I caught my last glimpse of Honest Harry a few weeks ago.
He sat alone in his little sales shack staring into the cold glow of a computer monitor as he tried to sell used cars to people he knew nothing about.
He still wore the same pork-pie hat that he had worn for the last half-century and still chewed the same unlit cigar he’d been chewing for longer than that.
I felt sorry for him. He should have sold out years ago, but he hung on long enough to be ruined by the internet and a way of doing business that was opposite everything he was good at.
I was seventeen when I first met him.
A shiny green ’56 MG Midget drew me into his lot. The price on the windshield was only a few hundred dollars beyond what I could afford.
I figured I could dicker him down.
I figured wrong.
Harry wrapped an arm around my shoulder and asked, “Son, what kind of car does your dad drive?”
“A ’57 Chevy wagon,” I told him.
“Still smells like baby poo and spilled milk, don’t it?” he asked. He had the car down cold.
“Kid, unless you’re a mechanic, you’ll be picking up your dates in that Chevy, not the MG.”
What could I say? I knew he was right. MG’s were notoriously unreliable.
He then walked me over to car uglier than any word I knew for ugly. It was a 1970 AMC Gremlin, the color of sun-dried tomatoes with trim corroded as green as three week old bread. Not one wheel wore a hubcap.
“And the girls are going to like THAT better?” I asked.
“You want them to date you or your car?” he asked in return.
I tried to flee but he gripped my arm and said, “Kid, I only know two things: cars and people. Sorry to tell you but a Gremlin is your perfect match.”
I don’t know how I let him talk me into it – but I did.
The next time I pulled onto his lot, I had my first high-paying job. My new-born daughter rode beside me in her baby-bucket. I didn’t go there so much to trade as to prove to Harry that I had moved up in life.
He remembered me, “How did the Gremlin work out for you?”
“It kept me celibate,” I told him.
He laughed and gestured toward my daughter, “Not entirely.”
I then asked to test drive a sleek, black Mercedes sitting right where my dream MG had been.
He shook his head no.
“Why not?” I asked.
“You want your kid burping up on the upholstery?”
That was understandable.
He gently steering me toward a ’83 Dodge Caravan with faux-wood siding.
“NOOO!!,” I cried, “You’re doing it to me again. You sell everyone else cool cars – but you sell me junk. Why?”
He took the cigar out of his mouth and gazed at it like it was his muse. “Cause you got more on the ball than they do,” he said.
That was many decades and many cars ago.
The last time I approached Harry, it took six months to work up the humility.
Like he always did, he wrapped a plaid-clad arm around my shoulders and led me into his little sales shack for a Styrofoam cup of reheated coffee.
We swapped neighborhood gossip and I bragged about how my wife and I bought a farm where we plan to retire in a few years.
“You get down there much?” Harry asked.
“Every weekend,” I told him.
“You probably want high mileage then, huh?”
“Got just the thing, a Honda Civic.”
“Yeah, I saw it. A blue four-door, right?”
“Naw, that’s a family car,” he said, “I got a loaded late model silver coup for you. Sun-roof, real sporty. Should be a blast to drive.”
“Gosh Harry, you don’t know what it means for me to hear you say that.”
He shrugged it off. “By the way,” he asked, “how big of a garage you got down there?”
“Bigger than we need,” I told him.
He paused to pull the cigar out of his mouth and study it sadly. “I’m liquidating the business,” he said, “and I got a ’56 MG Midget in storage that I’d be willing to sell to an old customer.
28 thoughts on “Honest Harry”
I’m back…I thought you stopped writing….but it was my computer putting you in spam. My computer is an idiot….I mean, it couldn’t be me….
Another big thumbs up. I almost except Bugs and the gang come out at the beginning of one of your blog post, singing, “On with the show, this is it.”
I loved this post! And the line “It kept me celibate” made me laugh out loud. The world needs more people like Harry, but sadly, the internet is shutting them down, one by one…..
This is good.
Thanks, it was fun to write.
Another enjoyable anecdote skillfully told. I’m a mechanic (or “motor vehicle technician” as we loftily tell friends and acquaintances) so I particularly enjoyed this one. 🙂
A friend of mine had a great theory about why otherwise excellent mid-century British sports cars were designed so well but broke down so often. He claimed the design engineer were brilliant but the cars were built by bean-counters and manufacture engineering hacks.
He could well be right. There’s an alternative school of thought that supposes that a number of them were built on Friday afternoons. 🙂
Learning Harry’s kind of patience takes a lifetime. I’d say he was an old man at sea, trying to break his streak of bad luck with one last fish, but that would put you in a bit of an ambiguous position: at least, metaphorically speaking. Better to just appreciate his patience, and admire his fishing technique.
Harry was, in the noblest tradition of the term, a salesman. Everyone who visited his Lake Street lot knew he would clip them on price – but his specialty was selling cars that needed fixing to kids who liked to fix cars. Harry would tell you precisely what was wrong with the car and what it would cost in parts (from a junkyard) to fix it. The time to fix it was left to you – and ultimately was the thing of greatest value.
People trusted him for that. With every car, Harry sold two things: a vision of what the car could become and the pride that came from pursuing that vision. One can find junk cars anywhere, dreams are harder to find.
It’s hard to type Kudos with both thumbs up. Another sweet and funny blog!
Hey thanks, Liz. 🙂
There you go–that signature surprise ending that I so love about your stories. Another good one, Greg. Keep writing.
Most of my stories are a mix of fact and fantasy. This one, because of the MG, I wish were fact. Sadly, the most I can hope for is an old tractor. But I would be very happy with an old Farmal.
Buy it! You’ve wanted it all your life.
I am in the market for a tractor instead. It is hard to pull a chisel plow with an MG Midget, especially the ’56 model… No torque whatsoever. 🙂
Loved the post. I have had many a love/hate relationship with cars. The ones I loved the family hated. You get the idea.
A retired man should drive something as vain and useless as an MG. I mean seriously, the saddest thing in the world has to be a guy without kids, who drives a mini-van.
I think that would make a great story. (Like what in the world is he doing with that Dodge mini?)
Ha ! The MG is the perfect retirement project. You can work on it for the rest of your life and your heirs don’t have any qualms about getting rid of it. Says the man who owned a 79 Spitfire for over 30 years.
My first car, bought much the same way, a 1975 Pontiac Catalina.
I am going for a Farmal H instead, its a lot more forgiving that a British sportscar. When you get frustrated with it, you can wallop it with a sledge hammer and it just grins back. I get frustrated a lot with things mechanical.
At least you can get under a tractor. At our age, getting under (or even into) a car that sits 4-6″ off the ground, isn’t much fun
Maybe he was a ‘wish’ man. He certainly remembered yours!
Isn’t that every writing thinks about? There are things our characters want and things our characters need, and we, like Harry, need to know the difference between the two.
Made me smile. He is a wise man.
He truly was.
Love this column, Almost Iowa!
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