Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Arranged Carriage

I held out for 7 months, 24 days 16 hours and 30 minutes, but on August 5, I crossed another threshold in re-integration into American society: I became a car owner.

This was my first car-buying experience as the one car I owned previously was a hand-me-down. I have to say that the experience of purchasing a used car really is rather like an arranged marriage.

I entered the transaction with my prerequisite baseline criteria: 1) manual transmission, 2) good gas mileage, 3) and reliable mechanical condition considering what I was willing to pay. I was fully prepared to walk away if I couldn't find what I wanted that day.

The car dealer was my Yenta. And, as I suspect is true for most Yentas, he had his place in the transaction, but he was hardly going to become a trusted friend. He had too much to gain by the success of the transaction and too much to lose in the failure to be considered completely trustworthy. This despite all his reassurances about how, "he had a daughter too, and he would love to see her in this car."

Fortunately - or unfortunately - my first criteria (the manual transmission) automatically meant that my field of choice would be pretty narrow. All the more reason I would be willing to walk away and find a new Yenta. Lucky for this Yenta, he had an appropriate range of offerings. Even luckier for my Yenta, he was able to offer me something near to love at first sight.

But appearances and resumes can be deceiving, so we had to do the test drive. From what I've read and heard about arranged marriages, often there is a brief meeting - sometimes no more than a drive-by, sometimes just a quick introduction, sometimes even a short courtship. Occasionally you don't know what you're getting until you've gotten to the altar and are signing on the dotted line.

I'd say this test run was somewhere in the middle ground: I got to get in, take a turn around the block and make sure a tire didn't go rolling off into the street and no sawdust came flying out of the engine, and that was it. Worse though, I didn't actually know how to drive manual, so all I could do was take it on faith and my father's word that the transmission and clutch were in semi-decent shape (thank goodness he agreed to come along). It was a used car, so it came with no guarantees. No warranties. For better or worse, sickness and health, once I chose it, I was stuck.

So I drove the near-to-car of my dreams (but couldn't afford). And I drove the car I thought I deserved (and could afford). I looked at a couple others that I didn't even really think about.

Then came the wheeling and dealing. Nice car, too expensive (and I felt a little guilty for beating up on its clutch). Not-so-nice car that would likely have maintenance issues, but I could pay for (and I wouldn't feel guilty for beating up on the clutch). Or walk away and try again another day.

I've seen bartering for a bride in Madagascar. I've even had my own price in cows calculated. I can't say that the whole dickering over the cost of a car was really that much different - except that perhaps I wouldn't have been as personally involved if it was my own marriage.

In the end, we agreed that I would pay a little more and get the better car. And after more paperwork and waiting around, I was soon joined to a complete stranger.

And now the real work of a partnership begins. I don't know the car and it doesn't know me. But we know we have to make it work because we're both far too invested to give up on it. I have to learn to drive manual transmission. It has to put up with me long enough to get past those rough spots. I'm trusting it to be as good as its price tag warrants. It's trusting me to maintain it so it can live up to its reputation. And I think we're both hoping for a little bit of fun.

Really, not all that different from what thousands of people who have been matched to another human for life. Except that realistically our relationship will only last a maximum of ten or so years. Like most women, statistics hold that I'll outlive my partner. And then I get to try something new.

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