ARECENT newspaper story offered a faint glimmer of hope that this country isn't going to hell in a handbasket as quickly as we think.
It seems that some car dealers have begun to cut their sales staffs, reducing the odds that a perfectly innocent customer will be set upon by an obnoxious man with a loud sport coat and thinning, slicked-back hair during each visit to a dealership.
The best news of all, however, is that many of these same dealers have begun to put fixed sticker prices on their cars.
That move eliminates the tedious haggling that goes on between salesmen and prospective buyers, a process that often takes on all the calm of a camel auction in Tangier.
Under the new system, if the car's sticker price is $13,999, then the actual sale price of that car would be -- stay with me here -- $13,999. Not including taxes, tags, dealer prep, and so on and so forth.
As it stands now, of course, the ordeal of buying a new car is considerably more involved.
A typical scenario: The minute you pull into a car dealership, three or four men with loud sport coats and thinning, slicked-back hair burst through the showroom door.
Quickly they surround your car and begin rocking it back and forth, their plaintive cries of "Me! Me! Me!" creating an unearthly din.
Finally, one of the men beats off the others with a tree branch and announces that his name is, oh, Lenny.
"Can I help you?" Lenny asks, in that oily voice so common to sales people.
Of course, you quickly shake your head no, alternately gazing in horror at the vivid tangerine color of Lenny's sport coat and the half-eaten tuna sandwich peeking from his breast pocket.
"We're, uh, just looking," you say, backing away slowly, the way one would if suddenly approached by a large dog in a strange driveway.
Despite your protestations, Lenny hooks himself on you the way a barnacle attaches itself to a boat hull.
Shadowing you while you browse, Lenny offers a crisp running commentary on the "quality" vehicles he sells while viciously denigrating the efforts of every other car dealer in the region.
The man is nothing if not persistent. Even if you were to suddenly lose all control and attack Lenny with a tire iron, he would simply duck into the showroom for a few stitches and be back to haunt you within minutes.
Now, let's say that despite Lenny's stifling presence you actually come across a car that you like.
And let's say that upon glancing at the sticker price you don't suddenly clutch your chest and keel over right there, the way you normally do while car shopping.
In other words, this is a car you might be able to afford without taking that second job in the fiber mill.
Well, sensing a possible sale, Lenny suggests that you accompany him back to his desk, which is located in a tiny gray cubicle. Invariably the walls are adorned with a half-dozen phony "Salesman of the Year" plaques as well as the happy hour listings of every bar in the area.
Grabbing his calculator, Lenny proceeds to tap furiously on the keys for several minutes.
Finally, he smiles broadly and announces that out of the goodness of his heart, and because you seem like such a solid citizen, he is willing to let you have that fine $13,999 automobile for, oh, $22,805 -- as it now includes an engine, transmission, tires, etc.
If you blanch at that figure -- as any normal person would -- Lenny feigns incredible hurt and astonishment and says: "OK, make me an offer."
This sets in motion an exhausting round of dickering with Lenny rising from his chair each time a price is mentioned to announce: "I gotta run that by my manager."
The dickering over car prices is something I could never understand as it seldom happens when making other purchases.
When you walk into an appliance store, a salesclerk with a sport coat the color of a tablecloth in an Italian restaurant doesn't descend on you and bark: "Look, that toaster is going for $22. But maybe we can let you have it for $17.50 -- if you're willing to take it right now."
Not that that's such a bad idea.