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.