Monday, December 25, 2006

Another Odd Berlin Christmas Story

Had my third annual Christmas dinner at the dancer's last night -- kabocha squash soup followed by an excellent wild-hare ragout -- followed by a troll through German television looking at Christmas stuff (and a remarkable documentary about people who escaped over the Berlin Wall -- or tried to -- on what must've been the Burden of History Channel, since what's that got to do with Christmas?) but, alas, nothing on the way home to match the delightful aftermath of our first annual dinner, which I recounted here.

Actually, this Christmas had a weird edge to it. Saturday, walking to stock up at the store (Berlin doesn't open again until Wednesday morning), I heard rapid footsteps approaching me from behind. My New York instincts took over, and I looked over my shoulder to see a little guy in a green hooded windbreaker, arms filled with boxes of awful Gl├╝hwein, running like crazy. His face was flushed, and he had a full beard, which, as he passed me, made me think of a garden troll, since he had his hood up. I heard more footsteps, and saw a skinny young guy running after him. It was too late for me to do anything, and I'm not sure I would have if I could have, because the situation looked pretty ambiguous. At Bergstr., the little guy hung a right, and the skinny guy passed me, panting audibly. (New Year's resolution for you, dude: it involves cigarettes). As I turned left, I saw the skinny guy, almost doubled-over, grab a cell phone and make a call. I guess it was just a larcenous wino and maybe a guy from the store where he stole the wine, but it was an odd sight.

Not to mention that last night, getting out of the U-Bahn by the dancer's, there was what appeared to be a flaming cocktail parasol burning brightly on the platform and some Arab-looking guys walking away from it. I took the wrong exit, which was fortunate, because by the time I got to where I saw the exit I should have taken, it was awash with police cars and vans, and cops interrogating a large crowd of these same Arab-looking guys, who might have been rousted out of the Internet cafe on the corner. Guess this year was Crimesmas.

But I did have a story for today in readiness, something that happened to me about ten years ago. It doesn't make me look particularly smart, for the most part, but it does have a weird ending.

I was walking to the store, along the same route as Saturday, when a white van pulled up and the passenger-side window rolled down. A youngish guy asked me, in German, if I needed speakers. Well, it just so happened I did, since the ones I'd cobbled out of a defunct stereo system a friend had given me had crapped out. One didn't work at all, and the other was iffy. What luck! But...what was going on?

The guy started speaking rapid-fire German, and I asked him to slow down because my German wasn't that good. "English?" he asked, and I said sure. "Wow, that's good; we're from Holland and our German's not so hot either. Listen, we've been working on a club here in town, setting up the sound system, and this guy's not sparing anything; it's a great system, and he's paid a lot for it. Anyway, we ordered the equipment, and somehow they shipped us double the number of speakers we needed, so we're making a little extra Christmas money on this job and we're selling them super-cheap. These are great speakers: look at this." He pulled a loose-leaf notebook out from somewhere and showed me an article from some high-end stereo magazine I'd never heard of. The speakers he had had come in third, just beneath two brands I'd heard of. Interesting!

"Look, every penny we make on this deal is free money, so we're not going to rip you off," he said. "We'll sell them to you for DM 200 a pair. Hey, you have any friends who need speakers?" In fact, I did. I'd been bitching about mine going out while I was at the radio station where I worked, and one of the guys there said he'd just blown one of his and didn't know if it'd be cheaper to get it fixed or just buy new ones. "So why not buy two pairs and sell him the other? That way, you make money on the deal, too."

I looked at them, and the address on the boxes was a company in South Carolina. But I wasn't sure. They might have been stolen, for one thing, but by Dutch guys with their own van? That didn't seem plausible. But the facts were the facts: I had some extra money, I needed speakers because mine were dead, and here was an opportunity. So they drove me to my bank around the corner and, at my insistence, stayed in the van while I hit the cash machine. We drove back to my place, I paid them, and they helped me unload the speakers into my front door. I asked for a receipt, since it was a professional expense, and got one, with an address in far north Berlin on it. "Just remember," the guy said, "if for any reason you're dissatisfied, just bring them back, opened or not, and we'll refund 100% of your money." could I lose?

After I got back from my trip to the store -- I still had to eat, after all -- I hooked them up. They sounded okay, but I was suddenly feeling weird about the whole thing. There was one person I knew who'd have the skinny on these things, a guy in Austin who had sold high-end stuff to unimaginably wealthy Texans, so I fired off an e-mail to him. Almost immediately, he wrote back. "Were the guys who sold you this in a white van?" he asked. How bizarre, I thought. How could he know that? I said yes, and he sent me back a URL for something called the White Van Speaker Scam. From looking at it, it seemed like I was the only person in the world who didn't know about this. I'd let my greed and my desire to get my stereo working again -- and, let's face it, my wanting to buy myself a Christmas present, since nobody else was going to -- cloud my better judgement. I felt like a moron.

So I packed the speaker back up, and looked at the receipt, then checked the map. It was in Wittenau, which was a long ways away, and I'd have to take a cab, but I was going to do it. The next morning, I hailed a cab, and the driver let me load all four speakers into the car. About DM 20 later, I was at an industrial park of some sort out in the middle of nowhere. It took some doing, but we found the "suite" listed on the receipt -- by now, the cabbie had gotten into it and was hoping I'd get my revenge on the scamsters. Anyway, I knocked on the door, and guy opened it and said "We're holding a meeting. We're not open." I responded in English and told him that I had a receipt in my pocket that said I'd get a 100% refund within three days, and I was returning the speakers. "You're returning them?" he said, amazed. "You're the first person who's ever done that!" Yeah, well, I was returning them. We hauled them into the space, and sure enough, there was one of the guys who'd sold them to me, dressed in a suit, standing in front of a blackboard with diagrams labelled in English: "Sales Talk," "Customer Satisfaction," stuff like that. "You're not returning the speakers?" he said. "What was wrong? Were they defective? We'll replace them." No, I said, I just got a better deal. He goggled. "You did? Where?" Ah, I lied, my little secret.

At that point, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a couple of bills. Just a couple, but high-denomination. "Man, this is all the money that's in the place. You're going to leave us penniless." Like, by then, I cared. It was exactly enough, and I thanked him and left. The cabbie was still there, although I'd paid him. "You got your money back?" he said. "Great! I'll drive you to the U-Bahn for free. It's good to see that sometimes you can stand up to the gangsters and win!"

Two days later, the guy who buys my used CDs showed up at my house. I told him the story, and even he had heard about the White Van Speaker Scam! "If you want good speakers, though, I know where you can get JBL studio monitors for 1/3 their normal price." Oh, yeah? "Sure," he said, and named a huge electronics chain. "They price them cheap to get you in there and hope you buy more stuff. But this price is only for 24 hours." And a couple of hours later, I had a new pair of excellent speakers, made by a firm I'd heard of, set up and working in my house. I'm still using them, in fact.

Remember, this was ten years ago. Today, all you have to do is Google "white van speaker" and you get a handful of pages. I'm still very grateful to the guy in Texas for making the connection. Not to mention the righteous cabbie and the honest scammer.

Ho ho ho, as they say.


Anonymous said...

Now there's a "Christmas Story" New York style...

Hope you've enjoyed the holiday and the rest of the festivities up to and beyond Sylvester

Olaf said...

Good story, Ed. Actually, I'd never heard of the White Van Speaker Scam. Why is it that the fact that the guys were Dutch made it seem plausible? I would have gone for it too just on that note.

Amazing that you got your money back. At least the address was legit and they didn't strongarm you. Pretty ballsy.

Seems like an awfully complicated way to make a buck--the labor costs, marketing, transportation, inventory--why wouldn't they just do something legal? Is there that much profit in selling speakers from a van?

And Merry Xmas, Ed.

daggi said...

I heard about this when I was in London, aged 16 or so. A friend of mine was stopped at the Elephant & Castle - he wasn´t interested in the speakers, and like me (at the time) didn´t suspect it was a scam - he was just amused by the sales technique and assumed the equipment was stolen. But it seemed everyone listening to him tell the story in that pub that night had been approached in a similar manner at some time in their lives - he felt lucky that he didn´t need any speakers (and had no money for them either!).

Merry Xmas Ed - and thanks for the link (not sure what you exactly mean by ´good hearted´ though...)!

daggi said...

I also noticed that one of the owners of one of these scam firms was a Mr. James Brown. Unlike the Godfather of Soul, the cheap speakers are still around...