On a bright morning in the summer of 1971, Mike Aahl was rooting around in the trunk of old Buick trade-in parked along the back fence of Hayward Ford. As his hands searched through piles of old newspapers, crumpled cigarette packages, and empty oilcans, hoping to discover any hidden treasures, his eyes brightened. There in front of him was quite a find. It was an old roller skate.
Mike withdrew his prize, his mind reeling with the possibilities. The skate itself was a scruffy, white leather affair, definitely something worn by a girl. It had old-fashioned steel wheels. Its metal frame was spotted with rust. As Mike inspected the skate, out fell an equally crusty skate key. All in all, it was perfect!
The plan for the skate’s resurrection started off simple enough, a quick clean up and a visit to the local hardware store for some gold spray paint. Within a couple of hours it was finished and set to dry along the warm western wall of the parts department. Beside it was the key, also sprayed gold, for it, too, was part of plan.
Someone suggested, “Let’s have it mounted on a nice slab of wood.” It was a great idea, no doubt, but by the time it hit the local trophy shop another even greater idea was hatched.
In a couple of days the skate was ready, and we gathered in Mike’s office to admire the results. There it was, a beautiful bright gold, looking like a bronzed baby shoe from hell. It had been mounted on an oak base befitting its importance. A small gold plaque read, “The Golden Skate Award.” It was ready to go.
Skating is a term used by car salesmen to signify stealing all or part of a car deal from another salesman. In the bad old days of the car business salesmen skated each other as if it were the national sport. This was particularly true in big dealerships where large crews of Car Men fought for survival each month.
There are different levels of skating. In it’s most common form, another salesman somehow manages to get his name on your deal after you have done all the work. Any Car Man who has been around for awhile can tell a story or two about going out to lunch only to return to discover that his appointment had shown up early. If intercepted by a shark, you could bet you lost half your deal. Even if the salesman was your friend the sales desk rarely allowed your customer to be held until you got back, so whoever was available to complete the sale got half a commission regardless of his previous involvement in the deal.
These situations managed to even themselves out over time. You could not be at the dealership to protect yourself 24/7, though management acted as if you should. Occasionally you lost a half deal, but occasionally you got a half deal back, and the order of the Car Man universe was once again restored. What goes around comes around.
Then there was the out-and-out, you-lost-a-deal skate. If it was done properly you might never know it happened. The customer you sold that Ford Mustang to sends in his buddy to see you. It is your day off; another salesman gets your referral, sells him a car and does not put your name on the deal. If you do manage to discover the evil deed the usual answer to your pissed-off inquiry is, “He didn’t ask for you.”
I have known salesman to tell customers that the guy they asked for did not work there anymore, or “David doesn’t sell used cars. I’ll have to be the one to help out with that.” Being the clever bastards we are, there were dozens of lies you could tell a customer to steal him away from the intended salesman.
Management never openly condones skating, but there is not a lot they could or would do about it. In their eyes a little skating toughens everyone up, and that is exactly the way they like it. They prefer to let the salesman work it out (or in some cases duke it out) among themselves.
Skating is one of those things that The Others could never understand. They live in a world of relative fairness in the work place where Car Men only have a marginal acquaintance. That is why the first rule of our business is the car business is not fair. It is something Car Men have to accept if they are to survive. It is not something your average schoolteacher or government worker could ever accept or understand.
I am not a saint, but I have never been one to skate people. You see, the second rule of the business, “what goes around, comes around” is a powerful force, and I learned early in my career to respect it. That and my Portuguese/Catholic upbringing always prevented me from being much of a skater, but I will admit I have been sorely tempted. Like former President Jimmy Carter, I have often lusted in my heart.
At Hayward Ford we had a kangaroo court. If the skate had been particularly egregious, you could ask for a hearing after a morning sales meeting. On average, this occurred a couple of times a month. These mini-trials were wildly popular if only for their entertainment value. Here you would have two impassioned opponents ready to hunt bear, but instead of bear it was each other.
After the sales meeting the managers cleared out. They rarely wanted anything to do with this, but agreed to honor the outcome. The salesmen would stay. We had a big crew so sometimes there would be twenty or more Car Men crowded into the meeting room, downing coffee, smoking cigarettes, and ready for a show.
Usually, three Car Men acted as judges. The accuser would point out the guilty party and state his case. Both sides would then tell their version of the events, most of the time wildly different from each other. If there were witnesses they would testify. Then the judges would deliberate. Keep in mind that the sales managers would only tolerate us being off the floor for fifteen or twenty minutes, so there was no Perry Mason oratory going on in there.
The judge’s decision was final. Sometimes you won; sometimes you lost. It was accepted that this was the end of the issue until, of course, the salesman who lost managed to get the other salesman back. Car Man justice!
It was out of this that The Golden Skate Award came into play. It was decided that Mike Aahl’s find should be given out monthly to the man who best exemplified not only skating, but also the spirit of skating. In some ways a Car Man who was a little out of control was admired. Sheer craziness was something grand to watch in a weird, sick way. Car Men are always into weird and sick.
The award would be given after a sales meeting at the beginning of the month. A few days before the event a panel of Car Men, headed by our salesman emeritus, Hank Medeiros would gather to choose the man they deemed worthy enough to be singled out for this honor.
The much-anticipated morning finally came. Everyone was in high spirits. Even the Grand Old Men of the dealership, many who had been with Hayward Ford since the late 1940’s when it was nothing more than a converted garage on the corner of Mission Blvd. and “A” Street, would came to watch the proceedings.
Hank was the MC. He was ideal for the job being a natural born ham. He had been at Hayward Ford for years. He loved to be in the limelight, tell a few jokes, and have a good time. He set the perfect tone for The Golden Skate Award ceremonies. I wish I could tell you the names of some of the winners, but the sad fact is that skaters, though entertaining in a strange way, never last long at a dealership. They are like the itinerant gamblers of the Old West, always drifting from one place to another to ply their trade before getting out of Dodge when the citizens got wind of their cheating.
Hank would tell his jokes then run down the list of the dirty deeds allegedly committed of the award’s winner. When the culprit was finally announced and presented his prize, it was met with howls of laughter and the red face of the thought-he-was-clever winner. Busted!
The second prize was then given out. The Golden Key Award went to the salesman who tried hard but came in second best. The glittering key was decked out with a fancy blue ribbon and presented with as much good-natured malice as the skate itself.
Prizewinners were required to keep their trophies in their offices and on prominent display throughout the month. There it could be seen by all, questioned by customers, and a little reminder that they were not as smart as they thought they were.
“The Golden Skate Award” is a cherished memory of my youth. These days, working mostly alone on a small used car lot, there is no one to skate me—though I have to keep an eye on my boss, another Hayward Ford veteran. But I am certain that the practice sill goes on because skating is part of our tradition, and for Car Men, traditions run deep.
Talk to you later,