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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.