Saturday, March 12, 2005

New Car Smell

I crawled into a co-worker‘s brand new company car yesterday and traveled back in time. Sitting back deep in the driver’s seat, I watched as scenes from my days as a purveyor of fine automobiles unfurled across the windshield. With the intoxicating aroma of new car upholstery filling my senses, I could all but taste the summer of 1989.

Not that it was all that triumphant a time. Truth is, I had absolutely no business prowling the proverbial car lot, but the guy with the biggest desk on the local BMW-Volvo-Jeep showroom floor happened to be my formerly estranged father. Wanting nothing but to help me, he was eager to show me the ways of the sales force. “I’ll hire anybody if they can move units,” he intoned. Putting my complete lack of automotive knowledge or sales experience out of my mind, I wasted no signing up. I even got a haircut and bought a few cheesy ties.

I couldn’t have been more miscast. Bookish and bleary-eyed, I knew less about cars than your average red-blooded American male. Even after pouring over glossy brochures and taking every car on the lot for a test drive, I couldn’t tell a BMW 750 from a Volvo 240. All I had going for me was an inside connection and a growing ability to bullshit. That, and the fact that the dealership was bursting at the seams with the then wildly popular Jeep Cherokees and you have the only reasons I didn’t quickly starve.

Not all that excited about harassing old customers over the phone, I spent a lot of time watching the other salesmen. What a crew! Except for the token black guy, the sales force was dyed-in-the-wool good-ole-boy. They had different sales techniques, but they all distrusted the young bearded wise-ass who looked suspiciously like the Sales Manager. At the top of this testosterone heap was a silver-haired walking beer gut named Jerry. Jerry had been selling cars longer than I’d been alive and out earned me every day just by picking up the phone. Whenever a stranger wandered onto the lot, Jerry would claim they were his beloved relatives - even if they looked to be from Pakistan. Jerry would waddle out to meet them like a long lost boozy uncle, and nine times out of ten the hapless looky-loos would drive off in a new car.

There was another salesman I remember: a young puffed-up know-it-all named Kurt. Kurt was about my age, but counted himself years older in the sales game of life. A far better pusher of horseless carriages than I, he never missed a chance to rub his latest done-deal in my face. Since I only got paid when I sold something, this never failed to get my goat. My only solace was that, outside of the dealership’s inventory, Kurt was dumb as a pocketful of rocks. The few times we squared off, I took great pleasure in correcting his caveman English - a move which never failed to infuriate him. If life were a movie, I would have decked him with a sizzling right cross, then locked him in the trunk of an Ultimate Driving Machine. But it wasn’t meant to be…

Neither was my car-selling career - or for that matter, my father’s. One morning I walked into a morning sales meeting to find his desk suspiciously bereft of personal effects. As the NEW Sales Manager was introduced to the troops, I knew my days hawking over-priced imports were numbered indeed. Not that I cared much. I knew from the first ten minutes I took the job it wasn’t for me. Once my father fell victim to office politics, I pretty much stopped trying altogether. Instead, I focused all energies on my growing distaste for the chain-smoking General Manager who canned my old man. But since that man is no longer of this Earth, I won’t trash him here.

As my unfortunate lineage and lack of moved units made me a marked man, the boss forced me to share an office with an older, wise sales associate. Short and dark-haired, Phil reminded me of my beloved step-father. He took one look at my wrinkled shirt and unkempt beard and proclaimed me unfit for duty. He soon made it his mission to assist me out of the business and out of his office.

I was drawing three-masted ships on my desk calendar and ignoring sales calls one day while Phil flipped through the morning paper.

“So what is it you WANT to do with your life, Pittman?” he asked from behind the classifieds.

“I dunno,” I moaned as I stared out the showroom window at the line of shiny BMW‘s. “I’d like to work in radio - like I did in the Navy - or maybe television…”

“Hmmmm”, Phil’s voice trailed off behind the rustle of fresh newsprint. And then a few minutes later…

“Hey - here’s something. NCT’s looking for a production assistant. Ya ought to give ’em a call.”

“Yeah…maybe,” I said distractedly, more intent on shading my ship’s starboard hull than focusing on any career opportunities. But a few minutes later, I did call. The next day I went for an interview at the local CBS affiliate. Strapped for another warm body to pay minimum wage, the Production Manager offered me the job. I took it, left the evil world of car sales without looking back, and in the process, stumbled across my true calling.

Funny how life works.


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