Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Pyramid Scheme That Wasn't

There are so few “legendary” events in our adult personal lives, the kind of which happen routinely when we were kids. There are obvious things, like weddings, funerals, births, etc. Monumental events like 9/11 and natural disasters. But comparatively few of those sort of situations that we’d end up turning into legends as kids: fist fights, first drunks, dozens of weird, memorable moments related to school, etc. Most of adult life is rote work and responsibility – at least mine is.

But every now and then, something happens that you know you’ll be talking about years later. Such an instance occurred with my high-school friends T and J about 15 years ago, had to be early/mid 90s. J was infamous for getting us all into bizarre adventures that we’d curse him for at the time, but somehow knew these things would be shaggy-dog stories one day, and understood this almost immediately.

But this one was T’s doing. T was married to his first wife for a few years at that point, in his mid-20s, with a son and two stepsons. I knew things were rocky when I saw a hole in the paneling of his living-room wall and was informed that his wife had thrown a full beer can at him and missed. This was a bit of a shock to me, as I was just starting my tenure in New York City, and their marriage ceremony was fresh in my mind, a grandiose church affair, huge party at a local hall afterwards. That stuff is one thing, and the day-to-day reality of marriage is another. And sometimes there’s a hole in the living-room wall with a story to tell.

That marriage would peter out a few years later, but at the time, T was married, with kids, working in a more-managerial position at a company in a town about an hour north of our home area, where he had started as an engineer. Making so-so money. (He’s now making great money, especially for back there, but also seems to be under enormous pressure, too.)

T and J were always scheming ways to make more money in their lives. Money was a burning issue between both, a competition of sorts, although neither would have admitted it. To a certain extent, many things were a competition between them. I recall vague stories of measuring penises and such … must have phoned in sick that day … but in that event, J was hung like a horse, T not so much, so I guess that one didn’t pan out so well. It was often my duty to referee when they got too nuts with each other … assuming I wasn’t too busy getting nuts with one or the other. They were much closer friends than I was with either one separately, but prone to fighting much more as a result, as that sense of competition influenced nearly every part of their lives.

One summer, I came back for a visit, and T told both J and I that he had something special planned for us that Friday night. We had no idea what this meant. A strip club? We were going to get laid? Something wild? This was the vibe J and I got from T talking up what we were going to do that Friday. He picked us up at sundown in his VW Rabbit, still blaring Van Halen from his Big Brute speakers, as was the case when we were teenagers a few years earlier.

We drove through the summer night, the sense of expectation growing. We were heading north, towards Danville, a town which was not in our normal driving area. T pulled up the Rabbit in front of a Best Western hotel that seemed pretty crowded. It was a very strange crowd. Half of it was bikers. I don’t mean Hells Angels, but more scraggly, unkempt, chunky middle-aged guys in full biker regalia (leather chaps, denim vests with no shirt underneath, chrome nazi helmets, etc.), hanging out around the entrance and at the bar inside. The other half was guys in tuxedos and women in gowns. It looked as if the hotel was double-booked for a well-to-do wedding reception and biker rally. Both parties were unrelated and clearly couldn’t stand each other. What in the hell were bikers doing hanging out at a Best Western hotel? It was like some bad 80s video ... we were waiting for Night Ranger to come rocking out of the men's room.

T calls out, ‘Hey, Fred, hey, I’m here!” We see a nebbish middle-aged guy in wire-framed glasses and a collared shirt and khakis wave back and walk over to T. Fred looked like the kind of guy who would hang out at a hotel bar, hoping for homely women to get too drunk to notice how meek he was, and then go back for a romp in their room. There was something mildly off about him. What kind of person hangs out at a hotel bar? Not me! Not us! Immediately, J and shot each other a deep “what the fuck” look.

“Ah, you brought your friends, good, good,” Fred said, “unfortunately, it’s total chaos in here tonight, didn’t know there was so much stuff going on here. Where can we go to talk?”

Talk? What on earth were we going to talk about with this guy? I started getting stink-eye from J, believing that T had somehow guided us to a weirdo or pervert of some sort … visions of us waking up in one of the hotel rooms, in a bathtub filled with bloody ice, and a bad stitch job where one of our kidneys used to be.

Well, we were right about the “weirdo” part. Fred formally introduced himself … as a sales rep for Amway. Motherfucker! T had somehow fallen under the spell of an Amway salesman, and was looking to bring us into the scheme. This is something J and I would have never gone for … and I think T knew this by being so cryptic in how he framed the night’s events, keeping us in anticipation of what we were heading up to Danville for.

“Say, I noticed a McDonalds across the parking lot, let’s go there instead,” Fred said cheerily.

I was going to spend a good chunk of Friday night, in my mid-20s bar-hopping prime, sitting in a fucking McDonalds, listening to an Amway salesman’s pitch. I tell myself that these days, I would have just blurted out, “No, no, this ain’t going to happen,” but keep in mind, T was driving, and we were about 45 minutes from home, i.e., if we got weird on him and he responded in kind, we could conceivably have a very bad night thumbing it. It just didn’t seem right to offend T on this topic anyway, as he seemed to genuinely believe this guy was somehow going to enrich his life. It wasn’t as bad as T having a Born Again experience he wanted to share with us, but it was still pretty mind-blowing.

So, we walked over to that McDonalds, got some burgers and fries, and Fred went into his pitch. At this point, the whole thing was so absurd, I couldn’t make eye contact with J, lest we both burst out into unstoppable laughter. We felt like dicks, sitting in a fast-food restaurant, while a librarian-looking middle-aged man went into his expansive “let’s get rich quick together by selling worthless shit” scheme, the first step of which was buying his start-up kit of “how to sell effectively” tapes and various PowerPoint documents illustrating the path to success.

Fred was sitting awkwardly in one of those McDonalds swivel chairs, lecturing the three of us in a window booth. It just looked weird, especially on a weekend night. Kids were pointing at us and laughing. Of course kids were hanging out there – this is what kids do in small towns, hang out at fast-food places. J and I were dressed in t-shirts and shorts – T had anticipated the mild formality of the even and had on a short-sleeve knit shirt. I guess when you sell Amway, you adapt to any situation. This guy had probably sold Amway in topless bars and church basements. A McDonalds made as much sense to him as any place else.

Fred’s whole spiel, and he talked nonstop, was the usual horseshit – drop a few hundred bucks on his training materials (obviously how he made most of his money) and then start attending seminars where you, too, could unlock the secrets of success. The whole idea was to rope all your friends into buying and selling cheap Amway products. That’s all it was. Avon calling. Only Avon had a niche – cosmetics – while Amway was all over the place. Think Tupperware parties. I could understand the logic of grouping people together to buy one type of product. But Amway just seemed like the worst sort of horseshit sell, the concept that we were all going to be millionaires by exploiting our friends into buying and selling this utter garbage.

Fred got done his spiel, and immediately blurts out, well, where should I send the learning materials. Like any good salesman – closing the sale metaphorically when he senses the people he’s talking to think he’s an asshole. J got into it a bit with Fred, picking over his logic and points. Man, I just sat there stewing. T was already into the program, had put money down on the learning materials and such, already signed up for a seminar. J made the mistake of trying to engage this con artist in a real conversation, and all he got were circular replies to his real questions. No one asked me what I thought – I gather Fred picked up on the negative vibes I was emanating and figured just let that one go.

The kicker came when we finished up our Big Macs and headed back to the hotel parking lot. Fred made a big show out of his car – I can’t recall what it was, surely some type of luxury vehicle. He beeped open the trunk, an in it was a fishing rod that cost him a few hundred dollars. I guess he figured that since we were in a rural area, we were rednecks and into fishing. T was, but not J or I. He took out the rod and mimicked fly casting over the parking lot, inviting us on a fishing trip he had planned next day in the Susquehanna.

He already had T – hook, line and sinker – but he sensed J and I were lost causes. I later told J I had pondered the possibility of kicking Fred’s ass and stuffing him in the trunk of his car. We weren’t going to do anything, much less go fly-fishing, with this guy. From the second we met him until we bid adieu with his fishing rod in hand, J and I had felt nothing but radical discomfort. You have to understand, this guy’s whole spiel was based solely on the concept of making truckloads of money. It was a pure, unabashed advertisement for greed – every sentence finished with a reminder over how much money we would make (and we surely wouldn’t … he might if he hustled enough mooks in this fashion).

Having lived in New York a few years at that time, I found myself unimpressed by greed – still do, even more so now. I wasn’t impressed by garish displays of financial power – wasn’t repulsed either. It just never mattered to me. The rich people I sometimes worked for didn’t seem overly happy – many of them seemed much worse off than the middle/working-class people I’d always known. Less happy. Less sane. Less healthy. If there were a few things I was certain of, it was that their lives were no better than mine, and that I didn’t envy them. It seemed like a lot of work to keep up appearances, and very few opportunities to genuinely relax.

Most working-class people I’d known sat around fantasizing what it would be like “to be rich” … never quite realizing they’d go on being the same people, only with more problems generated by their increased income. We have this illusion that financial security exists in our lives – it just doesn’t for most people. And for the ones it does, as noted, their lives are not fantasy worlds of happiness and pure delight. People who live in mansions are always “on” in some sense – how you relax in a house filled with assistants and servants, I have no idea. Your whole life is geared towards maintaining that façade. Not kicking back after work in a tank top and shorts, with a beer, listening to the Dead, or what have you. You do that in a mansion, people think you've turned into Howard Hughes and start looking at the length of your fingernails.

How do you explain this to an Amway salesman in a McDonald’s parking lot, who reeks of “dick” but has himself convinced he’s got the world by the tail because of the things he owns? In short, you don’t. You just recognize that this is the guy’s thing in life, more power to him, and let him go off spinning in that wondrous constellation of seminars filled with easy marks who will end up unhappy, but only after he’s fleeced them for a few hundred bucks a piece. The difference between Fred and me was I knew I didn’t have the world by the tail – that it had me by the tail and the best I could do was try to make sense of the insanity around me. You don’t sell people when you see the world that way – you just live in it.

We said good night, T chatting a little longer with Fred to make sure all was cool with the next week’s seminar, and J and I finally got off on our own and started howling with laughter. Fred probably heard us … again, there was nothing new under the sun for the guy with his sales pitch, hell, he’d probably been physically attacked after giving his pitch, so a few 24-year-old guys laughing at him in a parking lot was no big deal.

When T got us back in his rabbit, he was a little angry with us, but he just wasted two hours of our lives on this horse’s ass salesman, and if anyone should be angry here, it should be us. But we weren’t really angry, probably because we sensed the insanity of the situation and rode with it. Actually, we started mercilessly haranguing T with the little self-help aphorisms and sayings Fred had sprinkled through his pitch, laughing uproariously after each bon mot. T wasn’t taking it well, and I knew not to ride him too hard. There was an instance in high school where he got the world’s worst haircut, literally a bowl cut, that left him looking like Moe from The Three Stooges. That day, I harassed him endlessly with Stooges riffs, making Curly “nook-nook-nook” sounds, doing that finger-popping/hand waving routine they would do before slapping each other upside the head. The kicker came when I started singing “The Alphabet Song” from one of their episodes (“Bah-aye-bay, Bay-ee-bee/ Bay-eye-bippie-bye-bye-boh-boo.”) T eventually flipped out and started punching me in the arm, which was excruciating.

I knew not to get the guy stewing, and he was stewing that J and I thought Fred was a complete asshole … which implied even worse for him if he was following Fred. As it turned out, we were right. T took the seminars, dropped another few hundred bucks into Fred’s pocket, started trying to sell Amway to his friends, immediately realized they resented being sold to, as any friend would, probably made a little money, but far less than he had invested in Fred, and gave the whole thing up a few weeks later. I don’t know how he didn’t grasp what J and I did immediately – that you would have to see your friends as potential customers – and this was not kosher. You don’t exploit your friends. You don’t see them as avenues for you to make money. I take that back – there are plenty of people in New York who do nothing but network, and everyone in their lives falls in that category of “how can this person help me.” But they have no real friends, which will become painfully obvious when the chips are down in some sense. I use the word “mercenary” a lot in New York because it applies.

We didn’t hold it against T because we knew he’d meant no harm. We had to play it cool that night, but we would later laugh about how he was led astray by the Amway salesman and his pyramid scheme. I’m not sure what people think when they have these schemes laid on them by enterprising salesman. Either you have a strong set of values in life before that, which may very well include pursuing monetary wealth, or you seem to expect this person to grant you a new set of values that allows you to make truckloads of money, like they’re introducing you to a new, better belief system than the one you had. They’re not. They’re hustling you. But I guess capitalism is built on that sort of “pie in the sky” hustle, and always will be.

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