The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Apr 6, 2008

Hard Sell

The first time it happened, I was too nonplussed to react in the appropriate way. My presence of mind is much vaunted in theory, but in practice, it's somewhat slow kicking in. So you might insult me today, and around this time tomorrow, I might come up with a suitable wisecrack rejoinder.

The fellow came charging up to me, grinning hugely and sticking his hand out.

"Man, it's you! It's been a while, eh?" he said, pumping my arm vigorously.

Observing my look of confusion - I had never seen the chap before - he grinned even more widely and said, "But not that long! We met last year - in Bombay. Remember?"

"I haven't been to Bombay in years," I said, raising my eyebrows apologetically. His jaw dropped in a manner most theatrical.

"But surely you remember me?" he urged. The grin persisted, despite being considerably enlarged and resembling a rictus of pain. "You know, we should have coffee. The sooner, in fact, the better. How about tomorrow? Here are my coordinates. What's your phone number?"

He gave me his card, which I took reluctantly. Clearly, he was convinced I was his oldest friend. Could I sidle out of this gracefully without bloodshed? I randomised seven digits, prefixed the local area code, and blurted out the resulting number. He was very pleased. "I'll try to set something up for the weekend," he said, shaking my hand once again.

A tad shaken, I retreated home. The next day I encountered my old buddy, King, and told him what had happened. He roared with laughter for about ten minutes.

"Happens all the time here in Chicago," he said, presently. "Chap must have been an Amway type."

That was the first I heard about this insidious organisation that entrapped unsuspecting desis, arranged them into an elaborate business scheme, and ruined their weekends for all time.

The idea was rather simple. The chap who pretended to know me would meet me one day, armed with a white-board and several slides. He would ask me if I would not like to have a large house with a pool and a dog and a 40-inch TV. "Like Charlie and Barbara here." Charlie and Barbara were a smiling All-American couple who had most definitely arrived. Their house was immaculate, it had all the latest gadgetry and top brand names; neither of them seemed to do much for a living, but their bank balances kept growing. Kaching, kaching, the dollar signs would say, dropping into my eyes. And what did I have to do to achieve all this?

Buy a few things from the fellow. Little things like shampoo and cosmetics in quantities amounting to a few hundred dollars. Sign up to Amway. Equip myself with a whiteboard and copies of the Charlie/Barbara slides. Attend Amway marketing sessions on a fortnightly basis filled with the enthusiasm of the truly desperate. Accost other desis with a huge grin (and, dude, please do something about those yellowing teeth of yours, they put off the prey when you smile). I'd be keen to recoup the hundreds of bucks suckered out of me, so I'd haunt the popular desi destinations - Walmart, Devon Street, Dunkin' Donuts. Every desi I saw would be a potential victim. As the chain of desis grew beneath me, the theory went, I'd start accruing some of that wealth that made Charlie grin above his triple chins, and Barbara look svelte and hot well into her seventies.

Like I wanted to say, a Ponzi scheme. Well all right, so it is one that does billions of dollars in business every year all across this benighted planet.

Forewarned is forearmed, and I rapidly developed a radar to detect Amway proselyters. Boy, could I sense them at a hundred paces, or what? At first, I'd just cross the road when I saw them. Or leave a shop in an undignified hurry. Then I got tired of ducking and weaving. The next time a chap turned his 100 watt smile on me, I was ready.

"I know you, don't I?" he said.

"Sure," I said.

"In Bangalore? Last year?"

"That's right."

"So how long have you been in Chicago?"

"About three months. You?"

"A year. What are you doing these days?"

"I'm with the Joffrey Ballet."

He would look a bit startled at this and consider my paunch doubtfully.

"Do you want to see a performance?" I'd then say. "Give me your number. Maybe we can hook up before that and have a drink or something?"

The next bit required a bit of panache. When the fellow handed me his business card, I'd slide my thumb over his and caress it for a brief second. He would freeze, his face numbed in horror. He would backpedal urgently, stuttering apologies, desperate to be gone. I'd say in an affectionate tone, "I look forward to it." And leave.

I only tried this once. It could very easily have backfired.

Another time, I was with my friends Kiran and Gaurav in a coffee-shop when an Amway type waylaid me. The usual preamble of "I know you" etc. was dealt with quickly.

"I forgot your name," said the worthy.

"Jamadagni Purushottaman," I said.

"Give me your number. We can meet up sometime."

I concocted a fake number and handed it to him. Just then K and G called out.

"Oi, Tribhuvan, let's go."

Curses. My identity was revealed. The chap stared at me, haggard and betrayed.

"But you said...That is, you told me..." he stammered.

"You're an Amway type, aren't you?" I said. He nodded, aghast that he had been rumbled so soon.

"I'm really not interested," I said, and walked away.

The unfortunate thing about Amway was that it made every overly friendly desi an automatic suspect. Those who started energetic conversations, pretending to know me, were beyond the pale. I'm not saying that a more honest approach would have worked - I had no interest in selling stuff or buying tons of shampoo. But I must confess that I was filled with diabolical glee every time I pulled a fast one over one of these soapy characters.

Had women tried to chat me up in this manner, I might have been flattered enough to be suckered. But it always men, and moustachioed software engineers to boot, who informed me that they knew me well. Leading them along a donkey-path was excellent recompense for all the time they made me waste.

It has to be said that there were some people way more slippery (and no doubt that much more successful) than these poor sods. One day, my buddy Ammu and I were found browsing classical CDs at that most excellent store Raaga. A nondescript sort of man, no different from any of the others dotting the shop, saw an M.S. Subbalakshmi recording of the Venkatesha Suprabhatham in Ammu's hands and asked if he had ever listened to her rendering of the Bhaja Govindam. The two of them then spent a few minutes discussing the ways and means of Indian music, while I drifted off to look at other things.

So far so good. After all, there was nothing surprising about meeting fellow aficionados in music stores.

A little while later, Ammu came up to me.

"Nice guy. Knows a lot about music," he said.

"Oh?" I said.

"Yeah, he wondered if I'd like to meet up some time."

Hold on a tick! Suspicion began to glimmer.

"And I gave him my phone number," added Ammu.

"What!" I said, "But surely that's a giveaway! The guy is an Amway type!"

Ammu couldn't believe it.

"But he's so knowledgeable about Carnatic music," he said, outraged.

"I'm telling you, man," I said. "He is most definitely Amway. Who else would ask for your phone number after a brief chat?"

"You're too suspicious," huffed Ammu.

Three days later, the chap called Ammu up and asked if he'd like to meet up with the family.

"Sure thing," said Ammu, amiable as always.

The next day he had tea at the chap's place. The day after that, he phoned me.

"Man," he said, his voice shaking in disgust. "You were right. The fellow was an Amway."

"What gave it away?" I asked.

"Midway through tea, he started asking me if I wouldn't like to have a house and a dog and all that."


Space Bar said...

You know what's worse than being accosted by random strangers? It is meeting a friend after ages and finding out (while she's gone to pick up the kids from school and you're alone at home with her husband) that he is an amway dude.

no retreat, baby, but also no surrender.

still, you tend to feel wrung out.

??! said...

And to make matters worse, it's not the only way. That ridiculous GoldQuest thing is spreading now. And there's always JapanLife lurking around.

Hallo, Feanor.

Fëanor said...

Space Bar: too true, too true. Recently Nina managed to track down a very old friend of hers whom she had lost sight of after school. Before the usual pleasantries and shrieks of 'Ohmigod, where, what, how?' were dealt with, the woman asked Nina if she wouldn't want to sell gold coins on commission. It's hard, I tell you. No time for sentiment in this world...

??!: Welcome and what-ho! Have you been conducting a study of Amway clones? A little while ago, I was stopped by a fellow with a similar agenda. When I asked him pointblank if he was Amway, he looked insulted. No, no, he said, and mentioned the name of another outfit, which I forget. Clearly Amway is a bit infra dig now, eh?

??! said...

No no, it's just that a lot of recent (heated) discussions have revolved around the topic. Much explaining of exponential growth, pyramid designs, revenue lines, and the such.

Amway may be old, but it still is the biggest Multi-Layer Marketing organisation in the world.

ros said...

Fantastic post, Feanor. I liked the way you strung those Amway types along for a while. This kind of thing has happened to my father a few times in Sri Lanka and he's had similar ways of leading them astray.

Sadly I noticed that this technique has been used in a more sinister way. There was a guy who'd hang around Imperial College, pretending to be someone that a girl (he'd target Asian girls and at one point approached me) had met in the union the previous weekend and then trying to lure them into his car with the offer of a lift home. Fortunately he had the police on his tail pretty quickly and as far as I know no-one ended up getting into his car!

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