A couple days ago something happened that scared me.
We were on our way back from vacation, a vacation that was the stuff of dreams, quixotic and quaint, just the way I like them. The last several weeks we've been looking for a primary vehicle--something that seats 7 or 8--and happened upon a steal of a deal on Craig's List. It was a '06 Honda Odyssey with 52,000 miles for 11,995. For those of you unschooled in the world of "caravan" pricing, we're talking about a vehicle that typically goes for around 19 to 20 grand. It caught our eye, and though we were hearing the "if it's too good to be true it probably is" refrain playing in our heads, we also though that is might be "manna from heaven" sent down by God to bless a poor pastor and his hungry family. hehe. There isn't much of a difference between the miraculous and ridiculous, it all depends on the angle of your belief system.
We were crossing our fingers for the miraculous.
We travelled across Canada and drove right past our house in Lowell as we made our way to Wyoming, MI to some used car dealership on the South side of Grand Rapids. As we pulled our travel weary carcasses into the car lot and put it into park, the girls exploded out the side doors like pent up wild animals locked for way too long in the zoo. The salesman, Sam, who Heidi had been talking to on the phone that day, came out of the dealership and we joined up in front of the much anticipated beautiful blue Odyssey (the newer model). At first glance, it was "the joy of man's desiring", and somehow, no one had purchased it while we were en route. He said "no fewer than 30 people" had stopped in to check out "this steal of a deal" and that many were pending, waiting only for financing to pull the trigger. As you well know, this only makes you feel all the more rabid about buying it a.s.a.p so that no one else gets this "one of a kind" "opportunity of a lifetime". All these marketing/sales slogans are being kicked around like a hacky sack at recess, and you're starting to believe that if you don't get the car you're never going to be able to live with yourself, always thinking about what might of been "if only".
We took it for a test drive and it was akin to mounting a cherubim and riding it through the cottony clouds. Noiseless, smooth, tight. It had the new car smell. The stereo was premium sound with the upgraded package. I started and stopped abruptly to see if everything felt "newish". The brakes pulsated a bit, and the steering wheel shook when you got up to about 80 mph on the highway, but other than that, it felt sound mechanically. (keep in mind that this is only the clumsy observation of a mechanical clod)
We re-parked it in the lot and started investigating the exterior. He told us that it had gotten in an accident at 2,000 miles and that the insurance company bought out the car because of a 5,000 mile warranty in the state of Indiana and that according to the Car Fax report the car had minor damage in the accident resulting in little to no structural damage to the frame, a simple replacement of the right front fender, and a couple new plastic parts under the hood which seemed "neato" to me who was mainly concerned about the safety of the vehicle and the pleasure it gave me to see that the little legal log of the car's history noted that the air bags weren't deployed and the car was as sound and secure as your mother's uterus. (notice the flurry of selling points coming at you without a pause confusing you with precept upon precept of information-overload neutralizing your ability to think critically)
I started seeing some things that concerned me though. The door was jarred a bit on the passenger side. The panels weren't aligned on the side that the car allegedly got into a "fender bender". The hood was heaved a bit in the front and the bumper seemed "flimsy" for lack of a better word. A couple other things caused a siren to go off in my head as well. The glove compartment felt held together by tacks and paper clips when you opened it and the air bag cover seemed tampered with, almost like someone trying to reseal an envelope after illegally opening it with steam and stealth. Let's just put it this way, there was some "sleight of hand" in this magic show, and though I couldn't detect the tricks with my philistine eyes, my heart felt the pangs of panic.
We met inside and negotiated a bit. Heidi and I looked back and forth at each other trying to get a sense of each other's comfort level. I was getting mixed signals, feeling mixed signals, speaking mixed signals. The "mixed emotions" in this situation were almost paralyzing as I felt pressured to make a decision in the forthcoming moments that would drastically impact the next several years of our life as a family. Mounting pressure and stress was pulsating in my temples and finally I caved in and decided to "take the risk" and "chuck caution to the wind". We decided to put down a large amount of money via check with the plan of getting a low interest loan the next day at our bank to finance the rest. We signed some papers, got a copy of the title (Indiana title ??? scam alert!) to show to our bank and shook hands as we headed home.
No sooner did I leave the lot that my heart started to feel sick with knots of doubt and discernment-denial. Discernment-denial describes the all-to-common activity of telling your conscience over and over and over again to shut-up and go sit on the naughty mat in the corner. I was so fatigued from this fight that I felt like I'd played a hearty game of rugby. I sat in the driver's seat feeling like I was fleeing the scene of a "horrible accident" that I allowed, caused, or a some sick mix of both. As sweat was beading up on my forehead and I was going into a state of shock, Heidi turned to me and added "scorn to scars": "Well, then why didn't you just walk away if you felt all this stuff?" I couldn't even respond. I was pulling an Adam in the Garden..."Silent, Passive, & Paralyzed, Fig leaf secured into place."
The only thing I knew to do was call a mechanic friend to get some level-headed advice. I really wanted someone to just tell me what to do. I was---seriously--disabled. Steve answered the phone and I just shared the details of what I knew. Over and over again I would hear him say, "Oh, man...oh, man" as I unfolded the details of this "deal". To make a long story less long he said, "Dude, call the bank and discontinue that check. He's probably gonna cash it tomorrow morning at daybreak and you'll be out the money you put down for deposit. You've been sold a lemon put together by a chop shop. You've been duped by a "Division Street" snake oil salesman." My stomach cinched up into my throat making it difficult to breath for the next half an hour. I knew the first night home from vacation would be a long one.
Heidi woke the next morning and called the bank before it opened. They said, in so many words, "Sorry, we can't stop payment on the check, m'am. I suggest you call the guy and go and get your check this morning." I thought, "We're up the creek without a paddle. We've been scammed and I'm a moron!" My stomach felt like a ball of rubber bands, the kind that used to be in old golf balls when you would rip them open. It was an unyielding sense of shame and loathing that I couldn't shake, it was all my fault and there was no one to blame but myself.
Heidi looked at me and said, "Well, do you want to go alone or do you want me to come with you?" Secretly, I was hoping she would let me go to work and that she would go over and fight to get our check back. I didn't want the confrontation; I wanted to run from the conflict. But I knew that I was the man, and even if I couldn't be the man, I had to "play the man", gird up my loins and take one for the team. I sighed and said, "Yeah, I'll go." Under my breath I said something like "We're dead meat" as I went up the stairs to take a shower and prepare to fight in the arena as a gladiator for our deposit check. I was preparing to die as I let the warm droplets from the shower cascade down my crestfallen face.
As we made our way to the place of "snake oil", "snake charmers" and "snake handlers"...my stomach churned with imminent doom. I "just knew" we were going to get there and he was going to give us the "song and dance": "Oh, I cashed that this morning, there's no going back, I held it for you and I can't refund your money." I was walking to the gallows preparing my nose as I went.
We pulled into the driveway, I brought myself to walk into the showroom, and I asked for Sam. He was in the back room (with the rest of his Italian Mafia friends smoking cigars and counting money). I waited for him. The seconds seemed like minutes as my heart beat in the side of my neck. All at once, he came around the corner, his slicked back hair and clean shaven face saying, "I've got the upper hand, you little incompetent punk...make my day!"
I decided upon a simple argument and it was this: "Sir, I have 3 beautiful daughters and a wife of 14 years. I wouldn't be able to live with myself should we get in an accident only to find that the airbags didn't work." That was it. Every other argument felt juvenile. And so, with all the strength I could muster after a night of almost no sleep, I breathed in and stated almost verbatim what I just wrote. He looked at me, smiled with his head tilted, pulled out the check and placed it in my hand. He said that he understood and that I had to do what I had to do. I stood there like a statue--marbled and marveled--like "the thinker".
I walked back to the van, opened the door, gave the check to Heidi, sat in the driver's seat and drove away pinching myself to see if this was all a horrible nightmare. Heidi tore up the check with an almost "manly" aggression...compensating for my lack of manliness the last 14 hours of our existence.
Things like this make me feel so stupid. But I'll leave that for my next blog titled "Selective Intelligence." This whole situation led me to some interesting musings. Stay tuned.