I always say that travel is more about people than places. Or at least it should be. And while I have traveled around the world experiencing some pretty life–changing encounters, some of my best “travel moments” have transpired within a 30-mile radius of my home. As it did today—when I met a waitress named Sally.
OF CHARACTER AND CARS
I love vintage cars. Back when my children were wee bairns, I owned a 1975 Mercedes 450 SEL sedan—an elegant machine with a sweet red leather interior that I bought one day on a whim—right before I was about to head off to Montana. Both of these decisions were surprises to my two girls when I pulled up in front of their school in my luxury armored car (it was huge)and announced that we were going on a three-month trip to “Big Sky” country.
They’re still in therapy for this.
While both decisions definitely fell into the “not very well thought out” category, one of them, at least, turned out pretty well. As you might have guessed, it wasn’t the gas-guzzling, money-sucking automobile purchase.
Decades later, when my inner adult finally decided to emerge, I managed to find that ideal blend of character plus practicality in the lease of a red and black 2016 Mini JCW (John Cooper Works) Countryman. It was turbo charged and peppy—just like me. Plus, it was cute (I can be that)—and, unlike the smaller Mini models, it had room for all my stuff. A win-win.
But before I found my Mini, I had to pass through the dreaded gauntlet of car shopping—which meant, of course, visiting numerous car dealerships.
Into the shark tank I plunged.
The #1 Ford Dealership in the World (Too bad it didn’t rock mine)
With no offense intended against car salesmen, they’re not my favorite breed to spend the day with. They’re either maddeningly passive (“Uh, do you even want to sell me this car?”) or overly pushy in an “I’m-under-my-sales-quota-and-you’re-the-target-of-my-desperation” kind of way. That of course, translates into over-the-top—and all too predictable—smarmy sales tactics.
In the case of my visit to the “#1 Ford Dealership in the World,” I was handed off to the unenthusiastic (and not exactly knowledgeable) salesman type. From the git-go, it was clear that he didn’t have a clue as to what I wanted (even though I had told him repeatedly), so instead he showed me everything. And even those vehicles he seemed to know nothing about.
He was a nice guy with a young family, so I felt sorry for him, even though he completely sucked at his job. That is until he lassoed me into the finance department, where he suddenly came ferociously alive.
“So what do we need to do to put you in this SUV today?” he asked.
“Uh, ‘we’ can give it to me for free,” I replied. “Because that’s the only way I’m putting myself in a car that I don’t even want—and isn’t remotely what I told you that I was looking for.” (I didn’t use those exact words; I’m bit more charitable than that.)
Hey, Big Guy … You Done Me Wrong!
With that borderline snarky remark, I left (after being kept waiting there for 2 hours). That afternoon, I called one of the “big producer” salesmen—the guy I was originally supposed to meet with but who never showed up—and poured forth my complaint. But first I left a scathing Yelp review. (That I later retracted, having thought the better of it.)
“What can we do to make it up to you?” Mr. Super Salesman asked me in a semi-contrite tone, now that his reputation was being held hostage by Yelp. “Give us a another chance,” he continued. “We want you as a customer.”
“Too little, too late, I’m afraid,” I informed him. “You see, I already bought another car—at the Mini dealership, where they treated me like I had just walked out of Buckingham Palace, entourage in tow and a royal crown upon my head.”
That’s when he offered me a consolation prize. “I’d still like to make it up to you,” he said.
Ooh … promising.
“I’d like to give you a gift certificate for dinner for two.”
Ooh, I like dinner—especially free ones.
“I’m sending you the gift certificate in the mail.”
Ooh … I like free stuff in the mail.
The Consolation Price that Wasn’t Consoling
Days later, the gift certificate arrived. But instead of a sumptuous feast for two at a fabulous LA restaurant, it was a gift certificate to … hold on—the car dealership restaurant. I didn’t even know car dealerships had “restaurants” and, as anyone would, I assumed it wouldn’t be good. One step above a vending machine, if I was lucky. “While waiting for your lube job, be sure to enjoy our cardboard lasagna!” Oh yeah, I was really looking forward to that. Thanks a lot, buddy … for nothing.
Fast forward to a year later, the gift certificate long forgotten, when I suddenly discovered that I had never actually tossed the sucker. There it was, with an expiration date of 10/18/17 beckoning to me like a frenetic sign twirler pushing discount mattresses on a street corner.
That’s when it all came back to me—the memories of the inept, sad excuse for a car salesman who irritated me and wasted my time, accompanied by that still, small Jiminy Cricket chirp of a conscience that asked me, “Come on, now … couldn’t you have cut him a break so that his wife and kids wouldn’t starve?” Then there was that phone call. The extorted apology from the head salesman, whose sincere expression of delight at offering me a free dinner led me to believe that I should be as excited as he was.
That is, until I opened the envelope.
Let’s get real. What Angeleno in their right mind would want to drive 45 minutes in insane traffic to eat a cafeteria dinner at a car dealership. Seriously?
American Cultural Immersion 101: Invite a French Friend to a Car Dealership Cafeteria
Still, I could not escape the lure of a free meal (what am I, 80?). As I pondered this option further, I was making plans to see my French friend who I hadn’t seen in … well, a long time. And really, what French person wouldn’t want to catch up on old times at a gas-fumed cafeteria inside a car dealership, located smack dab in the armpit of seedy San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, USA? We could gaze on nothing but cars, cars and more cars for miles around as we chomped down on limp onion rings and stale burgers. Oh yeah, I was sure she’d be down for that.
Fortunately, my French friend has a sense of humor (maybe because she’s really not French, but Portuguese, having only grown up in France). And that’s exactly how I presented it to her when I called to issue her the invite. “It will be a gas,” I told her. (Pun intended.) “We’ll have loads of fun mocking the whole experience.” And goodness knows, I was in need of a good mocking.
So we went, my friend and I, to the The Horseless Carriage Restaurant at the Galpin Ford dealership in North Hills, CA.
Surprise, surprise—the place was shockingly good. Even kind of cute in a semi-retro sort of way. I ordered a filet mignon with mashed potatoes and vegetables—and I didn’t puke. In fact, I liked it. And the onion rings were not soggy—they were crisp and delicious. They actually tasted like onions. Just as impressive, the waitress passed my “lemon or lime” test. You see, 50% of the time when I order a lemon (enunciating the word “lemon” very clearly), I get handed a lime. This waitress got it right—and passed the test.
It’s the Story of a Lovely Lady Who Brought Me a Plate of Humble Pie.
Now, I’m coming to the end of this story. And like all good stories, this one has a moral. The moral here lies in the waitress—who she was, how she behaved and what she’s done for the past 16 years that put this Miss High-Minded, Silver-Spooned, Snooty Two-Shoes in her proper place. Yes, that would be me.
Her name is Sally. And yes, like many career waitresses working in “diners,” she called me “sweetie” and “honey” and made me eat my vegetables. Okay, maybe not the last bit, but she was as folksy and homey and absolutely adorable as they come. From the moment we sat down, she was all smiles and “What can I do to make this the best experience of your car-dealership-restaurant-eating life?”
In other words, Sally didn’t just provide above-par service—she revealed a true servant’s heart. She loved what she did, and it showed. Come to find out, she’s been loving on her customers like that for 16 years. That’s right. Sixteen years of being on your feet all day, six days a week, “slinging hash” and taking orders (and a lot of “guff”) from people waiting for their vehicle to be fixed or the paperwork on their new car purchase to be completed. None of whom would choose to be there if they had someplace better to be, I’m pretty sure.
Simply put, Sally put me to shame. Her work couldn’t be easy. But for some inexplicable reason (at least to me), she loves it. Every single minute of it. And here’s the real kicker: Sally had the opportunity of finishing college, but chose not to. This fact alone would send certain female empowerment types into a tailspin. They would claim she was wasting her life.
No, Sally chose not to finish college because she didn’t see the point. If I haven’t made this clear yet, she loves being a waitress. She doesn’t want to get a degree in Hotel Management or Hospitality, or one day own a restaurant. There’s no ladder she aspires to climb or self-identity she struggles with. The only thing she climbs is into her bed each night, utterly exhausted after working like a dog on her feet all day.
But I’m quite sure Sally sleeps the sweet sleep of those who know how to be happy and who never complain about their lot in life. Even more significant, she possesses the rare gift of radiating joy to anyone she meets, especially those lucky enough to sit at the center booth located inside the Horseless Carriage Restaurant in North Hills, CA—yes, even to those who come a-mocking.
Sally, I’m duly chastised. And, I pray, a better person for it.∗
∗Just because of Sally, I would give Galpin Ford a second chance—that is, once I’m in the car-buying market again.