Being home for the Holidays, at least during the daytime at my house, generally presents two options for entertainment: watching Lifetime Original movies with my sister (A Nanny For Christmas) or counting how many individual dog hairs canvass the leather furniture of our family room. I got lucky on Friday, though. My sister, Rachel, who has recently moved back to the United States from Denmark, is in need of a car so that she may start working again in hopes of inflating her bank account, which has a cash flow problem that rivals the country of Greece.
Buying 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, after my parents decided my grandfather was no longer in the right condition to drive. Grandpa disagreed, and every time they came to visit our house he would force my brother to show him the car inside and out for a painful 83 minutes. My grandma, who always hated driving, handed down her 92 Lumina to me when I was in high school so at least I didn’t feel like I stole it away.
There was later a Mazda for my sister, a Toyota Camry she bought on her own in college to the chagrin of my dad, a Hyundai Sonata for my brother and a Malibu for me. My dad has owned just four cars in my lifetime: some old Brown car that had one of those spider web cracks in the windshield, an early 90s Camry, a Toyota Avalon and, for the last five years, another Camry. My mom’s current car, a Nissan Xterra, her first venture away from the Soccer Mom choices of station wagons and minivans, scrapes the pavement every time you simply tap its brakes.
We’ve had a lot of cars, cars that have been passed along to other friends or family members or sold back to dealers in exchange for a bushel of rice, which is still far above the market value of the cars we trade in. And now, we were in need of another one. I turned off A Boyfriend For Christmas (not to be confused with that nanny!), dusted the dog hairs off my shirt and hopped into my dad’s Camry. We were going to Olathe.
West of Pflumm Road, and north of College Boulevard lies Olathe. It is the second-biggest city in Johnson County, a county that seems lifted straight from the movie Pleasantville except for its even smaller minority population. There are many vital rules one must follow to survive in Johnson County, some written, some unwritten. The foremost of these stipulates that you must paint the exterior of your house in beige or taupe and, more so, you must punish any neighbor who doesn’t in a passive-aggressive way. Never share your feelings. Just make sure that family is never selected for the lawn of the month honor. Lower, city-based rules entail that you must refer to Leawood as Leahood and you must reserve a little scorn for Olathe.
Let me clarify that last part. Olathe is a little different from the rest of Johnson County, at least that is what plenty of people would tell you. Personally I just like to make fun of it because I like to make fun of just about everything. Olathe is like any other suburb really. There are pockets of big houses. There is a Wal-Mart that serves one billion customers per day. There is a tiny downtown that offers parallel parking and confusing one-way streets. There is a Joe’s Crab Shack, an Old Navy and a deserted mall that now attracts less business than the Burlington Coat Factory directly across the from it. Every fall, in Olathe, the residents gather together for something called Old Settlers Days, where people act how our pioneer ancestors did, you know, by eating funnel cake and getting pissed off because you SWEAR there is no way that ball is small enough to fit in the hole of the milk can. RIPOFF!
The main gateway to Olathe is Santa Fe Road, known in Overland Park as 135th Street. The street changes names as you pass into Olathe territory, into the wild. We drove through this way, enjoying the sounds of Christmas, until, BREAK LIGHT. There was traffic. Two p.m. Friday of a holiday weekend, there was traffic. That is Olathe.
Santa Fe Road is surrounded by thriving commerce, i.e. vacuum cleaner stores, Big Lots and Mexican restaurant buffets, so many of them that there is no room for expansion. The stores are literally just a few feet from the roadway. No matter how packed Olathe gets, the road can never grow. That’s why its Friday afternoon traffic resembles Osaka in rush hour.
We pushed through, idling and complaining about the insanity. Then we missed our left turn. Because this is Olathe, where the streets were seemingly designed by Oscar Niemeyer, it took us about two more left turns and then a right turn to finally get back on track, back to the car dealerships. Santa Fe Road is populated by an inordinate number of them. I think used car dealers flock to Olathe to set up shop entirely for the purpose of saying the name of the city in a cool way for advertisements. You can do a lot with the three syllables of Olathe, like one dealer did in a commercial from my childhood: “Come down to see me at Sunflower Dodge in OOOOOOOO-LATH-E!
Our first stop was Olathe Kia, or as the commercial jingle goes, “See-ya, at Olathe Kia, see ya, at Olathe Kia.”
“I really don’t want anything for Christmas,” Brent said. “I just want my family to be happy.”
Brent is the man who jolted outside of a portable office building at Olathe Kia (SEE YA!) before my dad could fully take his keys out of the ignition. He wore a light jacket but never shivered and his everyman-short brown hair was complimented by his voice. Like with his family, I am sure he just wanted us to be happy, if that happiness could be attained by spending a truckload of money on one of his cars.
Rachel was looking for something very specific. She wanted it to be small but not too small, a stickshift but an automatic would be OK and cheap, yeah, definitely cheap. That actually was specific.
Brent processed these descriptions in his head for a moment. He was struggling. He might not have had anything that would work. Then it hit him. He walked us toward the north side of the lot, strategically leading us past a random car that had two frozen turkeys thawing in its trunk.
“I’ll probably give those to charity,” he said.
Finally, we made it to a manual PT Cruiser. He remembered when they first came out and they were going for $5,000 above MSRP. I remembered when Lil’ Wayne* and Juvenile rapped about the PT Cruiser in the song “Shine.” I don’t think Juve’ had this car in mind. After telling us to hop in, Brent recommended we take it for a test drive. The first step for any successful test drive involves starting the car. This car failed the first step. Brent planted his foot on the clutch, shifted to first gear and turned the keys as the dead battery failed to start the engine. Whoops. What was all that $5,000 above MSRP talk about?
*Yellow Viper, yellow hummer, yellowBenz, Yellow PT Cruiser, Yellow ‘Lac on rims. Drop yellow ‘vette and a platinum Rolls Royce. That’s seven different cars every day I got a choice.
I helped him jump start the car, and then my dad, sister and I were on the test drive. Brent didn’t come. For five minutes, my sister took the PT Cruiser past the Kansas School of the Deaf, a scenic downtown and by what may have been a turpentine store. Suddenly, Rachel decided the seat was too far back. She couldn’t reach the pedals. To properly move it forward, she had to stop the car, and she turned it off while we were at a red light about a quarter-mile from the dealership.
She adjusted the seat. She stuck the key back in the ignition and turned. Nothing. She turned it again. Nothing. The car hadn’t charged up enough. We were stuck. Two young women were behind us. Whereas the rest of the stopped traffic quickly realized we weren’t going anywhere and moved out of the way, they just stayed. They apparently couldn’t tell the difference between being stopped behind a dead car and being stopped in regular Santa Fe traffic.
I’ve always secretly wondered why people’s cars just die, why there are cars stranded on the side of the road at all hours of the day. Usually I just pass those people, screaming obscenities in my head while giving them a forty-mile stare for stopping traffic. Actually being stuck, I couldn’t help but think that it was actually kind of relaxing. Sitting there, watching people drive by while giving you throat-slashing gestures felt therapeutic in a way. I had nowhere else to be.
Not wanting to walk back, we called Brent, who arrived at about the same time as the police, flashing lights and all. In Olathe, a cop is never more than six feet away. It gets kind of awkward when you need to shower.
Fortunately, Brent had been here before. He gave the car a charge and waved away the police officer. We followed him back to the dealership, our afternoon just beginning. His, too.
“My wife said she had a surprise for me when I get home,” Brent said. “I just hope she’s done the laundry.”
Next stop, Midwest Auto Group. It was tucked alongside one of those frontage roads that traces the path of a highway. We hopped out of the car, waiting, expecting a man would rush out like Brent, questions spewing out of his mouth. No one did.
Instead we walked onto the showroom floor. A Harley Davidson stood in one corner and a Saab in another. One woman sat at a desk. She was talking on the phone next to the Harley. Three or four men scrambled about, clicking madly at desktops or congregating for no apparent reason. It smelled of hospitals and fake Italian three-piece suits.
One of the suits got up. He was Matt. My sister went over the highly specific parameters. He had a Toyota Matrix that reasonably fit. Want to take it for a test spin?
Well, we were only sort of taking this baby for a test spin. We were actually going to fill up the car with gas and then go for a drive. Matt instructed us to go to the nearest QuikTrip because his dealership had a gas card for that particular station. I knew exactly where it was located: Santa Fe Road.
Approximately 17 angst-ridden minutes later, we stopped the car at a red light about half a mile from QuikTrip. This was actually the first red light we’d been stopped at since that last red light in the PT Cruiser. No problem, right? A red light. Psshh, like one of those gave us trouble earlier.
When it turned green, my sister pushed down on the clutch, tried to shift and went…nowhere. She did it again. Nowhere. I looked around us. A swirl of angry Olatheans revved their engines, hungry for the kill. Matt was silent. She did it again and again and again. Nowhere, nowhere, nowhere.
In two different cars, in under one hour, we had kicked up one of those inexplicable Osaka-style traffic jams on Santa Fe Road. It was awesome.
After at least two cycles of green lights with my sister trying to get the car going to no avail, my dad kicked her out of the driver’s seat and finally got the car started. Of course, he didn’t do it quickly enough. A police car rolled up, lights and all. He asked us if we needed any help, and we quickly all answered in the negative, though not before traffic was blocked in the other lane.
Next stop, QuikTrip. We made it, and discovered that every person who had been driving on Santa Fe also decided to stop for some gasoline. With all the pumps occupied, my dad circled the lot twice before we waited behind an SUV with no owner in sight. Surely, the owner must have been inside, paying for the gas.
A woman finally waddled back to the SUV, and waddled is really the best term to use. As I’ve mentioned in blogs before, I don’t like to call out people for physical attributes, but let’s just say she wasn’t model-thin. She returned with a sandwich and then started pumping gas. Quickly, she opened the sandwich, discarding the lettuce into a nearby trashcan.
“There goes the only healthy part,” my sister joked.
Not quite. The woman waited a few seconds and then disposed of the tomatoes as well. Even Matt was laughing.
He seemed like a good cat while he was in the car with us, but then we returned to the used car lot, his land, where he reverted to his huckster ways. It was like Mike Dexter on Can’t Hardly Wait. He slummed with us normal folk, even cracked jokes with us, only to betray us back on terra firma.
“Were you thinking of cash or finance?” he asked. “You know what you’re getting for $5,000. You might as well look for something better with a good monthly payment. Why don’t we sit down and talk it over?”
He led us back to the showroom, which had mysteriously morphed into a dance club considering Moby’s “Southside” was now playing in the background. Matt, Rachel and my dad carried on a conversation in which no party was interested while I break-danced in the corner. Then Matt did what no Olathe used car salesman should ever do.
“Hold on, I need to ask my colleague a question,” he said.
He was losing his game. A few minutes later, Matt returned with another man, a much greasier man, who introduced himself as Shane. He said he was going to take over.
“We have to get out of here,” my dad told him.
“Well, I just wanted to shake your hand,” Shane said, “and thank you for coming in.”
Then we did get the hell out of Olathe. Back home, A Hedge Fund Manager’s Daughter For Christmas NEVER sounded better.