I’ve been scouring Craigslist for a place in Washington, D.C., where I’ll be moving in a couple of weeks. The nation’s capital is an expensive place to live, and apartments go quickly, so I find myself emailing hordes of strangers each day in hopes that one of them will have a roof that suits my needs, costs the right amount and becomes available within my timeframe. This process has led to countless hours online, a bout with carpal tunnel syndrome and some very suspect responses from property owners.
Take, for instance, this response from a “person” named “Robson Willem,” who advertised a “two bedroom flat for rent in Washington, D.C.” — fully furnished and coming in at an astonishingly low $1,200 a month (all typos courtesy of Robson Willem):
Thanks for your mail and interest in my flat The house was made vacant because I moved to west africa with my family to take up appointment with 101.5 radio to work as Live Studio/Sound engineer. However , the main reason for leasing it is basically to get it occupied and not the money. I am not sure when the viewing can be arranged but I will try as much as possible to have it done as I would have to take the day off from work. I am kind and honest person and very neat , so if you are going to rent the apartments I need you to promise me you are going to take good care of the house like your own , every where will be clean up. Pet is allowed. And also I spent a lot on my property.
Wow! What a deal! The place, Willem continued, was chock full of amenities and was located in a delightful little street close to the District’s ăber-chic Dupont Circle. He requested all sorts of information — marital status, pets, occupation, religion and on and on — and then ended with:
As soon as I have this information , will have it save on my file and make arrangements to come show you the house , but I need to be sure you are serious about the renting since am very busy person with my work. Incase if am busy and I can not come show you the house I will send you all the papers and keys of the house to your address and you go check the house your self.
Again: Wow! This guy was so committed to finding the right renter that he’d fly all the way from West Africa to show me his digs. And on the off chance that such a journey would prove inconvenient, he’d just send me the keys and we’d take it from there.
Sign me up! Where should I send my deposit? And make it out to whom?
Of course, my relationship with Mr. Willem was short lived. But he seems to exist among a clan of Craigslist posters that I have continued to run into. For instance, Allen Francis, who was leasing a one-bedroom apartment in an up-and-coming neighborhood for an unheard of $680 a month, had also recently been dispatched to West Africa and was on the lookout for an honest tenant and was willing to put “everything in the hand of God” as he shopped his place around online. Then there was the civil engineer who was suddenly whisked off to the U.K., a woman who told me: “You can move in the apt in the same day when you receive the keys. The only problem is that I’m the only person who has the keys but I hope that we will find a solution.” (Like: I send you money in advance?) Those same sentences were given to me verbatim a week earlier from another civil engineer who, ironically enough, had also been called across the ocean to exercise her expertise in London.
OK, so what’s the news here? After all, we’re a culture at least a decade deep in our experience with spam and online deceit; we’ve all heard from African bankers willing to line our pockets with dough, and we’ve all learned that our eBay accounts (Do I even have an eBay account?) have elapsed but can be easily reactivated by simply sending along a password, a social security number and some other few bits of personal information. We’ve become inured to this kind of scheming.
And yet, there’s something particularly insulting about the Craigslist scammers. Perhaps it’s because each time I read an interesting ad I spend five minutes tracking the property down on google.maps and another five minutes trying to learn about the neighborhood and another five minutes writing a personalized and professional email — and by the time this is finished I’ve devoted a healthy number of minutes to an enterprise that, in the end, will prove nothing more than a waste of time.
And time, as the valuable cliché goes, is a precious commodity. In this age of swift getting and spending — an age that, of late, is colored by a slumping economy — time has even greater value. Why? In part because I take for granted that my wallet’s going to suffer some aches and pains in the coming days; if I adjust properly — and avoid incredibly obvious online schemes — I should be able to weather the storm. Money matters, sure, but it’s impersonal and external; really, it’s the ever-changing measuring stick that defines me as a member of my economic system. But time — what I do with my time — seems more valuable than that. It’s more personal. It’s mine. It’s what allows me, far more than my checking account, the freedom to make my marks (however large or small) on the world. And right now, as (like so many other people) I juggle work and relationships and life changes and cooking food and feeding the cat and balancing the checkbook and dusting the coffee table and going for a run and snagging the dry cleaning and reading a book, I find increasingly rare chunks of time for projects of passion, personal ambitions, spiritual crusades, inventions, art, public service, the written word or, simply, ideas. I have less time to “do.”
Ours is a speedy era, measured in seconds instead of days. And when I waste a good 30 minutes (1,800 seconds) on Craigslist because some spammer wants to fish for the next sucker, I’m reminded that if I had the choice between a dollar and an hour, I’d take the hour every time. Until I sign a lease, though, both my dollars and my hours are in jeopardy, as the Robson Willems of the world crouch in Craigslist, just waiting for me to get in touch.