This past weekend I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Boston, one of my beloved B-cities. The occasion was J’s sister H’s 50th birthday, complete with two nights in a luxus hotel, a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts (a blog in and of itself), shopping ’till we dropped, dinners with friends, and all manner of girly fun. The incident that spawns the reflection you are now reading comes from an odd incident in the Copley Place shopping center, which, according to its website, is “Boston’s most distinctive shopping destination…a dazzling mixed-use complex…unlike any other in the Boston area…with 75 fabulous stores including Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York, Tiffany & Co., Jimmy Choo….” and so on. You get the idea. I just happened to find myself in this haven of glitz and glam because I was intent on finding a new pair of books at The Walking Company, which just happened to be located at the far end of the complex from whence I entered.
Okay, so a key element of the back story is critical here. For many years, I have prided myself on creating and presenting to the world a very carefully crafted “genteelly nondescript” personal image, particularly when I travel overseas. During the winter season, for example, I sport a long black coat (French label from a high-end consignment store) of good cut and elegant fabric. A small fur scarf around the neck. Black boots and a slightly worn but still serviceable Longchamps bag slung messenger-style. Earrings, understated makeup. Just the thing to make me completely invisible to the majority of the population but also just the thing to make me momentarily visible for prompt and polite attention when I need it (hotels, restaurants, airline check-in counters). I plan to be ignored. I like to be ignored. I strive to be ignored. It serves my purpose.
The scene is set. As I come to the end of Copley Place, I still had not sited The Walking Company. I walked up to a pair of young men at the entrance of some brightly-lit cosmetic store and asked if they knew where The Walking Company was located.
And the well-oiled machine leaps into action. “No, we don’t know where it is, but here’s a free sample of our amazing product. Let me ask (Name) if he knows.”
(Name) quickly shows up and says, “I don’t know where The Walking Company is, but do you know about Orogold? We have an amazing product that you might really like. Do you need help with the lines around your eyes?” (Okay, honest show of hands here – how many of us don’t need help with the lines around their eyes?)
Before I knew it, I was cozy in the high chair in cosmetic land and (Name) was speaking rapidly and soothingly to me as he rubbed his prized elixir from the Fountain of Youth on the aging bags below my eyes. Skeptic that I am, I had to admit that the left eye (recipient of his kind ministrations) looked considerably better than the right eye (untreated).
Then the pitch begins. He brings out the book. A year’s supply of the eye serum costs retail, yes, $248.00. And the collagen moisturizer (all organic!) that he also used, another $248.00. But it’s too early for me to make any quick decisions. He asks to see my wrists. He rubs on the exfoliant gel and quickly rubs off a terrifying amount of greyish grunge, clearly the detritus of my deficient personal hygiene. And he follows up with a gloriously creamy substance that makes my forearm have the glowing and dewy appearance of a Botticelli angel. Again, the prices for these substances hover in the range of car payments, albeit for a large supply.
We have now reached The Truly Awkward Stage, in which I really want to get the hell out of Dodge and he has invested the time and energy which should result in a significant sale. Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas have nothing on us. He presses his suit; I demur. I complement his product knowledge and salesmanship; he offers significant discounts based on our personal relationship; he pushes, I push back; he pushes, I push back again, stronger this time. What I realize (after the fact, in the privacy of my hotel room as I peruse the marvel that is the Internet) is that I am not alone; the online complaints board sings many choruses of a similar tune about this particular retail establishment; this exact sales tactic:
I might have expected this tactic in some places overseas – in a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern culture perhaps, where trap-baiting and intense price negotiation are simply part of the deal, expected and perhaps relished on both sides. Since I am pretty weak at this type of interaction, I would have had my game face firmly planted on and riveted tight – the way one needs to be to walk through the touristy area around the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. But this was Boston, my Puritanical, uptight, “who do you think you arh?” Boston, where I was taken unawares.
So here’s the piece that is chewing on me. Why me? How did I become a victim of high-pressure sales tactics, me, a person who prides herself on judgment and discernment? Did I look old? Insecure? Vulnerable? If so, how? Was it that I just got too close to the Venus Fly Trap that passes as a retail establishment? Was it because I was alone? Did I not want to appear rude and/or socially unacceptable? Did (Name) simply take advantage of my willingness to engage with him? Or, was it just that I was a woman. Any. Woman. Any woman seen as bait in the retail pool, someone whose personal lack of confidence (age, appearance) or perceived unwillingness to be bitchy can be exploited for commercial gain?
As I reflected on this experience, I connected back through my life to a few other odd and uncomfortable experiences of this nature that I have had over the past few years. One was fairly recent, here in the lovely city of Portland, Maine, where I now call home. I was buying a camera and the nice man waiting on me (“JL”) simply didn’t seem to be able to hear me when I asked, over and over, for him to stop explaining the camera features to me. “Stop,” I said. “Please stop, my head is full.” “Please don’t tell me any more about this. I can’t understand what you are saying.” “Let me spend some time with this camera and I will come back.” Now JL seemed pretty harmless and just excited that someone was actually buying a camera From Him in his brick-and-mortar store rather than picking his brain on a whole host of technical issues and finding and buying the product online for ten dollars less, but it felt….oppressive, awkward, uncomfortable.
And let me not forget the Georgians, as if I could ever forget the Georgians. I had two very unsettling experiences with taxi cab drivers in Tbilisi. The first time, I was going to the airport and I negotiated a price in advance (as advised) prior to entering the cab. When we got to the airport, the driver asked for a significantly higher price and, when I balked, made a motion and several of his (large and menacing) buddies approached the cab, to “assist” him with the communication difficulty we seemed to be having. Truth be told, I didn’t have the stones to stick around very long after that, paid his price, and sprinted for the relative safety of the airport terminal. The second experience, returning to the country after my time away, I managed to select a driver who told me the train was not running from Tbilisi to Batumi that day, but that he would be delighted to drive me there himself (a five- or six-hour run) for the mere price of 300 lari (about $180 bucks). I made him stop at the Marriott Hotel, had the front desk clerk call the train station, learned that the train was indeed running on schedule, and had the selfsame front desk clerk tell the driver *to take me to the train station as requested.* And, as in the first story in Boston, I am a tall nondescript woman of middle age dressed professionally. What was my hook?
WFT. Sorry. This gets my goat. In Georgia, I rationalized my experiences that “foreigners were just cows to be milked.” I could excuse some of this behavior in the sense that the disparity between visitors and the inhabitants was pretty great and that most of us in the country were there on someone else’s dime (usually a government or NGO) and that frankly, we could afford the disproportionate “new” price that was being offered. Georgia has been a little out of the cultural mainstream for a while, and I could see how the chance to squeeze a little bit more out of all of us was a short-term temptation.
But that just doesn’t hold in this country, particularly in a high-end store in a high-end mall in a high-end part of Boston. If I take a step back, I see that I am a highly educated older white woman with well-developed critical thinking skills, considerable public speaking and debate experience, and an extremely large vocabulary. Not everyone has the tools in the toolkit that I do. *And yet I still felt awkward, shamed, embarrassed, and hard-pressed to worm my way out of the cozy chair in cosmetic land, to end the conversation on some note of civility, and go my originally-intentioned way to buy boots.* What does this mean for younger women? Women whose first language is not English? Woman with less confidence and security than I have? Hey, it doesn’t even have to be about women (it’s just that’s what I am, so that’s what I see). People. That we are all targets, cows to be milked. If we want to be civil and acknowledge humanity, in some contexts, perhaps this is the price. It’s not a pretty thought.