The New Used Car

In Pittsburgh on June 27, 2009 at 12:00 am


There are lots of car accidents in America, and we have a lot of words to express the damage: Dinged, dinked, dented, scratched, smashed, crushed, T-boned, three-sixteed, and, worst of all, totaled.

Bill’s car was totaled. Not his fault. The insurance company still owes him $1,300. But for now, he’s driving a friend’s car while she’s away in East Asia.

It’s not easy driving somebody else’s car. “I feel like a mooch,” Bill concedes, cruising down Greensburg Pike in search of a parking lot. We arrive and meet J., talk with him about his rusty, rarely-driven Honda, and take the car for a spin. J. is a friendly retiree; he’s traveled around the world and he seems like a nice guy. But his car is a little clunky, and Bill does his best to negotiate a dirt-cheap price.

As a non-driver, I don’t have much to offer except my presence. After all, men behave the strangest when they’re debating the worth of a car, which is why men like to arrive in pairs — there’s a psychological advantage when a friend is standing in the background, wearing sunglasses and folding his arms. Even a non-threatening guy like me can only help, as long as my eyes are covered and my forearms are intertwined.

J. insists on joining us for the test-drive, so halfway through the trip I pretend to send a text-message. I am, in fact, sending a text, but it’s to Bill, who is sitting right next to me: MY OPINION: IT DEPENDS HOW DESPERATE YOU ARE. I THINK HE’S HONEST, BUT THIS CAR WON’T LAST TWO WINTERS WITHOUT SERIOUS WORK. When we park, I keep waiting for Bill to check his phone. They barter. I wait. Finally I say, “Hey, Bill, do you know what time it is?”

Bill pulls out his phone and glances at it, then pockets it again. “Two twenty-five,” he says.

My text hasn’t arrive. I really need to switch service.

Bill finally holds out, and I’m grateful. Even for $850, this car is still an Eighties Honda, and it hasn’t been driven regularly, and its oil pan is dodgy. And like most almost-30-year-old Americans, Bill and I will examine an engine and nod vaguely. If it has moving parts, it looks good to us. We are a scam-artist’s dream.

Driving into Wilkinsburg, Bill pulls into a used-car dealership. I’ve never actually visited such a lot; all I know about them is what I’ve seen in cartoons: A man in a cowboy hat and bolo tie is supposed to wave to us and start calling us “Chief.” Or a guy with a mustache and suede jacket will suddenly appear, startling us, and smoothly whisper a price. And every car is really a lemon, and every odometer has been wound back 50,000 miles. Isn’t that how it works?

But this lot is even weirder: It’s surrounded by chainlink fence and has two levels. There are only about 30 cars on the lot, and it looks more like a mechanic’s garage than a dealership’s headquarters. Grass is growing beneath some of the wheels. Bill parks his borrowed car next to a sedan, with “Parts for Sale” spraypainted on the windshield. I start to second-guess whether the Honda was a good idea.

Bill doesn’t need to buy a used car. His credit score is fine and his last car was new. “I’m just tired of making the damn payments,” he explains, and I don’t blame him. Bill has a steady job, working at the hospital, but he’s criminally under-paid, and all a car does is depreciate in value. Paying for the whole vehicle, outright and in cash, relieves the monthly headache. No bills, no APR. Instead of waiting several years, he’ll own his car by this afternoon.

Bill gravitates toward a 1992 Volvo. The car is painted dark purple and the myriad buttons don’t make any sense, but the car is spacious and lightly worn. For a car that has 217,000 miles on it, the engine starts smoothly and careens nicely around the hills and narrow streets of Wilkinsburg. The lot’s manager is a casual enough guy, and so are his mechanics.

“We were asking two thousand,” says the manager, “but for you, fifteen hundred.”

“Does the cruise control work?”

“I don’t know.”

“Air conditioning?”

“Don’t know. We’re selling it as-is for fifteen hundred. So honestly, we don’t know much about it. The guy who owned it drove with the windows rolled down. He was old. Maybe he just couldn’t see very well.”

This confession is more candid than I expected from a used-car salesman. Even though I’m just Bill’s moral support, standing silently in the back, I’m impressed by their up-front dialogue.

Bill is exercising restraint, but whatever he decides, he’ll need to dig up his old license plate, so he drives me home on the way back to his house. He’s quiet as we ease down Penn Avenue, back toward downtown Pittsburgh. This is a problem I’ve never had to solve — one car totaled, another car borrowed, two used cars optional, plus the expense of registering, the fear of getting conned, the art of the deal. There is so much power-struggle: One man has the car and wants to sell it; the other has the money but also limited time. This is supply-and-demand at its grittiest, playing out on the gravel lot of a low-rent dealership, on a sweltering summer day, in one of Pittsburgh’s most challenged neighborhoods. As micro-economics goes, this is the business school of hard-knocks.

Before, I had to text Bill because I couldn’t speak freely. Now that I can speak freely, I have no idea what to say.


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