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
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
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
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 other
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
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
Holy shit. I want to live
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
$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
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.
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,
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, 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.