My grandfather Gene was truly one of a kind. I’m sure that’s how everyone feels about their loved ones, but he really was (as my family used to say) “something else.” Growing up in the 50s/60s, he spent time as a milk messenger and funeral home helper before finally ending up a car salesmen in his small town of St. Albans, WV. He married young and had one kid (that’d be my mom!). While his wife retired from work young, he carried on right up until the time he got sick with cancer earlier this year. A salesmen for nearly thirty years, he was the top seller at his dealership and one of the top 10 sellers in the whole of the US for a few years in the past. One of my favorite things to do as a kid was walk around his garage and stare at all of his trophies. It was truly remarkable: two whole walls completely covered with them, and then shelves of standing trophies.
Because Gene sold cars to everyone in town, he knew people and he knew them well. What kind of car you drive says a lot about who you are and your lifestyle, and it also generally reveals what kind of cash you have. Gene, much like a bartender, heard people’s sob stories and listened to their dreams (even if it was just “man, I hope I get that ’69 Camaro one day!”). Walking into a local restaurant or strolling the mall with my grandad was never easy – whether it was when I was 5 or just last year. Everyone knew him. You could not walk two feet without being pulled aside to discuss church gossip, the most recent fallen friend or family member or, more than likely, “car talk.” Car talk can be anything car-related, really. New releases, bad recalls, price drops, a local good deal, big wrecks, etc. Sometimes I understand what was going on, often I didn’t. I got used to parking him in the food court while I ran my errands. If he didn’t know anyone around, he would by the time I picked him up.
Growing up, I spent many summers in West Virginia (though my family actually lived in North Carolina and then Georgia). And one of my favorite things to do growing up was to go to work with Gene. I had to switch days with my little brother Zach, though. So I’d let him go first and wait at the door as they pulled up around 9pm (car salesmen work long days!). “Preppy, preppy [what I call my brother], how many cars did you sell today?” My grandfather would laugh, “We sold 5 cars today!” Dang, I’d think. I gotta top 5. It won’t be easy, but I can do it! The next day, Zach would stay home and I would go to work with Gene. The phone would ring a lot and we’d help a lot of people, but inevitably we’d always close the day only having sold one car, maybe two. I was not having it! I’d huff home, slink into the house and when Zach came tearing around the corner I’d announce, “I don’t think grandpa even tried!” This was one of his favorite stories to tell friends; I honestly actually remember doing this less than I remember him telling people over and over throughout my life, but it sounds pretty apt. As an adult, I can see how the industry obviously waxes and wanes. Some days are just talking to people and prepping for the next wave. Some days are close days. As a kid, I was pretty sure this meant something – cars hated me.