I’m choking on the drifting smell of Mrs. Fields cookies as I stare into the eyes of the middle-aged woman. Her look conveys doubt as I reach out and place my hand on her wrist. This move works only with a woman old enough to be my mother.
"I'm sure this is the right decision for you and your family, don't you agree?"
I seal the deal with my trademark wink, another dangerous tool that must be used with precision. She tries to mount a last defense, but, alas, I’ve defeated them all. She smiles and gives me the green light.
Over her shoulder I see the stunning blonde we call Charlotte. She’s my competition at the T-Mobile store. Once she gets people inside, it’s over. I’m at my shitty little kiosk, and it’s easier for customers to walk away from me. Charlotte is glaring at me because I closed the deal she couldn’t.
I swell with pride as I pull out the phones. Then I recognize two Middle Eastern gentlemen rushing toward me. I can see their van double-parked, its lights on, outside the mall.
“All sales are halted,” one of them says. “We’re here to collect your phones.”
I plead my case, not understanding at first. I explain I’m in the middle of a five-phone deal and gesture toward the woman, careful to build her up but not show panic or desperation. She’s suspicious at first but appropriately pleased by the respect I’ve shown her.
The man explains, “We’re doing an emergency inventory. Everything is to be brought to the office immediately.”
I’ve heard that word before — emergency. It’s over. I look back at the T-Mobile store just in time to see my hard work walking into Charlotte’s web, a gloating smile sent my way.
In nine years, I worked at ten locations — from Oceanside to Chula Vista — hawking cell phones. I’ve seen all the tricks.
I got my start selling phones in retail electronics stores, fresh out of high school in 2001. RadioShack, Circuit City, Best Buy, I did the whole tour. But it wasn’t until early 2005 that I walked into the Westfield Plaza Camino Real mall in Carlsbad. I was nervous. It was my first time in a booth, and I felt trapped. I was greeted coldly by my manager, a spicy Latina who sized me up and was hardly impressed. Her outfit was somewhat professional, but her skirt was short and her blouse too tight. She looked as if she were going clubbing. I wanted to go with her.
She had a routine with new people. My first lesson was how to run a person’s credit on the computer. She was pulling up the program, but I was having trouble keeping my eyes on the screen. Finally, she asked me to enter my information.
“But I don’t want to run my credit,” I said.
“Don’t worry, is not for reals.” The way she mangled English made her even hotter.
I clicked the submit button. The screen returned the information: “5 Lines APPROVED — $0 Deposit.”
When I turned around, she had stacked five phone boxes on the counter. “So, how many can you get? All five?” she asked with genuine excitement. I told her she was funny. It was a nice trick, but I didn’t need a new phone.
“Come on, they’re free. Is gonna cost you nada.” She kept pushing phones on me the rest of the day. Maybe I only needed three. Or two?
“Don’t watch what I’m about to do,” she said repeatedly over the first few weeks. “You never saw that.”
I had learned how to work the system at Ross Elementary School in Kearny Mesa. It was 1993, my fifth year of school, when I met a kid named Phi on the basketball court at recess.
I was taller than most fourth-graders, about five feet three. Phi, an Asian kid, was about a foot shorter. He was on the other team and made an impression on everyone with a pickpocket steal and some fancy dribbling. He was about to seal it with a layup before I ran over and slapped the ball away, far out-of-bounds. “Take that,” I said, wagging a finger in his face the way I’d seen on TV. He looked pissed. I gloated. I blocked three or four more on him that day, but he made me pay for it by stealing the ball every time I dribbled. He came out of nowhere. His size worked as an advantage for him, too. We talked after the game as young guys do. I called him a midget, he called me Jolly Green, and soon we were laughing. We became best friends.
Phi was born in Thailand and never knew his real father. His mom had struggled to survive. But he realized that his intelligence could substitute for hard work.
We started racing ahead in our schoolbooks, and soon Phi came up with a better plan. He took the even chapters and I took the odd, and then we traded our work. Two months into the school year, we were done with the math book. Three months later we were essentially done for the year, the teacher resigned to having us grade papers. Everyone thought we were geniuses. They hardly knew.
As the ’90s came to a close, we were at Madison High School in Clairemont, and Phi was running schemes. No one has gotten better grades while doing less work. He had girls who’d let him copy their homework and a network of people taking the same classes who’d give him a heads-up on test questions.
Phi was always talking about Art Fry, the inventor of the Post-it note. “He put glue on paper, and now he’s rich,” he would say.
One of Phi’s best inventions was his cheater’s pencil. Small pieces of paper with equations or vocabulary printed in tiny, eight-point type were taped to a pencil so they looked laminated. If only he’d put that much work into studying.