When the Best Deal Is What You Give Away

New York Times
NOVEMBER 19, 2019

My father grew up with few material possessions. As a result, he appreciates things far more than anyone I know. Throughout my life, I watched him meticulously clean and repair just about everything we owned, be it a radio, a coat or a blender. His attention to detail extended particularly to cars. No matter what vehicle we owned, it was always kept in pristine condition, inside and out.

In 1978, my father decided to sell our Chrysler LeBaron. I was 13 years old and a trusted adviser on all things American. It was up to me to write the ad, then call it in to the PennySaver.

We had moved to California in 1972 from Abadan, Iran. My father, a mechanical engineer, loved a thousand things in America, including the really big cars, or land yachts, a term we learned from a used-car salesman. He and I visited car dealerships in Southern California the way tourists visited ancient sites in Iran, oohing and aahing at man’s ability to create wonder. Our regular pilgrimages had a purpose. As much as my father loved whatever car he owned, he also loved dreaming about the next, bigger one.

We also had a weekly routine involving our own vehicle. This being pre-drought days, my dad parked our land yacht on the driveway. On cue, I would unravel the garden hose, fetch two pails, the large, soft, yellow sponges that did not scratch, rags for drying, window cleaner, and dishwasher detergent. We washed the car until it sparkled. I took great pride in my ability to shine the rims to perfection and clean the windows spotless. It may sound weird to kids today, but seeing how happy my father was at the sight of our gleaming car made me look forward to this weekly chore.

My father’s love for his vehicles, however, was not limited to appearances. On any evening, you would find my dad in the garage, like Jonah halfway in the whale, his torso gulped by the hood of the car. As soon as he heard me, he would emerge, always enthusiastic about the innards of our wondrous machine. “Here, Firoozeh, you try it,” he’d say, handing me the dipstick and rag. “It’s important for girls to know these things.” He was right about that, but my ability to retain car information was in inverse proportion to my ability to feign enthusiasm. “Wow!” I’d say. “So interesting!”

Pleased with himself, my father would then move on to the equally riveting topics of transmission fluid, coolant levels, belts and hoses, and I would continue my Meryl Streep-worthy act of pretending to be engrossed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t care at all about cars.

Needless to say, I learned nothing. But I did know that our LeBaron was in immaculate condition and was fully prepared to announce this in the thin, free pages of the PennySaver.

When it came time to decide on a price, my father wanted $1,000. Luckily for him, my de facto adviser position also included dispensing financial advice, so I suggested that if he wanted $1,000, he should ask for $1,200. My father, with his tendency to agree with all my ideas, good or bad, consented.

A parade of potential buyers started coming to our condo. I made sure to always be there, standing next to my father. My perfect Valley Girl English put people at ease, mitigating my father’s thick Persian accent. This was before Iran ever made the nightly news, but I can attest that even back then, a thick Middle Eastern accent had the opposite effect of Maurice Chevalier saying the same thing.

One evening, a man showed up with his two daughters, who were around 8 years old. He checked out the car, while my father rambled on about its great condition and I repeated what I considered to be the key points, but sans accent. After looking under the hood, he decided to buy the car and told us that he would return the next day.

We waited with great anticipation.

As promised, he showed up the following evening, again with his daughters. After exchanging pleasantries, he removed a wad of cash from his pockets and counted twelve $100 bills.

My father took the bills, thanked the man but didn’t put the money in his pocket. He kept staring at the wad of cash. After a moment, he peeled off two of the bills and gave them back. “This is for your beautiful daughters. Please take them to Disneyland and buy them whatever they want.”

The man looked confused, almost annoyed, like he was being pranked. Even I, with my perfect English, was at a loss.

“Please,” my father repeated, pushing the money into the man’s palm. “You must take your daughters to Disneyland.”

The girls started to squeal. The man paused for a moment, then hugged my father vigorously.

As he drove away in his new used LeBaron, I could see the sisters bouncing around the cavernous back seat, pre-mandatory seatbelt laws. They waved furiously at us until their dad turned the corner and we could no longer see them.

That evening, my father could not have been happier. He had gotten exactly what he needed and I learned a simple lesson that I carry with me still, 41 years later. When you have what you need, use the rest to bring joy into someone else’s life. That is the best deal you can ever make.

A version of this article appears in print on Nov. 10, 2019, Section SR, Page 9 of the New York edition with the headline: The Best Deal Is What You Give Away.