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Norbert

As I look back over the last (nearly) nine years of marriage, I can say that almost all of the bad decisions we’ve made were unilaterally mine. I can say almost, because one stands out that was entirely Donnette’s.

It happened right after we got back from our honeymoon. I was waiting tables at the time, and while we were in the Bahama’s, nearly all my coworkers quit, which meant that when I got back, I had to work. A lot. At one point I worked three straight weeks without a single day off, and for at least two of those weeks I worked 13 of the 14 shifts available. After a few weeks of this, I was tired, and ready for a day off, ready to take a trip to the mountains, ready to spend some time with my new wife.

Instead, I got to spend my only day off in the entire month of October with Norbert.

In Donnette’s defense, he came with a good sales pitch. Earlier in the month, she’d received an official looking request, asking to check the quality of our water. She’d obliged with a sample, and a few days later they called back to say that our water wasn’t of the highest quality, and would we be willing to let someone come out and explain our available options to us. To further sweeten the deal, they offered her a $50 gas card, just for listening to the presentation. *1* Rarely is my malarky detector better than hers, but by the time she told me about it she’d already committed to having the guy come out, and while my objections were duly noted, there was nothing we could do. Instead of taking a trip to the mountains, or anything else fun, we were going to meet the water guy.

His name was Norbert.

Over time, my memory of him has faded some, and I’m not sure I could actually tell you what he really looked like if I had to. He looked so similar to this guy  that I’ve substituted them in my mind, and whenever I think back to that afternoon, I can only picture Mr. Levy. We invited him into our home, thanked him for coming out, and engaged in a few minutes of chit-chat. We told him we were recently married. He was divorced, no kids. I told him I’d moved to Charlotte to attend seminary, but had decided to delay my education indefinitely, to which he told us that he had recently been kicked out of a Unitarian church. *2* We talked for a few more minutes before finally getting down to business, the reason he had come out.

According to Norbert, our water was impure, imperfect, polluted, and unfit for human consumption. From his briefcase, he began to produce slides, depicting the various microbes and fungi living in our dirty tap water. We were being poisoned, slowly but surely. Rat feces, arsenic, dinosaur DNA, all of these were flowing freely through our pipes, clogging our throats, rotting our guts…this was happening.

Our only solution, THE only solution, was a water purification system, sold exclusively by his company.

What about bottled water? Or a water filter that attached to the sink? Those were good questions, and I was sure to ask them, but Norbert was nothing if not prepared. “What, are you going to bathe in bottled water? Do you know how much smoother your wife’s skin would be if she showered in clean water? How much cleaner her hair would be?” *3* Not to mention the taste, oh how everything would taste so much better if only we were using clean water. He insisted that we make coffee with his clean water. Or tea, everyone drinks tea, make some tea he said and we would be sold, 100% convinced of the difference. Unfortunately for him, at the time I lived almost exclusively off of Diet Pepsi and beer, and didn’t have a brewable product in the house. No coffee, no tea, I’m sure he thought we were messing with him, but the truth was, we were young twenty-somethings with no kids. We didn’t need that much caffeine.

Donnette and I had agreed that no matter what he offered, we were going to say no, because we were broke, and didn’t need whatever he was selling. But Norbert gave a pretty compelling sales pitch, and he’d been in our house nearly two hours at this point, so I remember thinking to myself that if he offered us something for less than $500 bucks it would be worth it just to get him out of our house. 500 dollars sounds like a reasonable amount to pay for a clean water doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, what Norbert was selling ran for ten times that much. Literally.

If I’d had any tea to drink, I’d have certainly spewed it all over the kitchen. I’d just worked 27 straight days, and had maybe $1,200 to show for it; there was nothing on this planet or any other that would have gotten me to drop five THOUSAND dollars for water, no matter how clean my hair would have been. At that point, all I could say was no, every combination of no, no way, not going to happen, I could think of. It didn’t matter what we said though, Norbert just would not leave. “We don’t need it,” was answered with his pictures of dangerous microbes. “We can’t afford it” was countered by “just finance it.” *4* “No,” was just met with a blank stare and a seeming unwillingness to get out of our house. Norbert finally agreed to leave, only he had to call in to his boss first. Then the truly incredible happened.

“They aren’t interested Joe. *5* They say they can’t afford it. long pause Are you sure Joe? That is a pretty big discount, are you sure you want to offer them that? Okay, you’re the boss, I can’t believe you want to sell it that low.”

Norbert looked at me, and without skipping a beat, said that Joe, his boss, was willing to take a full 20% off of the price, a discount of more than a thousand dollars. How on earth could we say no to that?

It was easy.

After a few more minutes, and a few dozen more “no’s”, Norbert finally got the picture and stormed off to his car in a huff. Determined to get what we’d wanted from the beginning, I chased him outside demanding our gas card. He looked at me with, and I’m serious here, as much hate as a person ever has, pulled a ten dollar coupon out of his pocket and told me that once we’d used it up, we could call a number to get another ten dollar coupon, and repeat that process up to three more times. $50 in gas indeed. He’d arrived at our house a little past one, and didn’t leave until just after four, having spent a full three hours trying to get us to buy the most ridiculously unnecessary product imaginable. I was tempted to give Donnette grief for putting us through that, but somewhere deep down I knew the story would be worth the ordeal. We must have been blacklisted by whatever organization hires shady salesmen, because we’ve never been approached again, but even if we were, hopefully we’d stop them long before they got their foot in the door.

I decided to tell this story for a few reasons.

First, it’s funny. *6*

Secondly, if you’re young and naive you might be tempted to let Norbert, or one of his cronies into your house and lose your afternoon as well. *7* I feel I owe it to my younger audience to keep them informed of the potential dangers of letting ex-unitarians into their homes.

But finally, and seriously, I wonder if this is how some people perceive what we’ll be doing in France. I wonder if they think that we’re going to use false pretenses, friendship or whatever, to get into people’s homes, only to then badger them into accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and not leaving until they say yes. I recently read an unflattering article about Baptist church planters in Brooklyn, describing their work as proselytizing and painting a rather ridiculous and inaccurate picture of what that group is trying to do. That’s the perception though, that all we’re really interested in doing is getting into people’s homes and then demanding they buy into something they neither need nor want.

And it’s true, we do hope to be invited into people’s homes. And we do want to offer them something that they may not, at least on the surface, think they have much need of or want for. I hope then that the difference is in presentation. I’m not a salesman, which is good because what we have to offer isn’t for sale. I often hear that if Calvinism is true, then it removes any motivation for sharing the gospel, but, to me, it’s freeing, because it means we can offer it to anyone and everyone, and not be concerned that our lack of salesmanship is keeping people out of the kingdom. We can be free to love people, to share the truth in love, and to leave the rest to God.

Thank you for your prayers.

*1* That’s only one tank of gas now, but it was a pretty big deal at the time. Gas had recently gone up almost 35% in a couple of months, and while we’d kill for $1.75 at the pump now, our gas budget was a pretty big expense for us at the time, and this seemed like a pretty sweet deal. Plus, they told her it would only take about an hour, or so, and neither of us made anything close to $50/ hour at the time, so she thought, why not?

*2* One of my life’s great regrets is not asking what, exactly, he’d done to be kicked out of a Unitarian church. I mean, ask yourself, what does it take to be kicked out of a group that believes all truth is equally valid and there are no wrong answers to life’s questions. They’re supposed to take everyone, that’s sort of their thing. I wondered if maybe he’d accidentally believed in something, while Donnette figured he’d probably tried to sell them a water purification system. I think she was probably closer to the truth.

*3* He was really into clean hair. Maybe that plays in to the above quandary.

*4* I wonder just how much of the sub-prime mortgage crisis was due to bad loans given for water filtration systems.

*5* I can’t say for sure his name was Joe. I’m going with Joe for the sake of the story.

*6* At least I think it’s funny.

*7* A good friend of mine let one of these guys into his house, and nearly agreed to pay $275 a foot for gutter guards. If you’ve never met them, you need to know, these guys are good.

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