Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Another Thursday

It was a Thursday like any other Thursday. My day of long but productive and important meetings in our Dublin office. We have been operating for over a year now – indeed, for several years – without a well-functioning Administrator, and I have taken that role.

We met all morning, then I went over to ValleyCare Hospital for a Pediatrics Committee meeting, to consider once again how we can combat a hospital intent on using its capital to construct and run its own medical group, and put us out of business. There will be more and more of this – the hospitals have the money.

Then I visited our local Infinity dealer for a second time. My lease ran out on my Lexus GS 430 – four years and out. I lease so that I don’t run a car into the ground until it just breaks up, which means I’ve been driving a fairly crappy car for a long time, no matter how great it was at the start. I have to force myself to get going and make a new choice. I’m not a good chooser – I procrastinate. I think it’s pretty genetic. My son Allie is pretty much the same. I really don’t know if it makes economic sense for me to lease or buy – it’s too hard to figure out, and it can’t be all that different or it would be obvious. They get you coming and going no matter what you do. I guess.

So here I was with the salesman. Not a pushy guy, not a pushy agency. I drove the car around again and liked it, responded to the Joe the salesman that I was ready to buy real soon, saw his eyes light up, and I told him the way I bought my last car – figured out what I wanted and called around to dealerships until I found the best deal, which was $750 above invoice. Said I’d do the same thing this time. I thought I ought to get back to the office, but he said, “Want to come inside and see what we can do?” “OK,” I said, surprising myself.

So we were sitting in his cubicle and Joe checked with his manager – they are all so young! Short wiry guy with a little mustache and nice smile. I’m still getting used to being older and successful, being looked at with respect, I guess, but I’m always surprised not to find envy and resentment. I’m still surprised the way I’m treated with respect. And, to tell the truth, delighted. I’m always friendly back at them, and “a regular guy.” A strength. Why I don’t like to be in situations where I am inferior in some way. Not good with mentors. A weakness.

Strangely, Joe came back and said my offer was just fine with them. He said, my manager felt like dealing today. I figure, either they understood that my story about what I would do made sense, or the car had been sitting, or the invoice isn’t as valid as one would like, or they get manufacturer rebates. So what could I say? I had bought a car. Surprised myself, me, who dithers and channels my late father by second guessing myself. Joe asked if I wanted to take the car home tonight. Couldn’t wait for it that long, I said, the Sharks play at 6. “Go Sharks” came the cry from the salesman at the next cubicle. Such a friendly group. “He has season tickets,” said Joe.

I knew the next step in the familiar dance, visit the financial officer who would try to convince me to lease instead of buy. Another wiry guy, about my height, another guy with a small mustache. Started out the same way as the guy did four years ago when I switched from buy to lease, “Why do you want to buy a wasting asset?” “Why tie up your money?” I guess I reflected that I had danced this dance before, because he made a meta-comment – “I have to do this.” After all, it’s his job. Another low-key guy. And I wound up leasing, just like last time. He acted surprised that I had bought his argument rather than the car.

I think it was the meta-comment, the personal connection, the “Go Sharks” comment, the surprise that they simply accepted my offer, or the relief of actually having made a decision; it was something. But I’m a naturally gregarious guy, not overly shy, and - hey! - I’m a doctor. Maybe I was talking about my wife or my kids. So I must have said, “Are you married?”

He said, “No, I’m not.”

So I said, naturally, “Are you a gay guy?” I mean, we were talking, why pussyfoot around?

So he said no, he wasn’t. “If you’re not married,” he said, “do you have to be gay?” He seemed a little surprised that I asked him.

“No, but it’s the Bay Area,” And I added, “You’re a good looking guy, so I figured you could be married if you wanted to be, so I was just wondering.”

He accepted that (I’m not above a little flattery.) So he said, “I’m not married, but I have a girl friend.”

I asked him how old he was and he said 49 – that’s about what he looked.. “How long have you been going together,” I asked.

“Five and a half years.”

“Wow, I said, that’s pretty long. Why don’t you marry her?”

He said, “Why do you think that?”

I said, “Well, if it’s been that long, and you love her and you think you’re getting a good deal with her, you just have to knock her down and marry her. Otherwise you don’t know what will happen. If you don’t think you’re getting a deal, if you think she’s the one getting a good deal, and you’re doing her a favor, then you probably need to find somebody else.”

Then I told him about Andre Agassi’s book, which I thought was terrific. “You know what happened?” I asked him. “Agassi thought Steffi Graff was terrific, admired her, even idolized her, so he tried to make a date with her.

“She said, ‘I have a boyfriend.’

“He said, ‘how long have you been going together?’

“She said, ‘Six and a half years.’

“He said, ‘That’s a long time. So long that it’s probably not going anywhere. Why not give me a try?’

“She did, and not too much longer, they were together, she was pregnant, and they were married.”

A pretty powerful story (and a great book.) So my new friend said, “There’s something you don’t know.”

“Ah!” I said. “What is it.”

“She’s married.”

“Yup, that explains it,” I said.

“And she’s Chinese.”

Well, that’s not unheard of. I wondered what was coming next.

He said, “You know, I think I’m telling you this because you’re a doctor.” And kind of shrugged.

“Yes,” I said, “it’s OK, I’ll treat it confidentially.”

So he continued: “She has a 16 year old son. They are traditional (!). They think a teenage son should be raised by a father and a mother. So she’s there in the day, but every night she comes over to my house and sleeps with me.”

Well, I thought this was an unusual solution to wanting to be traditional, but people do solve dilemmas in unusual ways.

Then he said, “I used to be married. We had a son. He was 13. Then one day he was with a bunch of kids and they were up in a tree. We found him up in that tree hanged by the neck. We don’t know how it happened.” He shrugged. He just shrugged.

I told him about Peter. Peter was 17 and on a trip with his school and they slept overnight in an open campground on the American River. In the middle of the night a 4,700 pound live oak tree fell in the midst of the group and crushed Peter’s abdomen. He lost a kidney, 18 inches of bowel, severed all the lateral processes of the lumbar spine, broke a hand, and was in the ICU for many days and in the hospital for 3 weeks, and went from 132 pounds to 112 pounds and months of rehab and recovery. He came back. He narrowly escaped paralysis and death. We were lucky. We were just lucky. My auto financial advisor wasn’t.

It was just about then I got call from Grant, our IT guy at Bayside. “Dr. Shenkin, are you coming back to the office today?”

I said, “Yeah, Grant, I figure I will, but I’m buying a car. What’s up?”

Grant giggled in wonder, “You’re buying a car??”

“Yeah, I just figured I would. What’s up?”

“Well,” Grant said, “I have a contract with ATT that we really should have signed today and sent in, and they are in the Central Time Zone.”

“Grant, it’s twelve minutes of four o’clock.”

“Yes, we have about twelve minutes. They’re waiting for it.”

“Grant, it’s just not going to happen today. I’ll be back there in about half an hour.”

So I signed the lease and shook hands with my friend, who I figured I would look up when I brought the car in for service (I had negotiated three free servicings), arranged to have the salesman deliver the car to our house on Friday night, drove back to the Dublin office reviewed the terms of the contract, thanked Grant for doing all the work of getting the price of revision of service down from the $150,000 that our three months and out Administrator had negotiated to a more manageable $2,750, but told Grant that we need to exert some leverage at this point to recoup some of the losses we had sustained in switching services, and getting a better deal on the monthly charges.

Grant said, “But it’s a time-limited offer!”

“That’s OK, Grant. You’ve done a great job. Now let’s hand it over to Flora. Don’t worry.”

On the way home Flora called me and said she had negotiated a $41,000 check to reimburse us for the ATT deficiencies. At the end of the day at home Flora emailed me that she had negotiated the monthly fee from what Grant wanted me to sign down by a third. Good job Flora.

Another Thursday come and gone. When I get my car serviced, I think I’ll drop by to visit the guys and say hello. The Sharks are still in it.

Budd Shenkin

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