Dude, where's my backbone?

A man came into the little independent bookstore I worked in one Sunday in Toronto. He was pleasant and well-dressed. He wandered around the store for a while, asked a few questions about cookbooks by the Urban Peasant. When he went to pay for his purchases, he felt in the back pocket of his pants and got this horrified look on his face. He said he had thrown his jacket in the trunk of his car without realizing his wallet and car keys were in it. His two kids were playing in the park near his house and he was supposed to go pick them up. He tried to call his wife but couldn't reach her. He reached a locksmith but since it was Sunday it was going to cost a hundred dollars for him to come and unlock the trunk.

I'm sure most of you can see where this is going. I was young and nice and stupid. I lent him the hundred dollars. He gave me his name -- Brad Jacobson -- and the number where he worked, at the University of Toronto. He asked me if I liked homemade wine. Naturally, when I called the number a few days later the person at the switchboard immediately sounded weary and annoyed and said that no one named Brad Jacobson worked there.

Why didn't I go with him to the car to wait for the locksmith, or at least look out the store front window, since presumably he was parked nearby? Why didn't I ask him why he couldn't just pay the locksmith after he unlocked the trunk? Why didn't I just say, sorry buddy, not my problem? Because I am a people pleaser. I hate saying no to people, even people I've just met. Anyone with half a brain would have considered his story and found half-a-dozen weak points. But if I'd done that, it might have hurt his feelings. He might have thought I was unkind. He might have left not liking me. Since I was never going to see him again, you could be forgiven for wondering why the heck that matters to me, but apparently it does.

Not only is this not the only time I've ever been a number one resource for criminals -- it's not even the only time at that bookstore. A couple of teenage boys came in one afternoon, hung around in the back near the New Age books for a while. As they were getting ready to leave, one of them asked how late we were open. I said we closed at six, and he looked at his buddy and said "We've got lots of time". Turns out he meant they had lots of time to use the credit cards in my wallet which they had just stolen from the back room before I went to take the subway home and realized it was gone.

At least that time it was just stupidity on my part (I should have put my bag downstairs). I really really hate the idea of this 'Brad Jacobson' ass feeling smug and superior because he put one over on me. Don't you think there must be a special place in hell reserved for people like that? Because of him, I've never again been able to think about helping a stranger in distress without first wondering if they're just running a scam, if I even consider helping them at all.

Last summer while my husband was away, a young Israeli girl came to the door with some paintings. She said she was an art student that was trying to make money to keep on with her education by selling paintings she and her classmates had painted. I have tried and tried to strike the perfect tone with door-to-door salespeople or solicitors; if it's your job and you have to do it, I'm going to try not to look at you as if you're a tiresome inconvenience or a loathsome specimen, and I should just be able to say 'no' politely but firmly and go on with my life. Somehow it never works out that way. I get all flustered and either end up sounding like an idiot housewife who can't do anything without her husband's consent or I end up with chocolate-covered driveway sealer or something equally useless.

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So I told the Israeli girl to come back the next day and I would buy a painting. Then I went inside and freaked out. Money was a little tight and I needed some painting for over a hundred bucks like I needed a hole in the head. I was trying to figure out how to explain this to Matt when he got home and suddenly I thought, 'wait. I didn't sign anything. She didn't have a gun. She's not even very big. I don't actually have to buy the goddamned thing.' But of course now I was going to be a ball of anxiety until the next day when she showed up again and I had to say the no I should have said in the first stupid place. As I went over the whole thing in my mind, it started to seem more and more fishy. I went to the computer and googled 'Israeli art door-to-door sale'. Imagine my delight when a multitude of results popped up for a swindle involving young people passing off cheap art prints as their personal work.

Let's pause and savour the ludicrousness of this. I was happy because now that I knew it was a con, I could righteously and indignantly refuse to buy a painting (since politely and firmly had failed utterly). In order for me to say no when I really want to, the person has to be at the very least a misdemeanour fraudster, and an outright felon would clearly be preferable.

I still didn't have the guts to meet her at the door. I printed out a copy of the description of the scam, stuck it on the front door, took an Ativan and went to bed. Thinking once again that I am in dire need of some sort of help.


Anonymous said…
i'll bet she never came back.
Anonymous said…
I totally get it. I cannot stand the idea that a stranger might think I'm not nice. Really, why should it matter?

This is why I have monthly awkward encounters with a very nice Jehovah's Witness lady. I can't be direct enough, and she interprets polite deference as an opening. :/
Big Dave said…
I recall a chat I had with a "gas" representative. Apparently with MY provider. When he asked about seeing my bill I inquired why he didn't have the information. He schmoozed (sp?) some BS and then I called him a liar. He was quite upset and seemed desperate to save me money. He was totally selling his sincerity, but even though I wasn't buying, he kept selling. I think he was still selling to the closed door when I slammed it. Not sure though, there was something good on TV :)

On a side note I am desperately hoping to have some Jehovah's come by this summer. I want to convert them to something else. I think I'll change religions every time them come.
CJ said…
I have a hard time being "not nice" even when it's warranted...for the most part! I tend to let them talk and talk and talk..but at least now I refuse to let them talk me into anything!
alison said…
You are me about 5 years ago. I had a pathological need to be liked and to be thought nice and helpful. I bought things I didn't want, I volunteered my time to do things I didn't want to do. I listened politely to Jehovah's Witnesses (I can't even think of Jehovah's witnesses without flashing back to the stoning scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian -- "All I said, was 'This piece of fish is good enough for Jehovah.'") Backbone? What backbone?

I think the combination of turning 40 and getting divorced changed that. I'd reccomend the turning 40 part. The divorce, not so much. (Mine was a good thing, but I don't go around recommending them wholesale,) I found that after the magical 40th birthday I cared less what other people thought and cared more what I thought.

I knew I was cured when a couple of weeks ago, a young girl, maybe 12, came to my door with her mother looking for pledges for a readathon, and I smiled politely and said, "No thank you."

(I still felt vaguely guilty, but I have enough fundraisers for my own daughters' school to pay for.)
Anonymous said…
I'd make fun of you ... except I got suckered by the natural gas fixed rate billing scam. In my defence, I thought it was an Ontario government program aimed at decreasing energy consumption and the sales person came to my door two weeks after my husband left me ... but still. I've now found it helpful to tell telemarketers and door to door sales people to send me their materials in the mail so I can consider it at my leisure. It seems to help weed out the scams and the legitimate charities are more than happy to comply. Though I did buy a glow in the dark key chain for a twoonie (in support of something worthy - maybe)a couple of weeks ago because it was easier than just saying "No thank you". Sigh. Zed

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