Car shopping has always been a painful experience for me. I try to learn enough beforehand to be a savvy negotiater. I take notes while watching the TV car ads, but they’re not that explicit. Maybe the precise details are in the six lines of fine print flashed across the screen for one second before the ad closes.

What really disturbs me is the cheerful challenge to “come down and make your best deal!” The last time I managed a successful “best deal” was in the last century when I aced a trade with Skippy Zabrowski: My turtle for his cat. It was a real coup. In just a few weeks I had three cats and he had only one dead turtle. Skippy had never questioned Lightning’s lack of vital signs.

When it comes to pregnant cats and dead turtless, I can be a wheeler-dealer, but it’s a completely different story with cars. For one thing, I was misinformed. I thought our automakers were up against it with stiff foreign competition. So I believed their ads promising “fantastic savings” and “rock bottom pricing”.

When I saw a line up of small Detroit-built streamlined cars in the lot beneath a “SPECIAL CLEARANCE!” banner, I thought I might have stumbled onto something worthwhile.

“What’s the price on those sports cars?” I asked the salesman and then he told me. “No, I don’t want to buy all of them,” I said. “What’s the price of one?” Clyde began to explain the automotive facts of life to me. My eyebrows went up and they have never come down.

Eventually I was ushered into Clyde’s office and, while he flipped through price lists and pounded away on his little device, I glanced around the room and was dismayed to discover I was in the grip of the “Salesman of the Year”. Why do I always get the hotshot salesman? Are there no more Skippy Zabrowskis out there?

I told him the car model I wanted, how much I could put down, and the few features I’d like. He flipped pages and pounded wildly for five minutes before telling me the amount of my monthly payments. Ugh!

I dropped the 6-speaker stereo system, the sun roof and the rear seat TV. Clyde was getting me down to the basic dead turtle and it was still too expensive. To pay the monthlys on this stripped down car I would have to give up or minimize most lunches, HBO and my tap dancing classes. There was the new roof for the house, but I thought there was a reasonable chance for a prolonged drought.

One has to be firm in these situations, so I stood my ground and kept demanding concessions until Clyde finally caved. My first oil change would be free as well as complimentary bagels and coffee during all oil changes. I pressed harder until he promised a free windshield scraper You gotta be hardnosed with these guys.

“You’re a tough customer,” Clyde admitted. “I’ll have to get the manager’s okay on this deal.” I tried not to show how pleased I was with the way I’d handled myself, wanting to maintain my hard-as-nails image.

Clyde left, and in a few minutes, I saw an older man smiling at me through the door window. I thought I detected giggling. He disappeared and a few minutes later I heard laughter and what sounded like the popping of a cork.

Eventually, Clyde returned with the contract and told me to sign just above the champagne stain. “Not so fast, Clyde! ” I said. Run through those figures again.!

He got a little surly, but he read off the numbers while I checked them on my Texas Instrument light-powered calculator. (It pays to keep up technically.) Sure enough, my figures were correct. I was giving up vacations and recreation for 48 months, but my shrewd dealing had managed to insure food, clothing and shelter, plus all those free bagels and coffee.

P.S. I just noticed today while looking over the contract, the car dealership’s manager, the co-signer, was S. Zabrowski. I’m sure it was just a coincidence.

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