Land of the free
Updated: Aug 19
WHEN I WORKED IN A MALL IN CALIFORNIA DURING MY UNIVERSITY HOLIDAYS MANY YEARS AGO, I HAD TO MAKE SALES, OR GET THE SACK
With sweaty palms clutching a ream of soggy pamphlets, and my boss watching me like a hawk, I approached my 27th target for the morning. I wasn’t going to let this one pass without at least handing him a pamphlet. I strode into the middle of the mall’s hallway and right into the target’s path, squaring off with the shopper as though I was about to draw a six-shooter.
‘Good morning, sir! How are you today? Can I interest you in some of our fabulous sheepskin products? We’ve got UGG boots, slippers, steering-wheel covers … maybe you’d be interested in a pair of these lovely moccasins?’ I fired off a nervous volley before the man could get in so much as a ‘no thanks’.
The big, burly man in his tent-like T-shirt peered suspiciously from under his Raiders cap, frowning deeply and crinkling his nose as though he had smelt something foreign.
‘Man, I straight up ain’t understand one word you just said,’ the man said. ‘Was that suppo’ ta’ be English?’
‘Yes, sir. My accent probably sounds a bit strange. I’m from South Africa.’
‘Africa? God damn, boy!’ the man exclaimed. ‘Tell you what, you’re pretty white for an African. But pretty fly for a white guy! Am I right?’ The man then took a minute to laugh at his own joke, high-fiving his companion, who was sporting an identical Raiders cap, but at an angle.
‘So, how about these moccasins, sir? I bet they’d look pretty fly on you,’ I ventured, only to be rewarded with another belly laugh, which lasted for at least another minute.
‘I ain’t buying no moccasins, man. I will give you a tip, though,’ he said, leaning in conspiratorially. ‘This is Oakland, man,’ he said into my ear. ‘People ain’t gon’ understand a word you say if you talk in that whack accent. Speak American and you might make a sale or two!’
I'm no salesman. My mother always said I could be anything, but she lied. I had been working at the sheepskin kiosk for a few days, and had yet to make a sale. My boss had already threatened to send me packing if I didn’t start performing soon, and I desperately needed a job to afford my pricey digs in downtown San Francisco.
The company’s staff rotated, so that I worked at a different kiosk at a different mall every day, and this one happened to be in Oakland – a rather poor city in the San Fran Bay Area, whose residents were unlikely to shell out $60 on a pair of wool slippers anyway. But this was last-chance saloon, and I was determined to take the Raiders fan’s advice and roll out my best American accent.
With a winning smile and all the charm I could muster, I walked back into the middle of the hallway. ‘Hey! Good morning, miss. May I just say that you look lovely in that dress. Do you know what would complement it perfectly? These beautiful UGGs. Plus, it’s like walking on a woolly cloud. Try it!’ I said in an American accent so convincing that I surprised myself. I was down on one knee, proffering the godforsaken UGG boot to the young woman like a trophy, waiting with bated breath for a ‘yes’.
Silence followed, and then, spoken like an angel: ‘Ah’ight! Why not, right?’
She ended up buying the UGGs, and a pair of slippers, and my employment was secured for a few days yet. All thanks to the big, burly Raiders fan who had so kindly imparted his wisdom.
I learnt a lesson that day. When you’re travelling solo, you can be whoever you want. Just changing my accent had somehow transformed me from a bumbling idiot who had no hope of ever making a sale, to a smooth-talking American charmer who had sales commission and tips coming out of his ears by the end of the summer.
Travel brings the freedom of the open road and the freedom to explore new destinations, but also the freedom to don whatever guise you please and to express yourself in all sorts of new and exciting ways.