I hate it when I miss an opportunity for brilliant riposte, and today I missed the opportunity of a lifetime. I didn’t see it coming, but then you never do. The situation was mundane, a car dealership. Boring. I’ve been taking sequential cars to be serviced at this dealership for over twenty years because I buy cars at this dealership. In a quarter-century no one there has been anything but polite and professional, creating a sort of comfortable stupor in which I anticipated no need to be alert, incisive or poised to kill.
The “service engine” light on my impenetrably techie dash had been illuminated by whatever computer system does that sort of thing. So I dutifully made an appointment and took the car in, where I was escorted to a high desk and a young man I will, for obvious reasons, call Flynt.
There was nothing unusual about Flynt, at first. All the service attendants are compelled to dress in business attire, creating the impression that the car dealership is actually a bank into which your money will be siphoned with elegance. I told Flynt about the service light, expecting the usual incomprehensible murmurs about cracked hydraulic power assist hoses or leaky valve housings. Instead, Flynt asked, “You drive in the city?”
We were standing in the middle of a city. I live in the city, a fact documented on Flynt’s computer screen. I was alone and hence could be assumed to have driven my car there.
“Um, I live here,” I said, clueless.
His look was a meld of distaste and outrage. “You drive in traffic?”
It was morning, not my best time, but the accumulation of non-sequiturs was beginning to capture my attention. Flynt’s questions were devoid of sense and yet oddly pointed, reminiscent of a frantic conversation I had in Budapest with a man whose grasp of English perfectly matched my grasp of Hungarian. Neither of us could understand a single word spoken by the other, but there we were. In such circumstances, one makes the effort.
“Yes, there’s traffic,” I said, glancing knowledgably through the plate glass windows at the street, where there was actually no traffic. Flynt regarded me in the way that I imagine the Salem magistrates observed Bridget Bishop before sentencing her to be hanged as a witch. Clearly, agreement as to the existence of traffic in a city was an egregious affront to Flynt. Sensing a no-win impasse, I opted for a courteous exit. Flynt could explore this topic further with somebody else.
“About what time will you be able to call with a report on the car?” I said. “I’ll be available until two.”
A smile that I can only describe as snide curled his upper lip. “When was the last time you drove a stick shift before this one?” he asked.
And that’s when it finally hit me. My car, which looks like every other little black 4-door sedan on the road, has a sports suspension and a stick shift. Among its peers, it’s the racy version, introduced in an attempt to lure a younger demographic to a brand known mainly for its sensible roles in foreign movies. Flynt, I realized, did not approve. I was too old for my car and nonetheless had the audacity to shift gears in a city where there’s traffic. The horror.
But insight does not bring an instant ability at snappy riposte. In its first moments, insight is a kind of shock. Despite the bifocals I’m never going to mature beyond 18, and while I’ve read about ageism along with all the other isms, I never thought about it as a problem for me.
“Um, that would be the Fiat Spider; it was a stick,” I told Flynt, remembering hair-raising drives on the bluff roads above the Mississippi River three decades in the past. The first thing that comes to my mind is always just the truth. “Please have the service manager call before two.”
My ride was there and I left. Later the service manager called and exhaustively explained something or other about a glitch in fuel line pressure. They had the part; the car would be ready tomorrow. Fine. But Flynt’s barely suppressed sneer followed me like the scent of skunk that hangs around for hours after the striped one has waddled away to sleep under somebody’s garage. I don’t mind insults, bigotry and mindless bias as long as I know they’re insults, bigotry and mindless bias. If I know, I can respond. I like a good fight. But being blindsided? Unacceptable.
So tomorrow when I go to pick up the car …
Me: Hey, Flynt, how about this city traffic! Brutal, huh?
Me: Yeah, traffic, like you said. I rode my old man’s hog up to the detention center and couldn’t believe the traffic.
Flynt: You rode a motorcycle? Come on. Who do you think you’re kidding? Where’s your helmet?
Me: Left it with the hog. He gets released today, y’know? Needs his wheels. So I walked on over here to get the car.
Flynt: But that’s five miles!
Me: Beats driving in this traffic, right? Hey, listen, I love chatting about traffic, but I have to pick up the truck in fifteen minutes. Load of pea gravel and nitroglycerin. Has to be at a mine in Lump Gulch by tomorrow afternoon. Is my car ready?
Flynt: Lump Gulch?
Me: It’s in Montana. My car?
Flynt: Your husband’s in jail, but you’re getting a truck he has to drive a thousand miles to Montana the minute he gets out?
Me: What husband? And Wolf’s no trucker, trust me. He’s the sous chef at Chez Bastille. And the truck’s mine. A classic Benz flatnose I got in Bratislava the day after the curtain went down. Fifteen gears, two splitters and a butterfly thumb I salvaged from a wrecked Peterbilt in Nome. Sweet. I’ll swing by and show you my rig when I get back from Lump Gulch, let you take it for a spin.
Flynt: No, that’s all right. Here’s your paperwork and we appreciate your business.
Me: Hey, an automotive guy like you! No way you’d pass up a chance to mesh all those gears, and in city traffic, too. I’ll be by day after tomorrow.
Flynt: No, really, fifteen gears? I don’t drive trucks. You pay at the cashier’s counter.
Me: Gee, you think I can walk all the way over there without assistance? It’s at least five yards.
Flynt: What in hell is a butterfly thumb?
Me: You’ll never know, baby. You’ll just never know.