The spit-filled world of haggling

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Recently my wife organized a yard sale, which I was conscripted to help operate while she ran errands in town. I can’t say I minded much. I’m not good at haggling but I enjoy the process, and sitting in my driveway with a cup of coffee and enjoying the sunshine was sort of relaxing. That is, until people started to show up wanting to know the prices of things, despite the cleverly placed price tags.

I have several pet peeves. In fact, I have been accused of keeping peeves like some old women keep cats. One of my bigger and more aggressive peeves is people who ask me, “what’s the lowest you’d take for that?”

I have been bartering, haggling or trading since I was a small boy. My first trade was conducted in a school bus seat with a kid named Scott. I traded four graphic novels for a handheld video game, which Scott promised he would bring to school the next day.

Scott moved to Florida the next day.

Gradually, after repeatedly getting fleeced, I’ve learned I’m gullible and trusting. After losing about half my toys through second and third grades, my father finally took pity on me.

“Quit trading,” Dad told me one day.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I’m sick of your younger brother taking advantage of you,” Dad said.

“Couldn’t you just teach me how to trade?” I asked.

“Here, how about this?” Dad said. “I’ve got to go to the livestock auction this weekend. You can come and learn about horse trading, if you promise not to bid on anything.”

Despite the fact that I accidentally purchased a goat and ran up the bid on an Angus bull before Dad could tie my hands down with his belt, I think he enjoyed our trip to the auction. Or else he decided I needed a lot more help. In either case, our trips to the livestock auction became a regular thing. I still enjoy a good auction, as long as I remember to tie my hands down.

The best part of livestock auctions is wandering out back where the animals are kept before being run through the chute. This is where the deals are made, where the real sales are pitched. This is especially true of a horse auction.

“Thet thar filly is plumb broke to death,” says the cowboy, or salesman, adhering to the cardinal rule of never referring to a horse as “horse”.

“Oh, really?” replies the victim, also known as the buyer.

The cowboy spits, and wipes the residue of tobacco from his moustache and jacket, a process that takes about four minutes.

“Yep,” he finally replies. “You could run a chain saw right under thet filly’s nose. You could set up a wall tent with a brass band inside right under her belly. You could ...”

The narrative goes on like this for some time, while the victim — er, buyer — becomes enthralled and the cowboy makes sure not to mention that the only thing you can’t actually do with this particular horse is ride it.

The process is even more fun when you get two cowboys locked in negotiations, but you need to stand well clear unless you don’t mind tobacco juice stains. Like all good sporting events, it’s good to know the rules beforehand.

First, a cowboy can say almost anything, as long as he doesn’t call the other cowboy a liar or cause him to tell a lie.

For example, the seller should never ask, “have you ever ridden, or even owned a horse before?”

The buyer should never ask, “can you actually ride this animal without it actively trying to kill you?”

Mystery is the heart of the sales process, including the final setting of the price, which runs approximately thus:

“Well, I guess I’d give you, oh, $500 for that colt,” the buying cowboy says, looking out across the stock pens, just in case there’s another horse he might be interested in.

The other cowboy rolls his chaw of tobacco in a contemplative fashion if he’s even remotely within the right price range. Otherwise he spits or snorts. Never both together.

“This young stud shore would make a great mountain animal,” he says. “Don’t think I could take less than $1,500 for a colt like thet.”

At some point these two men will either reach an agreement or not. But no matter what else happens, no self-respecting cowboy will ever ask, “What the lowest price you’d accept for that horse?”

Not only does that question violate every unwritten code of cowboy negotiations, it’s downright lazy. Yet this is exactly the question that yard sale attendants kept asking me, as if I knew what price my wife had set on anything.

It isn’t just yard-salers who are asking this question, however. For several years now I’ve been posting items on craigslist.org, a sort of Internet classified ad website. Aside from the numerous scam emails I get offering to buy my old stuff for three times the asking price, the most annoying replies I get are people wanting to know my rock-bottom price.

Is there no respect for the bartering process left? If this keeps up, Americans will lose their ability to negotiate.

When the U.S. economy finally collapses, Americans will be at a distinct disadvantage in the new barter-based economy. Our less-fortunate neighbors across the border will flood in and take advantage of us, and nobody wants to be taken advantage of by Canadians.

The first couple times people asked me how low I would undercut my own price, I made the mistake of responding with lower price. The interested party immediately undercut that price.

I’ve learned to simply reply, “Well, I don’t know. What’s the most you’re willing to pay?”

But if my wife would let me chew tobacco, I’d definitely spit. And probably have a thing or two to say after I got the juice wiped off my face and shoes.

Luke Hegdal can be reached at 509-526-8326 or lukehegdal@wwub.com.

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