Baby you can’t drive my car

I promised you a ‘ranting about my car situation’ post, and I never fail to deliver.

When I first planned on moving to New Orleans, I was pretty ambivalent about getting a car.  The public transport here (well, the street car at least) is fairly reasonable and if you live centrally you’re never far from a grocery store or most other things you might need (you’re a little more fucked if you’re after a chain store, or a mall of some kind – but hey, you’re living in New Orleans.  Fuck Walmart).  I figured I’d public transport it to wherever I needed to go, up to and including college/university.  I mean sure, I love driving.  Driving is one of my favorite things to do.  But I was kind of excited about the idea of cycling and walking everywhere.  I envisaged a new, fitter, more finely hewn me – a me that let the summer breeze gently tease my hair as I rode my bicycle through parks full of live oaks draped with spanish moss.  And later I’d probably go drink a mint julep and fondle some moonbeams or something.  It would all be very poetic and hip, and what have you.

There turned out to be a few problems with this notion.  The first was that there is no summer breeze to gently tease my hair.  There is only the oppressive crush of humidity intent upon turning my head into a nest for small woodland creatures to hibernate in.  Secondly, catching public transport anywhere after about 6pm is not the greatest idea in the world, if you like to retain ownership of your worldly possessions and possibly your organs.

Which wouldn’t be a problem if every single class I have wasn’t an evening class.  So on the last day my mom was in town, I decided I should probably buy a car.

Protip, for those of you playing at home: never try to buy a car in forty minutes.  Just don’t do it.  Forty minutes is not a reasonable amount of time to do anything, much less something that will cost you thousands of dollars.  Much much less something that will cost you thousands of dollars and is supposed to keep you safe on the roads in a city where people drive like ‘road rules’ should more accurately be called ‘road guidelines’.

I had found a car I liked on Craigslist – a little 1998 black VW Beetle.  This was just about the only car I could find in my price range that wasn’t a pick up truck or a giant fuck off sedan.  Or a SUV.  Fun fact about Americans: they do not like small cars.  If you car does not look like it could conceivably take out every other car on the road, you’re doing it wrong.

Back in Australia, this is the car I drove:

Lucifer, bringer of light (of my life)

He was great.  Sometimes I would just stroke his steering wheel and tell him I loved him.  He never broke down.  Not ever.  He was nice and tall so I could see all the other traffic and he had no butt and no nose so I could parallel park him like a boss.  I think I probably miss him more than I miss some people.

So we get to the dealership (read: used car place) to look at this beetle.  When the guy gets behind the wheel to start it, the engine makes this extremely disconcerting noise.  After a few moments fiddling with it, during which times he tells us that “Sometimes we don’t really check them out before we put them on Craigslist”, he tells us the car is no good, needs some work, and he’s not going to sell it to us.  For me, this was the ‘walk away now’ moment – for numerous reasons, not limited to the fact that every other car on the lot was gigantic, and I was specifically looking for a small car.

“Oh, come on!” the sales guy said “We have lots of other cars on our other lot just down the street.  Let me show you something!  We’ll have something you like, I promise!”

For someone who has worked in sales for many, many years, I was extremely stupid about this.  But because we had forty minutes to buy the car – a car – any car – I agreed.

The second lot was filled with much the same sort of thing as the first – pick up trucks, SUVs, large ass sedans.  My mother and I began looking at a big (but not TOO big) Isuzu, kind of similar to what I’d driven in Australia, when the sales guy steered us expertly to the front of the lot and showed us this:

NB: Not actual car I purchased – thanks google images!

“That,” I said to the salesman “is a huge ass car.”

“No it isn’t.” he said.

“Yes.” I said “It is.  That is a huge ass car.  That car is very, very big.  Maybe it is not big for you, but that is very big for me.”

“Test drive it.” he said.

“It’s too big.” I said.

At this point, my mother intervened, suggesting we just give it a go and see (ordinarily good advice, but in this case, not so much).  So I get in the car.  Bear in mind I have never driven a left-hand drive in my life.  Sure, it’s basically the same as a right-hand drive – except, you know, everything is fucking reversed.  It’s like you’re behind the wheel of opposite day.  It is, to say the least, daunting.

For this reason, I would say my test drive was probably not the best measure of the merits of the vehicle.  It was more a measure of my ability to tell right from left and not freak out when accidentally turning into oncoming traffic.

During the test drive, the salesman kept throwing out reassuringly sexist gems like “Oh, I showed you an automatic – trust me, this is a good car…for a girl!” and “Oh you drive real good…for a girl!”.  This probably should have dissuaded me from purchasing the vehicle – it certainly would have back home.  But this man seemed kind and friendly – just a little backwards.  And really, how progressive can you expect someone to be when they look like one of the Beverly Hillbillies?

What really clinched the sale was that our salesman reassured us that if anything went wrong with the vehicle or if I simply decided it wasn’t going to suit my purposes we could return it for a full refund.  He also said he’d include a mechanical check up and a detail, for nothing.  Hooray!  I thought.  This sounds great!  He whisked me away to the prefabricated ‘office’ building, I signed some papers without reading them, and off I went.

24 hours later, I blew a tire whilst driving to Toys R Us to purchase a ouija board.

Let me explain something here; I may be a filthy foreigner, but I am a good driver.  I am a safe driver.  I have never blown a tire in my life, despite mounting many a curb by accident.  I was driving slowly.  This should not have happened.

Fortunately, I broke down in Metairie which is about the safest neighborhood there is in New Orleans.  Doubly fortunately, I had someone with me who could change a tire.  Triply so, we broke down about a two minute walk from a garage, where the lovely gentleman who operated the business happily loaned us his tools.  His friend from the shoe store then came and baby sat us to make sure we were doing it right and weren’t going to get pulled over by bored policemen.  People in this town, man.  They are pretty rad.

If driving the massive ass car with four fully functioning (supposedly) tires was daunting, then driving it with one temporary tire/donut was, to say the least, terrifying.  Let me explain something about Louisiana: people can’t drive here.  During my three weeks as a resident of this noble state, I have deduced that New Orleans drivers probably learned to drive via some training program mash up of Diddy Kong Racing and Grand Theft Auto.  If your car is bigger than the other guy’s car, then most people seem to function under the assumption that it’s perfectly within their rights to ram him off the road.  When I was test driving my vehicle, the salesman giggled at me and said “Oh, you used your indicators!  That’s so cute!”

Yeah.

Don’t even get me started on the interstate, which is eight lanes of pure hell and almost reduced me to a puddle of tears and urine.

So as you can imagine, when the tire blew on my car my anxiety about driving in this city was not soothed.  Nor was it assuaged when my friend pointed out that the rear tail light was stuck on with scotch tape (not even electrical tape!), and that when I turned corners the engine made a very loud, extremely disconcerting squealing noise.  The engine light had also come on.  And the AC sucked.

In short, the car was a piece of shit, and I wanted to return it.

Pouring over the auto contract, it quickly became clear that I might be screwed.  Amongst the appalling grammatical and spelling errors, it appeared I had signed away my consumer rights (large chunks of the Louisiana code were ‘waived’ by this contract) and had also agreed that all verbal offers and agreements made by the salesperson were void.  Fun.

Nevertheless, I contacted the dealership, who told me to speak to the salesman directly.  When I rang the salesman, his phone went to voicemail, and his voicemail was full.  I sent him a text.

“We’ll fix the tire.” he said.

“Well, no.  I really just would like to return the car.” I said.

“I’ll call you.” he said.

He did not call me.

Further investigation suggested that a) it was going to be almost impossible to replace the tire (we went to about three second hand tire places and nobody had them – my car apparently had the holy grail of tires – in that they were elusive and sought after, not that they were ball bustingly awesome) and b) the very same car was selling elsewhere for at least a thousand dollars cheaper.  Armed with my contract (which the dealer had not signed) and my sassy man friend, I returned to Bon Prix Autos.

To begin with, when I showed up there was nobody there.  A sign on the door told me to call a cell phone number for assistance.  I called it.

“What’s this about?” said the hillbilly gentleman on the other end of the line.

“I’ve come to return my car.” I said.

“We’ll be back at the office in 30 minutes.” he said.

They were not.

I called again.

“We’ll be there in five minutes” he said.

They were not.

Clearly, this man was hoping that if he jerked me around long enough I’d just give up and go home.  But, accustomed to dealing with what I like to call ‘the ole runaround’ from people in call centers all over the world, I waited patiently, in the rain, for him to return.

Which he finally did.

“We don’t buy back cars” he told me.

“Uh, well – ” I said ” the sales guy said you would.”

“Who did you buy from?”

I gave him the name.  He made a phone call.

“Nope.” he said “He says he never told you that.” he leaned over the counter and glared at me “That’s not how it works here, little lady.  We don’t buy back cars.  I’m thinkin’ you just wanted the use of a car for a few days and then you think you can return it on me?”

This obviously made all the sense in the world.  Who WOULDN’T pay $4000 for shitbox car for a few days, in the hope that they might be lucky enough to return it later.

I pointed out how ridiculous this was.

He remained firm.

“You didn’t even sign the contract!” I said.

“That’s a copy.” he said.

“Right,” I agreed “but it’s…a copy…of the original.  Which is presumably also unsigned, given that this COPY has not got your signature on it.”

“If you want to get lawyers involved” he said “go ahead.”

Ah, America.

“What if I just leave the car here?” I said, finally.  “Give you the keys and leave?”

“We’ll have it towed at your expense” he smirked.

Swell.

I left the lot so shaken up by the aggression and defensiveness this man projected that I felt sick the whole drive home.  It wasn’t about not getting my money back or having to keep the shitty car – it was just such a genuinely unpleasant, upsetting interaction.  I felt cheated, and I felt patronised, and I felt belittled.  And I was beginning to feel pretty fucking angry.

My friend and his father suggested I put a stop on the credit payment and contest the contract that way.  “But,” my friend’s dad said “if you do that, they could always sue you.  I mean, they probably wouldn’t.  But they could.”

I had been in the country two weeks and already I was facing possible litigation.  This was not what I wanted my American life to be like!

But I was not going to let a poorly worded, sketchy contract stop me from getting the refund I was fully entitled to (nay, promised).  I went home and set about boning up on the Louisiana code and consumer protection sites, which led me to the Office of the Attorney General.  I filed a complaint.  I texted the salesman reiterating that I WOULD be returning the car.  I wrote them a shitty review on yelp.  Indeed, I was a girl possessed.

“Don’t get your hopes up” my friend said “you might just have to put up with it.  Live and learn, ok?”

Which brings us neatly to this morning, when my phone rang.

“It’s Matt from Payless Autos” said Matt from Payless Autos.

“Ok?” I said.

“You wanted to return the car you bought at our other lot – Bon Prix?”

“Yes,” I said “I do.”

“We’ll take it back” he said “can you bring it in today?”

My awesome paralegal housemate trotted along with me to the lot, where the very same angry hillbilly lurked behind the chipboard office desk, picking his teeth.

“Yeah?” he said.

“I’m returning the chrysler sebring.” I said, smugly “Matt called me and said this was fine.”

Without a word, he took the key from me and we went out to where I had parked.

“You said it makes a weird sound when you’re rounding corners?”

“Yes.  And the engine light is on.  And the AC doesn’t work.  And it blew a tire.  And the rear light is stuck on with scotch tape.”

“Mm.” he said.  He sat in the car.  He started the engine.  He got out again.

“Ok.” he said “Come back inside, you’ll just have to fill out some more paperwork.  We’ll issue you a full refund.”

As I was leaving, he looked up and said “Oh – and just so you know – there’s a new law that came into affect August 1.  You’re not permitted to purchase a car with an international driver’s license as ID.  You need a state license or a state ID.  That’s just been brought in.  Ok?”

My guess is this is why they took the car back – in all likelihood their legal dude saw that the sale had gone through using an international license as ID and freaked out.  As Steph (my delightful housemate) pointed out, chances are there are some hefty fees for that kind of infringement, equal to just about the cost of my shitty used car.

And that is my chrysler sebring saga.  Will I get another car?  Yes.  Will I get one from Bon Prix Autos, Metairie?  Never.  Will I learn to thoroughly read contracts before I sign them? Absolutely.

 

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