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.
Despite my ever-growing fear that I was car-jinxed, going to work with my grandfather did establish a love of cars in me. He loved American-made vehicles, especially Chevys, and always had a new car at home. Growing up as his only child, my mother endured a string of new cars from the time she was 16 until she left home around 22. While we sometimes admits it was a little annoying to constantly have to get used to new wheels, I can only imagine how cool it must have been (and how cool people thought she was) to be so young and yet constantly in the newest and sickest ride. There is still a whole room at my grandfather’s house just for his car stuff (other than the garage – so I guess that makes two rooms!). His second room has all of his “toy” model cars and photo albums of all of the cars he and my mom ever owned. I never got far beyond the basics of car love, though. I liked pretty colors, smooth rides and fancy-looking bodies. I was also pretty bored with the selection of the 1990s. I wanted a car like my mom had growing up. As the saying goes, “they just don’t make them like they used to.”
As my luck would have it, though, I wouldn’t end up needing a car. Upon graduating from high school, I moved directly to NYC to study film at NYU. I was carless and fancy-free! My grandfather found this quite disturbing, though. How does one exist without wheels? The fact that I bought a bike and started hoofing it around town constantly (and dropping my freshmen fifteen, pound by pound) did not make him feel better. Luckily, he was able to help my little brother buy a cherry red pickup truck after his graduation. When he crashed it two years later, Gene traded it in and got him what he always really wanted – a Jeep Wrangler in bright yellow. He still has it, and good grief does that car scare the crap out of me!
So while not having a car for the nearly ten years I lived in NYC was super-nice (just think of the cash saved by not having a car payment or having to cash out for gas, tickets and fines), it was a pretty weird situation in my family. Just in the time that I was in NYC, my parents probably had six cars come and go from their lives. I used the ever-popular Zipcar, though, and that kept me from getting too rusty on my driving skills. I also figured if I could navigate NYC once a month in a car, I could drive pretty normally anywhere else. Leaning on friends for rides when I was in town in Atlanta got old really fast, so I also started renting a car every time I left New York. I quickly became obsessed with driving again. While most New Yorkers feel super-grateful to be out from behind the wheel, I found myself yearning for my long highway drives. Sure, my waist was looking good and my iPod had plenty of great tunes to keep me company, but it just wasn’t the same. For some reason or another, this started to bother me more and more over the years.
In May, I got my car salvation! I decided to move to California with two of my best friends, and so would obviously need to purchase a car. I had also just found out that my grandfather – a man who was never sick a day in his life, never had one sip of alcohol or ever smoked a cigarette – was sick with cancer. I flew down to WV to see him and hoped he would help me with my car search. What I found was a man vastly different than the one I’d last seen six months prior. He was skinny and tired and out of sorts. But you better bet he still took me up to the used car lot, albeit in his jammies. I told him the only thing I cared about was getting a hybrid vehicle with great gas mileage… not something often heard in the great state of West Virginia. But my grandfather was no idiot, so he took me over to the Chevy Cruze. “You’ll love it,” he said. “It’s compact, hybrid, just came out in 2011 and we already have some used ones for around 16k and it’s got 42 hwy MPG.” And he was right, I did love it! I took it for a test run and it ran smooth and felt great. We chatted some more and he went home. I decided, since this was my first car and I was pretty clueless, that I would stay and basically drive every car in their lot. I didn’t want to spent too much time with this decision (I am one to make myself nuts over things), but I wanted to give it all a fair shot.
Another salesmen came over, and I recognized him instantly as a guy that my grandfather had put under his wing and trained early on. In so many words, he explained that I really had no other choice but to buy a Prius – ha! A Toyota, I thought, Gene will kill me! But I heard his pitch and took it out for a ride. I fell in love. Hard. I talked it over later with Gene and while he wasn’t happy, he consented to help me with the payments and come along with me when I came back to buy it in August. I bought my one-way plane ticket to WV for Tuesday, August 7th. I got a call that he passed away on Sunday, the 5th. He was 77. But while I didn’t have my grandad there the day I went over and bought my Prius (last Saturday), I did have his advice and thoughts and memory with me. I also had a praying mantis sitting right atop of the car as it sat in the dealership lot. I can’t imagine that that wasn’t him, telling me it was okay. I drove down from WV to Atlanta yesterday to visit some friends, and I will continue on from here to California looking forward to my new life.
So, to my sweet grandfather: I’m sorry I didn’t buy that Chevy. But did you know that I made it from WV to GA on one and a quarter tanks of gas? Less than $50 total and 50 hwy MPG, gramps. I couldn’t pass it up. I hope you understand and I hope there are a lots of awesome Chevys in heaven for you to drive around. Cheers to you!