It was a six-figure mistake that just boiled down to this: Steve wasn’t reading the book correctly. Now we were all going to pay.
I gunned my red-and-black ’86 Ninja 600 up the final hill on the road to the Infiniti dealer where I was the lowest salesman on the proverbial totem pole, briefly touching redline in third then clamping the soggy brakes down hard for the left turn into the back lot. It was a Saturday morning in the spring of 1994, and despite my best Tom-Cruise-in- Top Gun impression on the way there, I was already 10-minutes late for work. Normally this wouldn’t matter much; our sales staff tended to filter in by dribs and drabs between 8:00 a.m. and the sales meeting at 8:30, which rarely started on time anyway.
This Saturday was different. The general manager for our (pathetic little) dealership group was in town, and he’d demanded everybody arrive by 8:00 for an emergency meeting. I was going to be the last man into the basement conference room, which meant that I stood a good chance of going back home that morning without a job. The Ninja squeaked to an uneasy halt and dieseled for a petulant half-second after I killed the ignition. Struggling to get my shirt’s top button closed and my tie pulled up to match, I ran towards the door, hobbling a bit because the sole on my right shoe had worn through to the sock some time in the previous week. In every sense you could think of, I was on the bubble: flat broke, still below the monthly draw after 17 days, starting to develop the panicky tic that betrays the poor fellow who needs your business too much to excite anything but your contempt.
There was a general nervous titter as I burst through the door, breathing hard, and darted towards the only open seat in the room. It was empty because it was directly in front of the general manager. “As I was saying,” he spat, giving me a look that seemed to indicate that today was my last day in the near-luxury sales business, “you’ve all really screwed the pooch here. I’d like to fire every one of you. None of you would make it a week on a real car lot. But since God looks after fools and morons, you’re all getting another chance. And we’re gonna spend some real money to turn all of you losers … into winners.”
It’s about Steve and the book, I realized. Some time in 1993, the dealership had hired a new sales manager, a middle-aged man who looked like the creepy guy in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. He’d been a rising star in the boat-sales business; as I understood it, the dealer principal had met him while shopping for a new Bayliner or some other hick-trash conveyance like that, said meeting coinciding with a complete loss of faith on said principal’s part regarding his existing sales staff. Steve hired an all-new staff featuring a few attractive women of a certain age and a bunch of over-tanned, under-employed country-club tennis-rat dudes. Steve’s idea was that salesmen should look like the customers.
I’d met Steve and his crew when I accompanied my father to the dealership in the fall of that year. Dad had an absolute beater of a four-year-old Lexus ES250. It had 125,000 miles on the clock and a junkyard short-block under the hood thanks to the old man’s decision to maintain a home in Ohio and a condo in Florida. I’d prepared Dad for the beating he was going to take, but to our amazement Steve offered him KBB retail for the thing. We couldn’t make the deal fast enough. Three weeks later, we returned with my stepmother’s 1992 Audi 100LS, a crapwagon of immense proportions that had spent a third of its life in the service bay. We were so underwater on the thing that Steve’s high-book number still didn’t bring us to equity, but you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth just because you’re saddle-sore. We were now a two-Infiniti family.
“If these people are leasing new cars for $399 a month and getting everybody out of their trade,” Dad opined, “then you should go work there, because I think that even you could succeed in conditions like that.” I took his advice. Steve took a shine to me; I was fresh meat with no preconceptions about the business. I could quote Chaucer and dish all the dirt on the town’s upper-class personalities. I was tailor-made to sell high-ticket items to diffident millionaires. This has nothing to with the actual business of an Infiniti dealer, which was knocking shit out the door at the lowest lease price possible before the mark remembered there was a Lexus store two miles away. But it was a nice idea and Steve was very kind to me as I struggled to earn a $1,000 a month in a compensation scheme that not even my years as a VAX operator at university equipped me to understand.
A few months passed and our used-car inventory swelled to outrageous proportions. We couldn’t sell them for the money we had in them. Most of the time, we couldn’t even sell them at a loss. The used cars filled the front lot. Then they filled the back. Then we made a deal with the hotel next to the dealership to use their parking. That’s when the general manager arrived for the first time. And that’s when I found out Steve had been reading from the wrong column in the KBB auto book. Apparently it wasn’t set up like the boat book. He’d been paying high retail for dozens of cars. We were hundreds of thousands of dollars upside-down.
Now it was time to pay the piper. The general manager, a heavy-set 50-ish dude with a white moustache and a double-breasted suit, was breathing fire. “You dipshits … ” he was saying, ” … you dipshits can’t sell unless we flood the lot with suckers. So … ” and he took a breath, because his face was red and his chest was heaving, ” … we’re gonna flood this lot. Bobby, tell ’em.”
Like me, Bobby was a recent college graduate. Unlike me, Bobby was handsome, confident, and wrapped in a brand-new suit. He smiled at all of us and the pity crinkled his eyes. “We’ve engaged in a targeted, wide-spectrum radio buy,” he purred. “For the same cost of putting ads on just one radio station,” and here he named the only station in town that had any listeners besides the deranged, the desperate, the elderly, and the incarcerated, ” — we’ve bought spots on six radio stations,” and he named the radio stations that catered to all of the above. Three of them were AM. One of them didn’t have a signal that reached past the south-side ghetto. One of them, I was pretty sure, had gone out of business the previous year.
“We’ve crafted a hard-hitting radio campaign to get people OUT of their cars and INTO your pre-owned selection,” Bobby said, and here he nodded slightly to the general manager. They were both men of business, worldly-wise fellows who had been unpleasantly tasked by Fate to lecture three recent divorcees, four leathery coke addicts, and a Ninja-riding lit major who had a catsup stain on his pre-owned (by Dad) Yves Saint Laurent tie, but would nevertheless proceed with assurance and celerity towards an inevitable success. “Let’s listen to these spots, and I tell you, ladies and gentlemen — prepare to be amazed!” For a reason that I could not understand then or now, Bobby dimmed the lights. Then he pressed play on a boombox.
“YEEEEEE-HAW!” a voice screamed, all Deliverance nightmare enunciation and corn-pone comedy. “THEY SHORE ARE SELLIN’ EM CHEAP AT THE INFINITI DEALER! THEY GOT USED CARS SO CHEAP YOU CAN’T BELIEVE IT!”
“What my friend is trying to say,” an obviously fake British accent interjected, more Cockney than noble, “is that the excellent chaps at the Infiniti dealer have an outstanding selection of the finest pre-owned vehicles in this area.”
“YOU BETCHA!” the hick screamed. “AND THEY ARE CHEEEEEEEEEEEEE-EEEEE-EEEEP!”
“Ahem,” the vague-BBC voice corrected, “I believe what he is telling is that they are more than competitively priced.”
The spot continued in that vein for an interminable 23 further seconds. Then we heard a 15-second variant, which managed to preserve the spirit of the thing, and a one-minute extended remix, which would have been suitable for use at Abu Ghraib a decade later. Bobby brought the lights back up. “WELL IS THAT GREAT OR WHAT?” he asked.
There was dead silence in the room. The middle-aged women stared open-mouthed at their purses. I kept my face fixed in an absolutely blank expression and started at the general manager’s forehead the way I’d been taught in my career-counseling session back at Miami. Behind me, one of the tennis pros was temporarily shocked out of his post-party morning coma long enough to choke out, in a low but audible drawl, “Fuck. Me. Running.”
The general manager looked at us. Looked at Bobby. “Well, I think it’s great, and I know everybody here agrees. Thank you, Bobby. You’ve done a great job.” Then he turned back to face our dispirited crew. “Now you dipshits listen up. We are running this campaign starting THURSDAY for the big sale event on SATURDAY. You be here, and you be ready to sell. And you,” he snarled, pointing his index finger in my face, “be on time for once.”
On Thursday and Friday, the Muzak in the dealership was replaced by one of the AM stations. Every 10 minutes, they played the 30-second spot. I came to know it as well as I knew the cadence of Page’s solos in Zep III. Six times an hour, the fake hick and the fake British guy told people to come to the dealership on Saturday morning for the used-car sale to end all used-car sales.
That Saturday morning I was on time, behind the wheel of my Fox in the dark-sky drizzle that seemed to portend utter doom for the six of us who hadn’t quit in the previous week. I took a drink of water from the fountain and pressed my right foot down hard to seat the duct tape that I’d placed over the hole in the shoe. At 8:05 the dealership lot was empty. The same was true an hour later. And an hour after that.
Around 1:30 p.m., a couple came in with an Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight. Steve offered them low black book. They left in a huff. Shortly afterwards, one of our MILFs leased a J30 to someone with no trade. Then a tennis pro had a be-back on a G20 who actually bought the thing with cash. Then it was 6:00 p.m. and time to wrap it up. On my way out to the lot, I came face to face with Steve. He’d been crying.
“How was I supposed to know?” he asked me. What did he mean by that? I never found out, because I slipped past him and out the door to another night of Kraft mac and cheese. On the way home, I turned the radio to Sunny 95, the only station with any employed middle-class listener base whatsoever.
“It’s a week to remember — with great prices on new cars at Lexus of Columbus,” the pleasant, cheerful female announcer said. I switched the radio off. It was raining faster than my worn-out wiper blades could handle. The duct tape on my wet shoe slipped off and hit the carpeted floor of the Fox with a light slapping noise. In the seat next to me was last month’s Blue Book, swiped by me out of Steve’s desk earlier in the day for a car-flipping friend who had requested it. At the next light I opened it up. All the prices except “Low trade” had been carefully blacked out with a Sharpie. I felt like I’d earned the right to laugh.