It's the sort of mail that usually never gets opened in our house, much less pursued. You simply don't get something for nothing in this world. But the other day, I opened a letter from a Florida developer.
It said that if Mr. and Mrs. Levey would come to Chancellorsville, Va., and take a look at some campsites for sale--just take a look--they would win a valuable prize.
Perhaps it would be a solid gold ingot. Or a color TV. Or a microwave oven, a trip to Hawaii, a portable TV or a movie camera. Or maybe the biggest bopper of them all: $10,000 in cash.
Even though I was sure we'd win the ingot, the cheapest prize, I asked Jane if she was game.
"Let's see," she said. "We could spend two thousand on fixing up the house. Then we could spend a couple of hundred on . . . . "
She was game.
Wilderness Resort is a collection of perhaps 500 campsites about 10 miles west of Fredericksburg. All the way down in the car, we tried to make ourselves mentally ready for The Pitch. No doubt it would be delivered by a guy with a beer belly, who would put his arm around my shoulder, mispronounce our last name and assure Jane that Wilderness Resort would permanently prevent facial wrinkles.
Our sales rep was Nicki. She was a well-dressed blond, perhaps 21. To begin our tour of the development, she invited us to get into her Ford Pinto hatchback.
In the hatch was a hunk of metal, about the size of a side of beef, with oil oozing off it.
"What's that?" I asked.
"That's the old transmission," replied Nicki, airily. "My boyfriend took it out last week."
"Oh," I said.
Jane's face said: "Is she kidding?"
My face said in return: "C'mon. Be a good sport. In for a penny, in for a pound."
We were in for more like a king's ransom. The Pinto also featured:
*One door that wouldn't open and one that wouldn't close.
*A passenger seat that scooted backward for no apparent reason, mashing Jane's knees in the process.
*A stick shift without a knob on top of it. Nicki shifted gears by grasping naked threads.
*A pair of Confederate-flag bumper stickers on the rear fender.
*A radio whose dials were Budweiser bottle caps.
I've seen business relationships get off to better starts.
Still, Nicki turned out to be informative and well organized. She showed us lakes, beaches and docks. She explained that Wilderness Resort sells you the right to occupy a campsite, not the site itself. She was courteous, friendly and Nicki-on-the-spot whenever we had questions.
But inevitably, the time came to talk numbers.
For $8,500, $1,000 of it down and $153 a month over seven years, we could buy a piece of the rock. Interested?
"Give me your business card," I said. "We'll go home, talk it over and call you if we're interested."
"I don't have a business card," she replied. "Our experience is that if you leave without buying, you're not really interested."
When I paused, Nicki went on the offensive: "Is the down payment the problem, or is the monthly payment the problem?"
"They're both problems."
"Let me talk to my manager and see what I can do."
She was back in a minute, offering to drop the numbers to $7,000, $700 down and $128 a month if we would agree to send eight friends down for a look within 30 days. Clearly, it was time to say thanks-but-no-thanks. Gracefully, Nicki folded her tent and went to get our prize.
In retrospect, I was surprised at the absence of pressure saleswomanship and surprised that Nicki remained friendly even after we had said no. She works on straight commission, without even getting a gas allowance, Nicki told us. "You've got to keep a positive outlook," she said, with a sigh.
We've got a different problem.
What do you do with a solid gold ingot the size of your thumbnail?