Matter of Laugh or Death
By Bill Dunn
Interesting observations on this thing we call life
LESSONS IN BUYING A USED CAR
At age 17, my eldest daughter has experienced for many months now the freedom of driving. She loves being able to go to the store or visit a friend without having to ask mom or dad for a ride. But her freedom is somewhat limited because she still has to ask to borrow mom or dad’s car.
I admit it, we are old-fashioned Neanderthal parents. When our daughter got her driver’s license, we did not rush out and buy her a new car. We did not even rush out and buy ourselves a new car and give her the old one. According to our daughter, this makes us the only parents on the entire Eastern seaboard who did not buy their teenager a car.
As usual, she was exaggerating. I did some research and discovered there is a couple in Maryland who also did not buy their teenager a car. However, they seem to be the only other family within 1,000 miles who view this issue the same way we do.
It’s difficult to explain to a child that our family does things differently than her friend’s families. My daughter told us, “Brittany C. got a new car for her birthday. Brittany R. got her mother’s car. And Brittany M. got a brand new BMW, and she didn’t even get her license yet!”
We tried to reason with her. “Isn’t it enough that we had the decency not to name you Brittany? What more do you want from us?!”
Well, the what more she wants from us, of course, is a car. But we are sticking to our guns. If she wants a car, we told her, she will have to buy it with her own money.
So now, my daughter scours the classified section of the newspaper each day looking for affordable used cars. This has been a very useful exercise, as it has given me the opportunity to teach her the difference between telling the truth—where you simply state the reality of a situation—and the exciting world of advertising—where you cleverly state the fantasy of a situation, using just enough ambiguity to keep from being prosecuted for fraud.
For example, she saw an ad the other day which read: “85 Oldsmobile, Looks and runs like new! $450.”
She exclaimed, “I can afford that! I have almost $500 in the bank. It’ll be great to have a car that looks and runs like new!”
Oh my, where to begin? So many lessons, so little time. I decided to skip for now the crucial lesson about the sale price of an automobile—that unlike most other products the price of a car is not really the price you pay, but rather the first in a long line of expenditures which include taxes, insurance, registration fees, fuel, routine maintenance, and in the case of a 1985 Oldsmobile, being required to replace every part on the vehicle except the hood ornament and the cigarette lighter.
Instead, I chose to focus on the “Looks and runs like new!” assertion. My daughter assumed the claim was literal, that this used car has the appearance and performance of a 2001 model Oldsmobile.
I explained that some of the words in the ad—“looks,” “runs,” “like,” “new”—could mean many things to many people. “Suppose you were flying over the city in a helicopter,” I said, “and you looked down from 2,000 feet and saw this Oldsmobile. From that far away, it might look like new. And suppose the car then started to drive away. Again, from way up in the air, it may seem that the car runs like new.”
My daughter pondered this for a moment, then asked me, “Dad, is this one of those ‘It all depends on what the meaning of “is” is’ situations?”
“Yes!” I shouted, delighted that she understood what I was trying to say. I was even more delighted that for the first time ever I would be able to use a triple quotation, quotes inside of quotes inside of quotes, in a single sentence. A true milestone.
“So, in other words,” she said, “these classified ads are a bunch of bull just trying to get someone curious enough to look at the car.”
“I’m afraid so, honey,” I replied. “That’s just the way advertising works.”
“Well, it seems kind of sleazy,” she said with a frown.
A few moments later she looked at me and said, “But on the other hand, I’m still curious. Can I borrow your car, Dad? I want to go test drive that 85 Oldsmobile!”
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