On a rare trip to the casino recently, I had an equally rare lucky day, and came out with more than I spent, in the form of a crisp, new $100 bill. I’m so paranoid about getting robbed in there that I just stuffed it into my wallet and hurried out. I took my son out to dinner last night with the money. It was a beautiful evening, the first day we’ve had over 70 degrees in 167 days, I shit you not, so we walked up to a local Italian place from which we’ve gotten takeout before. A couple of months shy of five years old, he’s getting a little bit better at being able to actually dine in at a restaurant, even on a weeknight when he’s tired from school, so I thought I’d give it a try, gorgeous evening and a walk being a bonus. When we got our bill, I pulled out the $100 and…it looked weird. Like, blue-colored instead of the normal green, and it had been adulterated somehow, with a big, blue stripe down the middle. I kind of freaked out, thinking it was counterfeit, and used my debit card to pay instead. It’s not all that often I see a $100 bill, I couldn’t tell you the last time, and apparently this is a new and normal change to the bill that happened several months ago (thanks, Google). In that moment in the restaurant, however, I was transported back to the grocery store as a young girl, probably around 11 or 12, when my Mom pulled out some money at the register and I noticed one of the bills looked kind of strange, and said something to her about it. She whirled around immediately like an angry tornado and hissed at me to not say another word until we left the store. No, my Mom was not passing bad money. But when we got outside, my face burning with confusion and embarrassment, she told me that passing counterfeit money was a federal offense, whether you knew it was fake or not, or intended to use it falsely or not. She said if I was ever, ever in a situation where I presented money for payment and the cashier asked if I thought it looked weird, I was to answer immediately that it looked fine and normal to me, and never to acknowledge that it looked weird, even if I thought it did, or I could end up in jail.
If my hundred had been fake, I surely don’t believe they would have hauled me off to jail and left my son alone and crying in the restaurant parking lot. But it’s taken me a long time to be the kind of person that thinks that way, instead of just assuming everyone is ready to cheat, steal, lie and screw me out of everything all the time. My Mom was generally distrusting, but not to the extreme degree that my Dad was. He sold cars for 17 years, so it’s sort of understandable. This was back in the old days, with all the sales cons in full swing. Dad would take me used car lots and school me on the ways they would try to cover flaws up; how to tell when a car had been repainted, that you never set foot on a car lot you weren’t prepared to walk off of with no car. That you never show up in your current car if you can help it, as they size up your deal the minute you pull in, based on that vehicle. Dropping the money when the sales guy isn’t looking to see how he reacts when he discovers it. The bait and switch. The lowball. One tactic of his I have held on to, in handling car deals for a lot of my friends and family over the years, is when the salesperson asks you how much you want to pay per month, you say five dollars. They’ll laugh, like you’re kidding, but you just say it again, totally straight-faced. Because really, that IS how much you want to pay, isn’t it? And structuring your car deal around how much you “want” to pay is one of the quickest ways to ensuring you’re going to get screwed over and get a bad deal, as they’ll be sure to hit that number, and probably go slightly over it, even if you could have paid less for the car you’re buying. Nobody looks at a house and talks to the realtor and says, “well, this is how much I want to pay for a mortgage.” You shop for the house you know you can afford, with a pretty good idea of what the payments should be based on interest rates you qualify for, etc. Those who don’t buy cars this way are the bread and butter of the sales business, and the sales people do appreciate you, truly.
I was thinking about the bill this morning, and about my parents, and about how much one should trust strangers. I think I generally still have a healthy, perhaps more than healthy level of distrust and skepticism than other people do, but I’m not sure whether or not that’s really such a bad thing.