Feeling used

Editor’s note: Sorry for the long lapse between posts. Been busy myself and Rustin, of course, is the new blogger extraordinare for Ball Star at kansascity.com. Be sure to check his stuff out there. And, anyways, on to the post…

Q: How many used car salesmen does it take to change a light bulb?
A: I’m going to work this out on my calculator, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The intricacies of human fear are really quite fascinating.

Like most everything, at least part of our fears can be traced back to the human genome. Yes, we are, and have been for longer than any of us could imagine, genetically programmed to fear certain aspects of our environment.

Because it traces back to the genome, these are shared fears, archetypal phobias. We fear bed bugs. We fear the dark. We fear attacks from ferocious wild animals.

They are instinctual and more than that primal. This is because the human genome is obviously ancient.

Several hundred years ago, and longer than that, you damn well better have been afraid of attacks from wild animals and the dark because if you weren’t, you’d probably get killed.

Now, though? The fears seem a little outdated. When was the last time you saw a saber tooth tiger?

Yeah, our genome* needs an update. We should innately fear guns, not buffalo stampedes. We should innately fear texting while driving, not monsters lurking around our dwellings at night.

*Just to so everyone knows, I’m really not this smart. I know all about this stuff because of KU professor Dr. Steven Ilardi. Now, he is smart.

No, most would argue our genome lacks modern fears, and I would agree, except for one: the used car salesman.

It seems from birth we know to despise them, to cringe at the slimy thoughts induced by their very mention. We dismiss them, make fun of them, stereotype them as overweight fast-talking evildoers.

When pressed to think of what a used car salesman does all day, we imagine a wily man dressed in a checkered suit standing over a clunker with a rolled-back speedometer parked in the back lot repeating the line about how an old lady was the previous owner, and, “she just drove it five miles to and from church every Sunday.”

Yet the stories and stereotypes seem to be a way to divert our fear of them. Deep down, we fear the used car salesman. The anxiety seems innate, like part of the genome.

And that brings us to the point, about 300 words into this post in case you were wondering.

Last month, I battled the human genome and attempted to buy my first used car.


Agatha Trunchbull: I need a car, inexpensive but reliable. Can you service me?
Harry Wormwood: In a manner of speaking, yes

BEFORE April, I knew of used car salesman only from popular culture. The thoughts of the used car salesmen as cheap, sleazy and poorly dressed begin early in all of us because of the genome, and are then cultivated through what we see and hear from media.

It starts with Disney. Or, more specifically, with Goofy.

Goofy, you may or may not realize, has a best friend name Pete in the cartoon “The Goof Troop.” Pete likes to play tricks on Goofy. He likes to cheat Goofy. He likes to sabotage Goofy when they go camping.

Pete isn’t just staggeringly different in the way he acts from the earnest, naïve Goofy; he looks different.

His gut protrudes from a rounded, stocky body. His black dog ears point upwards slightly, not unlike devil horns. His chubby, yet raised, cheekbones don’t feature a permanent scowl underneath them but do give the impression that one could form at any time.

Pete, of course, is a used car salesman.

So is Matilda’s dad. He’s the next step on the list, the used car salesman we see once we reach prime tweenage years.

Matilda’s dad, aptly named Mr. Harry Wormwood, fills engines with sawdust and buys a used car for $118 that he sells for more than five times that amount. He and his wife condemn education and reading. He calls Matilda “Melinda.”

In the movie, he’s played by Danny DeVito. He’s plump and shrill and picks from a wardrobe of checkered shirts, checkered shirts, checkered shirts and plaid shirts.

Finally, upon reaching our late teen years or early 20s, we may stumble across “Breaking Away”* and the noble dealer, if you will.

*The greatest sports movie of all time. A must see.

The main character, Dave Stoller, loves biking and the Italian culture. His father, Ray, is a used car salesman. Unlike Wormwood and Pete, he appears to be a loving, fair man – just not around the used car lot.

There’s a scene where Dave starts working with his dad to make some extra money. At one point, a pair of men start pushing a broken-down car back into the lot that they just bought. Dave wants to give them a refund. Ray tries pushing the car back into the street.

He has a heart attack.

All of these characters are funny but add all of them up and an image comes to mind – overweight and money-hungry, uneducated and unrefined, avaricious and opportunistic. If cars existed in the middle ages, you get a feeling Dante would have created a ring of hell entirely for housing used car dealers.

We can imagine that, hundreds or even thousands of years ago, a mother or father would tell a child a story about how a vicious animal attacked one of their ancestors so that it would stick, so that the offspring would know to avoid the dangerous creatures.

In the same way, this repeated pop culture portrayal of the used car salesmen sticks. It feeds our innate fear, and before we ever walk into the showroom of a used car dealership we think of the salesmen as caricatures, as jokes.

But we’re also trembling.


“It has been said that ‘The only constant in life is change.’

TOYOTA of Paris sits on the north side of Loop 286, a roadway that may be considered the Champs Elysees of Paris, Texas. Only instead of boutiques and designer fashion, the most famous street in this Paris features clunkers and smelly exhaust from passing semis.

I arrived there early one morning in late March. The used car area wasn’t a showroom but rather a jumble of offices. I expected heads to pop out doors, a handful of drooling men with wispy mustaches to appear already tasting a sale. No one did.

I called out for help. A woman stepped away from her computer. I told her I was interested in looking at one of the cars I had viewed online. She walked out with me and handed the keys.

She said nothing other than some directions to take for the test drive. She almost seemed surprised that I was there. She didn’t wear plaid.

To an extent I didn’t want to buy the car because the people working there didn’t seem overzealous. They didn’t rush out of their offices screaming, “What can I do to put you in one of our cars today?”

A couple of weeks passed. I didn’t buy that car, and I was considering driving my brother’s 2003 Hyundai Sonata a while longer, until it completely eroded from its already withered state.

That’s when I received a phone call from Debby Baxter.

Apparently I had talked to her earlier when I first began my search for the used car. She works at Hilliard Automotive in Grapevine, Texas, a town where there are no grapes nor vines.

She called to check if I was still interested in a used car. Said she could get me a deal. Yep, a deal for me, just for me.

Now this sounded about right. Someone was hounding me and promising something “just for me,” i.e., something for anyone who shows up with a checkbook or wad of cash.

All of a sudden, my appetite to search for the perfect used car and the stereotypical used car salesman strengthened.

But I never made it to Grapevine. I surfed the Web that night for some other deals and stumbled upon a delectable one at a dealership in Bonham, Texas.

I went there the next evening for a test drive and knew I wanted the car if I could get the right deal. The blue book value on the car I wanted was about 10-grand, and the blue book value on my Sonata, the passenger side dented to the point that the doors wouldn’t open from the outside and the windshield cracked, was about $900*

*And if my brother Mike reads this from Seoul, he could be finding out for the first time that his car was in such miserable shape before I traded it in.

The enemy showed up with the keys. He looked and sounded like a person from Bonham, Texas, not a shrewd fast-talker. He worked with his wife, who discussed high school football with me as her husband checked out my Sonata.

There was no major negotiating or arguing. I said what I would accept for my car (double blue-book value) and what I would pay for his (a little less) and we, along with the head of the dealership, agreed.

If, and this is an if and I’m knocking on wood as I type, this car doesn’t break down in say a year or two, I got the better deal. I know I did.

I would say I defeated the used car salesman and humanity’s shared fear of the species, but that wouldn’t be right. The used car salesmen that I dealt with didn’t even put up a fight.

The next day I e-mailed Debby Baxter. I had told her that I would stop by to test drive a car in Grapevine after she had called me, but I no longer had to because I bought that car in Bonham.

This was the last opportunity for a used car salesman to show their true colors, to justify our fear.

I expected an e-mail of protest, of arm-twisting. I expected her to sweeten the deal or recommend something else, or heck, I don’t know, knock on my door or stalk me for several weeks.

Instead I got what you saw above, that italicized, nearly philosophical quote about change.

Could it be that our genome got it wrong? Is the used car salesman not an evil, tacky opportunist and actually a sympathetic figure that we have misunderstood all this time?

I scanned further down on the e-mail. Debby Baxter had one more thing to say.

“Please keep my number handy – and remember – the only pressure you’ll get from us is the air in your tires!”

Then again, maybe we got it right.

Editor’s note: You may be wondering what type of car I bought. I left that out on purpose. Although most of the nine readers who frequent this blog likely know what I purchased, I’m leaving the story of my new car for another, hopefully soon, post.

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6 thoughts on “Feeling used

  1. Mike says:


    “Already withered state” is quite inaccurate. Other than the crack in the windshield (which was an “act of God” if you’re crazy, or just bad luck with mother nature if you believe in logic and science; and which would’ve got around $300, which I would’ve paid for if asked), the car was in fine shape. I take offense to the fact that you imply that any other damage, such as the mention of a passenger side “dented to the point that the doors wouldn’t open,” is attributable to me. Who wrote this, Lynn Hirschberg? I would appreciate it if you fixed these inaccuracies. You should fairly state, with no uncertainty, that the car you traded in was in “miserable shape” primarily because of you. I do not like the insult of public defamation added to the injury of being screwed out of a car that I expected to be waiting for me upon my return (as well as the injury of not even being told about any of these happenings). It’s called journalistic integrity, son.

    – Mike

    • Mark Dent says:

      Mike, I didn’t mean that it was in a withered state because of you. I meant that you probably didn’t know of the withered state I put it in.

      • Mike D. says:

        I understand that. But that’s not how the essay reads, which is where my problem lies. What I requested is that the essay clearly state that you put it in the withered state.

  2. Mike says:

    Bah! “got” = “cost” in the first parenthetical aside. Damn Asian computers.

    Also, “feeling used,” indeed.

  3. Rachel Dent says:

    Well, I loved the Matilda reference myself. Mrs. Trunchbull is one of the greatest movie characters I’ve ever seen.

  4. […] cars, I suspect, is an adventure for everyone . It especially is for my family. My brother got his first car, a White Ford Taurus station wagon, […]

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