The Art of Lying Without Lying: Confessions (of a Car Guy)
1. Meet and Greet
In the middle of my sentence I look down and see my hands. On any normal day, this would be a nonissue. I often see my own hands. But right now, this is important because it means I have gone to the part of myself that is really good at selling. Only he holds his hands like this.
There are other advantages to this side of my Me. His ability to perform feats of dazzling verbal acrobatics, for instance. He doesn’t even sweat when he comes off the parallel bars, holding someone’s ears between his teeth. His Cheshire Cat grin that brings the questions about braces, and the humble way his eyes pan down as he admits that, yes, he may be perfect, but he was not always this perfect, and here his eyes flicker back up to his audience, happily rejoining them for the punchline. His incredible ability to hold people’s attention and know, sitting across from them, that they are truly hooked—and to sit there for a moment while the machinery continues to turn and peer through his eyes at what he has done, how completely he is in control, I am truly jealous. He is also at least three times better with women than I am. The black pave diamond ring on my index finger belongs to him, not me. When he is not here, I have to take it off, because it is a reminder of everything I am not.
He keeps irregular hours. Like a teenager freshly discovering disobedience he checks in and out of my life at will, without telling me when he’ll be back. He never answers his cell phone. Good luck getting him home for dinner. I don’t think he even eats. I’m sure you can appreciate how that worries me, as the nearest thing to a parental figure he has.
On the other hand, he is extremely selfish, and he does not show his face—even to me—unless he thinks will be paid for his time. He never calls just to talk. Some days I think he only wants me for my body.
2. Build Rapport
I’ve found that people do not like it when you try to tamper with the pictures in their mind, though they may be out of focus, upside-down, and mercilessly PhotoShopped. I have found this out because it has been more or less my entire job for the past 13 months. Persuasion. Pictures. I never thought that selling cars would be so tricky. I thought all I’d have to do is rip people off and roast their innards over an open flame.
Kidding, of course. I don’t even like innards.
Mind you, I didn’t even want to get into this line of work—“this business,” as we call it. It was forced upon me by the world’s hard concrete and my cheek’s relative position to it. But I would get to know that concrete quite well during the summer, when the temperature was 115 degrees and it was swaying back and forth in the air all around me while I bobbed and weaved around parked cars to stalk and jump on my next unsuspecting victim—usually with a “hi” and a “how are you?”—before reaching for the linings of their pockets. The job has also afforded me some great fringe benefits, like plenty of time to practice my cackling and mustache twirling. The day I receive my first tie that is nine inches too short for me, I will know I’ve truly made it.
Of course, I wasn’t even aware of how bad our reputation was when I got into “this business.” When I bought my car, I just said too much, give me a discount, still too much, okay. It was a kind of apathetic flailing that got me a “good deal,” because I knew (here come the pictures) that you just sort of say no for a while and then you say yes. Car deal done. As it turns out, I didn’t know anything. But man, how well did I know it.
Luckily for both of us, the girl selling me my car switched me from price to payment, and instead of stripping out the car we were on, she showed me a payment for a lower trim level and I said yes. What a negotiator I was, boy. Looking back, I’m sure I paid full MSRP; but before I got into the car business and knew how people “got stuffed”—yep, that’s how we talk about you people who pay too much; you “got stuffed”—I thought I had gotten myself quite a deal, and all those “NO”s sure made me feel good about saying “YES.” After all, I had a story to uphold, that I was not the kind of person who would go quietly into the night with the car dealer, and all the pictures in my head backed me up.
But that purchase was all back then, when I was flaming out at a rapid pace, in a way that could be seen for miles, and apathetic flailing was my answer to everything. I had no idea that a year and a half later, I would be selling cars. A car guy? Oh no, I had much sexier plans for myself and my collection of skinny ties.
The whole time I’ve been in the car business, I’ve felt that I was somehow undercover, never saying enough to draw attention to the fact that I was not supposed to be here. I knew I didn’t belong for a long list of reasons that dredged up in my mind every morning when I stood in front of the mirror, styling my hair, putting on a face fit for this life that was never supposed to be mine.
I was a writer. I knew that solidly at 17 when I was mailing submissions to The New Yorker with snarky notes attached about the girth of my pen and the magical fluids it contained. When I was 19 (and slightly better), I pitched a comic series to a Dark Horse editor who promised me a run on their online anthology comic, Dark Horse Presents. This never materialized, but I didn’t fret; there were plenty of long open roads still available to me. When I was 21, I sent a query for my novel to the agent representing the author who got me into writing in the first place, and she requested the first 50 pages, then asked to see them again once I’d made some recommended revisions. Every time I reached out, it seemed like I was on the cusp of Making It. I suppose this made me feel justified in what would come next.
Because Making It was all that mattered. My life and my writing were clearly at cross-purposes; every time the threat of some sort of promotion or advancement in my Real Life arose, I realized I was being drawn away from my True Life: writing. The real world was icky and I wanted to deal in it as little as possible until I could view it from afar, while sitting on comfy piles of money, the only proper voyeuristic vantage point for a writer. The idea that I was too good for my own life was something I learned from my mother.
As artists, after all, we are kings in our own domain—performing at our absolute best when the cushions are just right, the music is just right, and we are in the mood. Any lapses in greatness disappear under the delete key. They belong to someone else; the version of us that picks up milk from the convenience store at 11 PM for our Frosted Flakes binge, the version of us that leaves dirty dishes in the sink, not us, not the real us.
We take it for granted that we’re only artists—only ourselves—when the lights are burning bright. But what about the rest of the time? Are we just existing? And so there seemed to be no other option but to choose which version of me I was going to marry: the attractive, intelligent college dropout, who was better at his dead-end jobs than the people around him, or the faceless artist, willing to go to any length for a sexy story. That was the choice: cut off your legs or cut off your head. The idea that I could be a complete human being with all of my limbs attached has always been foreign to me.
On one path, there was society, all gathered together, suddenly interested in what I was doing for just long enough to put me on the scale and classify me as a failure, culturally underweight. On the other path, the dark and windy path (my favorite), were the drugs and alcohol and, growing off of every tree, future manuscript pages that sighed with the scent of money whenever I passed by. And what happened to our society pals? They are down at the other end, patiently waiting at the finish line for my blossoming into myself before they ask me—with one Chanel-gloved hand down the front of my Calvin Klein jeans—to turn my head and cough. Certainly, I felt that none of them could deny me the glamour of some healthy self-destruction.
Because I was done learning to write on the side. I was done learning to write by “studying” character development, grammar and syntax; I had met too many people who didn’t bother with any of those in real life for me to base my work off of those principles. I was done being a nobody—lost in the crowd, a low-level cog in someone else’s business, waiting for the day to be over. I had been imprisoned by my family and by school for the first seventeen years of my life. It was time to shape my existence into one where I could be happy—finally, after all this time, happy—and I was tired of having to gouge my eyes out before I left the house, because if they saw the life I was living, they would be ashamed.
Because of this daily post-mouthwashing, pre-teeth-brushing, eye gouging, I did not feel that I could learn about people while living an average existence. Like, duh, I needed my writer face on to do that. That and the fact that hating myself and everyone around me for being in this predicament took up so much energy that, even if my eyes had been installed with all the current software, there was not enough RAM left to store their observations. Like every twenty-two-year-old adolescent-at-heart, I was convinced that the life I was living wasn’t real. I had to find that reality, and what better place could I find it than on the dark and windy path (my favorite).
Because this, I was convinced, was what I needed: to observe real people in three-dimensional space, to see how their words overlapped, how they never quietly punctuated their sentences, how their lives fell over on each other, chapters and scenes getting lost in the smoke and the alcohol and the smell of sweaty bodies in a place called The Basement on Saturday night, where the only important skill was having a drink in your hand at all times and the ability to get noticed in a dark crowd. These were the people who were fascinating to me—with the same four cliques splitting up every night, attending the same bars they had exhausted the night before, and all (silently) ending up at the final bar together at the end of the night. The puking, the casual and lazy drug dealing, the licking mdma off of the top of a VCR, the subtle competitions between men about who was more unique in order to get the girl, the drinking, the smoking, the beard growing, the BYOB, the drama, the sleeping until 3 PM. When I saw the way none of them watched how their futures were playing out in front of them, when I saw how they’d come here years ago for school and never graduated the age of twenty-one, how they played out the final night of that age without completion every night, I knew I couldn’t look away, because I was seeing something special. I decided, taking out a pack of cigarettes to blend in, that I wouldn’t be happy until I had all of their agonies to myself, in a dark room somewhere, illuminated only by the light of the computer screen, filled with the sound of depressing keys. That was the path I chose to take.
I had no way of knowing I still had things to learn. In fact, that was one of the biggest problems—I didn’t know there were things I could learn. I was the hero, after all, the man not self-destructing but merely blending into the background for the sake of ART, the man with the sexy story no one had ever told properly before, and I had my pictures to live up to: the ones where trumpets announced my arrival into every room, the ones with the future Time magazine cover, the ones about the misunderstood genius who eventually triumphs over adversity and takes his throne as master of the known universe. I’m pretty sure dating Christina Aguilera factored somewhere into this as well, but this was before her recent bout of plumpness. All of these things just seemed inevitable, especially the Christina Aguilera part. You can see why changing nose pads turned gooey and green from sweat and dead skin at Lenscrafters for $14 an hour had, well, a depressing effect on me. I knew what my pictures looked like, and this wasn’t it. Couple this green and gooeyness with the recent rejection of my new novel—I think it was called Why I’m So Great—and I was numbed down to my soul, adrift in a world that with each passing day promised only to tear up more of my pictures before my very eyes.
I had no way of knowing that soon I would be learning all about arrogance like mine in the Advanced Graduate Program, hosted by your local dealership, selling cars and looking at my hands.
4. Demonstration Drive
But back to the top. Pictures. Car dealers. The interview is the portion of my job where I sit people down and I relax them. I ask questions. I seem interested. I hold this space, supplying them with high quantities of quality information. Persuasion is about increasing the feeling in someone to pull them out of the groove they are in, to puff them up to who they have forgotten they are so they can listen, understand, and be guided to the right decision. You could call this the persuasion before the persuasion. Sure, I use logical arguments to steer people. Sure, I disagree with them and try to gently tug them over to my side. But my job, really? It’s not Comic Book Car Sales with BAM! and POW! and BEST CAR EVER! littered throughout my presentation. The first persuasion I have to make is the one that I am like no car salesmen you have ever met before, and the moment when I have put this picture into someone’s mind, they crack open like a treasure chest and out onto my desk flows piles of golden glittery Who They Are. I reach my hand into these piles and study the contents of the Polaroids hidden within, bent on the corners, brushing the clinging golden specks away to gaze into their past for the knowledge of how to sell them a car.
The human brain is very accustomed to thinking in pictures. These pictures have their own graininess or sharpness, colors bright or muted, symbols as strong as real-time visual information in producing cues in the body to respond accordingly. A survival device. This is why you can be reduced to tears by a movie; the story is not you, but it is happening inside you. The same way, persuasion is all about creating a movie in someone else with information their brain can visualize and with a tone that is not foreign to the average content of their mind. This is why much well-meaning persuasion, such as self-help books and (pretty much all) Tony Robbins, does not affect many people; the content, though it may be logical, does not play nice with the other thoughts in their head.
The average picture of a car sale probably goes like this:
(scared face) (unhappy face) (unhappy face) (frustrated face) (let’s talk about him while he’s gone face) (driving face) (say no when he asks you if you’re ready to buy it face) (etc face)
The picture of a good car sale probably goes like this:
(scared face) (listening face) (relaxed face) (laughing face) (so relieved it’s not a car guy face) (love it face) (getting spotted with extended warranty + gap insurance face) (will be so flipped you can’t trade this car in for 8 years face)
This is a rudimentary understanding of what I do based on what can be keyed into a Word document, but this simple model above would be a good start for persuading someone. Once you can do the basics then you can tell a story of basically anything, as long as it isn’t someone with panic lines around their head as they sort through their mail and open their car bill. Then you graduate from merely not failing the customer and insulting their intelligence to telling a story about who they are in the world and how the steps of this purchase further demonstrate the things about themselves which they want to affirm.
My job, as I interpret it, is not to sell someone a car. In fact, I never think of selling someone a car. My job is to create an experience for someone where they feel comfortable making an exorbitant purchase, which will significantly impact all aspects of their life for the next five to seven years, in a terrain known for its thievery, dishonesty, and incidental malice. There is a very large difference.
Some people want to laugh. Some people want to know they are dealing with a “professional.” Some people want to feel like they’ve won. And some people just want to know they’ve shopped enough so they don’t feel like they just jumped on the first train that went rushing past.
There are slight variations on all of these outfits, matched best to whatever frame of reference the people I’m sitting with are wearing. For instance, if it is a wealthier couple, middle-aged but still leaning toward internal youthfulness, an Alpha male involved, it may be that I become not the professional but the “young professional,” with all his fine qualities a little too plainly displayed, clearly doing his best to get the “young” dropped from his title, not unreminiscent of a younger version of the man himself. You can’t out-Alpha an Alpha Male who is older and makes considerably more money than you; but you can murder yourself trying, which is exactly what will win his respect. If the wife is subtly dominant in the same relationship, it is my job to hug them with as much information that is, or appears to be, of a sufficiently high quality so that, finally, there are no possible questions or doubts that could remain. The less certain a buyer is of themselves and their decisions, the more I “feminize” my presentation; meaning, the longer I store them in my informational womb, incubating over low heat until both sides are fully cooked.
If they are negative, afraid of being in the den of all horrors that is the Dealer Showroom, usually older and with a hollowness in their eyes, then perhaps I become the wounded professional—just a good man trying to make an honest living in a dishonest business, and the more I can lament about the lack of standards in this business, the better. Sadness and a little of my blood on the carpet are the things that they want, the same pain they encounter with their own work. Yes, “Life is but a long toil and death be its only reward” is the song I play for these people. They want my Bob Dylan phase.
If my company for the afternoon is a young girl and her mother, my job is very simple. The funny, attractive, well-spoken and well-dressed part of me plays very well here and it’s just a matter of keeping them laughing. Actors may long for serious roles that showcase their ability to softly emote deep feelings, but this is my favorite Me, all my favorite parts of myself and a shitload of bass & treble. They are also, in addition to being my favorite interactions, usually the most profitable, and knowing that you have the audience’s full support is a great motivator when having to improv joke after joke.
Performances like these are what I wish I could capture and paste to my resume to show employers how good I am when things are good, when it’s smooth, when it’s light, and spontaneously firing off jokes for, on one record afternoon, four hours straight, with laughter that could be heard throughout the entire store, then jumping in the car with the women when they said they had to “get something to eat and think about it” and bringing them back to the dealership afterward to close them on a car with absolutely no discount whatsoever—if only this were not an impermanent art form, where the creation vaporizes once it is over, there would be no need to measure my performances in phone calls taken versus units sold, with the same technology used to gauge how well one “sells cars.”
When I lead a customer through their fears, when I sit them down and speak about the competitor’s products they say they are considering in a way to inoculate them against making those decisions, when I wow them with simple technological “advantages” that every car has (but which the other salespeople they met never bothered to talk about) and when I write up these people who told me at the start of the day that they were not ready to buy—then my job is extremely fulfilling. It’s comforting to know that I have become the guy down the street my sales managers used to warn me about when I first started and would let people leave because they “had to think about it,” the closer they always told me would eat my lunch, leaving me just a follow-up phone call in which the people told me, “You were so nice, though.”
When you know what you’re doing, this is the easiest job in the world. When you don’t, you spend your days being led around by customers who do not realize what needs to take place for them to feel comfortable buying a car—and then they go down the street and someone like me eats your lunch.
Now, I am hardly the only Jekyll and Hyde in this world, and when every customer comes in there are two parts of them: the part that wants to buy a car and the part that does not want to buy a car. The part that wants a new car might be a single stray thought that cracks under the heaviness of reality when they step foot in the dealership. The difference between a good salesmen and a bad one is the ability to recognize someone’s fears and amputate them without ever letting the person know they’ve been through surgery. The difference between a good customer and a bad customer is that truly bad customers won’t let you touch their fear and misinformed beliefs. They are their most prized possession, the only thing they have to contribute to the conversation, and the fact that you—you dirty car salesmen, you—wants them makes them seem all the more valuable.
I do not mind—although I don’t particular like, either—bad customers. But the good me has a habit of taking off when the really bad customers approach. He knows his musicality would be lost on them. He leaves them in the hands of my other me, the one who would rather be writing. I don’t know why he inflicts this punishment on me, because all The Writer can do is hate the shit out of these people in an attempt to fast-forward the encounter. He will, however, sometimes reappear, if I become particularly aggrieved by someone’s illogical notions, for long enough to eloquently present to them that the way they are going about buying a car is completely wrong in every way and try to compress into one sentence the psychological shortcomings of said approach, and although he is aware that the words speed past the frightened eyes in front of him like oncoming traffic, he continues to explain that while I’m sure you think this is how you do what you’re doing, it will not work. Okay? At this point the fears they so cherished a moment before become projectiles launched at my head, because throwing things has always been the preferred human response to solving misunderstandings. The sound of these tomatoes crashing into the stage behind me is reassuring to him. He breaks into a wide grin. They may not buy a car but at least the difference between us has been established.
5. Present Figures/Negotiate
The irony in buying a car is that everyone wants to encounter a salesperson like me, the antithesis of the low-level Car Guy they are expecting when they walk into a dealership. They are caught off guard by the fact that I want to do everything I can to help them. I suppose this is because it is all drawn against the backdrop of the fear they walked in with; it is the expectation of the bad experience—the Car Guy experience—which makes my successful performances so powerful, something they are willing to spend more money to have. Let me tell you this: almost no one I ever present figures to tries to negotiate successfully. Most don’t try to negotiate at all. If they do, they do not get far, but it doesn’t bother them. It is the fact that everything has been so seamless so far, that every decision I have made has been with them in mind, but it is also the fact that, on some very subconscious level, to warm up to me and trust me for so long only to disbelieve the fact that this—this number sitting in front of them—is the best price would be admitting that they had put their faith in someone who was not as Good as they may have thought, and they have come too far with me to admit that now. I almost always do have their best interests in mind, but I do not believe that it is in anyone’s best interest to pay too little on a product with the smallest profit margin of almost any commodity in the entire world.
The one thing everyone seems to completely misunderstand about buying a car is that people think they want a good deal. This is not true. In fact, I feel the need to reiterate this, because if salespeople realized this, they would be doing both themselves and their customers a huge service. This is not true. What people want is the safety of knowing they are making a good decision. A discount has very little real value.
This is why places like CarMax and One-Price Dealers (everybody pays the same!) are popular. People don’t actually mind paying “too much” for something as long as they know everyone else is paying too much, too. Where these business models succeed is in removing the potential shame and guilt someone might feel if they lack confidence in their ability to get a better deal on a car than their neighbor. Those places make plenty of profit but people like doing business with them because they handle things “ethically”—the price is the price, even if it’s too much. Again, this is merely an example of people trying to pass off their own fears and weaknesses as virtuosity and righteousness.
The Smexus rep visited us last week and informed us that we had an average profit of $560 on every new car we sold. The other Smexus stores in the area had a combined average of $61 per new car. It was insinuated that we may be losing business by asking people to pay too much. But yes, it is much more virtuous and loving and probably green to buy from a dealer who does not try to rip you off and instead will sell you a car with $1500 profit, and not budge, because everybody pays the same!
Of course, some people need the lowest price to feel safe making a decision. Like me, they have pictures of themselves not going quietly into the night with the car dealer. This is part of the reason I hate having made the switch to selling Smexus—there is so much more at stake when negotiating; their customers’ life-stories are so much heavier than the average Chevy buyer, their pictures more well-organized, filed away in boxes marked FRAGILE, and what is usually musical to me becomes the world’s worst game of Operation, knowing that as I try to deposit a picture of a better, more Smexus future, I cannot allow myself to touch the sides; but there are sides fucking everywhere.
Truth be told, I don’t want to learn how to navigate their psyche to sell them a car—they being the typical upper-middle-class buyer that demands a car as benignly sophisticated as they are—and it makes me miss my Chevy buyers. It’s the difference between spending time at the beach and spending time in the desert; yeah, they both (inevitably) involve getting sand in your pants, but taking in so much of that barren terrain—with the end result being you sell them a Smexus—is kind of like agreeing to be waterboarded with the promise that, after they’re finished with you, you get to go down the waterslide. I am completely dissatisfied by both the risk and the reward.
Of course, if you are one of these people who can only make a purchase on a car if the dealer is miserable selling to you, if you would like to continue to take advantage of a car dealer’s greed and lack of training and ethics, you should cherish your low-level Car Guys who don’t know their product, can’t negotiate, and just say, “Let me go talk to my manager.” All they know how to do is sell you a price—and then another, and another, and another, and another. If getting the lowest price is really what is most important to you, you should be afraid of guys like me; the ones who know what they’re doing, the ones who know how to handle you, the ones who are intelligent—we are the people who will make sure you pay too much. And yet, it is the lack of people like me in this business that make us shine like diamonds to customers, who provide them with an experience so fulfilling that they cherish and remember it, an experience that is, in fact, disproportionately important to them. They are so unbelievably grateful that you could take away the fears Society told to bring with them when they walked into the dealership.
Of course, some of what I have said above may seem crude and bizarre to the readers of this blog, so it is probably necessary to invite you on a guided tour of the artwork that lines the inside of my mind, from the primitive drawings of raspberries and boobies scratched on the cave walls to the imitation Cezannes framed neatly and poorly lit, and everything in-between so that the things I have said may make sense to you. Grab your cup of free Dealership Hot Cocoa and join me as I sip from my white Styrofoam cup and gesture at the sheer magnificence of things in a way that is, I hope, as satisfying to you as it is to me.
Despite the fact that I am, more or less, constantly faking, I do not ever consider myself to be lying when I am sitting in front of my customer, for several reasons. The first reason, and the most important, is that everything I do is really for them. For two or three hours I am dropping my own identity to provide them with the tools they need to accomplish what they came here to do, which is buy a car. Now, “buying a car,” in our culture, has some negative overtones because of all the dangers which are believed to be associated with it. Nevertheless, cars are valuable tools that nearly everyone has and the moment they drove 20 minutes to the dealership and walked through the doors they effectively stated they were here to get a new one. After all, dealerships rank with public restrooms on the list of cultural hotspots where people go to spend an afternoon, free hot cocoa or not.
Secondly, you are doing the customer a service when they buy a car from you. They came here to buy something. By closing them, you are allowing them to go back to the rest of their lives and not have to worry about this anymore. I used to feel that I could not know for sure if the car I was selling was the right fit for the customer—maybe some other brand had a car that would fit better into their lives. Maybe they would fare better with a Honda Civic than a Chevy Cruze. But because just about all new cars are 1) safe, 2) good on gas, 3) about the same price and 4) you cannot be sure that the salesmen at Honda would put on the proper level of performance for them to be happy with closing on a Honda Civic, that feeling has dissipated. Part of its dissipation is also due to the fact that I acknowledge there are higher forces than me and if it were truly, divinely necessary for someone to get a Civic over my car, nothing I could do would be able to effectively intervene.
When it comes to pricing, many so-called humanitarians would feel that it is my civic duty, especially as a so-called ethical person, to give the largest discount to as many people as possible. Let me use an example from my early days of selling cars to illustrate how my feeling translated from the above to its present state, where I feel it is my responsibility to make every dime I ethically can, which is almost every dime possible. It starts with a man named Dale.
It is my fifth or sixth week selling cars. I am just becoming familiar with the product and my ability to demonstrate and talk about the cars is increasing, my confidence (now that I have cut my hair and my sales have skyrocketed) is increasing, and my overall reluctance is beginning to dissipate as my paychecks multiply. Then Dale comes in. Dale is a kind, older gentleman, mid-forties, still fairly spry. Dale is the nicest person I have met since I started selling cars. Dale has been reading a little about the Chevy Cruze and just wants to see if he can get into a new car, if the payments work. Dale works at a butcher shop in a nearby Big Y. In my arrogance, my pity becomes aligned with Dale on a deep cellular level, knowing good and well in my heart that being a Big Y butcher is not the sexiest job in the world, certainly not sexy enough for an ambitious, young, good-hearted man like myself. This will play a role later on in the story.
So I show Dale the Chevy Cruze. We take a test drive. I ask him, sparkling with glee over my ability to speak one of my new-found (read: primitive) closing tools without stumbling, “If we can make the numbers be what you want them to be, can we earn your business today?” Dale says sure, if the payments work. There is only one problem, which I articulate to my sales manager a few minutes later. Dale is not sure he likes the color and interior of our car. “We just got a black LTZ off the truck this morning—nice-looking car, black and brown interior, really sweet-looking. That might be just what he’s looking for.”
I pull the car around for Dale to look at. Not only does he like it; he loves it. Man, Dale is really excited. You should see it. He’s moving around the showroom like 1999 Disco Inferno, when people knew who that was—that’s how happy he is. We sit down again and I have my sales manager come over and talk to him. He talks about the trade-in value for Dale’s Pontiac and he shows him the payment he’s looking at each month for the Cruze (at full sticker, of course). Dale only takes about three seconds before he says yes. We write up the paperwork and shake hands. Two minutes after Dale leaves, my sales manager comes over to me holding a calculator. Between the profit on our car and the money we held on Dale’s trade (we stole it!), there is $2300 gross on the deal. He clicks a few buttons and shows me my commission.
For one car.
For 2 hours work.
$230 an hour.
Needless to say, I’m feeling pretty good for the next few hours. Suddenly, the calculator is my best friend. We keep playing with each other and every time I hit the clear button, the wink it gives me is a signal to go again. Not since middle school have I been so excited about simple division. But then, something happens. I go home. I watch a movie. I brush my teeth. When I wake up the next morning, something is rumbling inside me, knocking on the front door of my psyche. I go to open it, knowing I shouldn’t. Who is it? I ask. I look through the peephole.
Oh yeah, it’s the dark and windy path again (my favorite).
My world starts spinning. Oh God! $460. That was my payment for ripping poor Dale off! Poor, nice old Dale! He paid MSRP (gasp!) for a car! The guilt starts grabbing at my gonads, then gets ambitious and starts trying to consume the whole ball (apparently greed isn’t limited to car salesmen after all).
Poor Dale, I hear my pity and arrogance saying over and over. I can’t believe it. Poor, nice old Dale, the Big Y butcher. The sad Big Y butcher. We didn’t give him any kind of a discount and I made $460 on one sale. For what? For making him pay too much. And why? For money. For $460. What a piece of shit I must be. What a nasty, horrible business I’ve found myself in. Where we scam $2300 off of someone…for what? To make $460. What a nasty business.
A little while after this bout ended (I think I got a Monster out of the vending machine, which is what finally stopped it), I made my follow-up call to Dale. Sad ol’ Dale, who we ripped off. Hey Dale, how was the car treating him? Was he enjoying it? I could hear sorrow echoing in my voice.
He loved it, he said. He was so happy he bought it. The payment was great for him, he could definitely afford it, his insurance went down, and we were so nice. He was so happy he could do business with us. He bought his last car here and he would buy his next car here too. He would tell as many people about us as possible. If they were looking for a car, he was going to send them to us, end of story. In all of my follow-up calls in the year that followed, no one was ever more totally delighted with their purchase than Dale on the several occasions that I talked to him, and no one said more nice things about me and my sales manager.
It is an old adage in the car business that the people who pay too much will always be the most loyal, the nicest, and will recommend you to all their friends. The people who refuse to pay, the “grinders,” as we call them, will never come back to get their service done with you, will trash you on the follow-up survey, and will do business in the future with the people who lose the most money to sell them the car. Not only are all of these things true, but the fact is that the people who pay the most will be the same people who are happiest with their decision. The grinders will never be totally satisfied, because their purchase is not just a car to them but a statement about the level of their own wits and intelligence. It will always be a “vehicle,” a “tool.” It will not supply them with the emotional satisfaction that it would someone who possesses the psychological equipment necessary to pay full sticker.
The reason why salesmen are feared is because good salesmen understand that all people do not see things the same way. (In fact, if we’re unlucky enough to meet one of these salesmen, perhaps in a dark alley or wherever evil-doers dwell, they might use our own logic against us to make us buy something we want!) People who sit down with you and say, “Come on—who pays MSRP for a car anymore?” are not comforted when you say, “I sell plenty of cars at MSRP.” They do not stop and think that perhaps the people who purchase a vehicle at MSRP more fully enjoy their purchase—perhaps more fully enjoy their life, because they do not carry so much fear around with them. No, they think you’re a thief. Stealing money from people by asking for some profit on a $25,000 vehicle that has $500 mark-up in it.
You might ask yourself, “How could someone be happy they paid too much?” Let me give you an example. I pull up to Dunkin’ Donuts this morning to get my morning coffee. As I turn down the Eminem CD blasting in my car, I notice a table parked on the sidewalk manned by three teenage boys, a couple of adults around, all with a certain gleaming optimism in their eyes. Oh God, I think to myself. They want something. Sure enough, before my first foot hits the pavement, someone is asking me—“Would you like to donate to the Wounded Warrior fund?”
Holy shit, I think. Kids always find the most sorrowful things to campaign for when it comes to school projects. It’s never the “Donate $1 to buy a homeless guy a bagel?” fund. That I would not mind saying no to. Bagel—fuck. Homeless people don’t need empty carbs like that. But no, in a continuing effort to spite me and people like me, these hopeful children stand with their bright eyes behind their plain table in the hot weather asking people to donate money to the Cute Hungry Kittens With Broken Front Paws Fund.
So, I say no, thank you. I’m all set. There is a certain recoil in the kids when I say this. I know what they are thinking. Huh? What? Everyone looks around, a little confused. Who doesn’t want to help a Wounded Warrior? Yes, who indeed.
But see, the school equips these kids with a purpose and sends them out to Do Good so they can learn the value of Public Service, so later they will volunteer for things that look good on college applications. These kids bob and weave around parked cars to stalk and jump on their next unsuspecting victim with a “Donate to the Wounded Warrior fund?”, and since there is no product changing hands, all they can sell is a relief from the guilt they have imposed on these people going into a business where they will be superfluously spending money. And sure, the kids want to Do Good—but I’m sure they also want to be congratulated for Doing More Good than their peers, and is that what we want to teach people altruism is? I believe that all of this data is extremely relevant in whether or not I donate money to the Wounded Warrior fund, because I am the kind of person who would not buy a car at MSRP.
Make no mistake, I will say no to a Wounded Warrior Fund every time one comes up, although I spend $6 a day on coffee I don’t need, because giving money to this fund does not give me anything. This is sound, fundamental, capitalist thinking on my part. Also, when I say no, I am not protesting giving money to Wounded Warriors. I am saying no to the entire world which creates this moment when a naïve child is being used as a prop by politically correct organizations using altruism as a form of politics—look what we’ve got them doing! look how good we are!—who put him on the front lines of selling, using rudimentary tools based around imposing a guilt you cannot tell me the organizers of these things are blind to, to take in money for a cause that may or may not actually be good and charitable. Sure, it’s The Wounded Warrior Fund. Do I really know what that means? No. I know all about smoke and mirrors and what a dirty game persuasion is—I am a car salesman. And I take issue with the bright eyes of a child being used to extort money from people, good cause or not.
What is my point? you ask. My point is that this is probably a fundamentally Good and Wholesome organization and the kids just want to help soldiers, kind of like how they want to be astronauts and president and Batman. Someone could very easily come up and give five dollars and be really happy about it. It might be the highlight of their day. But I am the kind of person who would never be happy buying a car at “full sticker,” and I would rather spend $6 a day on coffee than spend a dime helping a Wounded Warrior, and it is probably better not to think about what I have lost in my life by becoming this kind of person.
Maybe I’m too close to the situation. Maybe the exploitation of that naive, childish optimism is just too near in my memory, because I remember what it was like to be that little boy, and yet I don’t remember him at all. I have always wished I could have the simple capacity to “just enjoy,” as I have described above, but questioning is my nature, and all my life I have never forgiven my eyes for having the imaged burned onto them at an early age of how the meat was made. It has formed in me a distrust I cannot escape.
6. Wham! They Throw in the Trade
When I was at my lowest, when every day was a struggle to get out of bed, when I felt that there was no end to my frustration, I went to my doctor and told her that I needed something to help me focus enough to write. If I could write, I explained to her, I wouldn’t be depressed anymore. It restored me to a level of sanity, of personal strength, where I could face the arduous tasks in front of me, like standing in line at the grocery store, like calling in an order to Domino’s, like explaining to the doctor that the reason why she is labeling my behavior as drug-seeking is because the darkness of her mind is bleeding into the room and making it so she cannot see the pain dripping off of my words into an acidic puddle on the floor. She recommended therapy, something about setting up a preliminary appointment, something about how the therapist may decide to prescribe me something after getting to know me. My mind did some skillful arithmetic to calculate how many pills of Adderall I could buy on the street with all of these scheduled $30 co-pays. But really, I was wondering, how am I supposed to make it to tomorrow?
What I could never articulate was that those moments when I was writing were therapy. That time, when I was being used according to the chemistry of my body, was the only thing that would benefit me. Like the soothing feeling of a song keyed to your specific needs, I needed a long, relaxing dip into something Me. There has always been something sacred to me about writing. The way it would make everything go away—the way it would restore a state of health not just to your mind, but to all of you. I always felt so much more like myself after writing well—the good Me, who has always been elusive. She was recommending 93 Octane when I clearly knew the cap asked for 5W-30, but she finally relented and prescribed me Xanax, which made me just clear enough to be really angry.
In my arrogant belief, I thought that a psychiatrist could never help. Someone from the profession with a suicide rate double any other profession? This belief, that no one could know my mind as well as I did, was confirmed when months later when I called to set up an appointment with a therapist because things had gotten very bad. Just picking up the phone was unbelievably stressful, and my voice was shaking when he answered. I couldn’t breathe. I tried to explain who I was and how my friend was a current patient of his, and that this friend had spoken highly of him.
“Well,” he said, “first things first—what insurance do you have?”
“Anthem,” I told him.
“Well,” he said, “that’s a good start.” In his voice I could hear the sound of someone excitedly rubbing their hands together. “What else can you tell me about your situation?”
Now, no one likes to talk about their problems. No one enjoys this vulnerable moment of emptying your pockets of years worth of things about yourself you have tried to fold as small as possible or torn up, then put all of these things on the table and say what you have never wanted to admit: This is me. Between this and the fact that, over the phone, I didn’t feel that I had a large window of time to sell my situation, my anxiety was crippling me. You would think that someone whose entire job is to listen to you and be able to help through this listening would not have a short attention span for the problem he is supposed to solve, but afterward this would make sense.
I explained how difficult it was to accomplish simple things, high anxiety, depression, low energy, practically dry heaving all of these words out of my mouth. When I got to the part about how I felt some kind of medication would help with these problems, he cut me off.
“I don’t really do drug work. I just do therapy. You’ll have to find a different doctor.”
I was shocked by this—totally caught off-guard. I was also pretty pissed off, because I could hear the phone on his side approaching its cradle. Not pissed just because he didn’t care, but because I knew this was a lie. He prescribed my friend drugs—which he sold me—every month.
“So, do you know someone who does? I mean, can you recommend someone?”
He named a doctor and hung up the phone. Aside from the fact that I have gotten better service at Wal-Mart, the especially frustrating thing was that if he was really a doctor of medicine who tinkered in depths of yourself you are not supposed to understand, how could he not see that what I really needed was therapy? I can identify behavioral issues in people and I am not a therapist—I am a car salesmen. But it was too late. My pictures—the dark and windy ones—had been validated. Worse, it was as if they had been brought closer to my eyes. I knew that I was alone. The only things society could recommend to solve my problem—therapy and prescription medication—proved to be out of reach. These things were actively eluding someone who needed them, and the fact that he was unable to pursue them was the exact reason why he needed them.
My downward spiral threatened to continue. I was bleeding money, couldn’t bring myself to put together a simple meal, and I couldn’t write. My attempt at reaching out had left me with my hand cut off. The only thing left to do was more drugs, more brief moments of serenity, and the hope that I could bring some of the pleasure from my trips back into my everyday life. Addicts are proof of the dangers of optimism.
During this time, I remember getting up one morning to go into work and putting on my glasses. I wear a very mild prescription and I can get by without it, but with my glasses I’m corrected to 20/15. It sharpened my world around me enough that I suddenly remembered I was living this life. All of this was real, and it was terrifying. Without my glasses on, everything in the distance was just hazy enough around the edges to be a bad dream, something that was just passing me by, something I would eventually wake up from, a feeling that followed me all through my childhood, that I wasn’t really there at all. I had to say the thing I never wanted to: This is me.
Finally, I just disassociated. Every time I closed the door and was left alone in a room I could hear my failures beating against the walls, begging to be let in. I was flaming out, spectacularly, in a way that could be seen for miles, and I am still trying to reconcile the damage. I did so many stupid things during this period in an attempt to fall back in love with life.
I was to find out that all of this was just the suspenseful build-up to the cliffhanger before the next chapter break.
I was promised some stellar breakfast. Not just Continental—shit, Intergalactic. This is not an Intergalactic breakfast, and I suspect this will become an issue.
Of course, it is not just the breakfast causing my internal organs to go all Hannibal Lector on each other. No, not just the tasteless scrambled eggs and the bagels which may no longer be frozen but have certainly never seen the inside of a toaster, or the chairs which you cannot tell me any intelligent event planner would say have adequate space between them. It is the sound in the air creating trouble for me, the dreadful music composed when balding, angry egotists in suits get together to talk Rich Man’s Problems.
The men in question are not friends, but they all relish the opportunity to participate in a game of puffing out their chests to announce their recent triumphs, and even their problems are triumphs—the speeding tickets, what towns are shitty with tolls, which bank is screwing them right now, the insider info behind a curious decision at General Motors and who is responsible, who was just promoted, who is sliding down and why, and the laughing, the constant laughing. Nothing they say is funny, but it isn’t that kind of laugh. It’s the “I have that problem too” laugh, and this is more than just a conversation: it’s a tribute to themselves, a moment when they can distinguish themselves as members in a club built on greed, skillful deceit, and always knowing when to laugh and say you have the same problem. It is also a way of distinguishing who they are not—the low-level dealership personnel, the people they are here to rule over for the afternoon. These are my hosts for an all-day leasing event I got up at 4 AM to attend, to learn how to support something I already support (and eat an Intergalactic Breakfast, of course). I do not expect this to be educational, but I am wrong. I realize this some time around minute five.
Minute five is when I realize these guys are killers.
Host One is a solid-chunky, probably 35-year-old man. You can see his face and then there is a border of excess around it. He holds himself up straight, commanding his body to do what he wants. You can’t really know what that means unless you’ve felt it and also felt when it’s not there. But it’s there, in him, directing his actions to be smooth, controlled, Alpha. His hands move in disciplined independence to his booming voice, nodding up and down with him as he speaks, fingers fully extended, punctuating everything he says. The selling part of his Me holds his hands a certain way, too.
Host Two is about half a raccoon short of a full head of hair, but it isn’t slowing him down. In fact, it seems like he takes a little too much pleasure in how he looks in a way I am familiar with: I am well aware of the value of taking your perceived flaws and bringing them close to your heart, embracing them as armor. If nothing else, when people come to the Wrong Conclusion about you, you know that it is your Wrong Conclusion they’re seeing. The upside to this is that, since these people are always making a spectacle of themselves, they are often entertaining to watch.
You know what he looked like? He looked like he was wearing his party persona. After all, who goes to a party to be themselves? With his smile that was slick, but slick in a way that he knew that you knew that he was slick, and he liked it that way—there was an unveiled unlikability about him that was kind of likable. He had that kind of personality where he could waltz into your party and start shitting all over absolutely everything, but in a way that would probably be interesting or entertaining for at least fifteen minutes. I suspected he was also a closet alcoholic, although I base this off of absolutely nothing except that his personality seemed like the type which is drawn to excess.
These were not the things that impressed me, although it is always interesting to watch Alpha males operate. Alpha is advertising, kind of. Part of being an Alpha male is projecting the idea to people that This Is The Way It’s Done, especially as a salesman. It’s the first way to show another man that your ways are better. Every personal belief a person has is automatically endorsed when they can create this impression of power—because, after all, aren’t our beliefs what we’re made of? Men can devote their entire lives to uncovering the chemical mixture of ideologies which created their hero’s strength. When it came to these two, you got the impression that, by their very existence, they were campaigning on the strength of robotics.
Because these guys were superior machines: smiles held in position by time-stamped commands, sparks shooting out of the back of their necks, wrrrrrrr noises subtly emanating as their heads turned back and forth—the only proof they were automatons—oversized wrenches raised high in one hand as they silently campaigned for us to join their robot war against the humans, with the argument being presented that humans are just inferior robots anyway. And they are right, kind of. Because, really, there are only five objections to buying a car that people have, no matter what part of the country they are in, and if you can refine your motherboard to respond appropriately in every situation, you will outsmart the buyer’s fears, stalls, and price objections. But to become part of the master race, part of the initiation process is to replace your guts with gizmos. They could rebuild us. They had the technology. Instead, they focused on working us with a ruthless precision as if we were a room full of customers, proving again—to themselves and to me—that we were all inferior machines. These guys were ruthless. I mean, carve you from forehead to foreskin ruthless.
The presentation was brutally organized, every action scripted for maximum impact and every one of our responses, as a crowd, perfectly anticipated. They would ask questions that were just difficult enough for others to fail before us so we could swoop in with the right answer in front of the rest of the crowd, and prizes given to each person, or at least, points that could accumulate into future prizes. Without audience participation, they could have a mutiny on their hands, but they were not worried. They did this same show, every day, all around the country, and they handled the audience with an arrogance particular to men when they feel the people before them cannot see they are puppets in their hands, with little bits of malice occasionally bleeding through to the sharper ends of their sentences. When one finally tired of leading the masses, he asked for an immediate cut and casting change, tagging in his partner, who only needed to glance at the chapter heading on the projection screen behind him to know where to pick up. You could tell by the momentary pause, which jumped back into an easy flow, that they have done this so many times, line for line, joke for joke. It does not matter who delivers the words, only that they get delivered.
The afternoon was not just about learning; it was about the art of performance and (ostensibly) instilling people with the select knowledge that your Higher Ups believe is of use to them, while (more importantly) making sure this audience grades you well on the survey those same Higher Ups require you to pass out afterward. Education? Not so much. Inspiring a feeling, when we left, that we weren’t sure what we’d just been through, but that we think we liked it? Oh yeah. Think that skill would have benefited them in selling cars?
It wasn’t about “the benefits of leasing,” not really; it was about cracking open our collective psyche and grabbing all that golden glittery Who We Are, holding it over our heads, just out of reach, then giving it back to us at the end as a prize for doing good. But the frightening thing? As I looked around the room, I saw that everyone was totally, completely falling for their tricks. They wanted to be heard. They wanted to have the right answer in front of these other men. They wanted the approval of the two Alpha males. They wanted the bullshit prizes.
The one thing that I kept thinking as I watched them perform was, with their skill and anger, how many people were stuffed into cars and extended warranties because of them? I could all too clearly see how they made that Wrong Car sound all too appealing for the few hours that were necessary to get all of the documents signed. How much money had they made along the way—and what had been the cost to them, to how they saw the world?
Despite the pride in the special talents they possessed which gave rise to their success, it was as if some part of them were disappointed that the audience could be manipulated like all other audiences, causing a distaste for the very tricks they had designed for this purpose. When someone (enamored with their own brilliance) would ask Something Stupid, their tone would subtly sharpen to reveal their true feelings about the herds of people that gathered in front of them each day to be slaughtered, and I could feel the way that each one of these psychological mass murders increased the feeling of distance between them and the rest of humanity. Yes, it’s lonely at the top.
This is how Hitlers happen, I thought. Intelligent men who know the psychology of the lower classes, turning us against each other in a scramble for dominance and the chance to be heard and the promise of peanuts—masters of the oldest game in existence. My next thought was: I wonder how it feels to be That Guy at the center of all of this.
It didn’t stick, though. Because from across the room, as I watched the ring-leader’s eyes, I saw how far away he was from everything that was going on, a sadness that bled out of his eyes as I watched him, revealing a deep hole which he had filled for too long with overflowing self-satisfaction, a compartment in himself meant to run on something else, which was slowly, deeply malfunctioning inside. It was like the human being who had willingly stepped into this armor to achieve that better, brighter future advertised on the box, the one who had been in captivity for too long, was welled up behind his eyes, trying to reach out, silently asking for someone to reach in and pull him out, never able to break free from the things that had gotten him everything he ever thought he wanted.
But before all of this can happen, I have to reach the homestretch of my downward spiral. Lenscrafters has eliminated my position throughout the company. What does this mean for me? A healthy severance and unemployment and a much-too-much marijuana-induced idea that, as long as I travel across the entire length of the country, some gigantic advertising agency would love to employ the man who will soon be dating Christina Aguilera. The right mixture of cocaine and Mary Jane has produced glimpses of the way I hold my hands when I’m really good at selling, but for now those are drug-induced hallucinations, parts of my psyche that haven’t yet been excavated. The only side of me that exists is the writer on the dark and windy path (my favorite), and I hope he will be enough to make the trip.
The day before I plan to leave, I meet the person who will go on to be my spiritual teacher, which is a handle both too weighty and not weighty enough. He lets me know what my whole life has been building toward. He lets me know there are still things I need to learn about—about integrity, about arrogance, about not dating Christina Aguilera. He lets me know it’s time for the writer to take a nap for a while. This is how I ended up in “this business,” selling cars and looking at my hands, an exploration into the depths of who I am, and where I stop.
The other day I stopped at a Barnes & Noble Starbucks to get a London Fog. I have to go there to get it because “real” Starbuckses have changed their tea bags to loose-leaf and they just don’t taste right in The Fog. Because I have to go out of my way to get one, it is always a treat, an indulgence, therapeutic, something to be savored. The moment I stepped into the line, the girl loading the glass case with pastries said hi to me in a friendly way.
“Could I interest you in a dessert?” she asked.
“No, thank you.”
Her voice was high, bordering on shrill, with the careful strain of someone putting on a different voice to say things their real voice never would. Shrill, untextured, solid all the way through.
“What can I get you today?” she asked.
“Just a venti London Fog.”
“Anything else today?”
“No, that’ll do it.”
I could almost smile at the enthusiasm in her part, her devotion to upselling, to memorizing and replaying the same lines for each person that came up, as she did for the next gentleman in line. I could recognize that basic, unrefined process of selling, which I always detested because it was so boring, so fixed, so unnatural. I’ve always felt that if you should sell, it should be fluid, smooth, and the words should be ones that would convince me, if I were the customer. There was no art to her performance, but she played it eagerly, I’ll give her that. I could never be so upbeat about playing the role of the machine they haven’t figured out how to build yet to replace me.
Because real selling is more complicated than that, I’ve always felt that I was being less reduced, as a person. After all, I (or some mask I was wearing) was the one really putting something into someone’s hands. But at the end of the day, I’m just a man selling candy. On some level, I despise my customers because they feel more comfortable with a false Me, one with hurried plastic surgery. They don’t want me at all. They may not even really want a car. Now, do they truly believe they want a car? Sure, and I’m there to encourage them down the line. But will their lives be enriched because of it? Will its lane departure warning and break-away engine cradle really make their lives easier? Or will it be delicious until the end of the pack, when the new runs out and all their fingers touch is the bottom of a new wrapper? There is no way to tell who will enjoy the ride until it begins; but I have tried to buy a new me before, and the taste we sell—brighter! better! happier!—is always in the fitting room with the bright lights and the mirrors that make us look ever so slightly thinner, and some of it always remains there, never to be taken home.
Sure, the person said they wanted it. Sure, we just give people what they want. That’s how politicians get elected too, giving the people what they want, usually a face that walks, talks and acts like theirs, or who they would like to be. Just giving people what they want: like the bright ads online asking for Your Unique Opinion on [Hot Button Issue]–Click to Cast Your Vote. Yes, just giving people what they want, certainly not using their egos and need to be heard for $.10 a click on a poll that goes nowhere except to give that person a feeling that they have “done something,” “said something,” that they have been heard. Just giving people what they want, like Yahoo.com, who says fuck-all to real journalism and every morning will post a different story for every type of person—a “scary” story about the terrible world, a celebrity baby bump story (!!!), a once-in-a-lifetime-maybe-this-could-happen-to-you story, a rich-people-may-have-money-but-they-don’t-have-it-all story, and if a tragedy has happened recently it’s time to press all the old hot buttons: what about the children, how sex factored into this, how to stop this from happening to you. Sure, they play on all our worst selves, using our own curiosity to subtly poison us, but it’s what we want, isn’t it? We keep clicking, don’t we?
I’m not sure what my point is beyond a sentiment that sounds anti-consumerist, which I am not. I will however say that I have never received the complimentary bottle of happiness that is silently promised to me in the advertisements for Windex.