Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The car salesman

Car salesman to me, as I am looking inside an SUV parked on the showroom floor: Beautiful, isn't it? 

TD: It is, but I'm looking for a sedan. A J-55 specifically.  I don’t see one here on the floor. Do you have any outside on the lot?

Salesman: I don’t know. I’m new here, I’m not allowed to sell cars, only to show them.

TD: Well, that’s all I want today -- to see a J-55. I’ve read the reviews and they sound great.

Salesman: I’ll go in the back room and get the keys to one. 


Salesman, returning five minutes later: We don’t have any J-75s. 

TD: I didn't say J-75, I said J-55.

Salesman: Sorry, I’m still learning the differences between the models. It’s confusing. I’ll get the keys. 

TD: I’ll wait. 

Salesman (10 minutes later): I found the key to a blue one with tan interior. It’s parked outside. 

TD: Great, that’s the combination I’d want. Let’s go see it. 

Salesman, 3 minutes later, pressing the key fob and opening the door: Here we go, an X-55. 

TD: This is an SUV. I want to see a J-55. A J-55s’s a sedan, not an SUV. 

Salesman: Oh. I guess I just heard the 55 part. I’ll go back and get the key to one.

TD (pointing to a car across the lot): Isn’t that a J-55 over there?

Salesman: If you say so.

TD: It is. 

Salesman: Give me a minute, I’ll be right back.

TD: OK. 

(Salesman goes back in the showroom and emerges 5 minutes later, looking sheepish.)

Salesman: Uh, this one's a demo. Boss says we can’t sell it. 

TD: All I want is to look inside, sit behind the driver’s seat and get a feel for it. Can't I at least I sit in that one?

Salesman: Oh, OK. In that case, I’ll get the key. Can I grab you a bottle of water while I’m inside?  This dealership has bottles with their own label. 

TD: No thanks.

Salesman: You sure I can’t get you one? It’s hot out here. Summer’s coming for sure. 

TD: No, I just want to see the inside of a J-55. That’s J as is Jim, dash five five. 

(Salesman returns ten minutes later) 

Salesman: I’m sorry, but this one’s sold, someone’s coming to pick it up tomorrow morning. 

TD: That's fine, but did you get the key? 

Salesman: Uh, no. When the boss said it was sold, I ...

TD:  I’m going to take off. Thanks for your time.

Salesman: No, don’t leave. I’ll run back and get the key. Gimme a minute.


(Five minutes later.)

Salesman:  Here we go. 

(He presses the key fob and opens the door.)

So, what do you think?

TD: I don’t know yet. Let me sit behind the wheel.

Salesman: These are the safest cars in the world.

TD: I know, I’ve owned three.

Salesman: Only one person has ever been killed driving one and that’s because he wasn’t wearing his seat belt.  

TD: I don’t believe that. Of the millions of these cars that’ve been sold around the world in the last 50 years, only one person has ever died in an accident?

Salesman: That’s what I heard.

TD: Seems far-fetched.

Salesman: What do you think?

TD: The interior’s beautiful. And I love this dashboard, it’s one big computer, like a jet plane cockpit. Are you sure you don’t have a J-55 in that lot off to the side over there? I see dozens of cars. Surely one of them’s a J-55 I could take for a test drive, no? 

Salesman:  So now you want to go for a test drive? I thought you just wanted to look inside.

TD:  I did. And because I liked what I saw, I’d like to drive one if you have one available. Not far, maybe a mile or two. Just to see how it handles.

Salesman:  So, if you’re buying one today. I’ll have to get my manager for that. I can’t sell, just show. 

TD: I didn’t say I was buying one today. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask to see the inside of a car and take it for a test drive before I decide whether or not to buy it.  

Salesman: Let me get the manager and we can work out a deal. 

TD: Never mind. I’m leaving now, but before I go, let me ask you something. Is this the first job you’ve had selling cars?

Salesman: Yes.

TD:  How long have you been here?

Salesman: This is my second week.

TD: What’d you do before that?

Salesman: I’ve had lots of jobs.  

TD: What was the last one?

Salesman: Waiter.

TD: For how long?

Salesman: Four days, but I hated it. People are so rude.

TD: And before that? 

Salesman: I worked at Macy’s.

TD: Doing what? 

Salesman: Selling menswear. I got this tie with my employee discount. Do you like it?

TD: Very nice. How long did you work at Macy’s?

Salesman: Eight days. Wasn’t for me. 

TD: I have to go.

Salesman: Can I have your contact information?

TD: Give me your card and if I decide to move forward, I’ll be in touch.  

Salesman: I don’t have any cards yet, they’re still at the printer. 

TD: What’s your name?

Salesman: Paul. 

TD: OK, Paul.  

Salesman: Be sure to ask for me when you come back. I don’t have a desk yet, so I’ll probably be hanging in the employee lounge.

TD: OK, Paul. I will. Bye.


On the way back to my car, I walked past a row of J-55s, two of them blue with tan interiors. I bought one that afternoon at the next dealership I visited.   

Saturday, April 10, 2021

How we traveled the world with a serial killer and lived to tell about it

Last night my wife, Judy, and I watched the first two episodes of Serpent, an eight-part mini-series about Charles Sobhrag, a French serial killer, on Netflix.

Sobragh, who is serving a life term in a Nepalese prison, is believed to have murdered as many as 16 travelers who had the misfortune to cross his path in the 1970s as they were traveling throughout Southeast Asia. Some were strangled. Some were drugged. Some he burned alive.

In case you’re wondering, this post isn’t a review of the series. My TV reviews don’t attract many readers. I know because I see the statistics.  

No, dear reader (I’ll call you “dear” even though you refuse to read my TV reviews which I slave over for hours), this is the serpentine story of how Judy and I traveled the world thanks to Charles Sobhrag and had a swell time. 

And it begins 40 years ago, in a New York advertising agency where I was working as a copywriter.

Part I -- 1981

Like many of my fellow Madison Avenue creatives, I earned money on the side as a freelancer, writing copy for companies that couldn’t afford to hire big agencies but wanted advertising and marketing materials that looked as slick as if they had. 

One Spring day in 1981, an art director with whom I worked, George, told me that Royal Air Maroc, the national airline of Morocco, was in search of a writer/ art director team to create an 8-page “Guide to Morocco” brochure for travel agents.  George said the airline couldn’t afford to pay cash, but would give both of us two free first-class tickets anywhere they flew. Judy and I had no money, loved to travel and, in fact, were wanting to take a grand vacation to celebrate our upcoming thirtieth birthdays, so I jumped at the opportunity. 

Though neither of us had been to Morocco, the airline was able to provide the photos and background materials George and I needed to research, write and design a professional-looking guide to the country’s culture and attractions. 

A few months later, Judy and I boarded Royal Maroc’s only 747 at JFK, the same plane the country’s king flew whenever he made an official visit.  We were off to Greece for a two-week adventure. 

Getting ready to board Royal Air Maroc's 
one and only 747.

RAM flew twice a week from JFK to Casablanca, and three or four times weekly from Casablanca to Athens. We would have 24-hour layovers in Casablanca both coming and going. No problem. My new friend at RAM got us a good rate at a hotel near the center of the city, 10 miles from the airport. 

Following our overnight flight, a cabbie drove us over a modern four-lane highway to the hotel. That afternoon we explored the Medina, the ancient marketplace that sells everything from spices to clothes and books. Every other tourist attraction, and almost all the restaurants, were closed for Ramadan. 

 Casablanca's ancient Medina

The next morning, we flew to Athens, where we boarded a four-day cruise on a Sad Sack of a ship – the best we could afford on our budget – bound for the Greek islands of Mykonos, Santorini and Rhodes, and Ephesus, Turkey. 

Our Sad Sack of a ship, the Galaxias, in Santorini

Our first night at sea was a rough one. There was a violent storm the Captain later told us was the worst he had ever encountered.  Almost everyone got seasick. I was one of maybe 20 passengers able to make it to the dining room for dinner. But the rest of the cruise was pure bliss. Except for the leaking toilet that flooded our cabin with raw sewage. 

Post-cruise we spent several days seeing the sites of Athens, took a tour to Corinth, and wound up our vacation at a resort where, as we relaxed on the beach, my wife read Serpentine,  a best-seller by Tommy Thompson that recounted the horrifying story of Charles Sobragh and his victims.  One afternoon we joined other guests in the lobby to watch the wedding of Charles and Diana on TV. I had no interest in the wedding, but Judy, an Anglophile and something of an expert on British royals, insisted.

In Greek god mode on the balcony of our Athens 

hotel, overlooking the Acropolis. 

Suffice it to say I don't look like that any more.

On our flight to Casablanca for our second 24-hour layover, we learned our 727 had originated that morning in Saudi Arabia. Freed from that country’s laws which prohibit the sale much less the consumption of liquor,  some of the Saudi passengers were ordering and drinking entire 750 ml bottles from the duty-free cart. We sat next to a Saudi with plaque-covered teeth who was decked out like Lawrence of Arabia, complete with headpiece and flowing robe.  During the flight, he guzzled a full bottle of Johnnie Walker Scotch. Before passing out somewhere over Libya, he told us that one of the many problems he had with Americans is that we never say “shukran” – Arabic for “thank you.”  

The taxi line at the Casablanca airport was long. Cabbies, trying to maximize their revenue, were asking passengers to double up. We climbed into a Mercedes cab with three or four of the inebriated Saudis who were also headed to the city center. Knowing from our previous visit that few Moroccans seemed to understand English, I showed the driver a piece of paper with our hotel name printed on it. He nodded his head. 

Several miles from the airport, the cab driver turned off the four-lane highway onto a dirt road where the houses were few and far between and goats were roaming. 

My wife, spooked by the Charles Sobragh book she had just finished, grabbed my arm and squeezed hard. “Where is he taking us? This isn’t the way to downtown. We shouldn’t have left the highway,” she whispered nervously.

I said I imagined the driver knew what he was doing since he probably made the same trip several times a day.

“No he doesn’t,” she said in a panicky voice, “He’s taking us out into the middle of nowhere and … and … he’s going to kill us!”  

The cabbie stopped the car, turned around and replied, in perfect English, “No I’m not going to kill you, this is a shortcut.”

So ends Part I of my serpentine tale. Now, let's fast-forward 28 years to ...

Part II, 2009

As a long-time subscriber to Budget Travel magazine, I had for years intended to enter the contest featured on the final page of each issue in which readers were invited to submit humorous true stories of 200 words or less about their worldwide travels. Three or four stories were chosen for each issue and the reader who submitted the story deemed best that month by the editors won a trip for two to a destination provided by one of the magazine’s advertisers in exchange for the free publicity. 

One rainy Sunday afternoon, having nothing better to do, I wrote up the story of our trip from the Casablanca airport, Judy’s irrational fear the driver was going to kill us, and his response, and emailed it to the magazine.

Several months later, Judy who had just opened the mail, came rushing into the room where I was sitting. “We won!” she exclaimed, waving the latest copy of Budget Travel. “Your story … it won us a trip to Tasmania!” 

I was thrilled and surprised. Like most writers, I had written that story for my own amusement, just to get it down on paper. The best I’d hoped for was honorable mention. Winning the grand prize was the icing on the cake. 

“Where’s Tasmania?” my geographically-challenged bride asked. “Somewhere in Africa?”

“It’s an island south of Australia,” I explained. 

“Well, I hope we’re flying business class.  All my friends who’ve been to Australia say they’ve flown business class, it’s too long a flight to sit in coach.”

I said I doubted the flight would be in business class. It was, after all, being provided by a magazine promoting low-cost ways to see the world.

The next day I received an email from the editor confirming what I suspected. The trip consisted of roundtrip coach flights on Qantas, Australia’s national airline, from New York to Sydney. There we were to change planes and fly to Hobart, Tasmania, where we would pick up a rental car and drive ourselves around the island, staying in a different B&B for each of the six nights we were to be there.

Never having traveled to that corner of the world, Judy and I agreed that, as long as we were going to be spending 24 hours to get there, we would at least like to see some of the attractions in Sydney, including its renowned opera house. I said I’d contact the prize-provider, a Toronto-based package tour company, and ask if we could lay over in Sydney at our own expense, either coming or going. I also assured Judy I had several hundred thousand American Airlines AAdvantage miles accumulated over the years, and would ask if we could use those to upgrade to business class since Qantas and American were partners in the One World frequent flyer program. 

“No and no,” was the response when I spoke with a representative of the travel company.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because we negotiated free airfare from Qantas which can sell all the business class tickets they want for cash. They don’t let people flying on free coach tickets upgrade with miles. If you want to fly business class, you’ll have to buy your own tickets.”  She said that Qantas had also made it clear there were to be no layovers, because that would require issuing four tickets rather than two and she wasn’t willing to make them mad by asking because she had to work closely with Qantas. So there.

While I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for a free trip to a part of the world we had long wanted to visit, I, too, wanted to upgrade – what else was I going to do with all those miles? --- and to see Sydney. Twenty-four hours of flying was a lot of time if all we were going to do was spend six nights on a remote island somewhere between the Australian mainland and Antarctica. So I called the travel company’s manager  – and even called Qantas  – to see if we could layover and/or upgrade but was told no.

To make this already long story somewhat shorter, when we took our trip in October, 2009, we flew business class both ways and spent our first four nights in Sydney’s Four Seasons Hotel, overlooking the harbor and opera house. In addition to my American frequent flyer miles, I also had hundreds of thousands of miles with Delta, which had just launched its first route between the U.S. and Australia. Happy to fill the seats on its new route, Delta graciously allowed me to purchase full-fare coach tickets upgradable with miles to business class. And I paid full-price for the hotel, one of Sydney’s finest, overlooking the opera house and harbor. Our free trip turned out to be anything but free. It cost an arm and a leg. 

Sydney Opera House

Upon landing in Sydney, we learned that Delta had sent our luggage to Lyons, France. Luckily, it arrived two hours before our flight to Hobart.

We fell head over heels with Tasmania, which is so far off the beaten path we felt we were in a time warp. There were no malls, fast food outlets, big box stores or expressways in sight. It was like traveling back forty or fifty years before America’s small towns were destroyed by Walmart and McDonald’s.


Each night we stayed in a modest B&B in a different small town. One day we stopped at a seahorse museum. Another day we visited a sanctuary for Tasmanian devils, ugly pig-like creatures unique to the island that are rapidly becoming extinct due to a pandemic of facial cancer. We visited a lavender farm. 

Lavender farm

We overnighted in the tiny town of Swansea which had a welcome sign proudly proclaiming it had been designated “Australia’s tidiest town.” 

Now that's a warning sign you don't
see every day of the week

One morning we stepped out of our B&B to find our rental car surrounded by a gang of wallabies. Thousands of years ago, Tasmania was attached to the Australian continent. At some point it broke off, drifted out to sea and the kangaroos who survived the trip slowly but surely evolved into miniature versions of their continental relatives. We spent a day in a national park, where we hiked around a glacial lake in the shadow of snow-capped mountains. 

Perhaps the most memorable day of our trip was spent at Port Arthur which, in the early- and mid-1800s, was Australia’s harshest and most remote penal colony to which English judges sentenced criminals, including children who had done nothing more than steal bread because they were hungry. Many prisoners, unable to afford the return passage to Jolly Old England, stayed on and their descendants settled Tasmania and, eventually, the mainland. By the time our week was over, we wanted to stay longer but couldn’t. 

Though I offered her one of the Ambiens my doctor had prescribed to help me sleep on the 17-hour return flight to LAX  (it worked like a charm), my wife refused and tossed and turned in her lie-flat seat all the way across the Pacific. On our connecting flight, she reluctantly accepted one somewhere between LA and Las Vegas and promptly passed out. 

I had to help her stagger off the plane at JFK, deposited her in a chair while I collected our luggage, and she slept all the way to Connecticut where she was surprised the next morning to wake up in her own bed. She claimed the last thing she remembered was the captain’s announcement that we were flying over Las Vegas.

And that, dear readers (and you deserve to be called dear if you've read this far), concludes the serpentine tale of our worldwide adventures made possible by Charles Sobhrag, the serial killer whose story you can watch on Netflix. 

Who knows? Perhaps his story will inspire your own adventures.