Flipper Flops

August 4, 2009









 Flipper waiting for a new generator.


Today I spent the morning delivering one check and retrieving another from the Toyota dealer. I’d spent two of the last three afternoons sitting in the Scion office with Anthony, our very helpful salesman. It’s Cash for Clunkers Week which has been a wild ride in a cheap seat at car dealerships since last Monday. There’s an old Italian saying that a country is in turmoil when the rich lose money or the poor get money. This was a little of both.

 Flipper, our Explorer Sport, was worth under a $1000 trade in and needed new ball joints and shocks ($1300). The transmission could occasionally forget how to shift on hills and passing on a two lane road required increasing seconds of adrenaline panic watching for oncoming traffic and waiting to lurch into passing gear. My mechanical confidence in Flipper was failing. It wasn’t a question of if, but when and where it would break down next—and I’d seen plenty of places in the last few months I wouldn’t want to sit indefinitely waiting for a tow truck to find me. Ten years may be nothing to an exotic car that spends half of its days in the garage waiting for parts. To a bottom of the line converted light truck domestic SUV, it’s five months from not even being listed in the Blue Book. In spite of all that when I had to think of my friend, Flipper, as a clunker, it felt like “A.I.” meets “Old Yeller”—but I stop being sentimental around $500.

My new car negotiations had proceeded with pythonlike patience. Until Wednesday when the salesmen at Honda and Subaru both called me in alarm, “The government money will be totally gone either today or tomorrow! No one knows.” Car salesmen are famous for manufacturing crisis. More than once I’ve sat through the theatrics of the cavalier sales rep “going to bat for me…”, “trying his damnedest (pardon my language mam) to get this deal through…” and “letting me have one more try, try, try for you…”. The Uriah Heep-like qualities of the sales manager are often masked by the riot of laughter when the door opens for the defeated and hangdog salesman bringing the blue scratched and circled offer sheet back. Of my four salesmen two approached desperation at the money disappearing, and two seemed even more relaxed and assured that there would be enough money for our deal. A philosophical dilemma: half of a group of car salesmen tell you one thing is true, the other half the opposite—which should you believe?

 My dealership was physically exhausted. The staff had showered, changed shirts to their designated shade of sales hierarchy, eaten breakfast, but no one seemed to have slept much. The place felt like finals week in the dorm. Everyone was deeply on task, but also staggering between blurting out anything that drifted into their mind, or falling asleep in a hard chair. Mostly they did the nervous officious walk back and forth to the office in the back, did arithmetic on oversized calculators, checked inventory on someone else’s computer or shouted personal questions to one another. They returned calls to a world where “Buddy, okie dokie and you betcha” would get things done. Sitting in the quiet radiation from the numbered edition Electric Wasabi Scion ten feet away and watching Gunny R. Lee Ermey “HooRah!” still another class of weapons on the flat screen in the next display room, I began to think about Sarah Palin.

 As I looked around, the car dealership seemed as crowded as a grocery store. It was crowded with people most of whom recognized Governor Palin vicariously through their aunt or sister-in-law. She wasn’t a mere politician. She was a relative. She purchased their Mary Kay cosmetics, she ran for office on the PTA…that woman. She was (and is) true representative democracy. She is like the people she asked to vote for her.

I know, and tacitly like, lots of people who could step into Sarah Palin’s biography. My first major in college was Communications like Sarah Palin. I had to interrupt my undergraduate studies like Sarah Palin. No one pursued me to sponsor me for grants or scholarships, but more than one professor pursued me to have sex with me—I suspect like Sarah Palin.

 For ten years I taught at composition Houston Community College. From that position I came to know hundreds of women who raised complicated families, struggled to get their essays revised on time and didn’t do more than roll their eyes at my smug liberality in lectures. They were anchored in their family, juggling their children’s schedules, fervent at their churches and safe in the social security that comes from trying to keep a picture book home. What’s wrong with that? I was only one more obstacle between them and their Associates Degree and beyond. My notions of race, gender, sexual orientation, multi-culturality or new sensitive nomenclature just ground their teeth.

They approached interpreting literature with the same enthusiasm I exhibit for Algebra, but with slightly better results. They handed in mostly “B” essays and felt they were graded unfairly because they had cited The Bible as a literary reference, or that their plot summary should have sufficed for discussion, or merely their essays were longer than the assigned length. In their minds they had given me the correct, honest answer in a neatly typed paper with only a few grammatical mistakes. They anticipated earned praise; I anticipated formal discourse. It was a guerilla war of the imagination along the linguistic borders of literature, inspiration and self esteem. I stood for something other than a guy in a tie teaching an overload night class in a borrowed suburban high school. Whatever or whomever I was to those women it wasn’t what I thought.

In spite of my best efforts to be as effusive and warm as anyone delivering 7:00 to 9:30 evening lecture on rhetorical forms could be, I appeared to them as blasphemous, critical, condescending and perhaps even evil. When I taught “The Awakening”, my Polaroids, anecdotes of New Orleans and my semi-intuitive search through the French Quarter for the pigeon house, were as if I had I had brought back photographs to illustrate my debauches in a bordello. They didn’t want to be awakened from the dream of a shining suburb on a hill that they were tenuously and strenuously climbing through. They didn’t want to participate in any illusory life of the academe; they were paying tuition to have their foundations cemented so they could build real lives. I’m not sure either reality was addressed in the English I or even the English II syllabus. We seldom connected. It was like a bad date every Tuesday and Thursday for sixteen weeks.

 So I sat and leafed through a Scion brochure again. What dealerships wanted to sell they had color pictures of, what they wanted to obscure they wrote about. It’s one of the flexible weaknesses of English as the universal sales language—the broader its audience, the less its capacity for nuance—the less its ability for denotation and the more for connotation. Increasingly our language becomes more informal and encoded in the ways that dialects and slang identified us in the past. Soccer moms have become hockey moms. It’s now possible by popular linguistics to incentivize, grow inanimate things, and allow me to listen to high handed discussions on the culture of a middle school, grocery stores and Pearland, TX. A week before my Ford Explorer was still called “Flipper” in oxymoronic irony of that model’s proclivity for rolling over during high speed blow outs. This afternoon the same vehicle has been designated clunker. The Cash for Clunkers Program has been re-designated Car Allowance Rebate System. So if it seems important for my salesman to declare his discount is a rebate, or the Assistant Manager wants to complain that “if the government can’t manage giving out a billion dollars to car dealerships, how can they manage health care?” , I grind my teeth and endure. If there’s a buzz army of literate people mercilessly parsing and mocking Sarah Palin’s speeches on Facebook, I’m not surprised. It’s a battle we’ve been losing for years. Nearly everyone wants to conserve some illusion at the expense of someone else.


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