Thursday, March 5, 2009

It stinks!

Ah, the mysteries of Egypt. How did they build the pyramids, are there more tombs yet to be discovered in the Valley of the Kings, and why the hell did I buy perfume?

With the money we’d earned processing fish one post-college summer in Alaska, my pal Dan and I took a six-week trek across Europe with a side trip to Egypt. When we got to Athens, we booked the Egyptian leg of the trip at a travel agent (this was the 80’s (so I assume Flock of Seagulls was playing in the background as our itinerary was planned)). Our package included a tour of Cairo in a private car, with stops at the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, and a few other places of interest. One of those other places turned out to be a shop, conveniently geared to tourists, conveniently located just off our route, and conveniently owned by our driver’s cousin. The shop’s specialty was fragrances: essential oils (like lotus and lavender) and blends that mimicked popular perfumes (like Chanel #5, Joy (curiously spelled “Goy”), and Old Spice (I kid about that)).

There other parts of Cairo I’d rather have been seeing than the inside of some guy’s scent shop so I was a little irritated but I figured it wouldn’t last long or cost me anything. I was half right. We sat and were treated to tea and small talk, but after a few minutes out came the wind-up and the pitch (do they play baseball in Egypt?). Samples were brought out, we politely sniffed, they inquired as to our interest, we said no thanks. We were fidgeting and ready to go.

Then the hard sell began. The merchant asked us a number of questions, trying to get us to buy. Finally he asked “Isn’t there someone special back home that you could buy for?” I said yes. Dan gave me a funny look. Because there wasn’t. Unbidden thoughts of a woman on whom I had a little crush had emerged; we’d never even gone on a date. The Rational part me was wondering what the hell was happening while the abruptly Susceptible part of me was fabricating a relationship and really, really wanted to buy some aromatic products.

The seller asked if this non-existent sweetheart would like any of the fragrances. I said yes, selected Joy and lotus and handed over my credit card; Rational tried, but was powerless to stop Susceptible. In minutes, I was holding a padded box wrapped in tissue paper and tied with string, which contained two bottles of scented liquids I neither wanted nor needed and a 50 dollar charge on my card; I signed my name and put my card back in my wallet. When we got outside, Dan asked what happened. I had to say “I don’t know. ” Somehow the salesman found a lever that knocked over my will power and pried opened my wallet. I didn’t know why then, I still don’t quite know why now, but I’m working on it.

Science would have told me that dopamine was involved, I would have said it was a dope: Me. I wasn’t slipped a Mickey in the tea. I fell to a salesman’s tactics. But I’ve done some thinking and reading, and now know something similar has happened to many people who live in a retail-oriented world at some time in their lives. That experience was the first step in a process that lead me to start writing here: to think about buying, to be aware of what my weaknesses are, and to use that knowledge to try to make better decisions.

I hauled the damn stuff home and kept it for a long while, finally throwing it away after about 20 years. It was reminder to be careful, a self-imposed scented albatross that only I could see or smell.

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