November 4, 2005

The Littlest Hustler

It was just after nine on a friday night. My lovely wife and I were relaxing at home (yes, I know it's friday night) enjoying "That 70's Show". I had had one Jack and Coke and I had my eye on another, when we heard a knock at the door. That's odd. Who could it be? A psychotic Killer stalking through the neighborhood? An angry neighbor? Was our TV too loud? Had the dogs been barking while we were at work? Well the knock didn't sound angry. But that's the fun of unexpected company, isn't it? Better calm the dogs and see who it is.

With my right hand, I slowly opened the door so as to not horrify our guest with the 65 pounds of frenzied Weimaraner I was stiff-arming with my left. As if in a movie, I glanced forward seeing no one at eye level. As I panned down I realized our Psycho Killer is actually a sweet, smiling 8-year-old boy. A trick-or-treater who missed our house perhaps? (We had rushed home on Halloween to dispense our 6 bags of candy to a feverish mob, only to be disappointed when we had just ONE half-assed "Corpse Bride" at our door. She was old enough to be somebody's chaperone, but we let it slide.) No. Anyway, he wore a red ski beanie with a big Oakley logo, a sure sign that he was worldly and in-touch with modern skiing subculture...I have a similar hat myself. He was holding a clipboard with a half-page yellow carbon-copy form. He spoke vigerously, as if trying to hit all of his major selling points before the door slammed in his face.

"Good Evening. How would you like to recieve 3 FREE MONTHS of an award-winning newspaper, delivered to your door daily with NO CHARGE and NO OBLIGATION. You can choose between the 'Salt Lake Tribune'" (our local news goliath) "and 'The Deseret News'" (a Mormon publication, sure to have a unique perspective on otherwise factual events). "Either choice is chock-full" (yeah he really said that) "of intriguing and useful information."

Now ordinarily, I'd say anything in this kind of moment to be rid of an unwanted solicitor at my door, especially while I'm missing the whitty dialogue of 26-year-old actors playing slacker high school students, or while the ice is melting in my empty glass and condesation gathers in a ring around its base, taunting me. Something like, "I already get the paper, but thanks anyway", or "I'm illiterate, but thanks for rubbing it in", or "I have a gun". But I was stunned. I was physically reeling by the verbal gymnastics this cherub had just spewed at me. His confidence, his precocious ease caused me to stumble backward, fumbling for anything resembling a cohesive retort. "Uh, wow. Well First" (I was stalling) "let me say that I'm very impressed. You're doing a great job at this."

"Aw, thanks. But I haven't sold ANY yet." he said with heartbreaking sincerity.

"Honey," I turned to my faithful wife with terror in my eyes hoping for her to play the bad-cop and turn him away for me. "Do you want to paper delivered here? It's free."

She was enjoying the bowl of egg nog ice cream I had just scooped for her so she wanted no part of my dilemma. "I already get the paper at work, but you can get it if you want."

DAMMIT! Now I was screwed. I turned back to the sheepish figure standing backlit in my doorway, his eyes hopeful, his hands fidgeting. "It's free right?"

He knew he had me. "Yep!"

I said, "Why don't you come on in. Are your parents waiting downstairs? Do you want to tell them you're OK?"

"Nope." he said with a puffy chest. As he shuffled past the door and into our entry way I introduced the dogs and he pet them. He said, "I just need you to fill out this form. The paper IS free, but we just ask that you tip your paper boy —ME— $1.50 every Sunday. But since we don't deliver on Sunday..." Now it's getting fishy because I could have sworn he said they delivered 7 days a week "...we ask that you pre-pay by cash, check or credit card."

I started to balk, but anticipating my hesitation, he reached deep into his bag of tricks and pulled the straight flush of salesmanship: "PLEEEEEEEEASE..." Now, I don't have children. I have never been on this side of that sentiment and have not yet built up an immunity to its power. I recalled the humility and desperation of childhood fundraisers where I had sold candy bars door-to-door. But at least I was asking for only a dollar. And I was selling instant gratification. Not some drawn-out scam, preying on unsuspecting adults. Yet, I was helpless.

Again, I was stumbling. I didn't want to point out the bate-and-switch he had just pulled on me, but I also felt it was my own fault for being naive enough to think that ANYTHING in this world was actually FREE. After some quick and clumsy math I concluded that 3 months at $1.50/week comes out to $18. Not Free. Again, I looked to my wife. She shot me a look that said "Hey, YOU let him in." So again, I was stalling, "So you want $18 right now?"

"Well, Yeah." he said in shock that I would question him after knowing him so long. "But you can use a credit card." As if that's not real money.

I had been beaten. With no energy left to outwit the young Trump, I asked my wife for the check book. I wrote out a check for $18 dollars. As I handed it to him he said "Wait. did you write it for $18? The form says $25."

My head was spinning trying to recount what we had been talking about for the past 5 minutes. There were sevral check boxes on the form. Before I knew what was happening he had scribbled out my check mark and written his own next to the $25 check box. He sensed my confusion and said "Well they don't let us deliver on Sundays anymore so you only have the weekday option." I should have thrown him out the window, but he had just pulled the "Jedi Mind Trick" and I found myself nodding in agreement, saying "well DUHH, I must be stupid!" So...Just to recap here, I'm writing a new check for $25 dollars to a boy I never met, for a paper I didn't want, delivered on days I would never have time to read it. Before I knew it he was tearing off my copy of the receipt. I stood there in a daze, my flimsy yellow order-form in hand, watching the theif walk out with my hard-earned money and my false sense of dignity dragging from the souls of his shoe like toilet paper. He probably even slid down the handrail on his way down the stairs.

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