A month ago, I was driving my 2003 Honda Civic alongside Washington Crossing Park when the engine light lit up and the car began to shake and growl. It was clearly not clicking on all cylinders. With only 191,852 miles, the car died. (“Whatever happened to reliability?” you ask.) Following this surprise demise, I began the process of buying a new car.
Buying a car, along with buying a house and working a flea market, is one of the few remaining activities in America requiring the ancient art of haggling. Ostensibly, I had excellent training in that fine art. Years ago, I lived in Turkey where I learned how to bargain with the proprietor of Ali’s Copper Shop for engraved brass bowls in the local bazaar. I learned about beginning with a really low offer, about feigning indignation at the counter-offer and about walking away in seeming anger before reaching a price where no one felt cheated.
I got to observe a haggling master when a Turkish acquaintance helped me buy a custom-made suit with multiple fittings for a miniscule $35. I watched in awe as he convinced the brave little tailor that by agreeing to the price, he’d ensure that I’d come back for more suits and that I’d encourage other Americans to patronize his services. It worked, and I became the owner of a ridiculously inexpensive, perfectly fitted, blue-and-yellow-checkered suit.
Since then, I have had a fair amount of experience bargaining successfully. In the last two years, I bought a car for my wife and daughter going through the requisite steps: I researched prices online, visited several dealers, and walked out before making the buy, saying that I needed to think things over. True to form, I feigned anger, sneered and played hard-to-get. Ultimately, I negotiated well and, in each instance, I was satisfied and the dealer seemed happy.
Then, I bought a car for myself, and it was a disaster! I found the lowest price online and crossed into Pennsylvania, site of the irresistible deal. Sure enough, it was bait and switch. The low price was connected to the tiniest of small print that stated the price applied only to Martians who spoke three languages backwards and were born on a Monday between 3 and 4 a.m.
Any self-respecting haggler would have walked out. I did not. Instead of screaming and yelling at the deception, I protested weakly and listened quietly to an insulting offer thousands of dollars higher than the original quote. And, relatively quickly, I accepted a terrible deal. Inexplicably, I was transformed from hard-nosed bargainer into a deer in the headlights, a babe in the woods, a pigeon at the poker table. I ended up paying over $276,000 for a bottom-of-the-line, no-frills Honda Civic.
When I left the dealership after making this grotesque deal, I have it on good authority that everyone at the establishment—customers, salespeople, passersby—began rolling on the floor with hilarity. Small children who had been whining non-stop said to each other, “Can you believe such incompetent bargaining? What a jerk, what an idiot.” Only the salesman, unaccustomed to so complete and unearned a triumph, was stone faced. Rather than rub his hands in glee, he wept out of sheer pity for how little resistance I had put up and how effortlessly he had fleeced me (or I had fleeced myself).
Since that moment of utter defeat, I have replayed my self-destruction over and over trying to figure out how I could have let it happen and what I might have done. Most everyone has advised me, “You have to forgive yourself. You have the car. Just move on.”
But how can I give up such intense self loathing, self doubt and misery, such agony over the massive abandonment of the basic human need to get a good deal?
Perhaps I should never have left my native New Jersey soil and allow myself to be overcome by the disabling miasma of Pennsylvania. Perhaps aliens had taken over my brain. Perhaps I contracted some mysterious psychological illness or uncovered some hitherto unrecognized character defect. Clearly, like my old car, I was not clicking on all cylinders.
So now I am in intensive therapy and taking handfuls of psychotropic drugs daily. There has been some talk about a lobotomy. Every time I get into my new car, I cringe as it reminds me of my humiliation and total failure as a human being. (In fiendish revenge, I filled the car trunk with sheep manure for my compost.)
One bright note: I donated my old car to National Public Radio and days later a flatbed truck arrived and hauled the old heap away. They should have taken me as well.
Robin Schore lives in Titusville.