We were walking to the garage to get the car and drive back to Saranac Lake, when Ann suddenly turned to face me.
“Did a bird just shit on my face?” I’d never been asked that before.
I gave it to her straight up. “Sure did.” One about the size of a buzzard, judging by the mess on her face. I used my handkerchief to clean her up and enable her to open her eye.
Her response was as surprising as the incident itself. It made me realize that I had never given her enough credit for being able to look on the bright side of things.
“How fortunate that you are the kind of man who carries a clean white handkerchief.”
It was the last of a series of surprises that afflicted us during our Easter visit to New York City.
* * *
As we backed down the driveway on April 13, it was snowing. In a novel, that would have been a heads-up; something untoward was about to happen. But we weren’t in a novel, so it just made us look forward all the more to being away.
The first surprise had actually occurred several weeks before we set off. I didn’t like it, as it reflected badly on my ability to spot a scam. Getting scammed is not something I do; it happens to other people.
When I phoned the hotel (I’ll call it Caveat International) to make a reservation using the inexpensive prepaid deal I had snapped up a few months earlier, I was asked to pick a two-hour period for the time-share presentation. I told the nice lady that I’d pass on that. I was sure there was no time-share in my future.
If I did not submit to the sales presentation, I would have to pay the rack rate for the room or not stay at the Caveat and forfeit what I had already paid. I had overlooked that part of the deal. It was easy to overlook. The hustler who had sold it to me barely spoke English, and anyway, since she was on a commission (I suppose), it was not in her interest for me to understand the details. I assumed that Caveat was offering a special low rate for a future stay in order to improve their cash flow and encourage brand loyalty. (I have tried to break my unwarranted-assumption habit, but with little success.)
Not only did we have no interest in a time-share, it turned out that the only time slot still open for the presentation was during the Good Friday Mass that was one of the services we were going to New York to attend. I let telephone lady know that Caveat International should buckle up for a Federal Trade Commission investigation, and she was part of a scam, perhaps a criminal enterprise, and she should get an honest job. I considered invoking the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, but I thought that might be a little over the top.
Judging from her composed response, I guessed that it was not the first time she’d heard such words. Anyway, she probably had no idea what the FTC or RICO were. Mostly, though, I think she was just battle hardened and didn’t care whether we were happy or unhappy. Her final words to me were, “have a nice day,” but I don’t think she meant it.
I considered accepting the penalty of several hundred dollars and passing on the deal. Not for long, though. I rarely get an opportunity to earn several hundred dollars for sitting in a room for two hours.
When we checked in, our annoyance was tempered a bit by being assigned to a Highly Favored Traveler (HFT) floor. I didn’t know what that meant, but it had a nice upper-crust ring. That was misleading. The room turned out to be just O.K., and it was as chilly as the frozen-food aisle in a supermarket. I turned the thermostat up, and we left for dinner and the Maundy Thursday Mass.
When we returned around midnight, the temperature was the same as earlier. I called the desk, and pretty soon a handyman showed up bearing a screw driver and a couple of batteries. He took the thermostat apart, inserted the batteries, and turned it from ”cool” to “off.” There didn’t seem to be a heat setting.
“How do you turn the heat on?”
“You can’t. This floor and number eight don’t have heat. They stay warm by being between two floors that are heated.”
(Three fifty a night and no heat? Is that what Highly Favored Traveler means?) I let it go. I didn’t want to have to change rooms, and it was unlikely to get cooler than it does in the monastery. Of course, we have blankets up there.
During the night, I had to get up and put on my Levi’s and a sweater. It was like camping.
Next morning, I asked the front desk clerk where the time-share flogging would take place. He sent me to the concierge (a concierge in a hotel with whole floors that have no heat?). She went deep into her computer and drew out a surprise.
It wasn’t going to be in our hotel. It would be across midtown at another Caveat property, one that housed the time-share units we were not going to buy one of. Taking a taxi would have been slow going, and no telling how much it would cost if we showed up late, so we walked as fast as we could. That had its upside. We would be plenty warm by the time we reported in to take our licking, so too-cool room temperature was not likely to be an issue.
When I saw the layout, my feelings went from annoyed to thoroughly pissed off. I’d expected some kind of auditorium where we’d get a Power Point presentation about the sybaritic pleasures of time-share life and what a great investment it was, and I would just think about something less unpleasant, such as hemorrhoids. Wrong again. There was a reception area off to one side of a vast sea of cubicles in one of which we would be subjected to eyeball-to-eyeball efforts to part us from our savings.
We took a seat and waited to be ushered in. The last time I felt like that I was seated on the bench outside A.P. Griffin’s office. (A.P. Griffin was the Assistant Principal in charge of discipline at my high school.) In a low voice, I urged Ann to stay cool and let me handle it. After a few minutes someone came to get us.
“Are you Paul and Ann?” We were, but I almost denied it. I wanted to say, “Nope. I’m Mr. Willcott, and this is Ms. Laemmle.” I didn’t think our interrogator would handle that well. So we responded just enough to affirm that we were the parties in question, but not in a way so that she’d think we wanted to be there.
“Oh you look so comfortable sitting there.” She flashed a big smile. She exuded intimacy. The only way she could have come on stronger would have involved sex.
“Let’s go to my office.” Once seated in the cubicle that she thought was an office, she and I started to speak at the same time. I wanted to let her know that we were there because of a misunderstanding (actually it was more like being press-ganged, but we’d try to make the best of it, i.e., we wouldn’t be rude), and she should understand from the outset that we were not in the market for a time-share (and so don’t get your hopes up about selling us one, Toots, and let’s get this over with as quickly as possible).
She talked over me and said, “Here’s how this is going down.” (Going down? Had we stumbled into a caper or a bank robbery or something?)
“I’m going to ask you some questions about your dreams, your personal life, your – “ (Dreams? Personal life? We’ve only just met, Lady.)
I tried to interrupt her. “I want to clarify something. ”
Nothing doing. She down shifted to a more muscular level of assertiveness.
So did I. I was not going to let her continue until I had made my point.
I suppose her training in time-share sales had not included anything about how to deal with the noncompliant mark, because she stood up abruptly and set off down the hall, stiff-legged with anger.
It brought to mind the time I was almost kicked off a United Airlines flight because I argued with a flight attendant. (I was in the right, but due process does not exist in the Friendly Skies.)
Ann asked (a bit smugly for my taste) what had happened to my intention to be easygoing and just get through this.
The saleslady who had been so strong on smiling out in the reception area returned after a while. Her smile had gone missing.
Ann took up the challenge. The saleslady continued resolute in her effort to go through the script she’d worked so hard to memorize. She and Ann talked at the same time like in a Chris Matthews interview, until saleslady cracked. In a voice loud enough to be heard throughout the sea of cubicles, she said, “YOU SHUT YOUR MOUTH.” It struck me as an ineffective sales technique.
It was our turn to jump up and stalk down the hall in anger.
We found a guy who said he was the manager, and Ann spoke to him with impressive directness. I saw fear in the man’s eyes.
He was more polite than the lady in the cubicle, but his message was pretty much the same, “Lower your voice. Lower your voice.” (Had we fallen in with a gang of former librarians?)
After a back and forth that resembled what happens around home plate after a game-ending called third strike, we agreed to sit through a session with a different salesperson. That made me realize again how much I would do for a few hundred dollars. We were led to a cubicle at a location far removed from the first one. A curiously long period elapsed before anyone joined us. (Did their sales manual recommend a cooling-off period for use with difficult prospects?) Then a guy who claimed to be the top producer on the team went to work on us. (Maybe the wait had been because it had taken a while to persuade him to accept the challenge. We’d be likely to ruin his average.)
“How do you like visiting New York?”
“We’re not visiting. We’re here to buy an apartment so we can move back.” (We didn’t come into town on a load of wood, and you can skip the chitchat about New York being a great place to visit. That’s baloney, and we all know it. New York City is a great place to live, but only a so-so place to visit.)
I’m sure the swinging dick guy was a good salesman, but he never found our hot buttons. He offered the wonders of golfing in Florida. (Don’t play golf. Haven’t liked Florida since that hanging-chad thing.) He offered Las Vegas. (Get serious.)
He took us next door to see a model time-share unit. He was over the moon about the owners’ club room. It had a pretentious name (which I’ve forgotten), but it felt like an airport lounge. Star salesman introduced us to the only people there, a dour couple from Iowa. The joy of owning a time-share seemed not to have registered with them. In an effort to cheer them up, Ann asked if they knew the “Iowa Corn Song,” which Jean Arthur sang so charmingly in the film, A Foreign Affair. They didn’t, so she performed a few bars for them, including Ms. Arthur’s accompanying gestures. She was cute as a bug, but they continued their imitation of American Gothic.
Upon release, we felt wrung out, and harbored somewhat negative feelings toward Caveat International. The experience did not, however, diminish the pleasure of Central Park in bloom, the enjoyment of an upscale vegan meal that was every bit as festive as leg of lamb, the majesty of Gabrielli and Palestrina, and the transport of the Easter liturgy.
But then there was that incident with the bird.