It was a pivotal moment in kids’ lives: the first weekend their parent leave them home alone.
My parents had never been able to get away — just by themselves — until that weekend. But one summer, when I was about 18, an offer came in the mail that they couldn’t refuse. “Free two-night stay and complementary dinner!” the coupon proclaimed. A weekend at the beach. Alone. They hadn’t had that since their honeymoon. And virtually free. It was too good to pass up.
And, as you probably can guess, too good to be true. The brochure was from a budding condo time-share project out at Ocean Shores. Many of us have seen such promotions, and some of us have lived through them. They lure you in with a glossy brochure and the promise of a blissful and relaxing stay and dinner — free — at a wonderful location. All you have to do is attend a (mandatory) “informational presentation.” Doesn’t sound so bad. You can live with that.
So my parents threw some beach stuff in the Volvo, left us a list of phone numbers, read us their version of the riot act, and headed for the coast. The tinny sputter of the Volvo’s failing muffler faded into the distance and they were gone. I think that Brian and I waited for twenty minutes in the driveway before we finally believed that they weren’t going to reappear around the bend. Then, realizing that we had just waisted twenty minutes of our first weekend home alone without Mom and Dad, we got busy.
Go ahead and cue the “Jaws” theme music at this point.
Before I tell you what happened to us, I might as well tell you what happened to my parents. You probably already know how these promotions work. When you arrive, sales associates carefully shepherd you around the finished sections of the facilities, plumping you like cattle at the feedlot. Then they lock you in a room, desperately latch on to you like lampreys, and interrogate you for hours about your life and finances in order to make you divulge something — anything — that could be used to coax, coddle, guilt, or pry you into signing the papers that make you a part-time owner of one of the units.
Now, buying into a time-share works for some people. I admit that. Some people continue to use their shares, want to keep going to the same location, or have the flexibility to take advantage of programs where they can exchange their shares with people other locations.
But even for people who can afford them (and my parents certainly couldn’t), most time-shares don’t make a lot of sense when you really sit down and think about their long-term obligations. But in the short term, after two hours of incessant badgering and cajoling, when you are hungry as hell, low on blood sugar, and just want your free dinner coupon, signing on the dotted line can begin to make sense, if only to make it stop. But a lot of people wake up sometime in the next week (or month), feeling like Britney Spears in Vegas, as they begin to realize that they have committed the rest of their vacation life, and a truckload of their future income, to some Good Time Charlie that they hooked up with over a weekend.
These sales people are, after all, professionals, and they expect you to begin by saying “No.” From my parents’ (and my own) experience, when you say “No,” the staff generally goes through a three step process that repeats itself ad infinitum until one of the lampreys eats its way into your brain and you sign the contract.
First, there’s shock — shock — that you would pass up such a deal. Dumbfounded disbelief. Second, there’s curiosity; no pressure, you understand, just wanting to ask some follow-up questions about the specifics of the obstacles to your signing. Third comes either jubilation, when the staff joyously discovers that your problems can be solved by special deals being offered for this weekend only, or conspiracy, where these plans and deals are offered on the sly as a personal favor that no one else is getting.
If you are hard-headed, eventually the staff will rotate in the big fish to try the three-step all over again.
In time, however, even the largest lamprey will realize that you aren’t going to offer any nutritional value. Then comes the disappointment phase, where the staff lets you know just how much you have let them, yourself, and your potential new community of friends down. If this last-ditch attempt at emotional blackmail fails, there finally comes the shunning, where you are ignored for being the losers that you are and cut off from the rest of the group to keep you from contaminating them. Your free coupons for the hot tub, drinks, and a round of golf are somehow misplaced or forgotten. You are, for all practical purposes, now dead to them.
My parents managed to get out through the side doors during the initial meeting, and they spent most of the rest of the time trying to avoid the sales associates sent out to round up the strays. Their dinner credit was retracted and they had to argue for it later because they didn’t attend the entire meeting. Not the weekend they had in mind. But they were, at last, on their way home, less relaxed by wiser, and thought they were returning to relative sanity and safety.
They were, as parents so often are, oh so wrong about that.
But that’s Part II.