"If it sounds too good to be true..." and other lessons I learned the hard way.
In the last installment I told you that in the early 90s I got accepted to the MFA program in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence. I was thrilled, and accepted right away, despite having no idea how I was going to pay for it, or fit it in to my schedule. I had a full-time reporting job at Home Furnishings News that involved covering industry events (in three different industries) after hours, and a fair amount of travel to trade shows.
Still, I imagined I could juggle it all somehow, as I had in undergrad. I don’t come from money, and had managed to put myself through college at a state school by working while studying, sometimes as many as three jobs. It hadn’t made for the best learning experience. I’d figured out how to do the least to earn a B+ while, on the side, writing freelance articles for local publications, processing insurance claims at Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and teaching Sunday School at a nearby synagogue.
I knew nothing about how to apply for financial aid or loans, and I was too afraid I’d get rejected or mess it up to even try. I just mailed a check off to Bronxville — draining my bank account of something like $11K — boarded Metro North, and signed up for some evening classes.
Very quickly I started panicking. When would I write my assignments, and read my fellow students’ work? Would I do it on the hour-plus commute, each way, between the East Village, where I had moved from the Upper West Side, and campus? More pressingly, how was I going to afford tuition after that first semester?
Then I got the call.
“Suh-REE Buh-TON? You’ve won a Cadillac Coupe de Ville!”
The call came from a number in Las Vegas. I mean, when the phone rang, I didn’t know where it was coming from, because there was no such thing as Caller I.D. yet, or even *69. In the early 90s there were just plain old land lines without those features. I wouldn’t have my first cell phone for another seven or eight years.
I knew it was a Las Vegas number because it was the beginning of a volley of calls back and forth between us — initially in pursuit of verification of this grand prize, and later to arrange for delivery of the car.
The number was similar to another Las Vegas number I’d recently called to ask how to mail back, at no charge to me, an enormous makeup kit I’d never ordered in the first place, put out by a flashy makeup artist who starred in late night infomercials. The makeup kit had been sent to me in error by the same direct marketing company through which I had in fact ordered a set of Tony Robbins Personal Power! tapes. (This is not nearly the most embarrassing part of this story.)
The tapes were meant to take the place of my (cringe) life coach, whom I realized I couldn’t afford. (Still not the most embarrassing part.) I’d been referred to the life coach by the woman who taught a personal essay workshop I took at NYU’s school of continuing education in 1991. She had become something of a mentor after she invited me to continue studying with her at a private workshop at her apartment, which I paid for in part by babysitting for her kids.
I confessed to her one day that I was feeling like a complete failure. At 27. I was having difficulty staying focused and juggling everything — creative writing, a day job as a reporter, trying to freelance for consumer publications, all while going through a divorce and, oh, also dating a few different jerks, to whom I devoted a ridiculous amount of mental energy. She suggested I visit David, a former Marine drill sergeant-turned-actor-turned life coach.
Each week I’d hop the subway to David’s Theater District office and admit I hadn’t done most of my coaching homework — because I didn’t have time, but also because the assignments were weird. They were based in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), through which, David explained, he was going to “re-language” me. For instance, I was only allowed to use the word “no” in limited contexts (I can’t remember which). I was not allowed to use the word “but” ever; in its place, I had to use “and.”
Each day, I had to call in to a number he had set up with an answering machine, and declare my (positive!) word for the day. I had to recite a particular line declaring that I was my word. “This is Sari Botton, and I am my word. Today is October 26th, and my word today is focus. Today I will be focused!”
All this for $100 per session. After a handful of appointments, I quit. My writing teacher recommended Personal Power! as a cheap substitute.
Right after the tapes arrived, so did the coffee-table-sized makeup kit I never ordered, plus a heavy bill for it. Thus began my phone calls to the direct marketing company in Vegas, followed shortly after by the call from a similar number about the Cadillac.
There was a time in my life when I wanted nothing more than for my family to own a Cadillac.
I was 10 and my parents were splitting up, and I was very anxious about our financial situation and social station. My new best friend came from a family that my mother described, disdainfully, as nuveau riche. They had a pink Champagne colored Cadillac Coupe de Ville and a shiny green BMW 2002.
After my grandmother died and my grandfather remarried, we received as a hand-me-down their massive, red Cadillac El Dorado with a luxurious, white leather interior. It looked ridiculous parked outside our small house in a blue collar town. Immediately my parents sold it, and as if by some act of automotive fission, parlayed it into a Dodge Dart for my mom and a Ford Pinto for my dad (the very model that would soon be recalled because some of them had exploded), in which he’d soon ride off to his bachelor apartment in the next town.
I was a tween whose parents’ divorce had made money even tighter than before, and I had a rich best friend. Naturally, I became status-obsessed. For a Friday afternoon “rap session” at school, to which we were supposed to bring in photo albums for show-and-tell, I grabbed the key to the Cadillac that had been sitting on a kitchen window sill, and placed it under the cellophane. “See kids,” I meant for it to telegraph, “I’m not just some poor, bedraggled divorce kid. My parents once had a Cadillac.” (<— For like, a month.)
Back to the early 90s…
Obviously, in my life as a struggling writer living in a crumbling East Village tenement I did not need a Cadillac, nor any car for that matter. Neither did I any longer harbor a desire for one, but I liked the idea of having one to sell to fund my grad school gambit. It was worth about $30K. I had a plan: once that massive boat of an automobile arrived, I’d drive it right over to Potemkin on 11th Avenue, and cash it in.
All I had to do was mail a cashier’s check for $850 to Nevada for shipping.
I had many, many, many — too many — conversations with the guy who called to tell me I’d won the car, trying to determine whether this was legit. Every time I considered going to the bank and getting a cashier’s check, I would call him again.
“You’re sure this is real?” I’d ask. “Like, really real?” Because obviously if it was a scam, he’d admit it.
“I’ve already told you a million times,” he’d say, at first chiding me in a friendly tone, but later becoming annoyed. I did not like having men annoyed at me, so eventually I just got the check and sent it.
Then I waited. And waited. And waited. I tried calling my pal in Vegas. The number you have dialed is not in service, said the robovoice.
Reader, there was no Cadillac. I was out $850, and my attempts to have the bank recoup it were in vain. Before the semester was over, I’d drop out of Sarah Lawrence.