October 5, 2012
It’s a luxury to sleep under white, smooth sheets in an elegant air-conditioned hotel room. We sleep in late and have breakfast in a Café around the corner, sitting in two comfortable chairs by the window. The sign hanging on the wall covers all eventualities.
By the time we get down to the Mississippi River, it is past noon and unbearably hot. We watch the Natchez pull away from the dock and debate about whether to spend $85 per person for a two hour boat ride on the Mississippi River.
A young woman doing ‘promotions’ for Wyndham says the company doesn’t advertise because they rely on mouth-to-mouth propaganda after speaking with people. She offers us our choice of any city tour – if we take a chauffeured limousine to look at their resort in the Garden District. We had planned to go to the Garden District, and the prospect of being driven through the heat in an air-conditioned limousine is incredibly tempting. We sit in chairs hiding from the midday heat in the shade of the awning, and once seated lose our ability to think or make decisions. The promotion team says we will need ninety minutes for the tour, and because we are too lazy to move, we decide to ‘go for it’. Christof jokes that the boat ride isn’t enough incentive. To motivate us to join they should throw in the pink-covered iPad lying on the table. The older woman says,
– People like you have ten iPads lying around at home.
They give us each a bottle of cold water and call the limousine. We don’t have our ID’s with us, but the young PR woman is determined not to let us slip through her fingers, and arranges for the limousine driver to stop at our hotel so that we can pick up our passports. She accompanies us to the empty limo and gives the driver instructions. It is cool and comfortable inside, and we relax back into the car seats and watch the city effortlessly glide past us.
Because of the luxurious comfort, we wonder what we have gotten ourselves into. Should we tell the driver we changed our minds and hop out while escape is still possible? He stops in front of two other hotels and groups of people with sheepish expressions join us, giggling with embarrassment at having agreed to what we all know is some kind of scam.
We are discharged in front of a high-rise hotel and enter a disappointingly inconspicuous- looking lobby. Small and done up with gaudy gimmicks which don’t disguise its lack of style and elegance. Like a second-rate actress in pancake and sequins, no amount of decoration can create even an illusion of what isn’t there.
The contrast to the picture the young woman painted, speaking in glowing terms of the pride taken and the funds invested in restoring this object, is a disappointment. We lose interest the minute we recognize the dishonest exaggerations of the real-estate business. The way this lobby has been restored expresses the attitudes of this industry better than words could do. This building newly renovated? This thoroughfare the center of the exclusive Garden District?
One sofa and two chairs cannot accommodate the crowd waiting in the lobby, still hoping to get something for nothing. Everyone fills out the forms attached to clip-boards and waits to be called into the next room. Sales representatives wait for their customers at makeshift cardboard tables set up randomly on a green patterned carpet. The room is dark, and florescent lamps exaggerate the unappealing greenish beige walls, decorated with poster-sized photos of high-rise buildings.
Our representative Tommy introduces himself with a handshake and tries, with an embarrassing lack of tact, to establish a relationship to us. He behaves as though we just met at the party of a common acquaintance and, mistaking his role, presses us for intimate details of our lives. When he asks how we met, Christof puts up a wall, and tells him to proceed with his program.
Tommy refuses to be put off or rushed, and in a pleading voice reminds us of the fact that we have ninety minutes together. He says he wants to get to know us, we should relax and have a good time. I feel like smacking him. Everything about him annoys me. His servile, pink, sweaty face, his brown polyester slacks, the bulge of his nonathletic body pressing against his knitted shirt, the brown plastic shoes, a poor imitation of leather footwear. He obviously lacks people skills and doesn’t have a clue about how to relate to us. Remembering that we were up for an adventure, I try to follow his advice, and to relax into this scene. Wasn’t it Shakespeare who had one of his characters in As You Like It say:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
We are players on this stage, led down a path in a constructed, winding labyrinth by Tommy, who asks questions that leave only yes or no as an answer. The process is ludicrous, I get impatient and feel the urge to get up and leave, saying that we only came here on a lark and aren’t serious or interested in buying anything.
The path through the labyrinth is arranged to make the participant feel remorseful about his drab, gray existence and to create a longing for an antidote to his stress-filled life, to recognize a deep-seated wish to escape to exotic destinations, where he can relax and party at the same playgrounds as the stars.
Tommy tries to demonstrate that only our desolate financial situation stands between us and dream-like possibilities, compelling us to answer questions that don’t fit at all. Didn’t we tell him – when he forced his friendship on us – that we’ve been on holiday for two months and will continue traveling for a year? Doesn’t the hotel we are staying at in the center of New Orleans belong to a class altogether different to what he is, pathetically, trying to bait us with? Doesn’t the fact that he is either too thick skinned to pick up on what we have told him, or too inflexible to change course, turn this whole spiel into a farce, making us unkind jokesters for allowing him to continue?
Or is the group of men sitting at a table on a raised platform observing every move the salespeople make, his true motivation for continuing? His hands shake when he holds out a questionnaire, his eyes dart nervously towards the brigade at the back of the room. What exactly is Tommy selling? Vacation insurance? We wish he would get on with it and come to the point.
We say we enjoy our normal life and don’t experience it as stress. If you enjoy what you do there is no need to escape. Tommy, who recently moved here from Nevada, says he loves his job and meeting new people every day. Thanks to Wyndham he has the opportunity to live in one of America’s most vibrant cities. He is determined to establish a rapport with us, and although we don’t react to his attempts to lasso us in, he continues to badger us, swinging wildly between alarmingly intimate questions and inappropriate flattery.
In the middle of a conversation, without the slightest reason or forewarning, he abruptly stands up and sticks a limp, sweaty hand out towards me. I look at it unsure of what to do. He keeps it stretched out and because he is unable to maintain this ridiculous gesture without shaking, I feel obliged to take his hand in order to end the scene.
He leads us through the next round of questions that can only be answered with yes or no. It’s a trick, no matter which answer we choose, it doesn’t express our feelings. Christof says – in German – that Tommy has no choice but to go through his routine, because he is being watched by the men at the back of the room. He suggests we avoid prolonging his agony by entering into discussions.
After this we just answer with yes or no, not caring if the answers reflect our feelings or not. Tommy told us within five minutes of meeting us that we are the most interesting people he has ever met. Now, half an hour later, he says we are ‘hard nuts to crack’. We tell him that cracking us isn’t his job. No offense intended, but we came here on a dare, as a joke, and no matter what he does he won’t crack us or convince us to buy anything.
His hands are still shaking but he refuses to be deterred or rushed. After a glance at his watch, he says that we should just enjoy each other’s company, and leads us to a gigantic flat screen and asks us to pick out a city. We choose Las Vegas, and he presses on a point that represents the city. The picture on the screen changes and shows a map scattered with red dots. He has us pick out a dot, and presses it. The screen changes and a posh, luxurious resort appears. Wyndham owns all the resorts the red dots represent. We start playing, clicking dots at random and discovering that they own some of the buildings we passed in both Panama and Orange Beaches. The questions I had then, while looking for a motel in a landscape of towers without any signs on them, are being answered now.
He leads us back to the table and divides a paper into four pieces with three lines of his pen. He asks us about the advantages of property ownership and lists our answers using one section of the page. Next to the advantages he lists the disadvantages and then leads over, finally, to his point.
Wyndham offers all the advantages of ownership without any of the disadvantages. Time shares combine the best of both worlds. He opens a glossy, colored catalog to illustrate that joining Wyndham would mean entering a privileged world of property ownership. All these choice apartments across the globe, available for a price no sane person could refuse.
He takes us on a tour of the house. The cramped elevator stops at what he calls the spa. We stand in front of a dirty glass wall, that is being listlessly cleaned by a woman who has to move aside so we can squeeze past. A few exercise machines stand on the carpeted floor of a minuscule room. Tommy is bursting with excitement by the door of an apartment and says:
– I’m going to show you the worst apartment we have.
– Why would you do that? I ask.
He ignores me and ploughs on:
– You will never have an apartment at Wyndham that is smaller than this one.
It is small and airless, and doesn’t remotely match the expectations that the excitement in his voice created. On a graveled roof top, a couple is playing checkers seated on metal chairs at an unadorned table. In the crowded courtyard downstairs two girls are splashing around in a pool too tiny for anyone else to join.
After the tour we are free to leave. We pick up our vouchers for the evening boat ride from an expressionless receptionist. A poor face job? Or the ideal candidate for a stress-free Wyndham holiday?
During the evening we ride out on the Natchez – the last authentic steamboat on the river – listening to jazz as the sun sets and the lights come on, sparkling and reflecting in the dark waters of the Mississippi River.