Monday, August 17, 2009


This post was originally published on June 11, 2009.

We got a new car last week. Yes, even in “this economy” people are buying new cars.

Of course, the car I was driving was breaking down on a regular basis and didn’t have air conditioning and the tires were bald and in order for us to take the road trip we’re planning for later this summer we’d have to RENT a car to get there and there’s NO WAY I’d sell it to anybody I knew. But, hey, we could have made it work for another year or so.

Anyway, I just have to say that buying a car is one of those truly distasteful little “chores” that I honestly hate to do. Good thing we don’t do it very often. I mean, it’s stressful, expensive, and just a little bit tawdry what with all the paper-sliding-across-the-desk and “let-me-go-talk-to-my-manager” stuff that goes on. It’s just icky. In my opinion.

But it had to be done, so B and I headed for the car dealer a couple of weeks ago to take a test drive. Now, mind you, the work had already been done and the deal was just about sealed before we even set foot on the lot thanks to the internet and my husband. So when we arrived we met a salesman who handed us a key and off we went.

The car was fine. The salesman wasn’t. All he did was say, “Turn here” or complain about his other customers while texting someone from the back seat. Truthfully, he was kind of annoying. Not engaging. Just basically there for the ride.

B and I talked about our salesman, Joe, on the way home. About how he never showed us any features of the car. How he never really probed to see if we were interested in buying. How he never SOLD us the car.

We were kind of annoyed that he would get the commission for selling the car that we already knew we’d be buying.

So the day came last week for us to take delivery on our new car (that’s car dealer lingo—don’t you like it?). I took Kate with me because I just didn’t want to deal with Joe by myself. Plus, I like taking Kate with me—she’s a great conversationalist.

I had warned her about Joe as we were driving there. I told her that I found him to be kind of abrupt. Basically, I didn’t have very much nice to say about him.

Joe met us at the door and showed us our car with the newly installed roof rack. Then he led us inside to start with the paperwork. He quickly rambled on about the sale, the numbers, and the warranty. I didn’t hear much of what he said because he was talking so fast. He flipped through leaflets and brochures and handed them to me with such speed that I just piled them up and thought, “I’ll just have B look at them later.”

At one point Joe had to leave us to go check on something. I looked at Kate, rolled my eyes, and said, “See what I mean?”

She looked straight at me and said, “He hates his job.”

“What?” I said, kind of startled at her abruptness. “You think?”

“Yeah, Mom. I mean, wouldn’t you hate this job too? It’s obvious . . . he hates his job.”

“Maybe so,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean he has to be a jerk about it.”

“You’re right, but I bet if you got to know him he’s probably not so bad,” Kate said. “Give the guy a chance.”

So we agreed that if we had the chance, we’d try to get to know Joe a little better. When he finally came back he explained that it might be a little while because a customer ahead of us was buying two cars for his business. There must have been only one paperwork person because we had to wait while they processed those two cars first.

Finally, Joe asked if we had any questions about the car.

Um, yeah, like how does it work? What are the features I should know about? Anything cool I should know how to do?

We walked outside and looked at the car. Joe showed us where our I-pod plugged in, that was cool. And how the back windows roll down, also cool because my previous mini-van didn’t have that feature. Other stuff like that.

After that, we went back inside to wait.

And wait.

And wait some more.

So, I dove into the deep end and asked, “So, Joe, how long have you worked here?”

And thus began a conversation that humbled me to my core. Because my daughter was sitting beside me proving to me what a jerk I had been.

Over the course of a mere 20 minutes we learned that Joe had worked at this dealership for four years, and that he’d been selling cars for two years. We learned that he grew up downstate and headed straight for the Marines after high school because his cousin, whom he idolized, had gone to the U.S. Naval Academy.

Unfortunately, during the first couple of years in the Marines, Joe was in a car accident that caused a broken leg in three places, had a Titanium rod placed in his leg, and also received a fake knee. Joe’s naval career had ended with that accident.

We then learned that Joe had dreams of becoming a lawyer, but that those dreams were temporarily on hold because the woman to whom he had been married and for whom he had put his education on hold so that she could get her Master’s degree had left him as soon as she finished school. Joe hadn’t even finished his Bachelor’s degree. He’d like to, though, and then go to law school. The selling cars thing was just helping him save some money so he could go back to school.

In that short time we also learned that Joe plays the cello—he’s been playing for 16 years. He’s going to play in the wedding of one of his buddies in September—Pachelbel Canon in D.

Joe also has a dog. A bulldog named Nimitz. We got to see pictures of the dog on his Blackberry.

So, you see, in just 20 short minutes (O.K., it was probably longer because we had to wait a LONG time for the paperwork guy) we got to know Joe. We learned that Joe probably does hate his job. That he’d for sure like to be anywhere but where he is right now, selling cars. We learned that Joe has a painful past and is carrying around a load of hurt but he’s trying his best to get it together.

When I was younger, my dad always told me that in order to win people over, you have to get them talking about themselves. Just by asking a few questions, you’ll get the other person talking about their life and they will think you are just about the best person EVER.

My dad also said that a successful conversation is one in which you never reveal anything about yourself, not because you want to keep things private, but because you got the other person talking about himself so much.

That’s kind of how it was with Joe. Sure, we told him a few things about us and our family. Kate told him about her finals last week and her college search process. But mostly, I think the conversation was a success because we got Joe to talk about himself. I would guess that most of the time his customers talk about themselves, seeing him as important as the paper on the wall.

As we drove away in our new car, Kate and I weren’t looking at the gadgets and gizmos sitting in front of us. Instead we drove away with a bit of heavy-heartedness for our new friend, Joe. We talked about his pain and how a life without Jesus is always messed up in some way.

I admitted to Kate that she was right about Joe. I should have given him a chance. I should have seen that there was a story behind his behavior.

But my selfish self got in the way again. That ugly part of me just wants to think the worst of people and not see them as broken, which most likely they are.

I am so glad that Kate took the time to teach me a different way of seeing people like Joe. My daughter, who is wise beyond her years, reminded me of something I should have already known—that people everywhere, no matter who they are, have a story that’s just waiting to be told.

Yes, I am a teller of stories. This blog proves that. But I hope that I will also be a better listener to other people’s stories. That will make me a better writer and a better person.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure you made his day. I really doubt many people do much more than barter on prices with him. That's gotta get old fast.