On a recent Saturday morning, The Observer decided to buy a car, and so looked up the directions to a pre-owned vehicle dealership and secured a ride from my girlfriend, who wasn't busy. We drove around awhile looking for the dealership's Toyota branch — I've wrecked a Toyota before, and know them to be basically functional — but it was difficult to locate in the hive of car lots all slotted together in a strange grid, each of them apparently owned or at least overseen by a person named Steve Landers, whom we never met.
It was one of the first hot days of the year in Little Rock, and sunlight beamed down at us from the enormous chrome car logos that differentiated the various lots. We found the Toyota area nestled behind the Scion zone, across the interstate from the Dodge and Jeep buildings. As we approached, we became aware of a small fleet of golf carts positioned on either side of the entrance facing inward, their drivers wearing sunglasses and identical Steve Landers polos, all of them eyeing us blankly and silently. We rolled down our windows to meet their gazes, but they said nothing.
Without warning, one of the golf carts suddenly broke rank and lined up behind us, waving us forward. This, we would learn, was Carl. Carl showed us where to park, shook our hands and said, "Hop on," and we did. We glided through the rows of cars now, taking it all in from the back of Carl's cart. We had to admit it was a smooth ride.
Our destination was a gold Corolla, the only thing they had that fit in the Venn diagram of price and reliability we worked out with Carl as we drove. He wasn't happy with our price point, clearly considered it the mark of a buyer lacking imagination, but we were steadfast, and so approached the Corolla in a kind of awkward stalemate. It was clean and looked gorgeous, but I tried my best to grimace, as I had always assumed used car buyers should do, for bargaining purposes. As we had been advised, we requested a CARFAX report, and Carl dutifully rode off into the humidity to print one off. When he returned, he was sighing, clutching a stack of pages and couldn't make eye contact. The report wasn't good. "This car isn't for sale, folks," he said, apologizing and giving us each a business card before dropping us back off at the car we'd arrived in.
We should have gone home. Thinking back on this moment now, we know that to be true: We should have gone home. There was still the matter of buying a vehicle, though, and we had gotten the itch. There were other dealerships, other Carls. It was early in the day. We pulled out of the Landers lot and made our way to the second entry on the dealer list we'd put together that morning, a North Little Rock operation called North Point Toyota.
This time, at the entrance, we were comforted by the sight of the golf carts, as they seemed to signify professionalism and opportunity. Only an honest man would drive a golf cart, is what a persuasive voice said somewhere deep down in the subconscious and eternal conversation I hold with myself. Our salesperson here was again chosen arbitrarily, he just happened to gesture first from behind the wheel of his cart. His name was Kami, and he was happy to see us.
We outlined our expectations again, and unlike Carl, Kami took it in stride. Nothing wrong with affordability in his eyes – price was only an abstraction anyway, it was flexible. His only concern was my happiness. Did I want anything to drink? Coffee?
He showed us another Corolla, a silver one that seemed to succeed precisely where the previous one had failed. The CARFAX report checked out, the test drive went well. It had passed all of the dealership's rigorous mechanical and safety inspections, Kami assured us. I used my fake grimace again, and he was kind enough to let me think it helped. We went back and forth and I bought it.
The next morning it wouldn't start. I called the number on Kami's business card. "Did you try all the keys?" he asked, absurdly. I took it to a garage on 8th Street called Foster's, and after looking it over, the mechanic there asked me if I'd already bought it. When I told him yes, he shook his head, whistled and lit a cigarette. It was raining. I grimaced, a real one this time. He asked if I needed a ride to work, and I told him I guess I did.