The Art of Bargaining

In theory, at least, my father was a German Catholic.  Given his total absence from church, I’ve often thought he was led astray by a greater addiction than religion: Bargaining.

Nothing pleased my father more than to pay some substantial amount less than retail.  But just getting a good deal, while a heartfelt and worthy goal, wasn’t really what my father loved.  It was the bargaining itself.

Oh, sure, he would always offer some price less than the sticker any time he got the chance.  But getting a lower price wasn’t the real lure.  In fact, I think his offer was often almost perfunctory.  It just wasn’t worth his while to engage in serious bargaining with amateurs.

To really see him shine, you’d have to go with him up to LA.  The garment district, the furniture warehouses, the camera stores, that’s where the true devotees were found.  At least the Jewish ones my father loved to joust with.

True bargaining has a rhythm all its own.  It’s an elaborate dance superimposed on a chess game.  First, the item was contemplated by both parties.  The seller extolled its virtues while the customer punctuated the paean with occasional comments on its obvious flaws.  The price wasn’t even mentioned.

When it was, the amateur would immediately counter with a vastly lower price.  Not so the true professional.  The obviously outlandish price was barely acknowledged with a nearly inaudible grunt while another flaw was pointed out.  The item was often set aside while another, far less expensive, item was carefully examined.  Only after another set of ping-ponged assets and debits was the second item set aside and the first reconsidered.  And only then was a much lower counteroffer advanced.

The game would go on and on, with occasional breaks while the weather was considered, the generally hard times discussed, and considerable kvetching about how hard it was for a generous man to make an honest living was sympathetically heard.  [For example, there was the business lost to that gonif down the street who might pretend to have lower prices, but his goods were so shoddy they’d break before you got home, almost.]

I honestly have no idea whether they really assumed my father was Jewish, too, or just honored him as a fellow practitioner of the art, but round after round of the dance would go with conspicuous respect on both sides.

In a perfect world, hyperactive little boys would be born with an innate appreciation for the fine points of competitive circumlocution.  Alas, we don’t live in such a world.  What I really remember from those days was frustration from adult talk that never seemed to go anywhere and a progressive growling from my stomach.

Again, in that perfect world, I would have grown up into a champion (not to say obsessive) bargainer like my father.  Again, alas, the opposite is true.  I ended up with a lifelong dislike of bargaining and a conspicuous lack of skill at it.  I suspect I’ve overpaid for almost everything that was negotiable.

Although there was that one time…

I had gotten off a twelve hour flight to Beijing.  After no sleep on the plane and the same amount in the hotel, I was bundled onto a bus to see the Great Wall at a place called Ba Da Ling, which is blessed with a bone-chilling eternal wind and hordes of unbelievably persistent street hawkers trying to sell you everything from T-shirts to plastic knick-knacks.

As we all walked the Wall, I hit the wall.  My jet-lagged body and brain simply quit.  Suddenly, all I wanted was to curl up somewhere and get warm.  I can vaguely remember walking back down the street, ignoring the shrill cries of the vendors, when one of them grabbed my arm and tried to sell me a book of photographs of the Wall.  I had planned to buy just that, so I stopped.

Normally, I speak a little Mandarin, but at this moment my brain was running at molasses speed.  “Uh, duo shao qian? (How much?).  She replied, “Yi bai liu shi.” (160 Yuan or $20, I painfully translated.)

Even in my doped state, that was obviously ridiculous, so I turned to walk away.  To hell with the Wall and to hell with souvenirs!

I heard her shout after me, “Yi bai er shi!”  I stopped walking, not because it was a better deal but because I couldn’t both walk and translate.  (Let’s see – that’s one hundred plus two times ten…)

Seeing that I was clearly a stubborn westerner, she bid lower still, “Ba shi!”  (Oh hell, abort previous translation.  Ba is eight and shi is ten so that’s eighty divided by…

Once again, I was too slow.  Seeing me blankly staring back at her, she tried yet again, “Wu shi!”  (Crap again!  Abort.  Wu is five and shi is ten so now it’s fifty – divided by..”

She beat me again.  Clearly desperate at this skillful, hard-bargaining Yankee, she let out with desperate, “Si shi!”

(Wait.  I can do this.  That’s four times ten equals forty – divided by eight is five dollars!)

Pleased at having finally beaten her, I nodded.

For the one and only time in my life, out of sheer fatigue, I had successfully bargained my way down to a quarter the asking price.

Daddy would have been so proud.

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