A few weeks ago, at a suburban car dealership, a postmodern culture clash played itself out. I can't tell you the names of the people involved, nor can I divulge the brand of car in question, because to do so would jeopardize the job of the man who told me the story.
But I want to share it with you anyway, because I think it illuminates a certain sort of tension in many immigrant families, a clash between New World sensibilities and Old World traditions. And it also shows what happens when businesses get caught in the middle of someone else's family conflict.
It's an odd story, but I have no problem believing it, especially after consulting a Sacramento expert on cars and consumer issues, who chuckled when I repeated it and said he had heard many similar tales.
The young woman was in her early 30s, a medical professional. She had decided to buy herself a new car, apparently, and showing the lack of confidence that consumer advocates say leads to a sales price gender gap (women, on average, pay more), she came to the dealership with her father in tow. The sales manager assumed that she was a first-generation American and her father, with his thick accent, an immigrant.
After some intense haggling, a deal was struck. When I asked how much profit he took, the sales manager ruefully reported that it was only a few hundred dollars over invoice.
"She was a good negotiator," he said.
And so his customer drove away, presumably satisfied, in her brand-new $30,000-plus car.
Dealership workers were startled when she returned some hours later, this time with her brother, who rushed through the door spouting obscenities, screaming that his sister had been ripped off, demanding that her money--all of it--be returned.
The young woman, in his wake, seemed mortified. She cried and begged her brother to stop embarrassing her. The brother continued his rant, until one of the burlier dealership employees told him to pipe down and speak with respect or get out. In the meantime, the brother had chucked the keys, including a $300 master remote, which was never found.
The sales manager was not sure what to do. He felt caught between his frightened customer and her frightening brother. This was, he said, an unsettlingly familiar scenario.
"I have probably seen this happen 10 times," he said. The dynamic always seems to involve an affluent, professional woman whose purchase is overruled by an Old World brother or father who seem unable to tolerate her having made such a large transaction.
"We do everything we can to bring women into the sales force and to reach out to women as customers," said the sales manager. "Nearly half of our cars are bought by women. I am always concerned about women's issues and women's rights--I am a gay man myself. But here is a woman perfectly capable of making a decision like this and a male in her family decides she is not."
Regretfully, he said, he is starting to mistrust certain kinds of transactions with certain kinds of women customers, wondering whether he will have to undo deals that appear to be done.
This would be a shame, and illustrates as well as anything the way well-meaning folks make harsh and undeserving judgments about whole classes of people.
Once a new car is driven off a lot, once the sale is concluded, it is no longer considered new. By law, the car in question was used, worth less than before it was driven away. There is no "cooling down" period for car sales in this state, no 72-hour period in which a buyer can change her mind, return her car and automatically get her money back.
But, said the sales manager, he was so appalled by the brother's behavior and so anxious to get the guy off his lot, that he cut a check for the purchase price, accepted the car back and was happy to see them go.
He was flummoxed later, when the young woman called. How could you let my brother do that, she asked. Why did you take back my car?
"Twilight Zone" theme, please.
"What was I supposed to do?" he asked. "She could go somewhere else and buy a car."
But she didn't. Instead, her father called three days later, pleading with the sales manager to let his daughter buy her car back. (Imagine. Begging the dealer to buy a car. For a salesman, this has got to be, under normal circumstances, the earthly equivalent of heaven.)
In the end, she got her car again.
The brother never reappeared.
And when the father came back with his daughter to repossess the car, he looked at the sales manager and shook his head: "You know how kids are," he said. "They can drive you crazy sometimes."
* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.