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.
By January 2005, Phi had worked his way up to sales trainer for a cell phone retailer, and he got me a job. He was making good money. Hustling in the mall, he made over 60 grand in 2004. We were only 21.
On one of my first days on the job, he came to my kiosk to do some training. He was demonstrating the greet, that oh-so-disgusting practice used to lure customers. I had always thought that it was the product of overzealous salespeople, but it was part of the job description.
Phi spotted a young girl walking alone. I swear he was licking his lips. We debated for a moment whether she was 18, presumably because he wanted to ask her out. But he only wanted to sell her phones. Phi stopped her with some cheesy line and chatted with her for a few minutes, and the girl seemed infatuated. He transitioned the conversation to phones and asked to see hers.
“Oh, wow. I thought a pretty girl like you would have a matching phone. Here, try holding this one.” He put the brand-new pink RAZR in her hands. “Oh, that’s hot,” he gushed. “I like what I see now.”
The girl was 18, but she was on her parents’ plan. Phi went into a grand speech about independence and becoming an adult, capping it off with a classic line: “Break from the shackles of childhood into your new life!” I almost started laughing.
The girl contended that it sounded great, but she couldn’t afford a new phone. The master of manipulation didn’t hesitate, declaring it was her lucky day. “We’re holding a raffle for free RAZRs today,” Phi exclaimed.
On a Wednesday. In February. Right.
The girl’s eyes lit up as he slipped her the credit application. The two-by-five-inch photocopied forms looked shady: copies of copies, they were faded and simply said “Application” at the top. The girl paused at the place where she had to enter a Social Security number.
“You’re not going to run my credit, are you?”
“Nope,” he replied.
Reassured, she handed over the slip. Of course, Phi entered her info, achieving the answer he was looking for. “5 Lines APPROVED — $0 Deposit.”
“Oh, my God, you won a prize! Now, you didn’t win the RAZR, but you get five of these [phones] for free,” he said, feigning excitement.
He made almost $200 in commission on that sale and got a date with the girl, too.
As summer approached at Plaza Camino Real, the spicy Latina quit. I was surprised since she was making a killing at the booth. The mall was also known as Devil Dog Mall — Marines from Camp Pendleton shopped there. The Marines were sucked in by the Latina’s short skirts and tight blouses, and she easily fooled them with her simple cons. Many of them were barely 18 and from towns with populations in the low four digits. Of the other customers, about three-quarters were Spanish-speaking. As the only one in the kiosk who was fluent, she mopped up there, too. It seemed almost easier with Hispanic customers. Instead of lies, she insisted that there was something lost in the translation.
“You don’t get it,” she told me. “You’re a güero. Mexicans take care of their own.” Yeah, sure.
She outsold the next-best rep two to one, but she claimed things weren’t what they used to be. Soon after she quit, she got a new job on a cruise ship to Alaska peddling gold — or something like it — to the passengers.
Danny, who had been the assistant manager and my best friend in the kiosk, took over. He was different from every other slick salesman in the mall. He wore big glasses that made him look like the Verizon guy, even though we weren’t selling Verizon. He didn’t wear the black or red power colors that everyone else was wearing. He was self-deprecating, goofing around with customers, and telling jokes that put them at ease. They thought he was their friend.
They were right. He was everyone’s friend, the most popular guy in the mall. We started hanging out a lot, drinking at Peter D’s, our favorite dive bar, every night after work, all summer long. It was a place where we could unwind and let down our guard. A few shots of Ten High, my favorite cheap whiskey, did the trick.
One night at Peter D’s, after my fifth shot, I told Danny I didn’t think I was going to make it.
“I can’t trick people,” I told him. “I’ll show ’em the deals and tell ’em what I think. But I just won’t lie. It’s not in me.”
He lingered over his glass before beginning his rebuttal.
“It doesn’t have to be deception. Just paint a picture for them. Highlight good stuff. Minimize bad stuff. Hell, just keep ’em entertained. They’re mostly idiots. They’re gonna get one from someone. Why not you? And why not two?” He was laughing, but it made sense. “We’re just giving the people what they want.”
Things started to click as I was rounding out my first year. I was getting a lot of Be-Backs, as we called them. We used the derogatory term for customers who’d say they’d “be back,” essentially a lost sale. But mine kept returning to the kiosk. My low-pressure, informative approach was winning them over. I was pulling in the older crowd, who were less likely to make impulse buys. But when my customers did make purchases, the commissions were richer. I’d sell them multiple phones for their families, and the deals were more likely to stick. Some of my colleagues’ old tricks were wearing thin: the consumers were wising up.
I developed a reputation and became successful. I became assistant manager, working for over a year at Plaza Camino Real under Danny. Then I bounced around a bit to audition for a promotion. In 2006, I spent time at Westfield North County Fair in Escondido and National City’s Westfield Plaza Bonita, which had the biggest booth in our district, before getting my first shot as general manager. The general manager’s job meant going from minimum wage and sizeable commissions to $40,000 a year and four-figure bonuses.
I took over the Westfield Mission Valley mall location in May 2007. The turnaround was so impressive, my boss moved me back to Plaza Bonita the next month to rebuild the highest-volume store in San Diego. I had to start from scratch after three cases of credit fraud relieved four people of their jobs.
Things were slow at first. I had to rebuild the whole team. I recruited a couple of friends to work with me and scouted out a few new prospects. I practically lived at the mall. I was on salary now, so it wasn’t uncommon to be at work as early as 8:00 a.m. and not leave until after the mall closed at 9:00 p.m. Then off to the bar for my Ten High–sponsored sales meeting, which didn’t adjourn till 2:00 a.m. I finally got my team right and things started to click. There was Jono, the smallish Filipino wunderkind. All the aunties wanted to take him home as a son of their own. I recruited another of my close friends from childhood, Big Mike. At six feet tall and more than 300 pounds, he was intimidating in the kiosk. One minute he’d be bullying some 20-year-old punk into buying phones, the next his cheesy smile was out for the old lady and her upgrade. Big Mike and Jono became a dangerous team, and nothing was more amusing than the flying chest bump the two would do after a big sale. DTZ was my assistant manager. He was a veteran of the phone wars and a former boss of mine who had stepped down for a less-consuming position. We went way back. One of his best stories was about turning down a return when he was alone in his booth as a sales associate.
“I told the guy I was new and I didn’t even know how to process a return. I told him I didn’t want to screw it up,” he explained. “I assured him if he came back the next day my manager would take care of everything.” An evil grin would appear at the punch line. “The funny part is, I knew full well they were coming with a forklift that night to literally remove the booth. It was our last day at that mall. Imagine the look on the guy’s face when he showed up the following day, bag in hand, staring at a flat piece of ground.” He laughed hysterically at the thought. Five years ago, when I first heard the story, I was incredulous. Now, I’d tell it to new guys as my own.
The final piece of the puzzle was Alain, a fluent Spanish speaker and a diamond in the rough. Alain looked out of place in the kiosk at first. His greets were a flat, monotonous repetition. “Excuse me, sir, have you heard about…” he’d ask, filling in the blank with the weekly promotional phone. Then, one day, he found a line that worked: “Excuse me, sir, do you like money?” The first time I heard it, it piqued my interest. I stopped what I was doing and awaited the response. The customers didn’t have a good blow-off answer. I mean, who doesn’t like money? Invariably they would respond with some form of agreement, and Alain would go into his pitch.
By the time the calendar flipped over to 2008, Alain was managing his own store. Big Mike was an assistant manager at Parkway Plaza, and Jono was my protégé, promoted to assistant manager. In total, since my first month in charge at Mission Valley, I had helped get three people promoted to general manager and five make assistant manager. I’d had a roll of successful months, defeating quotas even as they were consistently raised. I was finally getting paid at Phi’s level. I was making more money than any of my friends. I looked back gleefully at my decision to drop out of college.
Everyone knew I was next in line to take over as regional manager of the struggling North County area. I just had to wait for the call.
Instead, I arrived one Saturday morning in April to find an ominous email. An emergency training was to be held on Monday. I was used to short notice. But, oddly, this training was for every employee. We would be closed for business that day while we learned new point-of-sale software and a new commission system.
But Phi had discovered that the company was being sold. A midnight call to my boss confirmed that I would be retained, at $13 an hour and a $500 monthly bonus. If things went well, I would get the promotion I sought, but the raise would just bring me back to what I was making before.
You mean more responsibility for the same money? No, thanks.
The day of the so-called training felt like a funeral. I didn’t bother to wear a tie. My shirt wasn’t even buttoned all the way. I took my usual seat at the head of the table. It was kind of reserved for me. Other managers showed me respect, and I loved that. I sat through the meeting and listened. “Mobile Systems Wireless has always done what it takes to adapt to changing times,” said the president. The guy struck me as a wannabe Gordon Gekko. He continued, “In accordance with the current economic climate, we’ve been forced to adapt again. We’ve decided to sell all the locations in the San Diego market.” I was staring into space but couldn’t help but laugh aloud at this statement. Your adaptation is to bail? The entire room turned to gawk at me. I’m proud of that moment.
I sat through the new president’s introduction and stood in line to receive my last checks. The old president pulled me aside and tried to sell me on the new company. I nodded and smiled until he was done. I had already checked out.
I sat in the parking lot saying my good-byes for over an hour. I gave advice to guys who looked up to me. I traded war stories with others.
We talked about all the crazy stuff we had seen. The time the little kid got his arm chewed up in the escalator. The 300-pound mama running from security in flip-flops who’d tripped and tumbled down the stairs. She got up, covered in blood, only to be tackled by two aggravated guards. The time the mall was locked down as two armed gunmen fleeing a murder scene holed up in Macy’s. When the cops busted in, nobody was home. And those were just the stories from while we were on the clock.
I sought out my boss, the regional manager, and made sure to thank him for his guidance and help. He was a tough Persian man who had been surprised by my ascent to golden child. He had once told me that I would never make it in the business.
“It was a pleasure going to war with you,” I said. He loved referencing the battlefield when it came to our work.
“Pleasure was all mine,” he replied as he extended his hand. “You know there’ll always be a spot on this squad for you.”
“Thank you. But I think it’s time I moved on.”
But I didn’t. I hung out a few months until summer, when I finally got an offer that could match up to my previous income. A Verizon retailer — and former competitor — hired me as a manager, and I started at the same mall where it all began, Plaza Camino Real. That lasted three weeks, until that evening next to Mrs. Fields.
Standing there, watching someone toss my inventory into a burlap sack, I decided it was a good thing. I told the employees what I suspected and what I recommended they do.
My boss wasn’t answering his phone, and the corporate number was disconnected. In the end, I had to drive to Anaheim, sit outside the vice president’s door, and wait for him to come out to collect my one and only paycheck from the company.
Things had changed, almost overnight. The industry was shifting, and the money was fading fast. The forklift had finally come for me.
The unemployment checks were more than I’d made at other jobs, for zero hours of work. It was certainly enough to pay the rent. With no responsibilities, I became isolated. I had friends, but they had stuff to do. I didn’t. The bottle of Ten High was open by noon, and I was chasing it with beers by four. I was going nowhere fast.
I got offers for cell phone jobs over and over. But it wasn’t the same, and the pay couldn’t beat my unemployment checks. So I continued to circle the drain for well over a year.
I snapped out of it eventually, but it wasn’t easy. I had to start over.
I go to Mesa now. I take classes like Economics 120 and Speech 105. It seems redundant. I feel as though I had a first-class education, living the life at the mall. I thought I was working smarter, not harder, but look where it got me.
Phi works at a corporate store now and is back at San Diego State University, getting a business degree. Danny works at a cell phone warranty center and freelances as a photographer. Me, I moonlight as a wireless expert at the Morena Boulevard Costco in the evenings while carrying 12 units. The money isn’t what it once was, but it keeps me away from that damned bar stool.
I don’t see my buddies as often as I’d like, but whenever we get together, it’s like a reunion. My girlfriend gets pissed off because we talk about the mall for hours.
Sometimes when I walk by a kiosk, an eager kid will try to use a trick on me. I’m tempted to hear him out and see what he’s got. But I wave him off and keep walking. ■