Tales from the Service Desk: The Buick that Had a Secret


Hi there! You’ve probably learned a bit about your author during my time at TTAC, but you might not know I toiled in the service department of various car dealerships early in my career.

I started as a porter in high school, then eventually worked as a greeter in the service bay (basically, managing the flow of cars and customers in the service drive), before finally working as a service writer (aka service advisor). I did that final job both in an express-service lane at a dealer (think oil changes and basic maintenance) as well as in a capacity as a “regular” advisor (not just oil changes, but all types of repair).

This is the first in an occasional (read: When I feel like it) installment of tales from time in the trenches. I don’t know how many of these there will be, or how much detail I can go into. I don’t want to get anyone in legal trouble or fired – some of the people that might be mentioned in this space might still be employed in the industry.

But there are some stories that I think I can safely share, especially since I wrote up my last R.O. – that’s repair order, to the uninitiated – during the Dubya Bush administration. I traded my dealer career in for the automotive media in 2007. Honestly, it wasn’t much of a career, at least for me, anyway, but that will be covered in a later installment.

Today, though, we’re going to start with something a bit more light-hearted: The Buick that was more than meets the eye.

I knew something was up the minute the dude walked in. He was in his 30s and quite tall, but what really stuck out to me was his diction. He was articulate and deliberate in his speech in a way very few people are, especially when they’re half-awake on their way to work and about to drop off the family chariot for repair work or an oil change. Going to the dealer for anything, even a routine tire rotation, tends to put people on guard in the same way that going in for a root canal does. I worked 7 am to 6 pm most days, and the customers who dropped off their cars in the morning usually seemed in need of a caffeine IV.

So did I, come to think of it. I am very much not a morning person.

Anyway, Mr. Dude was also better dressed than most. Most people seemed to be dressed casually, even if they were headed into work. I just figured that most offices were business casual by then. Other folks were clearly working from home/taking the day off/going home to change before heading to the cube farm.

But this guy was wearing a nice tie, a standard-issue white button-down dress shirt (the kind just about every man owns), and khakis. All neatly pressed. He screamed “cop”. Nah, check that, the look shouted “agent” of some sort.

Indeed, when he gave me the phone number and his office address, it all fell into place. He worked in downtown Chicago, either in the Dirksen Federal Building or one of the other federal buildings nearby. Chicagoans and suburbanites know that area well. It’s often shown on the news as some corrupt pol walks into or out of federal court, hounded by the press.

Making small talk, I tried to ask the guy about his job but he wouldn’t give me a clear answer, but I had a sense it was law-enforcement related. I think he just vaguely said he had a government gig. Not that I cared much, I was just being friendly, both because it’s nice and because this would be warranty work and my customer might get a survey about my performance, including my attitude/politeness.

I don’t recall what the car was in for – trans problems, I think. I am not even sure now if it was a LaCrosse or Lucerne – I think the latter. I know it was beige in all senses of the word (seriously, it was painted beige or tan) and quite unremarkable. Except for the red button.

You’ve seen Men in Black, right? Well, just like the car in that flick, this one had a red button that was definitely not factory. It wasn’t on the shifter, but next to it, integrated into the bezel around it. It was actually installed cleanly, as if it was an OEM part.

I was intrigued. But too busy to play with it. Temptation would strike later, though.

See, part of being a service advisor is occasionally road-testing a car to make sure it’s fixed correctly. One doesn’t have to be a master tech to detect drivability issues. Even someone who has barely turned a wrench – that would be me – can tell if the car is still running/shifting poorly.

So it was with this car. I was asked to take it to lunch to verify the tech had solved the problem. Which meant I’d be alone in the car. With the red button right there, begging to be touched, a la Janet in Rocky Horror.

I wanted to press it so badly. I was tooling down a very busy road west of Chicago, seeking unhealthy food, the button singing a siren song. I resisted – I knew that this Lucerne must be an unmarked cop car of some vintage, and I suspected that pressing the button would turn on lights and/or sirens. I fantasized about the traffic in front of me parting like the Red Sea, and then a real cop seeing me, followed by an awkward conversation. Maybe even handcuffs!

I saw every dark possibility, like a bad dream sequence in some second-rate Hollywood comedy (the dream sequence near the end of Office Space comes to mind, though that movie is better than second-rate), and I held off.

Even if none of that came to fruition, I figured that at the very least word would get back to the shop and I’d be fired promptly. Never mind that there was no obvious way to tie me or the car to the dealer. The red button had induced such panic that logic was failing me.

So I ate my lunch, stewing, curiosity eating at me. Finally, I had a free moment to chat with the tech about it. I asked if he’d pushed the button while the car was in the service bay.

Yes, he had. He confirmed that it activated flashing lights.

I felt better and worse when I heard this. Better, because I knew that I’d done the smart thing, and worse, because it would’ve been cool to hit the lights. Even if it had been in the strip-mall parking lot when I parked near the pizza joint.

Normally, I’d have done this on the backlot, away from prying eyes, but that day was busy, and outside of the intake, the quick lunch run, and staging for customer pickup, I’d barely seen the car.

Still, I now knew what secret that Buick held, even if I will never know what agency my customer worked for.

Next time, I’m pressing the red button.

[Image: OlegGr/Shutterstock.com]

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