I hold the man’s gaze.
(Not in an intimate way, please. But hey, WikiHow says holding a person’s gaze is one way to exude confidence, and I want to appear confident. Some other tips include looking good, smelling nice, and a firm handshake, though I find this last bit of advice weird: a firm handshake feels to me like an invitation to arm wrestling.)
Anyway, who is this man whose gaze I hold?
Let me start from the beginning.
It’s a sunny Saturday morning. I’m walking through a rowdy market in Gwagwalada. Sweaty bodies, barrow-pushing boys, colored plastics, a parked Peugeot with a speaker fastened to its roof (a pre-recorded ad for herbal medicine blaring from it), puddles from an early Friday rain resisting the scorch, fruit shed – everything is jumbled. The market has everything. Well, except a conscience. That’s suffocating for people like me with a bloated conscience. My right thigh is keeping vigilance over the wallet in my pocket as I meander through the maze of people. You know how markets are full of straying hands, and how straying hands like pockets.
I’m here to get a new bottle of perfume. To be honest, I’m not particular about fragrances. Oud seems to be the prescribed fragrance in this city, but who the hell cares? You are allowed to be nonconformist if you don’t have money to splurge on luxury. Before long, I reach a sort of jewelry shop where things like that are sold. Mirrors, bangles, and all the glitter-glitter stuff that humans love. No bling-blingz though.
The shop is at the tail end of the market. Inside it, the shopkeeper is scooping fura into his mouth; the milk coated a slim part of his mustache and made him look like a silly child. As soon I slide the door open, he wipes his mouth with his sleeves and covers the bowl with a hand fan. He then reaches out to pause the music pouring from his phone – a criminally auto-tuned Hausa love song.
I spend minutes fsst-ing sprays on my wrist, bringing them to my nostrils, until my wrists smelled so good they smelled bad. Then, I settle for one that smelled like morning – but who am I kidding? It smelled classless, but fine. And I was fine with fine.
There is something about being in lustrous company. Even the dullest things lay claim to sparkling. I proceed to look at other things. Necklaces, rings with fake, gaudy precious stones, watches etc.
Among these, one wristwatch catches my eye. I try it on and it looks great on my wrist. I could already imagine myself walking on the street, flaunting it, checking time for no darn reason. Because I still have a little change, I decide to try my luck. Even though I fear it is an expensive watch, I manage to steel myself. Switch off your conscience and haggle shamelessly like a savage, I say to myself. After all, the market has no conscience. Eat or be eaten. It is all capitalism, baby.
First rule to successful haggling: be an expert. If you are not an expert, perform expertise. I hold the watch limp in my hand like a seasoned watch collector, turned it this way and that way, like it had quality assurance messages that only I could see. The shop owner is losing his patience, his eyes constantly drifting to the bowl on his table.
Quartz is on the watch’s glass. So I say, “Quartz.”
“What?” the man asks.
“It has quartz,” I repeat. Just trying small talk. Economic foreplay, so to speak.
He shrugs. “Is quartz not good?”
“No, no, I didn’t say that.”
I sit on a nearby stool in the self-assured manner of a successful haggler, someone with a degree in haggling from an Ivy League college, magna cum laude. I stare at the watch and when I lift my eyes, the man is watching me with bewilderment. Outside the glass doors of the shop, the world moves nonstop – unaware of the Haggling Olympics about to go down.
“How much does it go for?” I finally ask, holding his money-hungry gaze. This is that superficial gaze.
The man laughs. “How much do you think it goes for?”
Smart move. I know he is trying to gauge my level of expertise.
“How about you just tell me?” I say firmly. Firmer than I intend. The voice of conscience is trying to rear its fat head.
The man scratches his bald head in the absent-minded manner of people whose heads aren’t really itching. Just a thing of habit.
“Pay N1200” the man says, wiping his hands on his trousers. He starts to rearrange perfume bottles. The perfume bottles grumble because they are already arranged and need nobody’s hands touching them without valid reason.
Not so expensive, I think. But a man’s got to be savage in the market. I try to not think of his family; I try to not think of whether he makes any profit as I am wont to do in times like this.
“That’s a lot,” I say. “I’ll give you N500”
Confetti explodes in my brain. If this were televised, cheers would have erupted across the city. I pat myself on the back. Over 50% cut. I feel my conscience frosting.
“Haba!” the man exclaims. “That’s too low. Pay N1000.”
We ping-pong offers until we finally settle at N700. I walk out of the shop feeling like a badass negotiator. But for restraint (which is a cool synonym for money), I would have put up a Better Call Saul kind of billboard in some part of town. Only it would have my name and picture instead of Saul Goodman’s.
Standalone, the narrated event has little value. But, if you place it side by side with the fact that two days later, I am sitting out with my aunt, a woman who knows what is what and how to do. If you place it side by side with the fact that a man hawking jewelry walks past us.
If you place it side by side with the fact that my aunt, in checking for new earrings for her daughter, finds the same watch I bought for N700.
If you place it side by side with the fact that she likes it too and asks for the price. If you place it side by side with the fact that the man’s first asking price is N500.
If you place it side by side with the fact that my aunt haggles to N400, you would see why I think highly of myself. Even at my least considerate, I’m still the most considerate person I know. N100 worth of considerate, as this story shows.