Betsy Shebang - Column for 11/6

   Weird Farce
-  Punch Line  
= Real Life

You don't usually get one until six months after you order it, so I left work in the middle of the day to have a look. I was pouring with sweat after hiking up Van Ness, but nobody at the dealership knew who'd left the message on my answering machine about the Toyota Prius they'd have that afternoon. They called their lot across town and said Rita could drive me to see the car.

Rita is a nice young lady from Hong Kong or somewhere who clearly hadn't been hired to sell anything to customers who spoke English as a first language, and while a Toyota dealership in San Francisco might have many good customers who preferred to speak Cantonese, I came to assume they'd hired her so she could drive people from one lot to another. Parking is hard to find in San Francisco, so car dealerships have to leave their cars several miles away, just like anybody else; so Rita borrowed a pristine Camry LE to drive me to where the other vehicles were waiting, just as she had two weeks before, when my wife and I were looking for something much cheaper and easier to find. I didn't mention that we were probably going to get a used one in Redwood City the following week. Didn't see the point.

These people were nice. The nasty people at Downtown Toyota in Oakland had sent us on a test drive in a Prius alone, with the automatic navigation system barking directions at us - "Proceed point five miles! Left turn, point two miles!" It was like having someone's grandmother in the backseat who grew up in in that neighborhood and had to pee really bad, which was at least better than having one of the rude, impatient salespeople along. This place was different. These people were nice.

Making friendly conversation, I asked "So, are you a full salesperson, or do you mostly help driving people around and stuff?"

"I Toyota Salesperson!" she said. My mistake. You might have expected her to start telling me about the car at that point, but neither of us said much after that.

It wasn't until we'd almost arrived that she told me that the only Prius they had in stock came with three thousand dollars' worth of shit I didn't want built into the dashboard, and that the price I'd been quoted was a "without-shit" price rather than a "shit included" price. I figured I'd take it for a test drive anyway, because I didn't want to waste the trip, and I didn't want to embarass anybody, and I had some errands to run, and I hadn't had a car for several weeks now, and they'd dragged me all the way out here with false information, so I was gonna get a few things done before surrendering the keys. I thought of it as my "lifestyle-test-drive" - how does it handle in the parking lot at Cala? How does it look double-parked in front of the post office? How does the emergency brake hold up in front of the haircut place in Pacific Heights?

We'd swung by the post office - parked in yet another Toyota lot next door - and I figured I'd try it out on the hills between Geary and Market before allowing Rita to drop me off at Safeway, where I'd pick up a few things and catch the 22 Muni to meet my wife for dinner. What freedom! I had to own one! (Car dealership, that is.)

Insights come at the weirdest times. See, Fillmore between Geary and Haight is not the best neighborhood - newish housing projects here and there; lots of slow traffic, Muni busses in each direction filling both narrow lanes, parked cars lining both sides of the street. Yet it wasn't until I was there, stuck in traffic on a steep San Francisco hill, that I suddenly remembered I was driving a car I didn't really know how to drive. The engine is electric, the gear shift thing is this weird tentacle coming out of the dashboard, this car cost more than I make in several months and dangerous vehicles were passing me in every diirection. I might roll backwards into a stolen Lexus driven by angry lawyers. Was I nuts?

I'd just take it easy. Didn't want to drive like a maniac with the saleslady sitting right next to me and a photocopy of my driver's license sitting on her desk. No problem. Hayes st. intersection - Yellow light? I slowed down, checked out the car behind me in the mirror - also slowing, stopped - and sat on the hill, behind the crosswalk.


"WHAT THE FUCK?" I shouted. Rita got out of the car. The Honda Civic behind us had smashed into our rear bumper. Minor dent, paint damage. (That's our car; her car wasn't old but had numerous scratches and dents - not from today.) Nice old lady was behind the wheel of the Honda; Rita was copying information from the lady's license. I joined her in the middle of the street, careful not to stand between the cars, lest the Honda leap forward again. Traffic sped past in the opposite direction, a foot or two from where we stood.

The lady dug through her purse and her wallet and her glove compartment, saying she couldn't find her insurance info. "I'm sorry. I'm eighty-two years old. You have my phone number, dear. I ain't movin' anywhere. Call me when I get home and I'll give it to you."

"The law says you need your insurance info!" Rita demanded

"I'm sorry, I don't have it," the lady replied, still digging through her stuff.

"I'm going to call the police! The law says you need your insurance info!" Rita demanded.

"I'm sorry, I don't have it," the lady replied, still digging through her stuff.

"I'm going to call the police! The law says you need your insurance info!" Rita demanded.

"I'm sorry, I don't have it," the lady replied, still digging through her stuff.

"I'm going to call the police!" Rita said.

A few cars and a Muni bus with the big overhead power cable things had already lined up behind us.

The lady didn't have her insurance papers. Rita would lose her job if the lady drove away. I had the keys to the vehicle that was blocking the intersection. It was not my vehicle. Cars and busses were now passing in both directions through the single lane beside us. I was very happy I was not alone on the test drive with a dented Prius and the demo-model navigation system repeating "Left turn, half a mile ahead..."

Rita had called the police and we finally agreed to move the cars. I pulled forward, made a right turn onto Hayes street, parked at the end of the bus stop and stood on the sidewalk. The lady pulled up behind me. Rita paced at the corner, waiting for the cops and panicking that the lady would drive away.

That was when a rusty Datsun sports car rolled up Hayes street hill. It moved patiently, and with an odd...silence. Coasted, really. Stopped just below the lady's Honda. They might have rolled backwards and joined us at the bus stop, but the car remained in the center of the road as the driver jumped out, pulled open the hood, pushed the battery back into place from where it had somehow moved to and hooked the cables back to the terminals. "Give it a try", he called to his passenger, who had moved into the driver's seat, and the engine grumbled like a hand mixer in a bowl of concrete.

It was at that moment that another Muni bus came up Fillmore street and began a wide turn onto Hayes. Soon, it could not move; the Datsun was blocking its way. The Datsun could not roll out of the way; it would slam into the bus. The Bus could not move backwards; another car had pulled up close behind, the driver now speaking with Rita. It was the police. The man in the Datsun hooked more stray cables up to the other cables that hooked up to the terminals. Still wouldn't move.

If Rita had been a real car salesperson, of course, this would have been the perfect moment for her to strike. I sensed in her silence an acknowledgement of this fact, and an immanent career change.

Senior citizens waited at the busstop for their bus to complete the turn onto Hayes. The bus tried to make a sharp right. An old man leaned over to the lady in the Honda and asked her to move. I told him she wasn't going to move. I'm sure I didn't sound authoritative, just exasperated to the point of terrible danger.

So, long story short.

The bus driver suggested we push the sports car up the hill. I joined him, the passenger and the driver, and the tiny vehicle was soon rolling up the hill. The bus pulled forward; the senior citizens boarded and left. The police woman parked behind the Honda in the busstop, then chatted amicably with the lady in the Honda, then Rita; then she explained that first she would leave, then the lady in the Honda, then Rita and myself. Rita would get her insurance info, keep her job, the lady in the Honda would get to go home, I'd get to end the test drive and get on with my life.

I suggested Rita drive. We rolled up the hill in awkward silence, save for the calm rumble of the innovative 1.8 liter electric-gas powered hybrid engine, the reliable power train, and the brand-new all-weather tires.

I struggled to look on the bright side. "Well, I'm glad to see the safety features worked well."

"Yeah," she said. "So, do you want to buy one? Want to place an order?"

Copyright 2001 Betsy Shebang

Columns by Betsy Shebang