I Sold a Car and Met America

The buyers who came to my door were all a reflection of the country we share.

Posted Oct 03, 2019

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

We called her Ruby, our sweet old 2005 Toyota Corolla. She was in pristine shape because we babied her, so when we put her up for sale, we had more potential buyers than we could handle. Three families came to look at her.

The first, answering our Facebook ad, was a woman with a Bosnian name who had gone to school in Srebrenica. I also have Eastern-European roots—three of my grandparents were born in Slovenia and one in Croatia. Like Bosnia, Slovenia was part of the former Yugoslavia. Unlike Bosnia, Slovenia’s secession from Yugoslavia was short-lived and relatively bloodless, lasting only ten days. Bosnia’s war was devastating.

I looked at the woman’s profile on Facebook and saw a person who could have been my cousin—pleasant, with soft light brown hair. I thought of the many Bosnians I have interacted with—the woman down the street with the yard brimming with flowers, the nurse who prepped me for my last colonoscopy and made me laugh in the midst of that annoying misery, the clerks at one of our city’s biggest grocery chains, which declared bankruptcy and closed, leaving these and other hard workers out of a job. I wondered if the woman who was on her way to see Ruby was in this last category and needed a cheap but good car for whatever job she’d found.

Nope. The woman who rang the doorbell stood on our porch with her husband and teenage daughter. The car would be for the girl. I walked out to the driveway to open Ruby’s door and noticed that they had driven up in a new Toyota Rav4.

“Sixteen days old,” the dad said when he saw me eying his car.

Clearly this was not a struggling family. I winced at my assumption as I watched Mom and daughter drive off. I invited Dad onto our porch, and we had a short conversation about Bosnia, the war, his job in security there, and my Slovenian roots. He talked about the first time he’d visited his home since the war and how he was stunned to see the city transformed into a traffic-jammed mecca full of tourists.

I would have enjoyed talking more, but the test drive was exceedingly short. The car would not work for the daughter: no Bluetooth.

Dad tried to tell her he’d set her up, but she’d have none of it, so the parents smiled apologetically and left.

Like my grandparents, these lovely people were immigrants.  Like my parents, the daughter was a first-generation American. Her children will be second-generation, like me.

Within half an hour, the next potential buyers arrived, in response to my Craigslist ad. I had Googled the young woman who had emailed me to set up the appointment and discovered she was a recent college graduate and had been a track star in high school and college. I found several newspaper articles about her, illustrated with a smiling young woman who was obviously Southeast Asian.

Iowa has a healthy population of refugees from the Vietnam War, welcomed here in the 1970s by the late Governor Robert Ray. They are a vibrant part of our community, smart, hard workers. I see them primarily at our farmer’s market, where they have stalls brimming with healthy vegetables, many of them organic, plus delicious food trucks selling tasty tidbits with delicate dough, and juicy fillings of meats, rice, and seasoned sauces. Children and grandchildren of the original refugees are newscasters, teachers, school board members, doctors, nurses, and community leaders

I met them in the driveway where they were already eyeing Ruby.  Mom and daughter. Mom spoke with a slight accent and was probably in her 50s, so she must have been just a baby when her family immigrated. She explained that her daughter was one of triplets, all of whom were going to graduate school in the fall. They had all gone to college together and shared a car, but they were heading to different graduate schools, so Mom was buying each of them a car. All had athletic scholarships.

The car would be for one of the young woman’s brothers—he was working and said he trusted his mother and sister with the decision.

They drove off in Ruby and were gone quite a while. When they returned, they walked around her again, looking her over.

“We really like it,” the daughter said. “But we’re not ready. We need to talk more to my brother.”

I told her we had a full roster of lookers and, wisely, she said, “If it’s gone when we’re ready, it’s gone.”

Impressed, I wished her well in school and they left. No emotional buying for this woman. I could learn a thing or two from her.

Again, the mother was an immigrant, like my grandparents, her triplets were first-generation Americans; her grandchildren, like me, would be second generation.

The third family came about 45 minutes later, also from the Facebook ad. I’d looked at her profile and seen a woman who looked a lot like our Bosnian visitor, but who had grown up in Iowa and graduated from Iowa State. She came with her husband and teenage son, Jason, who was consumed by his smile.

The had already looked at the car in the drive and Jason had clearly fallen in love. They were also a Toyota family and the car she drove had 300,000 miles on it, which meant that Ruby, with only 150,000, was just getting started.

They took her for a long test drive and then all three came to the door. If possible, Jason’s smile was even bigger. We negotiated price and made a deal, but I wanted at least part of the money in cash, so they spent some time chatting about where to get the money on a Sunday afternoon.

While they worked out the details, we began talking and they mentioned the Iowa Natural Heritage plates we had on both cars. Dad was an environmental scientist, so he and I talked about the state of the country’s environment as a whole, and the dangerously polluted state of Iowa’s waterways, full of toxins from farm chemicals.

Mom brought the conversation back to Jason, and how he has worked to deserve a car, with excellent grades, plus marching band and debate. I loved this kid and he loved Ruby, so this was working out beautifully.

He was patient, watching us talk, smiling all the while. Mom and Dad finally realized they could get part of the money out of the ATM and I agreed to a check for the rest. They left to get the money, came back, and we resumed our discussions and the environment and about Jason.

Mom and Dad had met at Iowa State and that’s as far as we got in their heritage. Chances are good that, like me, they have immigrants just a generation or two away. Like me, they were born into America and, while they may be in touch with their family history, as I am, it’s not top on anybody else’s agenda. We’re clearly Americans.

Just like the Bosnian family, just like the Vietnamese family.

And a bit like Ruby herself, with a Japanese name but who was made in the United States.

We all got here because America provided safety, a refuge, a welcome. That welcome is hard-edged right now, non-existent in some circles.  Our friends with accents or darker skin are seen as undeserving of the American dream by many angry people who think only they and people who act or look like them are true Americans.

The three families who walked onto our porch that Sunday afternoon and rang our doorbell are, to me, what America is all about. Good people, period. All wanting to help their children. I’m not sure what the American dream is anymore, but I hope they all find it.

I do know that, for Jason, at least part of that dream is a ruby red 2005 Toyota Corolla. 

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