Craigs List: breaking down cultural barriers
05/08/2009, 6:02 PM #
I honestly couldn't understand a word the woman said. She called herself Maria, Merieme, Maryam, Marie, depending on when she called or emailed. She wanted my stove. Or rather, I wanted someone to buy it, and she looked like my best prospect. I can't tell you what country she was from, but I would have guessed somewhere in Northern Africa. Egypt? Algeria? Hard to tell. These negotiations require phone calls and at least 5 emails before anyone shows up at your house. I could pretty much tell by her voice she'd be wearing a veil.
At first she was going to come alone. Then she called back, and I could almost make out that she was sending her husband. I swear to God, his name was Osama. I don't react, I live in New York. So I say fine, send Osama over. I gave them my address and turned on the tv in the bedroom so it would sound like there were other people here, then I plugged in the stove. I know how to live dangerously.
Of course they're late. People buying stuff on Craigs List are apparently, as a whole unable to show up within an hour of whatever time they agree to. Once before, selling my old portable dishwasher, a French artist named Rodolphe, after heavy email/phone negotiating, showed up a day late, inspected the dishwasher, ran it (it worked perfectly) called it an old piece of crap and offered me half what I was asking. I sent him away. I'd rather keep it. It's still in the bathroom.
Finally she calls me. She's downstairs. Literally right downstairs, at my door. But she's forgotten apparently that you have to ring doorbells to get people to come to their doors. So I try to make sense of the endless babble, half English, half something (I have no idea, but it's not Arabic, at least not Middle Eastern style). She can't seem to get a sentence to come out straight. It starts off ok with a subject and somewhere on its way to a predicate the words collapse into themselves and some other topic interferes somehow until neither of us can remember exactly what we'd started with. Strategically, I begin to respond to the sentence I think she meant to state, that is, what a normal person would say under such circumstances, such as "I'm right downstairs, how do I get up to your apartment?"
I'm not trying to be rude, but she's standing down there in front of the ground floor restaurant (which is packed, and loud, so she probably can't even hear me) in her veil and her jumbled English, unable to take the step of pressing the button that will activate my buzzer system so I can at last buzz her in. Seriously. I can't just pick up the handset and press the button that unlocks the door. She has to ring the bell first, even if she's on fire and drug addicts from the park are actively robbing her, I am helpless to save her unless she can reach the bell. The fact that my landlord thought this kind of buzzer system was a good idea should tell you all you need to know about how this place is run. I guess Osama gives up at this point because the next thing I hear is this deep voice saying, "we're here." So I tell him to ring the doorbell, just like I told her. It crosses my mind they must think I'm an enormous asshole making them ring it when I'm right there at the buzzer. I do kinda feel like one, even though it's not my fault.
She rings, I can see the back of her head on the video monitor, still clutching the cell phone when I let her in. I say, "Take the elevator," but it's faithless. I know damn well that she, like every Craig's List devotee before her, will take the filthy, disgusting hellhole of a stairway. What could possibly be so untrustworthy about the elevator that anyone would choose to climb that cavernous maw? And she calls me again, from about three steps below my stairway door. Which means I have to move three bikes, two pieces of furniture, and a 9 foot high fire door to let her in. Which I do. Because otherwise I'd have to tell her to go all the way back down to the lobby and start all over again, and she already hates me enough with all the hoops I seem to be forcing her to jump.
There's something almost feral about her, I think she must be scared I'm going to pop her in the oven and turn up the heat like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. It's hard not to like scared people, you can see everything in their eyes. She looks maybe her late thirties, forties. Hard lived, however many years. She has the deep, exhausted eyes of Gorki's mother.
She apologizes as she comes in the door, and continues to apologize on and off through the negotiations. I turn the stove on for her. We test the burners. She tries to tell me why she needs it. Something about renting out an apartment or needing to for cash or something, she has four kids, her husband, then she asks me for a job, she'll do anything, babysit, clean house, so I say, you babysit? And she looks at me like I might be insane after all, and says, No, I've never had a job. Finally a declarative sentence. I was so proud of her.
She asked me to cut her some slack on the price, because the stove was old and I didn't have the "book" (what is it with Muslims and books?). So I come down about 20%. No, she says, clear as a bell. She asks for 30% off. I split the difference at 25%. Done. But now I can't tell if she's agreed to her last price or mine, so I end up saying my final price about three times before she heads down to get Osama. I'm starting to talk like her.
Up comes Osama at last. He's got to be seventy, but burly, more African looking than Arab, a little guy, I could probably take him if I had to. His clothes are well broken in, halfway between New York handyman and souq merchant. He sizes up the stove, and me, decides I'm harmless (you can see this work, it's like a toggle in people's minds, whatever their test is, once you pass it, their faces relax and they get down to business). Merieme leaves, and this beautiful kid comes up, their daughter, she looks like maybe ten, and she's helping Daddy. She has no accent but pure northern American newscaster English. She's bubbling over, ready to pick up the stove and throw it over her head if we need it. This is an adventure for her. Dad pulls out a wad of cash the size of a grapefruit, with hundreds on the top. and peels off a few bills. I give him change, and together we load the stove onto the dolly. To him, I'm just part of the business. I prefer that. I don't need Osama's judgment.
His daughter helps us the way kids do at that age, holding the elevator, maneuvering the stove backward, while Dad and I wrangle it through the door, then stealing a ride on the dolly when Dad's in front and cant' see she's not really pushing. She's quick, smart, friendly. We get downstairs and he takes off to tell Merieme to move the monster SUV over to the sidewalk. I can't imagine why, in the fifteen, twenty minutes it took us to get the thing downstairs, it hasn't occurred to her to pull up in front of my building. While he's off doing that the girl says,
"Do you like to live here?"
"It's ok," I glance at the construction mess in the lobby, the fcracked sidewalk.
"It's so noisy!" And I notice as she says it the deafening barrage of chatter coming from the restaurant.
"Oh, I can't hear it upstairs. The floors are solid. But you're right, it's noisy."
"So do you like using Craig's List?" She smiles.
"I like it ok, it's better than eBay."
"I know but like, what about that guy that was killing people? I was so scared for my mom to come I was like, no mom, it's too dangerous, I was so afraid."
This is New York, so I say, "You're smart to think about things like that. It's always a good idea to be careful." (instead of, oh stuff like that never happens here, or whatever lies people tell children out there in suburbia) And now Osama's gotten through to Merieme that their Giant Silver SUV needs to move. They double park and we roll the stove over to the rear. As we're all three struggling to get the stove off the dolly and into the trunk, which means lifting it about three feet up and sliding it onto a sleeping bag put there to protect the new looking carpeting, some guy behind me says, hey, HEY. He's in a van, we're blocking him. "Move that car," he says.
"We will, as soon as we're done."
"No, move it now." He tries to give me the dead eyes, but dude, I have teenage boys. Fuck you. He can sit there for the rest of his life.
"We're almost done." I go back to helping Osama heave the stove up, and realize there are three boys watching us work, sitting in the back seat. I cut them some slack in my mind, because the girl is at least two years older than any of them. The dolly's free so I pick it up and shoulder it.
"Nice to meet you all," I say. When I head back to the house, they're still jockeying the stove around on the new looking sleeping bag in the new looking SUV. They look like they could have just walked out of the desert into Casablanca, dusty, tired and ready to go home.