The Melting Pot Test
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The Melting Pot Test<br> By Marc Porter Zasada <p> It's a few days before the 4th of July, and the Urban Man finds himself heading out into the American melting pot looking for a used car. Truly, you can't understand our patchwork nation until you've driven around the endless grid of Los Angeles on a hot afternoon, testing the honesty of your neighbors--few of whom will share your particular ethnic characteristics. <p> The melting pot insists that commerce will always rise above national and ethnic barriers, but as we meet on the neutral ground of gas stations or shopping-center parking lots, we do smile uneasily. Doesn't that blinking engine light actually mean something? Would the Urban Man really come up with the cash? And why don't we trust each other... exactly? <p> Sometimes I gather my courage and enter one of those tiny used car lots--you know, a short string of flags and 30 models with signs shouting "Very Clean! One Owner!" Each time I step into a claptrap office, it's like entering a miniature consulate: Korea, Mexico, the Philippines. Everyone grins, even when I ask, "Hasn't this car actually been in an accident?" Whatever our linguistic issues, we try to avoid an ethnic twist to the conversation. After all, the melting pot is going through a tough decade. <p> At last, I enter a small lot somewhere off Roscoe Boulevard, where a man from a part of the world where America is now conducting a major war shows me the precise car I have been searching for. Yes, it's "very clean," the engine "purrs," and the price is right. But there's an unmistakable tension in the air, and sure enough, when I'm about to pull out my checkbook, the dealer suddenly decides to violate the melting pot principle and introduce a national overtone into the conversation. <p> He brings up his home country and watches for my reaction. He asks about the ethnic background of my name. He strokes his beard, mentions that he's a religious man, and says this car once belonged to his spiritual advisor. When I ask about the brakes, he seems to take offense. He tells me the owner was a very holy man, a great personage, and I would be lucky to own this particular vehicle. Indeed, if I don't buy it, he plans to hike the price. <p> In short, instead of making an easy sale, he dares me to show suspicion and challenges me to violate the deepest principle of the melting pot, which states that what goes on over there stays, well, over there. <p> Now fortunately, before I headed out today, my friend Dave, who has a mathematical bent, told me about a concept from game theory, which states that it's actually impossible to buy the right used car. Why? Because you're always too suspicious to pay a decent price for a decent vehicle. Either you go to a big dealer and overpay, just to be sure. Or you bargain down a crook, and you end up with a lemon. Either way, you lose. <p> So intending to beat game theory, I persist in my efforts to buy the car, even when the dealer refuses to bargain the price down one cent. Even when, for a while, he jokingly raises the price by $200, saying, "Well, isn't America all about getting as much as you can?" <p> Despite this provocation, the Urban Man keeps smiling. I take his assurances at face value. And when I pay this man's full asking price and drive the car away, I have the strangest feeling of having won a victory. <p> How's it running, you may ask? Well, my wife has already taken it as far as Oregon, and it seems to be ticking along perfectly. I figure the melting pot has successfully faced another test, and tomorrow, the Urban Man intends to toast America one more time. <p> Happy Fourth of July. <p> Copyright -- 2006 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved. <br>
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