The car in question, a '93 Toyota Tercel, was spotted in a classified ad and confirmed still for sale here not one hour ago with said salesman.
"Sorry, the lot boys must have been moving everything around, either that or the car was sold," the salesman says, turning his head just enough to reveal a droopy jowl that wiggles with every well-recited word.
"Sold in the last hour?"
"Uh-huh, that can happen," he says.
He stops at a car near the lot's entrance, a white, polished, four-year-old Geo Prism.
"This one, though, this Geo is the exact same car as the Toyota Tercel you were after. It's practically from the same factory."
We came here for a scrappy Toyota, a glorified beer can on wheels dependable enough to get our asses from point A to point B with minimal hassle. Before us is a Geo, a car that, according to our research, blows.
"How much is it?"
"Sixty-two, somewhere around there. Take a spin. You'll be amazed."
"That's two grand more than we want to spend. We came for that Tercel."
Out of nowhere another eagle-eyed lot man swoops down upon us. This one is hungry.
"Get in, drive off," he commands, "and I will take one-fifth off of the total price right now."
With a polite "no thanks," we move toward our rented car. Eagle-eye follows, staying one step back but maintaining his honed, huckster harangue.
"You won't find a better deal. Tomorrow you'll come to me and say, 'Where is that car?' and I'll say, 'It's gone, brother.'"
Neatly lined like new tract homes, rows and rows of sleek Toyotas offer shiny renewal as we pull out of the lot in search of something old. We squint against the evil winks of waning sun that glint from so many hoods.
A car is just a necessary evil destined for lifeless heaps in junkyards; not something on which an identity is based, like the ads would want you to believe.
We make a horrible, 45-minute drive from Tempe to 35th Avenue near Bell Road just to see an advertised '93 Honda said to be in mint condition with low miles for $4,000.
The address is a dumpy, boxish house. In the front there are weeds, a tree stump, litter cluttered in some mystery growth posing as a hedge, a front dirt yard that doubles as a used car lot. The other houses on the street project the same theme of hopelessness.
We knock on the front door and a khaki-colored guy with short black hair appears. He's armed with a cell phone. He calls himself Jim. Jim has a limp handshake, a smarmy smile and nearly indecipherable accent. He takes frequent calls on his cell phone, as if to illustrate his importance. We tell him of the Honda ad we saw and the four grand we can spend.
Suddenly, everything in his yard is priced at exactly four grand. We discover the Honda in the classified ad is not a Honda after all. It is a Hyundai.
"Hyundai, always," Jim says. "I caan git ya a Porschaa, ya know. Anytheeng."
Jim tries to sell us a battered Mercedes that looks as if it spent a whole year under water.
The next night at a Phoenix dealership, a tense saleswoman insists that we test-drive a Nissan marked $3,000 above our limit, which we had disclosed to her.
The woman looks like an entry-level addition to the lot's sales team; her features are too soft, not yet hardened by the sales soul grind.
As for our budget, she says, "Don't worry about a thing."
We are ushered into a room and the door shuts behind us, held hostage in a gray cubicle with a window to the lot, a few chairs and a gray desk.
"Don't worry about a thing," the woman repeats.
On the desk she puts a sheet that lists the used Nissan with a boldface price of $6,999. An assistant manager in a suit comes in and asks the woman if there is a problem. She tells him. He takes a marker from his pocket and dramatically slashes the price on the sheet down $1,000.
"There, you can't walk away from that price," he says with a nod.
We have four grand, no more. No financing, no messes, none of it.
Preceded by a tang of bad cologne, another suited guy strolls in to seal the deal. He says, "What can we do to get you to drive that car off of this lot today?"
Later, I talk about all this with an acquaintance who has worked in the auto sales business for nearly 20 years.
"It's designed to wear you down. Their idea is persistence beats down resistance," he tells me. "And the turnover rate in car sales is really high. A lot of it is a guy 18, 19, just looking for a job that isn't washing dishes. And you get a lot of guys who sold door-to-door."
With $4,000 the insurance company coughed up for our mangled auto, we did our best over a few nights to score a reasonable car. And we can now concede this experience to futile car shopping exercise No. 42.
Definition of insanity? Repeating the same mistakes expecting different results.