Sunday, March 17, 2013

To What Do I Owe?

Working in retail and at the mall, I get the impression that there's some black market for employee discounts - some underbelly society wherein if you let me use yours, I'll let you use mine.

But of course this type of behavior is verboten at most reputable retailers, which is why it must remain a secret.

Now that I've been working at the mall for a couple of months, I find myself shopping more than I had before - perhaps because the bar of my fashion sense has been set a bit higher, or because the stores are just more accessible now, or because I just have a bit more money now. After one of those lunch break excursions (when I got to actually take one outside the store), my store manager would see me return with a bag from Banana Republic or some other such shop, and tell me, "You know, I have friends at all those stores. Just tell me what you want and I can get it for you on their discount."

I myself had been pretty pleased with the mall employee discount I get at some of those retailers, and, always being inclined to play by the book, smiled and nodded and said "OK" but never had any intention of taking him up on it. I don't like really shady business unless I'm going to reallybenefit from it and not get caught. And I don't like involving others or being involved in others' shady business.

And moreover, I don't like to owe anybody anything.

I like to live a life where good karma is pushed out into the world, and favors - if any - are owed to me. And more often than not, I'll do something nice for someone and expect nothing in return. (I have loaned significant amounts of money - over $1000 - to more than one person in the past who I knew would never pay me back in full.)

That being said, it's hard for me to turn down a free lunch - or, in most cases, dinner.

Because I go out by myself so often, I've grown accustomed to the occasional drink comped by the bartender, free dessert from the manager, etc., but with increasing frequency - perhaps by nature of Los Angeles - I've been getting my dinner bought for me. In New York it happened a couple of times, most famously when sitting at the bar at Mexico Lindo where a Spanish-speaking man once asked me, "How are you not fat when you eat so much?" and then bought me dinner. But in California, it happens so often, I've almost come to expect it.

People in LA chat each other up a bit more than in New York, where groups and solo flyers keep to themselves more often than not. Angelenos - at least, the Hollywood types - seem to throw their money around a bit more, too, showing off in fancy cars, showing up dressed to the nines, and throwing down their fancy credit cards.

So a man might add my dinner to his bill, give me his business card, friend me on Facebook, and never talk to me again. If that's OK with him, that's OK with me. That way, I don't owe him anything.

Other times, people take pity upon my solo dining with more of an agenda. A man might spot me alone at a four-top eating an entire pizza by myself, tell his waitress that my dinner is on him, come over and introduce himself, tell me how I light up the room, and then ask to take me out to dinner sometime. I'll say yes because, as everyone knows, I can't turn down a dinner invitation. Then he might try to schedule it, all the while trying to convince me of all of his laurels, of which he claims there are no drawbacks, and then he might forget, or give up, or merely become distracted. I only owed him my company at dinner, but he never bothered to collect on the debt.

Not yet, anyway.

One day, he might. I keep waiting for him to resume his pursuit. It hangs over me like a diagnosis.

About a week ago, I was in Anaheim to speak at a convention, and after my presentation, I thought I deserved a nice dinner. Instead of going to one of the low-brow restaurants across the street from my hotel (to, say, revisit Outback Steakhouse, as I always used to do on my QVC trips), I selected the nicest, fanciest steakhouse, closest to the convention center. Even when the bar was full and there were no tables to be had, I persisted. I wanted to eat there. And, surrounded by all these conventioneers with expense accounts, I had the sneaking suspicion I wouldn't have to pay for it.

But still, when the offer came - while I was standing at the bar, no barstool to be had, forking a wedge salad into my mouth, positioned too high for comfort - I protested. Not to be demure, not out of obligation or politeness: I just don't want to owe anybody anything.

Besides, this time was different. It wasn't a passing transaction - "put hers on mine," as I've so often heard - but an invitation, a real invitation to actually join two businessmen for dinner, at their table, where I would have to bring my half-drunken glass of wine and half-eaten salad with bacon and blue cheese with me. I graciously declined, and thanked them profusely as the hostess collected them to seat them.

Moments later, the hostess returned. "Um, those two guys I just seated? They sent me back to get you."

"Oh really?" I said, half-laughing, half-worrying. "Well...now I have to go. It's just really rude of me if I don't go now." I then turned to the solo diner who'd taken seat next to me (and had half-heartedly offered to "share" it with me) and declared, "I guess I'm being kidnapped."

And, so, clutching the stem of my glass of red wine, I meekly followed the hostess with my salad plate to their table, and embarrassedly seated myself, refusing to continue eating my salad until their appetizers arrived, and turning away my steak tacos when they arrived too early. I let them share their oysters, appetizers and sides with me, exclaiming with surprise at their generosity.

But, in fact, I wasn't all that surprised. I expected it to happen, just not exactly in this way.

And I waited to see how they wanted me to reciprocate.

Bottes of red wine were uncorked, poured between only two of us. Slices of steak, medium rare and medium well, were doled out. Three desserts were ordered, enough to feed six of us. One entire wedge of carrot cake was boxed for my next day breakfast.

Dessert wines were pushed on me.

And then the invitations for after-dinner drinks began. And for dips in the hotel hot tub. And for breakfast the next morning. Perhaps seamlessly connected in their imaginations.

I legitimately had eaten too much and suffered a whopping stomach ache as a result, and, although not drunk, knew I'd had enough to drink. I protested.

But they'd insisted on not only buying me dinner, but ordering even more on top of what I'd chosen - didn't I owe them something?

Perhaps I did, but I've spent enough of my life trying to please strangers who haven't earned my trust, so although I allowed them to drunk-drive me back to my hotel (rather than walking a mile in my multiple-inch wedge heels), I also allowed them to merely deposit me there and go on their own merry way. One of them txted me the next morning about meeting up, an invitation I humored, although he never followed through on it.

Guilt wreaked havoc on me like a hangover. I wondered if I should've accepted their generosity, knowing I had no way of paying them back - financially, physically, romantically, or karmically. Could their offer have been as selfless as mine usually are, doing it for the sake of the common good, helping because I could? Or did they surreptitiously expect something in return, and if so, what?

In the end, I never heard from either one of them again, so ultimately they get taxonomized amongst the credit card showoffs who add my tab to theirs and disappear. Maybe, the next morning, with the haze of red wine and whiskey cleared, they came to their (married) senses and decided to let me dissipate into the misty watercolor of their memories, fondly looking upon the company that they kept, for just a brief while, one night, far away from home, so close to the Magic Kingdom.

Or maybe, one day, they will come collecting.

To Like Avoiding Regret on Facebook, click here.