I walked into the sales office feeling pretty good. The salesman pushing me gently toward his cubicle was a really nice guy. After all, he had given me a free bottle of water with the car dealership logo on the side of the bottle. I still wasn’t sure how I’d ended up test driving a brand new Hiccup. (Perhaps I should step outside my narrative for a moment and explain that the name Hiccup is of my own devising. I had actually just test driven a new car with a brand name everyone is familiar with. I came up with this alias because it was an economy car, and rather than going “vroom-vroom” as it went down the street, it made a little popping noise that sounded much like my youngest daughter when she hiccups. More importantly, in just a few moments I would learn that far from being a nice guy, the salesman was actually a lying, cheating crook; and since I was going to reveal in print that he was a lying, cheating crook, I felt that in the interest of avoiding a lawsuit, I’d keep such details as the make of the car hidden.)
I’d done my homework before going to any dealer (unlike when I was in high school.) I’d gone on the Internet. I’d looked up the sticker price and something called an MSRP on Consumer Reports. I compared dealer incentives in all the newspapers. I found out my credit rating. I’d even practiced saying, “Show me the Carfax!” My wife pointed out to me that I wasn’t buying a used car.
I’d found an ad in the paper that said, 2010 Hiccup, $7,999.98. From prior experience I knew that it was very likely that they’d just sold the last one for that price 10 minutes ago, but they had this really nice one, and even though it didn’t go for that price it was a real steal — though they didn’t say who was stealing from whom. So I rushed down to the dealer to be the guy who bought it 10 minutes ago. Which brought me to the cubicle of this nice guy (lying, sheeting, crook).
Smiling at me, he pulled out a sheaf of papers. “Okay,” he said, “let’s go over a few things. Do you want tires on the car?”
“What? I, uh, yes.”
“Excellent.” His smile got bigger as he wrote something on the paper. “How about a steering wheel? Of course you want a steering wheel.” He wrote something else down.
“What’s all that you’re writing down?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing. Just some preliminary numbers. Now, do you want keys for your car? Seats?”
By the time he’d finished his preliminary numbers the Hiccup cost twice $7,999.98 and I realized this nice guy was actually . . . well, you may have already figured out what I thought he was.
So, I drove home in my old Coup de Clunker, trying to ignore the cloud of smoke behind me, and wondered how I could have been so naďve. How could they simply tack on option after option until the sales price was twice the advertised price? What would happen if the rest of the world tacked on hidden charges and acted like they were doing you a favor?
What if pizza parlors did that? When if you walked in and ordered a pizza? When you asked for pepperoni, Canadian Bacon, sausage and extra cheese, but you didn’t care about your heart, they wanted to charge you extra for toppings? Oh, wait. They do that, don’t they?
Okay, what if doctors had hidden charges. What if when you went to your doctor for a physical the doctor said, “I’d like to schedule some additional tests.” And what if those tests cost you more than the original checkup. Oh, wait. Doctors do that, don’t they?
Everyone, I realized, had hidden charges: the phone companies, the cable companies, the electric companies. The dog groomer even charged me extra once just because my dog bit her. My whole life had hidden charges, and everyone was a lying, cheating crook.
As I drove slowly home, ignoring the honking from people driving through the smoke behind me, I thought of Diogenes, who spent his life wandering around ancient Athens, looking for an honest man. He never found one. My experience with the car salesman led me to the conclusion that things hadn’t changed much since Socrates’ day.
Then at the side of the road I noticed a homeless guy. His sign didn’t say, “Will work for food.” His said, “I’ll probably spend it on beer,” with a little smiley face. I shrugged and rolled down the window. I was going to give him a dollar for his honesty. I thought about it a minute and handed him a twenty. It was worth it. I was one up on Diogenes.