I had driven by the dealership a hundred times and never stopped. As I passed I would look over at the row of salesmen standing in front of the showroom windows, white shirts gleaming in the sun. This phalanx of salesmen looked so predatory it always made me think, "Who would ever stop there?"
But today, I knew I would be the one stopping there.
I turned my ancient Dodge Raider into the dealership parking lot and immediately felt their eyes on me. As soon as I opened my car door a salesman was on me.
"It's a Mitsubishi imported by Dodge," I said, and quickly added, "Who do I see about applying for a job?"
His attitude changed in a heartbeat. Not only was I not going to buy a car, but I wanted to be his competition.
"See the receptionist," he muttered, and walked away.
Inside, the receptionist was fortified behind a semi-circular counter.
"I'd like to apply for a job," I told her.
"What department?" she asked, yawning.
"New or used?"
She whipped out an application form and slapped it on the desk. "Fill out both sides and complete this too." She slammed down another form. It looked like the SAT tests I took in high school.
I took a seat in a nearby sales cubicle. It was in a large room divided into glass-walled sales offices. In the corner was a large glassed-in office with a high counter in front of a raised platform. The salesmen in this room looked older, better dressed and had an air of power and authority. They sat behind computers and also seemed to be eyeing the salesmen out on the lot.
Looking down at the application, it blurred in front of my eyes. Could I really do this? Could I really become a a car salesman? Me, a law abiding middle-aged American. A gasp college graduate (well, barely). A writer. A person sometimes described as soft spoken and reserved? Why was I applying for a job in one of the most loathed professions in our society?
Well, here's how a strange turn of events turned me into a car salesman.
About a month earlier I applied for a job at Edmunds.com, touting my experience as a How-To book writer. One book I ghost-wrote was about buying used cars, the other was about leasing cars. The books were published under the name of a guy who had once been a car salesman. I assumed the books qualified me to work for the fast-growing consumer-based Web site. As I saw it, I would sit in the comfort of an office and, from this lofty perch, dispense advice on how to buy and sell cars.
The Edmunds.com editors had other plans.
After we finished lunch one of the editors suddenly asked, "How would you feel about an undercover assignment?"
"What do you mean?" I asked, even though I suspected where this was going. His question had stirred something I had thought about for a long time.
"We would hire you here at Edmunds.com. Then you would go out and get a job as a car salesman and work for three months."
"Selling cars?" I asked unnecessarily.
"Where would I work?"
"Wherever you can get hired. That would be up to you. We were thinking you should work at two dealerships. The first would be a high-volume, high-pressure store. Then you could quit and go to a no-haggle dealership. You could tell them you didn't like the pressure at the first place and you'd probably get a job on the spot."
The editor explained that they wanted me to write a series of articles describing the business from the inside. Of course I would learn the tricks of the trade, and that would better prepare me to write advice for Edmunds.com. But the benefits of the project would be greater than just information. I would live the life of a car salesman for three months. That would give me an insight and perspective that couldn't be gained by reading books or articles or interviewing former car salesmen.
"So what do you think?" the editor asked. "Interested?"
I have a history of acting before I think things through. I jump in with both feet and sometimes live to regret my decision. But here I was, in the middle of my life, long past the adventures of adolescence, past all the lousy summer jobs, past my early newspaper days on the police beat. It was a long time since I'd had a good adventure. But selling cars?
"Sure, I'll do it," I said. A week later, they offered me the job.
It was several weeks before I started at Edmunds.com, and then several more weeks before I was to begin the undercover project. Plenty of time to wonder what the hell I'd gotten myself into. I began clipping newspaper ads for car sales positions. Just the language in the ads made me nervous: "Aggressive sales professionals wanted!" or "Selling hot cars at MSRP. Join the #1 Team. Xlnt pay & benef. App in person." I could almost sense the pressure of the car business coming through the newspaper.
A friend of mine used to have an office surrounded by car lots. He would eat lunch with car salesmen and listen to them brag about the tricks they used to move cars. Occasionally, another man would join them, a guy they called "Speedometer Shorty." He would go from one car lot to another winding the odometers back to show fewer miles.
"What do you think they would do to me at the dealership if they found I worked for Edmunds?" I asked my friend.
"They'd kill you," he said without hesitation. Then he began laughing. "What they'd do is put your body in the trunk of a competitor's car."
He was yanking my chain, of course. But the fact that he answered so quickly gave me pause. Still, I told myself nothing like that would happen to me. I wasn't there to hurt the dealership. I wasn't there to steal anything or to hurt their business. We weren't going for dirt. But if dirt was there we would report it. Basically, we just wanted to see what was happening at ground zero in the auto business.
The date finally arrived for me to leave the Edmunds.com offices and begin looking for a job selling cars. As I prepared to leave, my editor offered me this advice: "When you're interviewing, don't tell them you know a lot about cars. They don't care. If they ask why you want to work there, just tell them you want to make a lot of money."
He then flipped open his calendar and counted off the weeks. "You're due back in the office in 10 weeks. We won't expect to see you until then. Let us hear from you every 48 hours or so with a phone call or e-mail. And good luck."
That weekend I went to the store and bought three new white shirts and a pair of black shoes with soft soles. I figured I'd be on my feet a lot. Monday morning I put together a resume. How should I present myself? Why would someone hire me to sell cars? I thought back to what my editor said, "Just tell them you want to make a lot of money." Good advice. But I needed more than that. There would be questions about who I was. Where I had worked. Requests for references maybe.
I decided that I would look over my recent past and select those things that could be viewed as being sales related. In other words, I wanted to avoid lying. For the previous three years I'd written video proposals for training films. A proposal is a form of selling right? Maybe that would work. I called my friend and asked him to back me up in case the dealership called him. No problem, he said. I had also sold sporting goods at one time. And I had written proposals for grants for another company. I was beginning to see a biography that might work.
Monday morning rolled around and I realized that the time had arrived. It was time to get a job as a car salesman. I drove to an auto mall near my house. Acres of shining cars stretched out in front of me. One dealership had a large banner reading, "We're growing! Now hiring! Apply within."
That was when I pulled in and got the application.
"I understand you want to sell cars." The voice brought me back to the present. I looked up from the application. A man stood there smiling at me. He had carefully cut black hair. He wore a white shirt and a silk tie. As he extended his hand to shake, light flashed off a gold Rolex.
"I'm Dave. When you're done filling that out have me paged and we'll talk."
He smiled again, evaluating me. Then he disappeared.
Nice guy, I thought. Maybe this won't be so bad. I was about to begin work on the application when I looked around. I glanced toward the glassed-in office in the corner of the building. The one with the raised platform and the senior sales guys watching over the car lot. Dave was in there speaking to several of the older men in white shirts and ties. They all turned and looked at me.
It was too late to turn back now. I bent over the application and began writing.