bumper warranty, we couldn’t be doing that badly. So Cheryl and I signed over our down payment with the universal declaration of reckless rights: what the hell.
While we were waiting for the paperwork, William James invited us to surf the Web on his showroom terminal to pass the time. I wanted to check on that lost Air France jet, hoping for another miracle a la US Airways in the Hudson River. I typed in nytimes.com. Big, bold headline across the top, for all to see: “Obama Sees ‘Painful’ Rebirth of GM,” or something to that effect. And here we were in the rotting womb. I looked around to see if anyone else was catching the irony. Empty floor. Cheryl and I were the irony.
Walking around one of the SUVs in the showroom, I noticed a spider, all webbed up and cozy between back-wheel and floor, glistening in the literal and figurative setting sun. I signaled to Darrell, one of the managers (they’re easy to find these days in dealerships, lots of time on their hands), let him know that a cobwebbed showpiece might not be the best way to convince customers that the company was being reborn. Darrell stomped on the cobweb with impressive force, thanked me for noticing, said that the SUV I was looking at was the top-selling model in the Americas, then put his salesman’s spin on the whole thing: “Even the spider likes it.” That’s the spirit.
By sundown the paperwork was signed, our newish car was ready, the old Buick handed over. Just like that: A car that had been in the family for more than a decade, a gift from Cheryl’s late grandfather, the car that took us to a thousand and one destinations, discarded, junked over without ceremony. It didn’t seem right. Then again, neither did the $2,700 repair bill.
One final irony: The last time I bought a car, a Democrat had just been elected president. It was 1993. I still have that car, an amazing Subaru with a few million miles on it, somehow still running despite its own mess of penumbras and emanations (to quote William O. Douglas in a slightly different context). So here we are, a few months into another Democrat’s administration, living up to tradition. I pretended it was a good omen, hoping the new Democrat doesn’t prove as leaky as the previous one.
We shook hands with William James and promised him, against old odds, that we’d be back in the unlikely event the Subaru died before Fidel Castro. If nothing else, a hometown dealership, for all its hazards, had won us over.