The Magazine

Dancing with Wolves

Joseph Epstein, bitten buyer

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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I knew a man who allowed his wife to buy the family car, a fact that always astonished me, and still does. Dealing with car salesmen, if I may say so and still elude the charge of sexism, is man’s work. Only men can be so stupid as to get caught up in the hopeless game of trying to defeat car salesmen in getting the best deal possible. This ritual of buying a car, which I myself have recently gone through, I call Dancing with Wolves, and only a man can be so foolish as to think he is likely to come away unbitten. 

Caricature of a car salesman

chris beatrice

I once wrote a short story that had a car salesman among its characters. I gave my salesman the name Sy Bourget (né Seymour Bernstein) and reported that he was said to be “so good .  .  . that he could sell aluminum siding to people who lived in high rises. .  .  . He was in his mid-fifties, but looked older, especially around his eyes, which were gray and cold. His hair was white, yet his pencil-thin mustache was still dark. He wore expensive suits, flashy shirts, good suits well pressed; he had a blue sapphire pinkie ring and was never without a manicure.” By this description I hoped to make him seem quietly menacing, for slightly menaced is how I generally feel when entering a new car showroom.

In my late adolescence and early twenties, I used occasionally to end the evening at one of two local steakhouses in my neighborhood in Chicago: one called Miller’s, the other the Black Angus. Around 10 o’clock, after their dealerships had closed, salesmen from Nortown Olds and Z. Frank Chevrolet would gather over red meat and brown booze, swapping stories about, as I always imagined, the foolish customers who during the day thought they stood a chance to outwit them. 

Here’s the deal, and I throw in the rear-window defogger and the masculine idiocy at no extra charge: Not only do we men hope to best these salesmen, trained as they are in the arcana of numbers and knowing precisely what we are up to, but we also believe we can do better than their other customers have done. This last point is of crucial importance. 

Let us say that you and I are driving a Volkswagen Passat, with the same so-called extras: sunroofs, leather upholstery, heated seats, sound systems, and the rest. We are both pleased with our cars. One day, over coffee, we begin to talk about the deals we made, and I discover that you acquired your car for two thousand dollars less than I. My car, once a beloved object, is henceforth a symbol on wheels of my failure, a failure of savvy and cunning, and I can no longer look upon it except with a tinge of sadness. 

Fraught, that vogue word meaning heavily complicated with the possibility of an unhappy ending, fraught is what everything having to do with buying a car is. Along with the fear of being made a fool of goes that of being treated as if one were a child. Some years ago a car salesman told me that he wanted to find a car for me in which I’d feel comfortable. “What would make me feel a lot more comfortable,” I told him, “is if you’d lower your price a few grand.” “Right,” he said, “no problem,” and then scarcely budged on his price. 

I believe we may owe car salesmen for the entry and ubiquity of the phrase “no problem”; we also owe them for the word “right” with a question mark at the end of nearly every sentence they utter. “What you’re looking for is a car that is both elegant and economical, right? No problem.” 

On my latest venture into the swamps of car buying, I encountered a salesman who asked me a series of perfectly irrelevant questions—where did I live?, at what did I work?, what car was I currently driving?, etc.—and to each of my answers he replied, “Great.” This brought back to me the time when, working on a film script, I gave a young woman at Warner Bros. who worked for my producer my phone number. “Wonderful,” she said. “We’re very excited,” she invariably said about this film script that never got made. 

In the end I bought the car, though with no great confidence that I’d made an especially good deal on it. My salesman—and here is a new twist—asked me if I would please go online and rate his performance. He hoped I might give him all 5s, the highest rating. “You want all 5s, right?” I said. “Great! No problem,” and I drove off with that intoxicating new car smell in my nostrils and a glint of doubt in my heart. Don’t ask what I paid for the car. I’d only lie to you.

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