Just the Other Day: Snake Oil

At a gas station in northern California, a man driving a black van pulled up alongside me and told me he really liked the Scamp Trailer I was pulling. I thanked him for his compliment and we chatted a bit about the camper. He changed the subject. “I noticed you have a big dent in the side of your car. Are you going to get that fixed?” He asked. “Yes, someday I will. For now, I’m leaving it there to remind myself of what happens when one does stupid things.” We shared a laugh about that.


“I have a shop where we do no-paint, dent removal, on cars. I can take that dent out of your car without disturbing the paint.” He said, adding, “It will look perfect, you’ll never know it was ever damaged.” “I’m familiar with such services,” I replied, “it won’t work on my car because there’s a crease in the dent and the paint is already damaged.” The man went on to say, we have new techniques for pulling the dent out, and special products that work with heat to blend right over the chips in the paint. Can I give you a free estimate?”  “If you want to,” I said, then explained, “but you’d be wasting your time because I’m not from around here.”


The man got out of his van, looked closer at the dent and said, “I can remove the dent for $200 and I guarantee it will be perfectly smooth.” He said. I explained, “I’m leaving town right after I fill my tank.” He was persistent, and introduced himself as if to build trust. “My name is Geraldo. I have a shop where I fix cars. I also do mobile repairs for people at their home or work. I have my mobile tools with me. I can do the job right here and be done in twenty minutes.” “Naw,” I said, “I don’t want to spend the $200.” “How about $150?” He offered. “No thanks.” I said, he countered, “$100 and your fender will be fixed.” “I’m really not interested, but I appreciate your offer.” I said, but he wasn’t ready to give up yet. “$50?” He asked. “No.” I replied.


“Okay, you look like an honest man,” he said, “here’s my best deal.” Geraldo said. “Let me take the dent out of your fender. If the dent isn’t completely gone, you don’t pay me anything, but if it’s gone, like I promised, you pay me fifty bucks.” He saw the skeptical look on my face, “I am Geraldo. I told you I guarantee my work. If you’re not completely happy with my work, it won’t cost you anything.” I must admit he had my interest.


I repeated his offer. “Let me get this straight. You’re going to take the dent out of the car, making the chipped paint blend in perfectly. The fender will look like new, and if I’m not completely happy, I don’t have to pay you anything?” He looked at me and said with confidence, “That’s right, and it will take twenty minutes or less or the job is free.”


I didn’t want to be a sucker, but I rubbed my chin thinking, I’ve certainly wasted fifty bucks on more foolish things. What could go wrong? He couldn’t make it any worse. The fender needed to be replaced anyway. “What have I got to lose?” I said, he replied, “Nothing but the dent.” I said, “Okay, go for it, but if it’s not perfectly smooth, I’m not paying you anything, right?” That’s right.” He said, then hollered in Spanish to a man in the van. “Papa…”


His dad came out with a tool I have seen before. It has a big suction cup on one end and a stop on the other; there’s a long shaft with sliding weight in the middle. He attached the suction cup to my car, then pulled the weight back very fast several times, slamming it against the end stop. It worked like a hammer in reverse. He released the suction cup, positioning it differently and started pulling the weight again. He did this several times but the dent wasn’t coming out as he planned.  Because the two men spoke Spanish, I had no idea what they were saying, but could tell from their tones of voice and body language, they were having trouble.  The dent wasn’t coming out. A bent support on the inside of the fender was making their job more difficult.


Geraldo got a come-along from inside the van. He attached one end to the support on my car and the other end to the bumper on his van. He began cranking the tool. Papa was yelling at him to stop as the hook was pulling the vinyl bumper loose from his van. He removed the hook from the bumper and attached it to his trailer hitch. “Okay.” Papa said, giving Geraldo a thumbs up to continue.  The part he was pulling on my car was plastic and I knew it wasn’t going to come straight – I think he knew it too.


Geraldo removed the hook from my car and asked, “What do you think? Are you happy with it?” “Seriously?” I asked, “It looks worse now than before you touched it.” “Well I’m not done yet.” He justified, “Remember I told you we have new finishing products that work with heat? I still have to apply the finish.” The two men started talking in Spanish again, as if they were trying to figure out what to do from here. Geraldo pointed to a big gap between the fender and the vinyl bumper. He was rubbing his hand over the crude attempt to remove the dent, while instructing his dad to get something from inside the van.


Papa returned with a bottle of drinking water that was half gone. He quickly splashed some on my car, then rubbed his hand around to remove the dirt and grime that comes from the road during winter driving. He gave it another quick splash – a rinse cycle, if you will. Geraldo then started applying a product I recognized, while telling me, “This is going to finish the job. This special product will make the fender perfectly smooth – like it was brand new.” His dad dipped his fingers into the container, then helped by smearing the product over my fender with his hand. He was trying to fill the big gap with the green goop.


“Turtle Wax?” I asked, laughing. “Turtle Wax is your special product?” Geraldo said, “This isn’t regular Turtle Wax,” He quickly showed me the can, “It’s Turtle Wax with yeast. Do you know what yeast does?” “Yes, I do.” I answered, “I do a lot of baking.” “Good.” Said Geraldo, “Then you know yeast makes things rise when it gets hot.” I asked him if I could see the can and he handed it to me. I looked at the container, pointing out, “The label doesn’t say it has yeast in it.” He justified, “That’s because the company doesn’t want anyone to know the secret ingredient that makes this product work so well. To avoid addressing the look of disbelief on my face, Geraldo quickly instructed me, “Don’t wash the special wax off your car: leave it on as long as you can. Tomorrow, when the sun shines on the side of your car, it will heat the yeast and raise the rest of the dents from your fender.”



Still laughing, I said, “Yeast has to have sugar to activate it.” Trying to convince me the magic product would work, Geraldo assured me, “Turtle Wax does have sugar in it. That’s what makes it smell so good.” I asked him, “Do you know what snake oil is?” He said he did not.


I explained, “In the old days of the wild west, a snake oil salesman would come into town in a horse drawn, wagon. It was usually painted up pretty fancy. He would set up a stage to draw a crowd. When the people gathered, he began his sales pitch. He told the people his magic elixir would cure everything from hair loss, to gout. He promised it would cure arthritis and remove liver spots. He’d tell them, ‘My special potion will even heal you from rabies, and rattlesnake bites.  It will cure measles, the mumps, yellow fever, the plague and the common cold.’ He told them it would even chase demons out of a loved one who was possessed by the devil himself.”


Geraldo was listening patiently. I continued, “The salesman would guarantee his potion to work in thirty days or less, or he would gladly refund their money.” Geraldo asked, “Did his product work?” ‘No.” I answered, “Their products came to be known as snake oil, and they didn’t do anything.” Seeming concerned for the people, he asked me, “Did he refund their money?” “No.” I answered, the salesman always left town by the twentieth day.”


Geraldo thought about my story and asked, “You’re not happy with the work, are you?” I looked at him and said, “There’s no such thing as Turtle Wax with yeast.” He was still attempting to keep a straight face, when I said, “You should have added some baking powder, too.” That was too much. Geraldo started laughing with me and admitted, “I bake, too. I know about baking powder.” While Geraldo and I were laughing together, his dad seemed to be getting upset. He was asking his son something in Spanish. His demanding tone indicated he was not happy with me.


Geraldo was trying to get his dad to settle down. He placed his hand on his dad’s chest and gently guided him toward the van. I’m not sure what he was saying, but I clearly heard him say “policia,” three different times. I know what that means and was pretty sure he was telling his dad something like, “He’s on to our scam. Let’s just go before he calls the police.” His dad said something to me in Spanish as he walked back to the van. I didn’t understand him, but I’m sure it wasn’t anything good.


Geraldo grinned. With embarrassment and hope in his smile, he ,asked, “You’re not going to pay me, are you?” I smiled, “I’m not going to give you fifty dollars, but I will give you twenty for providing me with some great entertainment tonight.” Seeming ashamed, he asked, “Are you sure you want to pay me anything?” “I’m sure.” I answered as I extended my hand with a twenty-dollar bill toward him. He took the money saying, “Gracias.” I knew what that meant and could tell he was sincere. I gave him a warm smile and said, “You’re welcome.”


As Geraldo was walking to his van, he stopped, turned toward me and said, “I’m sorry if we messed up your fender.” “Don’t worry about it,” I said, “you didn’t hurt anything. It has to be replaced anyway. Besides, it gave us both a good laugh.” He waved goodbye and climbed into his van. I looked at the fender on my car, covered in green gunk, shook my head and laughed. “Turtle Wax with Yeast – snake oil”