The stranger made a beeline toward my wife and me through the sea of Christmas shoppers drowning in the desperation to find the perfect last-minute gift in Walnut Creek’s open-air mall, Broadway Plaza.
“Wow, you have an amazing smile!” He said.
I strained my lids so my eyes didn’t roll. I believe in being polite to everyone, but I know what’s coming: “Would you be interested in peddling my sub-par product so I can get rich from your community, retire, and possibly win this month’s contest — a pink mid-size sedan? If you get enough of your friends to sell this toothpaste, maybe I can finally take my wife to Maui, like my diamond-level mentor John, before she leaves me.”
He is not wrong; I do have a winning smile. But it took me a while to understand that people don’t compliment your smile in the first sentence they speak to you.
I wasn’t born to spot when someone was disingenuously complimenting my smile to get something in exchange. Weirdly, it took me a long time to learn this because I have complimented others’ smiles before asking them for something in return.
I supervised and trained fifteen cold-callers to interrupt people’s days and ask them if they wanted to help the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society by buying subscriptions to magazines they would never read.
That’s where I met Jamal.
Jamal was one of my sales guys, and we immediately bonded over our journey as immigrants and our desire to get rich.
We stayed in touch after we both left the boiler-room-type sales. He called me a few years later and asked me for a meeting at my house; he sounded formal in a way he had never sounded in our friendship. But I liked him, so I told him I’d love for him to stop by.
The person who walked into my living room was a stranger in my friend’s body. He asked me, “Can any of your knives cut through a Coca-Cola can?”
I felt silly admitting they didn’t. What would I do if a recipe called to sprinkle chards of aluminum over harissa chicken?
My friend pulled a soda can out of his man purse, along with the set of knives he was trying to sell me, and cut the can in two.
I didn’t buy a knife from him that day.
It wasn’t easy telling him no — not because I am afraid of saying no but because I am afraid of saying no to a man with a bag full of knives which translates to very little sales and a whole lot of rejection.
A few months later, as a wedding gift, Jamal gifted me a utility knife with a simple but elegant engraving, “Felicidades.”
It has been more than ten years since our wedding, and I still use that knife almost daily. I chuckle every time I split my Pamplemousse La Croix can in two before stuffing it into a rotisserie chicken.
I don’t resent Jamal.
I, too, have fallen prey to the get-rich allure of Multi-Level Marketing schemes.
For me, it wasn’t so much the door-knocking sales opportunities but the seminars where they teach you all the secrets of the one percent. I am saddened to admit that I have been to more than one of those.
I remember the feeling of excitement at the first one I went to.
There I was, eagerly taking a step toward becoming a millionaire.
It wasn’t my first step, either. I read the book on the financial pseudo-celebrity behind the seminar. The books are always different enough to create a brand but similar enough to recognize what they are when they are displayed at bookstores.
“Poor Niece, Rich Aunt; A multimillionaire’s Neocortex, The Millionaire on the cul-de-sac, Holey-Moley, our neighbors are rich!”
There I was, a brand new immigrant, ready to consume all the information to get me started on the oh-so-American path from rags to riches. The seminar organizers were prepared to give me even more than I had bargained for. I got a tote bag and a thumb drive.
“Wow, being rich makes you generous. This is the reason I moved to the States!” I thought.
I took with me the only person I knew was interested in being rich more than I was — my mom.
We took our seats closer to the front. After all, the back is for people not ready for overwhelming wealth.
The presentation had no real insider tips. There was no guy from the book cover.
The seminar was just a hard sale from a guy I had never heard of before who shouted at us, “If you don’t buy the next seminar, you are a loser, and you will forever be broke!!!”
I wasn’t convinced, but when I saw the first person sign up, I told my mom, “Let’s put this on our credit card,” which meant her credit card. “It will more than pay for itself when we are eating gold caviar in Tahiti with the rest of the family.”
Gold caviar is not a thing, but it sounds super fancy.
The seminar wasn’t that expensive. It was five hundred dollars, but I didn’t have an extra five hundred dollars or a credit card to my name. I had just moved to the United States from Colombia, and at 23, I was a nobody to the credit bureaus. My only credit record at the time was buying a beat-up, gray Nissan Sentra with tinted windows shared by my entire family for the first few years we were here.
I later learned the car was salvaged from an awful accident and had no airbag, a detail my car dealer forgot to mention when she saddled us up with an “immigrant-exclusive” 30% APR auto loan.
My mom agreed, and we put the seminar on her card. The date for the next seminar was set, and we were going to learn about all the secrets of rich people, handshakes and all.
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