Sunday, September 21, 2014

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I Thought Buying a Minivan Meant I Was Old, But I Was Wrong

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The whole family was about 50 miles south of our home in Small Town, Oregon, looking for a minivan. We’d been driving a small green Mazda Protégé for 10 years or so, and although it had fit our family’s needs for the past several years, and (most importantly) it was paid for, now that we had three kids, it felt a lot like we were clowns in a circus climbing out of a cramped little car, ready to amuse.

Although I understood the reasoning for buying a van, I really didn’t like the idea because, well… buying a van made me feel like a 30-something, white, nerdy, father type. Which I admit, I am. But I don’t want to look like one. I still want to feel with it. I still want to think that women in their 20’s look at me and think, “Yeah… I would.” Not that I would. But I like thinking that they think about me that way. Does that make sense?

Anyway, buying a minivan really felt like I was giving up something that I couldn’t really define: my youth? My coolness? I didn’t really know, but what I do know is that during the drive to the lot, I felt nervous. I tried to tell myself that it was because we were planning to make a major purchase, but honestly, I don’t think that was the problem.

We walked along the lot with a slender, brown-haired 20-something named Tim. Mel was holding Aspen in one arm, and Norah’s hand with the other. I was keeping an eye on Tristan while chatting with Tim. Mel really should’ve have been chatting with Tim. She’d been doing the research on what she wanted (a Mazda 5), because she’d be the one driving the van. But Mel felt it was best for me to do the talking because I was a man, and apparently men are the ones who buy cars.

As a husband, being the only one to barter is a lot of pressure. I hate shopping. I hate the back and forth. It’s not a skill I’m good at, or take pleasure in. I always feel like I got a good deal whenever I buy a car, and I think that’s a bad thing. I think that means I was manipulated by the system. It means that the car salesmen tactics worked on me. It means I’m a bitch; a sucker; the kind of guy that greasy car sales people laugh at around the water cooler.

Tim claimed to have been a car salesman for about 2 weeks. I looked at his beat-up black sport shoes and chipped black belt, and compared it to the shiny leather shoes and belts of the other sales people on the lot, and assumed he was being honest. And although it made me nervous to work with a newbie, it also made me feel more confident. Like perhaps I, for once, had the upper hand.

“My job isn’t really to sell cars,” he said. “My job is to work as a liaison between the customer and the management in finding the right car for the right price.”

“They told you to say that, didn’t they?” I said.

Tim gave a smile that seemed to say, “You got me.”

“Check it out, Tim,” I said. “Not to dog on your profession, but I hate buying cars. I buy a car every ten years, slightly used, and then drive it into the ground. If I could pick between drilling a hole in my head and buying a car, I’d take the hole.”

Tim smiled and said, “I can understand that. I can relate.” He said those two phrases a lot, and suddenly I realized that this poor kid was trying to pin down a persona. He was trying to figure out who he was as a car salesman, and all I could think about was why isn’t this kid in college?

Tim and I test-drove a red Mazda 5. It was a good price, a good year (according to the Consumer Reports), and the mileage was acceptable. We drove around Eugene, and as we did, I chatted with Tim about his life goals. He kept trying to redirect the conversation to the van, if I liked it, if it would be the right fit for my family. However, all I wanted to talk about were his life goals.

In hindsight, I probably should’ve been acting indifferent. I should’ve been noticing this or that with the van, but I didn’t. Instead I was trying to get this young man to got to college and get an engineering degree because it was the program he “dropped out of to become a car salesmen.”

We were at a light when he opened up. “I actually have two kids myself,” he said. Obviously he was older than I thought. “I got really burned out on going to school and raising a family, so I quit school and got this job.” He wouldn’t make eye contact as we spoke, but rather stared at the dash, and I got the impression that he was struggling with his decision. “Now I work about 70 hours a week.”

We sat in silence for a moment. Then I said, “Your life isn’t going to get easier by dropping out of school. It’s going to get harder. Trust me. I know. And I know school is hard with a family. I finished school with two kids. But you can do it. I assure you. Finish your degree. Stop wasting time.”

Tim was quiet for a bit after I said that, and in his silence, I realized that my priorities were way out of sync with what I was trying to accomplish, buying a van for a good price. Part of this focus on helping this kid finish his degree is a result of my job as an academic counselor at a university, I know that, but at the same time when I think about me driving a minivan and talking with a 20-something car salesman about going back to school, I feel even more like a 30-something, white, nerdy, father type than I did when I first arrived at the lot.

We parked the van, opened the doors, and let the kids run around inside it for a bit. Mel and I looked at this or that. We whispered to each other about the color (Mel didn’t like it) and the price (it was the best deal we’d found).

Eventually we were in the office, chatting with a tall white bald man in his early 40s, working out a deal and signing papers. And as we left the lot in our new, used minivan, I thought about my place in life. I thought about the advice I gave Tim, and how I was, indeed, old enough to give it. I thought about who I was, and what I wanted to be, and realized that it was time to accept it. To let it happen. To stop fighting my stereotypes of a father, and just and just let myself be one.

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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning AmericaThe New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Huffington PostScary MommyThe Good Men ProjectFast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook andTwitter