For a couple of summers during college, I worked as a lot boy at one of the massive car dealerships on South Tacoma Way (Neko Case wrote a song about the area, which nails the neighborhood’s lingering depression). As far as summer jobs go, it wasn’t a bad gig. I labored alone in a warehouse, detailing recently sold Buicks and Chevys, tearing away the white plastic the new cars arrived wrapped in. I had a mostly functional radio. Sometimes my boss would orchestrate a trade with another dealership, and I would spend a few hours on the road. Those days were the best. Most importantly, I learned that showing up on time and mostly sober puts you a step ahead of a shocking amount of the American workforce.
The car industry suffered the Great Recession before the rest of us. The aughts were rough years for these guys. First, huge swathes of Americans were broke. Second, the rise of the internet gave consumers a lot more power during negotiations. They came armed with knowledge. Sometimes inaccurate and superfluous knowledge, but knowledge all the same. The salesmen (and they were all men) made their money by upselling cars. Greater access to prices around the area made that a lot harder to do.
I realize there’s no great sympathy for car salesmen. But here’s something I noticed working at the dealership those summers: selling cars was one of the few careers available to people without college degrees in which you could still make decent money. If you hustled.
No one at the dealership, except the owner’s son, possessed a college degree. Some of them barely had high school diplomas. The tide of worry rose each year. The salesmen stood by the garage door, choking down cigarettes. The managers paced the lots, kicking tires and muttering to themselves. There were rumors that the dealership was going to lose its license to sell Chevrolets. And the whole time I thought, what the hell are these losers going to do? I returned to school in the fall with a renewed determination to not drop out and spend my life staring at half-empty car lots, wondering when I would get laid off. Instead, I chose the economic security of the writing life. Go figure.
My story “Buyers Are Liars” is about that in-between time, when the old ways are gone and the new ways aren’t here yet. Perhaps our country has been in that space for some time. I’d say the internet age has been a boon for consumers. Still, I pity those whom it has left behind, the hucksters and hustlers, the guys in shiny shirts with mismatched ties trying to make a buck any way they can. It’s tough living in the in-between.