Sample text for California dreaming : a smooth-running, low-mileage, best-priced American adventure / Lawrence Donegan.

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Chapter 1

A professional never sells anyone anything. He gets people happily involved.

I know this instinctively now but there was a time when such a self-evident truth of salesmanship would never have occurred to me. I read it first in a book I bought at a flea market for ten pence, How to Master the Art of Selling, by Tom Hopkins. I was trying to bridge the cultural chasm between the Velvet Underground-loving, Wim Wenders-worshiping, sixteen-year-old me and my stepfather, George, a double-glazing salesman with a forty-a-day habit.

Don't get the wrong impression. I loved George. He was a decent man -- still is, come to think of it -- but, as the family counselor put it, we had trouble "connecting." He couldn't understand why I dressed only in black and wore eyeliner. And I couldn't understand why, whenever I asked him at the dinner table, "Would you mind passing the bread, George?" he would always say something like "Would me passing the bread best suit your needs right at this moment, Lawrence?"

Tom Hopkins enlightened me. Page 38, the Porcupine Close: "The porcupine is the technique of answering a prospect's question with a question of your own that allows you to maintain control and lead on to the next step of your selling sequence."

Suddenly, the verbal gymnastics and obsequious manner made perfect sense. The My-Dear-Old Mother close, the Benjamin Franklin Balance Sheet Close, the Alternate Advance, the Uh-Price Non-Technique, the stolen minutes exercising his "smiling" muscles. They were sales techniques. George wasn't doing any of them to reinforce my juvenile conviction that he was an oily, middle-aged loser. He was only practicing his techniques. He was trying to master the art of selling. He was following his dream -- a better life for himself and his family, me included. I was ashamed of myself.

Thereafter, I never rejected an advance from a salesman, or headed for the exit when he started to explain why the Hotpoint WM769 washing machine was a better buy than the Zanussi FJ167W (a faster spin cycle, since you ask). I hated being pestered when I was out shopping as much as the next person. But now I understood. It wasn't the salesman's fault he was so annoying. He was only doing his job. He was only trying to get me happily involved.

I thought about Tom Hopkins and my stepfather and the misplaced contempt I once held for all the world's salesmen on my first Sunday afternoon at Orchard Pre-Owned Autos. It was just after 6 p.m., the busiest time of the day. The sunbathers who had spent the day at the Pacific coast beaches twenty miles to the west had all stopped off on the way home to look at cars. I was standing in the glorified cubbyhole we called the Automobile Sales Office.

The room was divided in two by a chest-high counter. On one side two men were seated on a raised platform. Frankie "the Rock" Reames looked like the former bass player in the Beach Boys but the sunny smile and sunnier disposition were deceptive. He was the original asphalt warrior, a legend in the business. Once upon a time he was the best car salesman in northern California, nowadays he was the used-car manager. Al Davison didn't have a title or a nickname. He was the Clint Eastwood of the partnership; droll, weathered, and mysterious. Al was fifty-five years old, black, and a Vietnam veteran, which must have been excellent preparation for the life he was living now.

On the other side of the counter, ten salesmen were reenacting the evacuation of Saigon. The air was thick with sweat and urgency. Every arm was reaching out across the desk. In every fist there was a sheaf of paperwork or, as every one of these bawling, desperate people would have it, a car deal.

Helicopter gunships were quieter than Sunday evenings at Orchard Pre-Owned Autos.



"Fifteen hundred down, three hundred a month..."

"He wants a stereo..."


"...and he wants the wheel alignment done..."


"Look at this credit history...the guy...he don't pay nobody, the schmuck..."

"STOP fucking SWEARING in the sales office."

In the midst of the chaos stood a solitary member of the general public, who was under the mistaken impression that this secondhand-car dealership had promised a free paint job for the 1989 Honda he'd purchased earlier in the week.

"Unbelievable, just unbelievable, you dirty cheating bastards," he screamed as he was escorted outside by Pete, our part-time receptionist and full-time bodybuilder.

Al Davison stopped pecking at his computer keyboard. "Jeeeeesus." He started massaging his temples in a failed attempt to make everyone in the room disappear. Sensing his partner's despair, Frankie Reames stood up on his seat, began flailing his arms, and demanded everyone's attention. The room went quiet momentarily, awaiting the managerial announcement.

"I'M THE CAPTAIN OF A PIRATE SHIP," he cackled, then ruffled Al's silver hair. "Don't worry, pal, it's all beautiful."

The racket resumed, though Reames remained standing on his chair. From his vantage point our eyes met. I was tucked away at the back of the throng, a black hole of timidity in a roomful of thrusting personalities. I'd had a torturous day so far, unable to strike up a conversation with any customer that went further than "Hi, I'm Lawrence, your salesman. Can I help you today?" "No."

Hopefully my luck was about to change. The Boss bathed me in his best Sloop John B. smile. "Lawrence, that's a nice green shirt you're wearing. It's good to see you in here. What can we do for you?"

"Don't laugh," I said, my words betraying a lack of confidence Tom Hopkins would instantly have diagnosed as fatal in a salesman. "But I think I might have a car deal."

Orchard Pre-Owned Autos -- the Orchard, as it was known -- isn't the kind of place you visit if you like to make your automotive purchases in luxury surroundings. You don't get half an hour to "think about it," not unless you have a cattle prod handy to keep the salesmen away. Complimentary cappuccinos are not part of the service (although a salesman might buy a customer a Pepsi or find the kids a balloon, if he thinks they're buying). If someone wants that kind of treatment they should wander across the street to the plate glass and polished chrome of the BMW store, or drive down to the Lexus dealership, or Toyota and Mercedes, where the female greeters have white teeth and short skirts and the carpets haven't been ground down by a thousand years of grit.

No, the Orchard is strictly business, as any passerby might guess from the architecture. You can buy an office like ours in the classified ads in the San Jose Mercury News for a few thousand dollars. I believe the technical term is "kit home." Judging by the flaking red primer paint and creeping wood rot, this was one of the original prototypes.

Mostly, the car deals are done inside, in one of the six sales booths and the sales office. The furniture is fire-sale chic, the wall hangings strictly operational: The State of California Does Not Allow for a Cooling-Off Period on Any Automobile Purchase...and so on.

Then there is the staff.

The salesmen hang out on the porch, taking the shade under the awning, smoking, watching for customers and swapping tales of car deals that might have been.

Back in the sixties, this car lot was an apple orchard. These days it's an unlovely asphalt square, big enough to accommodate 250 vehicles of varying prices and roadworthiness. It's 75 degrees today -- hot enough to burn my pale, unprotected Celtic skin but "just perfect" according to everyone else. In the summer, on afternoons when the weather forecast is for 90 degrees, the temperature gauges on the display cars hit 105. The solitary concession to the unbearable sun is a red-and-white-striped canvas tent at the rear of the office, but the only time it's used is when Frankie treats the staff to pizza and salad for lunch on Saturday. It's too far from the action. Not even Tom Hopkins could sell a car sitting back there.

The very best salesmen prefer to bake in the heat, like Ernie. This is called "working the line": you stand among the cars, waiting for the customers to park on the street, and then make your move. Most car dealerships run a rotation system -- where the salesmen take turns to speak to customers -- but Frankie prefers the old-school "open floor" approach. First man to the customer "owns" that customer. He likes it because it keeps his salesmen hungry. Very hungry in some cases, from what I can make out.

The secret of being a success at a place like the Orchard is timing, and disguise. Never hesitate, otherwise another salesman will take your customer. And never bull-rush a customer, otherwise you'll scare them away. Ernie is a master of disguise. He pretends he's counting cars, then hits the introduction with energy. "One, two, three, four, five...HEY, FOLKS, welcome to Orchard Pre-Owned Autos, my name is Ernie. I'm your salesman today. Goodness, madam, that's a sexy dress."

It sounds corny, but trust me, it works. This place might not look like the Taj Mahal but it does more business than most places on the boulevard. Two hundred and twenty cars last month, one of the highest-volume used-car dealerships in northern California. (Note the "one of." A working knowledge of semantics is another useful asset at the Orchard.)

The rule is sell them quick and cheap, then move on. If a customer knows what he is doing when they shop here then he just might get a good deal. If not? Well, at least he'll get a half-decent car, smog checked and safety tested to the standard required by the State of California Department of Motor Vehicles. We don't sell wrecks or roll back the odometers. That type of unscrupulous behavior was legislated out of existence in the early 1990s. Just as well, really. Before then, buying a car at the Orchard was like having a bit part as a victim in Jaws. Here's a story I heard on my first day:

In September 1990 a customer walked on to the lot looking for a four-door sedan with a manual gearbox. The car had to be red. The salesman found one that suited and together they went off on a test drive. When they came back the salesman asked if he liked the car.

"Sure, I love it," the customer said. "But the only problem is the gearbox -- it only has four gears. I'd like five gears, you know, for that extra acceleration."

"No problem, sir," the salesman replied. "Why don't you go get yourself some coffee for ten minutes and I'll get a fifth gear fitted for you."

When the customer disappeared, the salesman unscrewed the gear stick knob on the customer's car and replaced it with one taken from a five-speed manual parked on the other side of the lot. The customer was delighted, especially as the dealership agreed to foot the $300 cost of having the extra gear fitted.

The phone rang the following morning. "How's the car?"

"Great, but I've got a problem with the fifth gear -- I can't find it."

"Don't worry. This happens a lot when you fit a supplementary gear. Give it a couple of months and it will work itself in."

But I digress. Ernie is the best at running the line, though he doesn't sell the most cars at the Orchard. That accolade belongs to Mickey "the Legend" McDonald, a rosy-faced Alabama native with the physique of a battered bed-settee. McDonald isn't as quick on his feet as Ernie but is intimidatingly sharp and has an ability to distinguish between the casual shopper and the cast-iron buyer that is, frankly, supernatural.

Those two, along with Mal Lindsey, a former college footballl player who looks like he's stepped off the set of Porky's, and a Nicaraguan immigrant called Jorge Fernandez, are the "stars." They make more money than everyone else, seldom go a day without selling a car, and take all the lunch breaks and holidays they want.

Everyone knows the bosses can't afford to lose good salesmen. If you sell a lot of cars, you're expected to act as if you own the place. McDonald, for instance, works three or four days a week instead of the required six. Meanwhile, Lindsay takes one hour out of his day to construct, then smoke, a cannabis reefer as big as Babe Ruth's baseball bat. Jorge's principal indulgence is swearing in Spanish at English-speaking customers who refuse to buy cars.

Beneath this top tier are a handful who have been in the business for years and clearly know what they are doing. Sam Ritzenburg, Al Buzwatti, Bhagwan Naresh, Jack Nasseri, Hughie Breeker, and Raul Cortez are never in any danger of walking off with the Salesman of the Month contest but they make a decent living. Every once in a while they can afford to eat sushi for lunch.

More used to Burger King are the salesmen on the bottom rung. Juan, Wayne, Jackson, Stevie, and Tony "the Tank" Tognazzini -- my best friend of three days' standing -- are younger than the others. They've been in the car business for just a few months, or in Tony's case a couple of weeks. They're called "Greenpeas."

The salesmen who aren't selling cars tend to stick together so I've at least had the chance to exchange a few personal details with this last group. Stevie got the job through his father, who ran the line with Frankie back in the early 1980s. He is nineteen, plays in a thrash metal band, and is a fan of an obscure, unlistenable Scottish punk band called the Exploited. Juan has a brown belt in an unpronounceable martial art. Jackson has a dagger tattooed on the inside of his left thigh. Tony's last job was as a manager at a retail garden center but he left when the Internal Revenue inspectors moved in at two hours' notice.

You've already met Pete, our receptionist. When he isn't escorting incandescent customers off the premises, he brings a rudimentary order to the office. Three days a week, eight hours a day, he sits at his desk just inside the floor-length glass doors, eating Safeway's mixed fruit salad and answering the phone. Once every hour he steps outside and does one hundred push-ups.

None of these people are saints, some of them probably have a criminal record, but they are streetwise and sharp and for the most part friendly. I like them. In time I might like them a lot more but first I have some questions: Who are they? What has brought them to Orchard Pre-Owned Autos? Do they enjoy being despised by the general public? Why were they working for a guaranteed wage that is less than what they could earn flipping patties at McDonald's (sales commission is extra, of course) when most of their contemporaries were cooped up in cubicle at some Silicon Valley high-tech company pulling down ten thousand a month, plus stocks? No doubt the answers will come -- if I keep my job long enough.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. Finally, there's me; the New Guy or, as I've recently been christened, Scotty. What had brought me to Orchard Pre-Owned Autos on this Sunday evening? I'll tell you that later. All you need to know right now is that I started working here three days ago and ever since I've been dying inside.

Mark Swann wasn't my customer to start with. I inherited him from Bhagwan Naresh, who must have been suffering a temporary crisis of confidence -- or perhaps just couldn't be bothered -- because five seconds after he'd shaken Mark's hand he left him standing on the lot and headed in my direction.

"Greenpea," Bhagwan hissed. "Come and talk to this guy. I can't get on with him at all, he's a strange fellow. His name is Mike."

I hesitated, scared that my seemingly natural talent for repelling customers would make my more experienced colleague think even less of me than he already did, which wasn't much in the first place. "No, it's okay." I waved him away.

"Come on, trust me, it's a car deal. He wants a Lexus."

I trotted after him like a schoolboy being escorted down to the headmaster's office. "Mike. This is Lawrence. He's my deputy assistant floor manager."

I'd only been in the car business seventy-two hours but already I knew this much; when you are introducing another salesman, always tell the customer he is about to be placed in the capable hands of a more senior sales professional. The implication is that he is such a valued customer he deserves superior handling.

Bhagwan smiled maliciously. "Good news, Mike, he's our Lexus specialist."

"The name's Mark," Mark said with a smile about as happy as a broken mousetrap. I suspect he wasn't impressed, or even taken in, by my fictional job title.

"You know about Lexus?"

I said nothing but moved my head in a fashion that might have conceivably been construed as a nod, or possibly a shake.

"This car here. The engine, a V-six straight or a four-cylinder? And it does have traction control, doesn't it?"

"Which car, the white one or the black one?" I was playing for time. The truth is, even if I'd just spent three days plowing through the entire Lexus engineering workshop catalog I still wouldn't have known what he was talking about. You see, I know nothing about cars. In the end, I threw myself at his mercy.

"Mark, I'll be straight with you. I'm not a Lexus specialist, I'm not even an assistant deputy sales whatever the other guy said I was. I'm just Lawrence, just a salesman."

The next thirty minutes are a blur. All I remember is that Mark was deeply impressed by my honest approach, he wanted a car with leather seats, and his wife would pickle his testicles if he spent more than $18,000. I recall trying to forge a meaningful bond by insisting that we had quite a lot in common. It turned out he too had been a car salesman, before he got a proper job. Not only that, we were both wearing the same Nike running watch and, er, that was it.

Still, we struggled through a stilted conversation while he drove the car along Orchard Boulevard and out onto the freeway. He'd picked out a white Lexus with $25,000 plastered across the top right-hand quarter of the windscreen. It was easily the most upmarket car I'd ever traveled in, smooth and comfortable, and as we zipped up the freeway at 85 mph I could tell he liked it. He was already taking mental ownership.

The first minutes after returning from a test drive are the most crucial moments in any sale. This is where the customer -- if he's interested in buying -- sets his bargaining position, and the salesman begins to close the sale.

"What do you think?" I asked as Mark slammed his door shut.

He thought for a moment, then shrugged. "It's okay, I suppose," he lied.

This exchange exhausted my entire repertoire of closing questions. I stood there, dumb as a cardboard box, while Mark fingered hairline scratches on the paintwork and made unflattering remarks about the resale value of used Lexus sedans. Eventually, he realized that I was defenseless in the face of his Olympian negotiating technique.

"You want to go inside and see if we can make a deal?"

I nodded eagerly and trotted after him. I was excited, nervous, although as we headed across the asphalt toward the office something occurred to me: I'm the salesman, wasn't I supposed to say that?

"A car deal?" Frankie Reames jumped off his seat. "Let me see what you've got," he said, his demeanor changing in an instant from buccaneer to bank manager.

The office cleared, as quickly as sea mist, until there was only me and Bhagwan. His sudden interest in what was going on may or may not have had something to do with the 12.5 percent commission on gross profit he'd make if he wrestled the deal from me and finished it off. The radio was turned down low but I could still hear "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin.

"Let me take care of this, Mr. Reames. Mr. Reames, let me take care of this." Bhagwan was a Pakistani of aristocratic bearing and almost impossible prettiness. He had a habit of addressing everyone as Mr., presumably as a postironic statement of his contempt for the servitude inflicted on the Indian subcontinent during years of colonial rule. Under normal circumstances I would have been with him every step of the way, but not today; this was my car deal and he was trying to steal it. Bastard.

Fortunately, Mr. Reames was having none of it. "Butt out, Bhagwan, this is Lawrence's deal. He's doin' okay so far," he snapped, grabbing the paperwork. "How much is he offering?" He didn't wait for a reply. "Eighteen thousand?"

Beside him, Al looked appalled, as if the front axle had just fallen off his brand-new Chevy truck: "Fuuuuuuck."

Reames ignored him, tapped a few keys on his computer, then took a green marker pen and began writing in capital letters: THANK YOU FOR YOUR OFFER. FOR LAWRENCE'S FIRST CAR DEAL, OKAY AT $18,000. FINAL PRICE. He underlined the words First Deal.

This was embarrassing. I'd spent the last thirty minutes trying to pass myself off as a car salesman. Admittedly, the facade was gossamer thin, but where was the sense letting the customer know he was dealing with a rank amateur? Ron sensed my awkwardness.

"Don't worry about it. Trust me, it'll work," he said, benignly. "Look at the discount I've offered him."

Seven thousand dollars off, without even a twitch of a struggle. I couldn't wait to tell Mark the good news.

I'd left him sitting in the sales booth farthest from the office. The corridor was filled with the babble of negotiation. He'd left his seat and was now standing in the doorway. "You'll never believe this, Mark," I began, raising my voice to make myself heard over the rattle of the air-conditioning unit.

I sensed straight away he was less enthusiastic than he'd been when I left him. As soon as I started talking he glanced at his Nike running watch. "God, is that the time?" he said. "I've gotta go."

I ignored this and showed him what Frankie had written. "Look. Fantastic, eh? Eighteen thousand, the price you wanted."

It would take a team of research psychologists working around the clock for a year to figure out what happened next. As it turned out, eighteen thousand wasn't the price he wanted. Or rather it was and it wasn't. Not that he wanted to pay more but it just seemed, how did he put it? "Too cheap. Too quick."

A witty retort leapt into my mind -- "I could charge an extra couple of thousand and keep you here until sundown if you like" -- but not for another three weeks. The best I could manage at that precise moment was a contemplative "Mmmm."

"Why's it so cheap?"

"I dunno, Mark. Because we like you?" I said, unconvincingly.

This hesitation lasted for another couple of minutes, until his resistance hardened into outright hostility. Eventually, he said, "You know what, Lawrence, I don't think I'm going to bother with this right now. I need to go home and eat and talk to my wife."

I was devastated, confused, bewildered. Five minutes ago I was ninth-tenths of the way toward selling a 1995 Lexus E300 for $18,000. Now I had nothing and all because I'd gotten the customer exactly what he wanted.

"But you said you'd buy it if I got you the price you wanted." My eyes were glassy with emotion now. "I got you the price and now you're telling me you don't want to but it. Where's the logic in that?"

At this Mark Swann, the dirty son of a bitch, laughed in my face. "Lawrence. Relax, don't worry," he said, with the ease of an experienced salesman. "It's the car business. There is no logic."

Copyright © 2002 by Lawrence Donegan

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Donegan, Lawrence.
Used car trade -- California -- San Jose -- Humor.
San Jose (Calif.) -- Social life and customs -- Humor.
Sales personnel -- California -- San Jose -- Biography.
Scots -- California -- San Jose -- Biography.
San Jose (Calif.) -- Biography.