The Discriminating Car Buyer

LOS ANGELES – “I’m coming to look at car,” said the Russian-inflected voice on the phone, responding to my ad.

The voice, I soon learned, belonged to Misha, a recent immigrant from Uzbekistan and a science researcher at a local institution of higher learning, whose mastery of English after only 8 months here was prodigious. Still, no stranger, no matter how credentialed, was coming to my house for any reason, so I grabbed a friend (size: large) and went to meet Misha in a supermarket parking lot in Hollywood.

The moment I saw Misha, with his brother Boris, my worries vanished. They were in their mid-twenties, slight, moon-faced, with cherubic smiles and charming accents. Boris, a mechanic, looked at the car from a distance and up close, walked around it, felt the tires, slammed the doors, slid underneath, switched it on, opened the hood, poked, inspected, examined and finally pronounced it “Good car.”

It was a good car – an 11 year old Honda Accord, in great condition with low mileage, radio-cassette player, power everything, sunroof and new transmission, all for a very reasonable $3,700. It began its life as my mother’s car back in New England, surviving snow, rain, salt air and a 13-book-on-tape cross-country journey through New York City, Appalachia, Nebraska, Boulder, Bryce and Vegas before finding new life by the shores of the Pacific. By this point, the Honda was an old friend, with the promise of many more years, and I wanted a good home for it. If first impressions meant anything, I had found one.

Boris took us on a scenic tour of Hollywood, making as many hairpin turns as that few-block stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard would allow. “Good car,” he said.

Misha nodded.

Back at the parking lot, Misha and I stepped outside the car to talk money. “Is good car,” he said, as he offered me $2,000.

“Sorry. I can’t do it,” I explained. “I’ve just put in a new transmission.”

“OK, OK,” he replied, and then in remarkably clear English he went on to describe the intricacies of car pricing from Blue Book value to life expectancy to wear on the tires and how the Honda was, after all, old car. Misha did all this to justify his next offer, $2,500.

“No, sorry,” I answered.

Misha thought for a moment, scrunched up his face and asked, “Are you German?”

“No, I’m American. What makes you ask?”

“You look German,” he fumbled.

Not sure what he meant by that, I told him that my family is Jewish and our ancestors were from Ukraine and Lithuania with a little Romania thrown in.

“You are Jewish?” Misha brightened. “I am Jewish! Come, make me good deal, Jewish to Jewish.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Jewish to Jewish in L.A. was not unlike Jewish to Jewish in Tel Aviv, but we parted that day on good terms, saying that we’d each think it over and talk again soon.

I did want to help Misha, although not for any reason he could have known. My mother had taught immigrants from the former Soviet Union how to function in American society, from checkbooks to traffic laws. In the time since the car had moved to California, she passed away, and I figured that selling the car to Misha would make a fine tribute.

The next call I received was from Misha’s mother. She too spoke in lilting, accented English, saying that she was so pleased that Misha had found such a nice young man to sell him a car, and the car sounded very nice too. Misha’s mother was endearing, and whether or not she intended it, our conversation opened me up to reducing the price.

Misha’s next offer was still too low, but in the meantime I had gotten my mechanic Steve, who knew the Honda better than anyone, to give Misha the same guarantee he’d given me on all his work. I told Misha to call Steve and introduce himself, but as he wrote down Steve’s last name, which ended in “-ian,” Misha paused. “Is your mechanic Armenian?”

“No, he’s from Glendale,” I told him. “But come to think of it he does speak a little…”

Misha stopped me right there. “I don’t trust Armenians.”

I breathed deeply and told Misha that he had far more to fear from mechanics as a class than from Armenians, but particularly he had no worries with Steve.

Misha responded, as was his right, that he wanted to have his own mechanic look the car over. If the car checked out, we agreed that Misha would buy it for $3,000, still less than I wanted, but by this point the car was becoming like less an old friend parked in my garage than like an old houseguest parked on my sofa.

It was a hot afternoon in Hollywood when I arrived at Misha’s mechanic’s stark garage. Misha and the mechanic bantered in Russian, as the mechanic checked the dipstick and pronounced the oil two quarts low. “The car has leak,” Misha said. “You must lower the price.”

The car had never leaked before, and when I reinserted the dipstick, it came up full. The mechanic smiled and said that he must have made a mistake.

Then, the mechanic hoisted the car up on the lift to look underneath. He pointed to some corrosion. “Expensive to fix,” Misha said. By this point, I could hear Misha’s voice on the phone after the car’s first oil change, “You owe me $29.95 refund. Plus tax.” I explained that the corrosion came from road salt, a result of the car’s snow country heritage, and would not cause him any trouble in California. Again, the mechanic concurred, but Misha remained unconvinced.

Misha looked up at the car, pouting. “I don’t trust Armenians.”

I threw my arm around Misha and led him out to the sweaty blacktop. “Steve may be ethnically Armenian,” I said, calmly yet seething. “He may speak Armenian and even have family in Armenia. But he is as American as I am, and for your own sake, I would suggest that you start thinking like an American too.”

That was the last time I spoke with Misha, and I drove west into the sun of this surprisingly sticky afternoon.

When I returned home there was a message on my answering machine.

In Russian-accented English.

From Viktor.

A recent immigrant from Ukraine, and a graduate student in the sciences at a local institution of higher learning, who had seen my car ad.

The very next day, Viktor and I met for a test drive and made a deal to sell the car. As far as I know, he’s still driving it.