When I turned 16, I plunked down $393.75 cash for a 4200-pound V8-powered rust-and-banana-colored land yacht. To Detroit, it was a 1976 Chevy Impala. To the used car salesman, it was a no-commission old beater. But to me, it was my first car, earned through 12 long months of serving up the fried and frozen treats at the local Dairy Queen.
Fast forward two years later to 1989, where I’m guiding the SS Rusty Banana along I-70 east towards Connersville to meet with my dad’s insurance agent. Dad had told me that, now that I was 18 and heading to Butler University in the fall, it was time for me to have my own car insurance. His instructions were simple: meet with his agent – by myself – and pick the plan that gave me the best car coverage for the lowest price.
I found this hilarious, since the replacement value of my beloved piece of junk could be settled with pocket change. Yet I still headed east, speeding toward a rite of passage I didn’t fully understand but knew would bring me one step closer to independence.
As I pulled into the agent’s parking lot, I performed a few final checks. Paystubs? Yep. Checkbook? Bingo. Pimple-faced driver’s license? Come here, you.
I squeaked to a stop, violently shouldered my door open – you didn’t exit The Banana as much as you escaped it – and strode purposefully toward my first Big Financial Transaction as an adult.
The agent’s waiting room looked like a Miami Vice set: teal carpet, pastel pink wallpaper, a brass chandelier large enough to affect the tides, and two overstuffed paisley print couches. The sweet smell of wintergreen air freshener greeted me at the same time that the receptionist, sporting a massive Aqua Net-encrusted coif, softly instructed me to make myself comfortable before informing her boss that “Mr. Andrew Janning” had arrived.
I’d arrived, all right. Despite the retina-chafing Crockett and Tubbs décor, this was an important destination on my journey to freedom and adulthood. I smiled in anticipation of the transaction that awaited me and felt my confidence grow. I was sure that this insurance agent would take one look at me – disarmingly handsome in my acid-washed jeans with the perfectly-rolled cuffs, boat shoes, feathered hair, and crisply-pressed light teal (HEY I MATCH THE CARPET!) oxford shirt – and know that he wasn’t dealing with Mike Janning’s little boy…he was dealing with Mr. Andrew Janning. Let the financial fun begin.
It was at this point in my self-absorbed musings that I realized the nasty Taco Bell breath I’d acquired over lunch just wouldn’t do. Mr. Andrew Janning needed a solution, fast. And, lo and behold, it appeared: a small dish of what looked to be wintergreen breath mints on the glass table beside me. I popped three of them into my mouth.
It was at this very moment that the agent came around the corner to greet me. His kind expression instantly shifted to shock as he saw what I’d just scooped into my maw. Aqua Net’s sweet receptionist voice went loud and hard, and they both yelled the same thing my taste buds were discovering:
THOSE AREN’T BREATH MINTS.
Mr. Andrew Janning had a mouthful of noxious, soap-flavored, oh-dear-God-what-bloody-devilry-is-this wintergreen air freshener crystals in his mouth. But not for long. My farmboy past instinctively reared up and I spat all three pieces of evil out across the empty waiting room. We all watched them leave a little vapor trail of spittle before exploding against the full-length mirror that reflected Aqua Net’s horror, the agent’s barely-contained amusement, and the embarrassment of Mike Janning’s little boy.
I didn’t know what to say. I was mortified. My tongue felt like I had just French-kissed a soap dispenser and I was pretty sure my nose hairs had caught fire. A thin line of drool (MINTY!) hung from my lip and I tried wiping it away on my sleeve but Aqua Net was already there with a tissue to assist. I awkwardly tried to move toward the powdery pile of crystals to clean them up but the agent told me not to worry, that we had some business to discuss and he appreciated the good laugh this morning as he guided me into his office.
I don’t remember much of the ensuing conversation but I do know that he still shook my hand and thanked me – Mr. Janning once again – when all was signed and paid for. He even walked me out to The Banana, but whether that was out of respect, or just a deep fear that I would eat the parking lot asphalt if left unsupervised, remains a mystery to this day.
All I know is that I appreciated not only his professionalism but his empathy toward an insecure young man stumbling into his next chapter of life; he turned what could’ve been a routine transaction into gentle guidance toward a more secure future. It was a small kindness that we who shape financial futures overlook to our peril.
Dad would later praise me for getting such a good deal on my insurance. When he asked how I did it, I just smiled and shrugged. No sense giving away all my secrets to the old man.
Besides, I don’t think that agent can justify too many more “Fresh Breath Discounts”.