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Nothing 'Bout The Truth

Lying for a Living

Wednesday morning I get a call from my temp agency at about ten minutes to eight.  Can I be in San Francisco by 9:30 to work for the leasing office of a luxury apartment building?  For a one day assignment?  Dress business casual?  Not drool on anything?

There's more, but I don't really hear it.  I'm kind of asleep.  Still, I stumble into the shower, put on the least-wrinkled outfit I've got, and head to the address I've been given.

I arrive on time and get my instructions, which wake me up a little bit more.  Basically, I'm asked to spend the day lying to people.

The deal is, these luxury apartment buildings generally cooperate with each other in the spirit of gouging the shit out of tenants and keeping their rental rates sky-high.  However, the company I'm working for has begun to suspect that their competition is keeping secrets from them (gasp!) and may be offering better rent than they claim and including a free month for people who sign a twelve month lease, thereby stealing new tenants.  This is where I come in.  My task is to go around to other luxury apartment buildings in downtown San Francisco and pretend I'm looking to rent a one-bedroom apartment to find out what sorts of deals are being offered.

We're talking apartments in high-rise buildings.  In San Francisco.  We're talking monthly rent of over $2000.  Obviously, I can't go in there saying I'm a temp.

"Tell them whatever you want," the woman says.  "Tell them you're a hot-shot lawyer.  Tell them you're a marketing executive.  Tell them you're a rock star.  Whatever, just have fun!"

I'm standing there in my faded black pants and my frayed green button-down with my beat-up old leather backpack.  My breath smells like coffee and Camel Lights.  There are probably things stuck to my eyelashes.  I don't think I can tell them just anything.

Still, it promises to be an interesting day.  And a tiring day, as I will be on foot and, looking at these addresses, I've got a lot of ground to cover.  I have seven luxury apartment buildings to visit and about seven hours to do it.  The nice thing, it seems, is that I'll be on my own all day.  No one looking over my shoulder, no boring spreadsheets or sticky desktops or phones to answer.  Doesn't sound too bad.

I set up a few morning appointments, leave my cell phone number with a few other places so they can call me to arrange afternoon meetings, and head out the door.  As I wander toward the first apartment complex, I try to come up a with game plan.  I need a good lie.

I've been asked to mystery shop in the past, but it's always been for retail stores, and it's always been at the request of the corporations that own the retail stores.  They do it to spy on their employees, to ensure they're providing acceptable customer service.  Are they being polite?  Helpful?  Considerate?  Patient?  More importantly, are they pushing the things the corporate executives want them to push?  As a shopper, am I being asked to sign up for a discount card?  Am I being offered 10% off the day's purchases for starting an account?  Are sales and specials being shoved down my gullet until I want to kill somebody?  Good, that's apparently the goal.

I reach my first luxurious target around ten o'clock, a five-building complex about two blocks from the bay.  I've decided I'll stick as close to the truth as possible, and tell them I work at a dental school I actually used to work at.  I know the address and the names of the faculty and feel I could speak convincingly and at length about the place, but in order to manage the paycheck I'd need to afford an apartment in the city, I decide I'll say I'm the executive assistant to the Dean and have been for five years.  And, you know, maybe say I also do a lot of freelance writing on the side.  I should be able to pull that off.

After filling out a card with my name, address, and phone numbers, I meet the leasing agent, Sarah, and she offers me coffee.  I inform her I'm looking for a one bedroom apartment, and I'd like to see what she's got to offer.  Sarah is very pleasant and funny, and we hit it off right away.  We chat as we walk through the courtyard, and I tell her where I'm from and what I'm pretending to do for a living.  It seems to be going really well.

The apartment is nice.  Small, but nice.  I get the price from her, and find out they're offering two months free rent if I sign a lease before the end of the month.  I get the square footage, inquire about what else is available, fulfilling my covert duties, but mainly, I just talk.  Some truth, mostly lies, but it's a fun conversation we have, covering politics, our childhoods, backgrounds, and the differences between living on the East and West Coasts.

I take some brochures and her card and head on to my next appointment.  So far, so good!  I'm actually enjoying myself.

At the next place, I'm offered more coffee and a donut, too, and I gladly accept both.  It had been a long uphill walk to reach this place, and I've still got a long way to go today, but if this free coffee keeps up I should be able to keep my strength.  The agent at this building, Bruce, shows me around.  We look at the on-site gym, the pools and Jacuzzis, the entertainment room for parties, the video conferencing room for meetings, and finally, the room for rent.  It's nice, a lot nicer than the first place.  I get the required info, but mainly, Bruce and I talk about baseball.  I lie a little more, telling him I split club level seats at PacBell with a guy I work with.  I blather on about all the freelance writing I've been doing, and tell him I have a weekly humor column in nine newspapers nationwide, though I hope that will increase in the coming days.  We chat a lot.  It's fun!  And it's a pack of lies!

I hit another place before noon, getting some cookies and juice and bullshitting my ass off, throwing in a fictitious freelance copywriting job I have (mostly brochures and ad copy), then head to lunch.  My feet are starting to hurt from all the walking, but I'm having so much fun lying about myself that I don't care.  I even do something I've never done as a temp:  I have a working lunch.  While I eat, I transcribe the notes I've taken.  Wow.  Pretending I'm a hard worker has apparently made me a hard worker.

Even walking through town, I feel different.  Telling people how successful I am has made me actually feel successful.  Pretending I can afford these places has made me feel wealthy.  I seem to be buying my bullshit as much as everyone else.  None of the leasing agents have looked at me like I can't afford these apartments.  No one has expressed any doubt about my stories.  I'm sticking close enough to the truth to be able to lie quickly and convincingly, without hesitation, and little details are popping out of my mouth when I need them.  Hey, I'm a great liar!

And even people I don't talk to buy my lies.  Aren't people on the street acting differently towards me?  Cloaked as I am in this fictitious success, this phantom wealth, this fake confidence, aren't men parting for me on the sidewalk?  Aren't more people smiling as they pass?  Is it my imagination, or are women looking at me differently, even hungrily?  Yes, it's my imagination.  Especially that cute, curvy brunette who rips off my clothing and pleasures me on the hood of a parked BMW.  That part is definitely my imagination.

Now, it's off to a super swanky apartment tower, and I'm excited because I've always wanted to live in a tower.  These places will be nicer, they'll have views of the city and the bay.  I've already learned that a tiny apartment with a view will cost a lot more than a large apartment without one, so I'm going to have to beef up my fictitious resume.  And, if I'm going to pretend to be richer, I'm going to have to pretend to be snobbier.  My plan is to be skeptical and act unimpressed with whatever they show me, to see what I can get them to offer in the way of signing bonuses.

My plan falls apart when I step into an empty apartment on the 23rd floor of the tower.  It's an enormous apartment with huge windows overlooking the Bay Bridge.  Spacious, and with a view.  Holy shit.

"Holy shit," I say.

Terri, the woman showing me the unit, laughs.  I don't laugh.  I almost cry.

This place is beautiful.  Stunning.  I can only imagine how the view looks at night.  I walk toward the windows, and it takes me a long time to get there; the apartment is narrow, but deep.  There's a little outdoor patio, and I step onto it, feeling the cool breeze blowing over me, staring in wonder at the San Francisco Bay and the miniature sailboats zig-zagging their way across it.

Holy shit.  I want to live here.

I spend a long, long time wandering around the apartment.  Way too long;  I'm going to be late for my next appointment, but I don't want to leave.  To Terri, I seem to really be mulling it over, and sadly, I really am.  I'm picturing my stuff here.  Ah, screw that, I'm inventing stuff I don't have and picturing that stuff here.  The money I'm pretending to make is definitely enough to afford this place, what with the book deal I invented on the ride up in the elevator.  Terri asks if I'd like to leave a deposit, and I think about my checkbook, deep down in my ripped and scuffed backpack.  Not my real checkbook, mind you, my pretend one.  My pretend checkbook that contains checks that wouldn't wind up in orbit over China the second my pen hit the paper.

Holy shit.

I'm eventually off to my next appointment, somewhat in a daze.  My feet are aching, now, as they take me away from the place I want to spend the rest of my life, the life I don't actually, honestly, lead.  I'm headed to another tower that's even taller and no doubt more expensive.  I'd better invent myself some more money, stat.

Well, this tower is like the last one, only about five times as nice.

"So," Lucy, the leasing agent, says, "I see you've checked off on the form that you make $80,000 dollars a year."  She looks at me over her glasses.  "Do you have supplemental income?"

$80,000 a year isn't enough for a one bedroom apartment in this building, apparently.  Cripes.

So, I tell Lucy about my three-book deal with Viking Penguin, and we talk books for about twenty minutes.  There are other authors living in the building, she informs me.  She can't say which ones, of course.  I tell her I might know some of them, since I've also been ghost writing for a couple of fairly well-known authors for the past six years.  I can say which ones, of course.

Lucy and I get along great.  She's adorable, and though I'm usually nervous and dorky around attractive, outgoing women, I feel really comfortable around her, like I've felt with everyone I've met and lied to today.  We chat and laugh for almost a half-hour before even taking the elevator to the 40th floor to view the apartment.

The apartment.  Damn.  I didn't think I could beat the view of the last place.  This is a corner unit, with huge windows in two walls.  The late afternoon sun splashes across the hardwood floors, bathing us in orange light.  The city looks beautiful.  I can see the financial district, Nob Hill, Alcatraz, and way, way over there, shrouded in fog, the Golden Gate Bridge.

There is a nice, wide wooden ledge around the inside of the windows, and Lucy and I sit and gaze out over the city.  I can't even begin to pretend I don't love it.  "It's perfect," I say.  And it is.  I spend the next half hour staring dumbly out the window while trying to explain to Lucy why I won't put down a deposit on this admittedly perfect apartment.

It's approaching 5:30 as I make my way painfully back to the people that hired me to lie all day.  My feet, well, I'm pretty sure I'm walking on stumps by this point, judging from the alternating dull throbs and sharp, stabbing pain from my lower extremities.  My cellphone informs me it is dying and I shut it off, sympathizing completely.  I don't have any more appointments today, anyway.  I walk into the leasing office I began in this morning, exhausted both from walking and telling lies, and present them with my information.

As I bend over to unzip my bag and get a timecard, I drive my forehead into the corner of the reception counter with a nice meaty thukk.  I'm stunned for a second, and I feel blood spill down my forehead and onto the bridge of my nose.  It makes my feet stop hurting for a moment, anyway.

My timecard signed, I head back out on the street and waste no time in immediately stepping in gum.  I turn my phone on, which survives long enough to inform me that my temp agency had called while it was turned off, and then the battery dies completely.  I rush around on aching feet, my head dripping blood, until I find a payphone in a bar.  I use the last of my change, change I'll no doubt need for the bus a while later, to return the call, only to find that they'd given someone else the assignment since they couldn't reach me.

Hm.  This all seems very familiar... oh, yeah, I'm back to being me.  Gone is the wealthy, successful writer with a book deal and season tickets.  As soon as the flood of lies had stopped, I was jarringly myself again.  Broke, jobless, unlucky, bleeding from the head, and with a wad of gum stuck to my shoe.

My feet blistered and my legs aching, I finally arrive back in town, across the bay from all those beautiful views.  All that awaits me at home is my crummy apartment with its view of a thrift store and donut shop, made even crummier now by the life I had glimpsed.  Depressing.  I can't even climb the stairs to my apartment, it's so damn depressing.  I head to the bar on the corner for a drink instead.  Men don't part for me on the street.  Women, even in my imagination, don't look at me hungrily, or at all.

I sip my drink, feeling the warm throb in my gut and the cold blood drying on my forehead, and think about the day.  It had been fun, for the most part, a lot of fun, and I start to wonder why.  I'd been talkative with strangers -- intelligent, chatty, attractive strangers, the type I normally can't talk to without first absorbing copious amounts of booze.  Why had it been so easy today?  Because of the lies?  Because I was playing a part?  Because I wasn't being myself?

No, I think that's wrong.  I was being myself.  I was witty and charming, and I can be both under the right circumstances.  When things are going my way, when I'm happy, I get confident and outgoing.  When I feel good about myself I stop being so sullen and shy and talk to people.  I did that today, and though it was through an impenetrable curtain of lies, I never stopped feeling like I was still being myself.

I think I had fun because I got to be successful.  Because the bright, promising future everyone seems to think I have was instead the bright, promising present.  Because the things I dream of were there, not just in my head, but out there, not dreams at all but facts, as far as anyone else knew.  Like I said, even I bought my bullshit.

Yeah, I'm pretty sure I was myself today. The lies just helped me relax enough to think quickly and gave me the confidence to untie my tongue.  But I was myself, I was me.  And, if not me, then at least the me I wish I could be.