The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, June 15, 2006

My one-day career as a liar and trespasser*

Full post behind the jump

Those of you keeping up with current events in The Theory of Chaos know that I’ve cast a wide net lately seeking income. This has led to some miraculous surprises, like that treasure of a thumb-up-the-ass gig I wrote about a couple of days ago, as well as some real dignity gut-checks like that web link I clicked through that offered $50 an hour to dance around in a SpongeBob costume at birthday parties. Turns out I value my pride, and my shins, just a little bit more than that.

But I did get offered a freelance job taking pictures for a travel website, which sounds all exciting and right up my alley at first, until the gory details start coming. I won’t identify the site, but they purport to collect reviews of hotels and other travel facilities from “authentic” vacationers. The job profile is – they send me a list of local hotels. I hop in my car with my Google Maps printouts, find them, and take digital pictures of the exterior, the lobby, the pool, the bar, and even a room if I can finagle my way in and want some bonus cash. They pay me and match the pictures with their reviews, wherever
they come from.

The pay is pretty pitiful and they don’t reimburse gas money, which eats up too large a chunk these days for my tastes, but since they didn’t want any higher quality than the kind of point-and-shoot stuff you might see from an average Ma and Pa Minivan, I figured I could string enough together in a close radius to shake out at a decent hourly wage.

I sent them some links to sample pictures of mine and they offered me a list of five hotels. I won’t identify them, either, except to say that all of them are in the area of a certain mouse-infested theme park/tourist dollar black hole.

My contact with the website actually instructed me to not mention my real purpose at all; if challenged, I was to say I was checking the place out for a friend planning a vacation.

Here’s what makes most people bad at lying –
I’m not talking about your true politician or Hollywood producer or sociopath, who can look you in the face and say the sky is pink and full of polka dots and you’re damned if you don’t have to double-check to be sure – I’m talking about ordinary people whose consciences aren’t in a vegetative state. The problem is, if you truly prepare a lie – a good lie with supporting details, little bits of color to make it feel more organic – you can get so nervous that you use too much too fast. People can catch on to the sudden and unnatural thoroughness with which you’re sharing. And that’s when one simple question can crush your whole game, because you’ve committed too much to be able to adjust on the fly. And soon all you can do is pray that they won’t openly call BS on you and you can pretend you escaped with some shred of integrity.

I don’t like lying. Never have. That’s not to say I don’t do it – I’ve made Baby Jesus cry thousands of times, Jimmy – but I hate what’s almost always the weakness that leads me to it, and try my best to use the truth even if it’s going to cost me.

I set out for this job, basically, hoping that I’m going to be lying as little as possible.

The first hotel is a breeze – I get all the angles and even sneak a shot of a room open for housekeeping. All the manager in the lobby asks is that I tell my “friend” they’re remodeling and those wires won’t be exposed for much longer. I was clumsy with my alibi there, but he let it slide.

When I get to the second hotel I think I’m on top of this, I’m a smooth operator. I even find a little back street not 10 minutes’ walk from The Happiest $10 Parking Lot on Earth that has unrestricted free parking all day until 9pm. Definitely worth a mental note.

But when I step into the lobby it all comes apart. The woman behind the counter, cinched tight into a black blazer, is immediately suspicious, and my cover story comes out all mush-mouth. She lays down the law – no lobby pictures, hell, no exterior pictures allowed. I’m not sure by what authority she’s convinced she can bar me from taking photos from the street, so I go back outside and snap away.

This is what I really don’t like – how quickly I’m set into a confrontational relationship with a woman who was essentially right in sniffing out that I was up to shady business. I find myself creeping around the side of the building, remembering “they wanted a shot of the parking area if it was underground!

I get that shot, check a card-locked door to the main elevators, and then head for the exits. As I’m doing so, the door from the lobby opens and there’s the woman again. I blubber something useless about wanting to check the garage for my friend and she just skips the pleasantries and makes with the “Sir, you need to leave NOW.

As she repeats herself, louder each time, I slink away, feeling slimy.

On a pure id level I feel very wronged by this woman, because I meant her and her facility no harm. It takes me only seconds to develop a persecution complex and imagine her raining uniformed men down on me, and I mean, come on, isn’t that just a hell of an overreaction to a guy walking around with his Kodak out?

But that’s the damned thing – she was right. By the immediacy of her answer it was clear she’d been in this situation before, and for whatever reason, her superiors have given her Instructions on How to Deal With the Likes of Me.

At the third hotel I refine my approach. I save the lobby for last, and meander innocently around the grounds without being challenged. I always hesitate at the pool, because it’s hot out and people are enjoying it, and they didn’t volunteer to have their faces on the web. Or their white and round bellies, for that matter. I try to time my pictures so as many heads are obscured or turned away as possible.

This time I follow up on a bit of inspiration I had while trying to bamboozle the last woman. I keep my camera packed when I enter the lobby, and just peruse the place, looking at brochures. When the desk clerk finally asks if I need help, I ask if there’s a brochure specifically for this hotel – you know, with a phone number and a web address and everything? And then, as I take it and gratefully page through it, I conversationally share the broad strokes of my little yarn about an old friend bringing her family out to go to The Park. The one I don’t have to name, because its mascot is in giant statue form right there next to the front door. Only then do I ask, as non-threateningly as possible, if they’re comfortable with me snapping the lobby – just so I can show my friend I checked the place out personally, you see.

None of them sees a problem with this. Score. Three tries and I’m a fully-evolved lying machine.

The fourth hotel is just as easy – I even get a shot of the breakfast room and the two young female desk clerks titter proudly when I tell them what an adorable little establishment this is. Truth be told it’s on the garish side, but you know…flies…honey…that whole bit.

By the last one I’ve become so comfortably tentative in my reach for the camera that it inspires a whole conversation. Why, these folks wonder, would a hotel have a problem with people taking pictures? It’s not like they don’t already have pictures on-line, after all! And suddenly, by means of responding, I share the edited-to-protect-the-alibi version of my encounter with the woman in the black blazer. And my new friends sigh in sympathy, because what horrible thing could anyone think a poor boy like me would do?

I think that was the moment that burned my gut worst of all.

So even though the job was fast, and not really that hard even with my one strikeout, I decided I’m hanging up my professional lens. I can’t even stalkerazzi buildings without feeling like a heel. I’m seeking something in the coming days, an opportunity to make a little Karmic Debt Payment. I don’t know that it has to be much, because this website really doesn’t pay that well.

(*If anyone thinks there’s something to prosecute me over anywhere in this…then…um…I made it all up. And you’ll never take me alive.)


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