How to Interact With the Victim of a Pyramid Scheme?

by 4:45 PM 0 comments
I went to our neighborhood coffee shop, Evergreen Coffee Company, yesterday. I sat down outside with an iced tea and my MacBook in my hands, Warby Parker sunglasses over my eyes, and Toms on my feet. I chose both the shoes and the sunglasses because for every pair bought the companies donate a pair to a person in need. I wrote a concerned letter to Apple about labor abuse after the Mike Daisy story on This American Life (a story that turned out to be fabricated.) I was at the coffee shop because I needed a place to work outside of the apartment, and by being there I was breaking a promise to myself. I dropped a letter there about a year ago asking them to switch to fair trade coffee and tea, but they never responded. I told myself I would go to Starbucks instead despite the increased distance from our place, but laziness wins out once in a while. So basically I am the picture of a bleeding heart liberal, inside and out.

Almost immediately after sitting down, a young black guy approached me. "Excuse me, I'm working to get jobs for poor young people, do you mind if I take up your time?" He was wearing a button-down shirt and not-quite-fitted slacks. He was covered in tattoos, and was missing half of his teeth. I told him I had a few minutes, and he sat down. 

He told me he was selling magazines and books. "But I can tell just by looking at you that you need some magazines like I need another hole in the head, right?" I got caught up on the word "another" here, and I must have looked pretty horrified, because he started speaking quickly and nervously. "I mean, I don't need a hole in the head. That would be bad." I think he said "another" by accident? I hope he said "another" by accident. For some reason I was scared to ask him if he had a hole in his head. 

The sales pitch went that "this is a program to give poor youth a chance to have a job, that they might not otherwise have. And if you don't want the magazines, you can donate them to the Boys and Girls Club, or Ronald McDonald House." I want to say that his clipboard said Job Adventure but I'm not getting any Google results for that so I can't be sure. 

I guess there were a few options here: 1. politely decline 2. decline rudely 3. buy some stupid magazines that I wanted like I wanted a hole in my head, or 4. try to convince this guy that he was involved in a pyramid scheme and help him get out. I went with option 4. *Spoiler: it didn't go well.*

First, I told him he was involved in a pyramid scheme. In typical pyramid scheme fashion, he told me he wasn't! He had met a lot of successful people who had used this program! It probably goes without saying that any time you are being trained in a job to defend yourself against accusations that you're involved in a pyramid scheme, you are involved in a pyramid scheme. 

"But they should give you minimum wage!" I said. "I have an opportunity here, and if I work hard, I'll make way more than minimum!" He countered. "But real jobs have a basic responsibility to their employees." This is where his voice dropped, as did his smile. "I have a past."

"I know some places will hire people even if they have a criminal history. Like, my friend had an MIP and he worked in a hotel..." Lame. I honestly have no idea what advice to give a felony offender about how to get a job. We went back and forth a few more times before I hear a voice from behind me. "Excuse me! It's not a pyramid scheme! I know because I work there." A young black girl, munching on a muffin, was sitting behind us. 

Her eyes were bright, her whole face was kind of glowing with happiness. Her skin and hair were great, except for a deep scar where she had been cut across the chin. She told me her success story, how she used to look like this guy, but she worked her way up, her hair cost $200, her shoes cost $100. "I look good!" I repeated my minimum wage objection, and she replied that she's a contractor. "You're not. They just classify you that way so you have to pay 15% in taxes instead of 7.5% and they have zero liability." This actually got her for a second, but then she pointed out that she sets her own hours etc. and I guess that she had a point there. "I'm a great sales person. I could sell anything. I could sell you this bow on my head!" But, I don't want it, because it's not fair trade? I didn't know what to say.

"What they're doing to you, it's not correct." I know I didn't give her much pause for thought. The guy, I didn't convince, I just wasted some of his time and possibly made him feel bad about his choices. It ended with me not buying any magazines. Then, in front of me, the girl told the guy not to feel bad that I was saying no, that he was going to hear a lot of no's, and he couldn't let it get to him. He hung his head and nodded dejectedly.

All of these other causes I mentioned, getting glasses to and shoes to poor people and protecting their rights, I feel like I'm doing a good job. But it's so distant, I never have to look at when it fails, and the shoes help someone to run away after committing a murder or whatever. Here, I was staring at the face of my own ineffectiveness.

The last time I talked to someone involved in a pyramid scheme, it was for The Rainbow, which is a vacuum cleaner. She wouldn't tell me what it was, she just kept telling me I would have to see it to believe it. She was a co-worker, and a friend, and I didn't have the courage to tell her that she was involved in a pyramid scheme. I mumbled it to her once and she brushed it off with almost the exact same words this guy used. I didn't press the matter, and luckily her financial problems were solved in a different way. I have been feeling bad about not speaking up, but now I don't know if speaking up is even the right thing to do. Does it help, or is it just a waste of time for both parties? Honesty seemed to have no positive effect. I felt so upset for the rest of the day that I couldn't help the guy even though I tried. What could I have done differently? I honestly don't know. I woke up this morning with this song in my head.


Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.

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