The Black Pearl Story
Note, this is a copyrighted story and you'll get the pants sued off you if you steal it! ©2003 Barbara Anne am Ende
The preface: I visited Hawaii with my then-boyfriend one January. I saw a black pearl pendant at JC Penneys that I was fond of, but I didn't buy it (too much money). When Valentine's Day came around, my then-boyfriend figured that getting that pearl for me would be an easy out for him as a Valentine's gift. One of the people we visited in Hawaii owed my then-boyfriend some money, so the plan (as I learned later) was for the Hawaiian to buy the pearl and send it in lieu of cash.
Here is the story as written by the Hawaiian ichthyologist. Note, the names have been changed to protect both the guilty and the innocent. Only my name remains the same.
Thursday night was our first night in the new house. Hannah and I were up past midnight putting things away and settling in. Amber was somewhat disoriented, so she got up in the middle of the night a couple of times, keeping us from a nice sound sleep. Because we had not fully extracted ourselves from the old house (e.g., we hadn't moved any of the food yet, among other things), and the new tenants of the old house had moved in Thursday, I had planned to get an early start at work so I could come home early and help Hannah with the rest of the move. At 5 am, after less than 5 hours of less-than-restful sleep, I pried myself out of bed. Hannah reminded me that there was no food at the new house yet, and she and Amber couldn't go to a restaurant because the cable guy was coming that morning, so I needed to run to Safeway and get her some stuff.
Groggy as hell, after a somewhat less than smooth departure which included a run to Safeway, I got to work at about 6:30 am. The first thing I did was check my email, and that's when I got the note from you reminding me about the black pearl, which I had COMPLETELY forgot due to the hectic nature of the preceding couple of weeks. Oh Shit!
I first called JC Penney - they opened at 9:30 am. I already knew FedEx could not deliver overnight to the east coast, so I called United Airlines small package service, and they said they could deliver it to National or Dulles by Saturday morning. The only problem with that plan is that it would require you to go to the airport to pick it up, and I wasn't sure if you had plans with Barbara that day. On a whim, I called DHL. There was a 1-800 number in the book, which meant I was calling a central office on the mainland. The lady said "Sure! We can have it to the Maple Street address by noon on Saturday - no problem, but it will cost you $10 extra for Saturday delivery." Dubious, I asked when I needed to deliver it to the DHL office by, and she said "Oh, anytime before 8 pm tonight." Even more dubious, I asked her to verify - was she SURE she could get it from Honolulu to Rockville in less than 12 hours? "No problem, sir!". Okay...if she says so.
Since I had until 8pm that night to get it to the airport, I decided to start dealing with Museum Exhibits people, then get the Pearl and deliver it to the DHL office on my way home. After a series of meetings, I was tasked with finishing a large graphic of the Twilight Zone and printing it on a big color HP plotter. I had downloaded the drivers for the plotter (HP DesignJet 650C, model C2858B), so I figured there wouldn't be a problem printing it. THREE hours and about 20 failed attempts later, I finally had an unacceptable print with garbled text and inverted fish parts. Because it was getting to be almost noon, and I wanted to go home early to help Hannah, I abandoned the printing project and headed out for Ala Moana Shopping Center.
Things started out wonderfully. I got a close parking stall to one of the entrances to JC Penney, and the jewelry department was the first thing I saw when I came in the door. I found the pearls section, and was delighted to see a big sign: "30% off all Pearls" Yippee! The gods are with me. There were a whole bunch of black pearls, all of which looked virtually identical to me in color, shape, and size. Some came with necklaces, but most didn't. I couldn't see the prices on any of them, so I called the lady over. I explained to her that a couple of weeks ago a friend of mine had been in here and had seen a black pearl that she liked that was less than $200. The lady said, "Oh, yes - we had a special deal for $195, but those pearls have been recalled." I fought off the urge to inquire what circumstances, exactly, would necessitate a "recall" on pearls (did the spontaneously explode or something?), and instead asked what her least expensive black pearl was. As I watched her flipping over price tags of the various pearls - $820, $715, $1,150, $950, etc. - I began to get a sinking feeling in my stomach. She found one that was $425 and said "I think this is the least expensive one." The gods are NOT with me.
There was one more in the corner which she didn't look at. I almost didn't ask her about it because it seemed a bit larger than the others, seemed to have nicer color and luster, and had a much more interesting shape. But, what the hey - I asked her. It was $215. I asked her why it was so much cheaper when it looked quite a bit nicer, and she seemed a little perplexed herself. Maybe the gods are with me afterall.
With 30% discount plus tax, the first one came to just over $300, and the second one was $156. Now I had a decision to make. I figured I owed you at least $300 for the various items you've sent me in recent months, so I thought I'd get the more expensive one. When the lady pulled it out, however, it just didn't look as impressive as the cheaper one. As she was ringing it up, I debated - which one should I get? I stalled her by asking if it was 14k gold, and she said yes. I decided there must be some subtle difference between the two pearls that cause the smaller one to be more expensive, so I had to decide whether Barbara was more likely to be some kind of pearl connoisseur and prefer the smaller more expensive one, or whether she'd more likely be a regular sort of person and prefer the other one. I figured that if Barbara had liked the under-$200 one that had been recalled, she would probably be happy with this one which was supposed to sell for $215. I finally asked the lady to change it for the larger, cheaper one, figuring I'd send you a check for the other $150.
So, off I went towards the airport. I had been to the DHL office once before, so I knew where it was. As I made my way toward the airport, I started calculating how, exactly, these guys planned to get the package delivered to you by noon on Saturday, when they didn't need it from me until 8pm. With time difference, that leaves a total of 11 hours. The flight alone must be close to 10 hours. I wasn't getting a good feeling about this! In fact, I was downright certain that they couldn't do it. With great trepidation, I entered the office and rang the bell. The lady came to the counter and I explained that I had called the 1-800 number, and was told they could deliver to Gaithersburg by noon on Saturday. Her eyes widened and she started vigorously shaking her head. "No, I'm sorry, there's no way we can get it there that fast." I asked, "Do you deliver on Sundays?" "No." "So the soonest it would get there is Monday?" "Well, actually Tuesday sir - Monday is a holiday." The gods had left me once again.
Defeated, I reluctantly said "O.K." and started thinking about the United Courier service option. As I was walking out the door, the lady called to me and said, "You might want to try DHL." What? Was that some kind of joke? Lady, are you stupid? You ARE DHL! All I could say was "DHL?" She said, "Yeah - they're just around the corner." "O.K., thanks", I said. As I climbed into my truck, I glanced at the sign over the door. It said: "Airborne Express". O.K., so I hadn't been to the DHL office once before - I had confused it with Airborne Express. Maybe the gods will be with me after all.
Off I went around the corner and there was no DHL. I looked all over, and didn't see it anywhere. I figured it was sort of inappropriate to go back to Airborne Express and ask for better directions to their competition. Finally I spotted a DHL truck, so I followed it right to the DHL office - tucked behind a corner of a building on the 2nd floor. I went in the door, rang the bell, and waited for the lady. When she came, I repeated the story I had given to the Airborne Express lady, and waited for her to give me the reassuring "No problem, but it will be $10 extra for Saturday delivery" line. Instead, she said, "I'm sorry, but there's no way we can get it to the east coast before Tuesday." I reminded her that that the lady on the phone had told me it would be "no problem", but the lady before me right now insisted that it would not be possible. The gods had abandoned me yet again.
I figured my only hope at this point was to go to the United Courier service, but as I started to walk out the door, the lady at the counter said "If it's important, you can use DHL's Same Day service - that should get it there by tomorrow." "Great!", I said. "I'll do that.". "Oh," she said, "I can't do it here." Confused, I asked "But you are the DHL office, aren't you?" "Yes," she replied, "but Same Day service has to be arranged with the mainland office.
She gave me the toll-free number and told me I could use the courtesy phone in the waiting room. I dialed the number and got through to the guy. I told him my story, and he said "Sure, no problem" ('Dem gods came back!) Then he put me on hold for about 5 minutes, and finally came back and asked, "What's the zip code for the destination?" At this point in time, it suddenly dawned on me that I had forgotten to bring your address with me! I told the guy I'd have to call him back and hung up. I quickly called Herman at the Museum and gave him instructions for where to find your address on my computer at work. He gave it to me, and I quickly called the DHL Same Day service guy back. Remarkably, I got the same guy again (his name was "Mark"), so I didn't have to explain the story for the fourth time. However, he did put me on hold again for 5 minutes before asking me for details. He cam back and asked the destination zip code and address, which I could now give him. Then he asked me what the zip code was for the pickup address. "Oh, no" I said. "You don't need to pick it up because I'm right here in the Honolulu Airport DHL office now." He came back and explained that for Same Day service, they don't use the DHL office, they hire a private courier to pick it up and deliver it to the airport. I asked if I could just take it straight to the airport myself, and he said no. He said if I wanted, I could wait at the DHL office for the courier, and I said fine. He asked me for the zip code of the DHL office I was sitting in, but the lady at the counter was long gone by this point. At that moment, it occurred to me how difficult it was for one to know the zip code one happens to be sitting in at any given moment. Fortunately, there were some DHL business cards on the counter, so I grabbed one and found the zip code. He then informed me that it would take 60-90 minutes for the guy to arrive. I didn't want to be stuck in that office for so long, so I decided to give him the Museum zip code, and I figured I'd just meet the courier there. The he asked the value of the package, and without missing a beat I replied "$156 - I know because I just bought it." The he asked how heavy it was, and I told him less than a pound. "What's in the package?" he asked. I told him a black pearl necklace. He seemed to have all the information he needed, so he said "O.K., just a minute." And he put me on hold. A minute came and went. Then another. Then another. Then about 15 more. Finally he comes back and says, "I'm sorry, but we can't deliver it for you." The gods were gone one more time.
"Why not?" I asked, figuring their flight couldn't get it to DC in time, or maybe I had just missed the cutoff time or something. "Because our policy does not allow us to accept jewelry of any kind for Same Day service." "WHAT?!?" I asked, in as gentlemanly a voice as I could, "Why not?" All he could say was, "I'm sorry, sir, it's our policy." Clearly he wasn't going to break the company's all-important policy on my behalf, so I said "O.K., thanks for your help. Bye" and hung up.
As I drove back to the Museum, it was clear at this stage that this had gone way beyond a favor for a friend - way beyond a sense of obligation to fulfill a promise - it had now become a QUEST! Sure, I could have copped out and just gone to United, but NO - that would have been failure. Failure was not an option. It would have been easy to pack it up and just declare it as something else, but there was one problem with that plan. To help pass the time while waiting for 20 minutes on hold for Mark, I read every single notice and sign in the waiting room. The most prominent of these was one that said:
"TO ALL CUSTOMERS: FAA REGULATIONS REQUIRE US TO THOROUGHLY INSPECT EVERY PACKAGE TO ENSURE THE ACTUAL CONTENTS MATCH THE DECLARED CONTENTS. NO EXCEPTIONS!"
There remained only one question: what would I be sending from Honolulu to Rockville? There were several criteria this unknown object had to meet: It had to be something that someone in Hawaii would have, and someone in Rockville would need. It had to be something that DHL wouldn't out of the blue say "Oh, we don't ship that on Same Day service - it's against policy." It had to be small, so I wouldn't pay a lot for shipping. But most importantly, it had to have a space in which I could conceal a black pearl. After serious thought, I narrowed it down to three options: a piece of metal that I could claim was a special machine part, a scientific sample, or a plastic film container. When I arrived at the Museum, I searched for something that looked like a machine part that would do the trick, but to no avail. The scientific specimen options included sticking it inside a preserved fish gut, or concealing it in a vial of sand that I would claim is a important scientific sample. Although the Museum pickup address would do well for the scientific story, I ruled out the fish specimen because I feared what the alcohol might do to the pearl, and perhaps that might be on DHL's "policy" list. The sand was no good either, because I feared it would scratch the pearl.
That left the film container option. We have lots of these containers around our collection, because Dale uses them to put fish in formaldehyde in the field. But I started thinking back to that sign in the DHL office. Specifically, I was concerned about exactly how "THOROUGHLY" they intended to inspect the package. I decided they wouldn't be that anal about it, so I found a container and was ready to call DHL one more time. There was one problem, though. Earlier, when I had called the DHL Same Day service number twice, both times I had gotten Mark. What if Mark was the only guy there? If Mark got a call from a guy with the same voice as the black pearl guy who he had just turned down, who said he wanted to send something from the Museum zip code to the Rockville zip code, wouldn't he be suspicious? I mean, if there are so few people in need of Same Day service that they have only one guy for all of the U.S., then what are the odds that two different people would want to send a small package between the same two zip codes in Honolulu and Rockville? Pretty slim, I would think! I dialed the number and was prepared to hang up as soon as I hear Mark's voice. To my great delight, I heard a woman's voice answer, which said, "Hello, my name is Sally. How can I help you?" The gods were back! I told her I needed to get some important film to Rockville no later than tomorrow, and she said "No problem!" That was good news, because I had a slight concern that they might not accept film for some stupid "Policy" reason. I went through the 20-minute hold procedure (again), and provided all the detailed information (again), through a telephone conversation that lasted nearly 45 minutes. At one point during the conversation, she was briefly interrupted by someone else in her office, whose voice sounded very-much like that of Mark's. It made me just a wee bit nervous to think of how easily this whole plan could come crashing down if Mark learned too much from Sally. I held my ground.
Finally, when all the details had been exchanged, she explained to me that she would need to fax me some forms, which I would fax back to her right away, and then a courier would pick up the package within 60-90 minutes. She also reminded me to leave the package completely opened so that the courier could inspect the contents. Then she said, "That will be $165. How do you want to pay for this?" Without missing a beat, I told her "VISA". (When I am in Quest-mode, money is no object.) Then she said, "Oh, wait - tomorrow is Saturday. That will be extra." I said, "Oh, yeah - $10 - right?" She said "No, for Same Day service, it costs an extra $45." Again, money was the last of my concerns at this point. Besides, I owed you at least that much for all the help you've given me over the years. Things were starting to look promising.
During the period of time when she faxed the forms, I made three more telephone calls to ask why the forms hadn't arrived yet, ask various questions about how to fill out the forms, and ask whether they'd received my completed forms back. Of those three calls, Mark had answered once, and Sally had answered twice. Clearly Mark and Sally were the only two people in the office, and judging by the proximity of Sally's voice when Mark answered, they were right next to each other in that office. Furthermore, one of the forms that I filled-out and signed was a statement that I certified that the actual contents of the package matched the declared contents, and that false statements were in violation of FAA regulations and subjected me to Federal prosecution. This form did not intimidate me. What intimidated me was on one of my calls to Sally, when she reminded me in a sort of "I know what's really going on here" sort of voice that the courier would indeed "THOROUGHLY" inspect the package, and that it would not be accepted if the actual contents did not match the declared contents. I couldn't tell if she was trying to help me by letting me know I should be very clever about my smuggling technique, or if she was trying to warn me not to go through with the ruse. In either case, it was obvious that if I really wanted to be safe, I would need to put the pearl inside an actual film canister, because they would likely open up the plastic container to make sure there was film inside. I needed a roll of film.
We have only one kind of film in our department at the Museum - slide duplicating film ($25 per roll). We have plenty, and it will expire eventually, and we almost never use it - sooooo - I sacrificed a roll. I had Herman carefully remove the end cap of the canister and remove the film inside. Despite his protests that I shouldn't "risk my career" in doing this, he was a real trooper and did a fine job of opening the canister. One problem that had to be resolved was that the spool on which the film is wound goes clear through the canister. To fit the film, I would have to cut the spool and block off each end. I damn near cut my thumb off with the scalpel blade doing this. While scrambling to complete the package, I couldn't help but hum the theme to "Mission Impossible".
I was satisfied that the canister looked authentic enough, but I didn't know if they planned to x-ray the package at some point during its journey. Are film canisters impervious to x-rays? I considered using sheet lead to encase the film container. It would make sense, because it would just appear as though I didn't want to risk the film to x-ray exposure. But the lead would add a lot of weight, and I had already told them it would be less than a pound. Then I had a brilliant idea. We have an x-ray machine in our department, which means we also have boxes of x-ray film. These boxes are lines with paper that is impenetrable to x-rays. I grabbed a box and tore off enough of this paper to line the inside of the film canister. Just as I completed the package, the phone rang - it was the shipping and receiving department informing me that the courier had arrived. Perfect timing! I took my film and box over there, and was met by a strange-looking lady. She had large glasses that were held together with tape. She looked at me and the first thing she said was "Thank you. Thank you very much." I said "No, thank YOU!" and she said "No problem. Thank You. Thank you very much. I need to inspect the contents of your package. Thank you. Thank You very much." I said "Sure", and showed her the film container. She said "Thank you. Thank you very much. Can you please open the container?" I did, and showed her the film canister, and she said, "Thank you. Thank you very much." I put the canister in the box and put in the packing peanuts, while she said "Thank you. Thank you very much." Two more times. Then she said, "Oh, you should be careful handling that stuff," pointing at the peanuts. I said, "Why? Is it bad for you?" She said, "Oh, yes - they put some bad stuff in there." Delighted that I had gotten several more sentences out of her without her thanking me, I engaged her some more. She said, "Sometimes they put that stuff in the air conditioner, so you have to be very careful." Then she said, "You need Nutra-Gena soap to get that stuff off your fingers. "O.K." I said. "Thanks." She said "Thank you. Thank you very much."
By this time it was clear that this lady was not altogether there; which gave me great cause for concern as to whether or not the pearl would ever arrive at its destination. But I had no choice. She had a faxed paper from DHL, and she was really my only hope at this point. I said that all I had to do was tape the box shut, to which she replied "Thank you. Thank you very much." John James uses that same line all the time, but when he does it, he impersonates Elvis (I guess there is some famous Elvis song where he says that at the end). John says it as a joke. This lady was serious. Every time she said it, all I could hear was John impersonating Elvis. I damn near bit the tip of my tongue off fighting back the laughter.
I gave her the sealed package, and received a barrage of "Thank you. Thank you very much." She left and started walking across the Museum grounds to the other side. This also caused me a bit of concern. Was she going to walk all the way to the airport? When I got back to Ichthyology, I suddenly remembered that I was supposed to put your name and address, as well as the tracking number, clearly on the outside of the package. I ran like hell in the direction I had last seen the lady walking. I caught up with her just as she was about to drive away. I told her I forgot to put the information on the outside of the box, and she said "Oh, I forgot to remind you about that. I usually remind people. Thank you for remembering. Thank you. Thank you very much." While I was trying to catch my breath from running, and write the information on the box, she started talking about Nutra-Gena soap again. "It's really good. Hypoallergenic. Anti-bacterial. Organic. Do you have any kids?" Trying to make sure I got the sequence of numbers right on the box, I said "Yeah, a daughter - she's two and a half." "Oh" she said. "It's perfectly safe for kids. Cutter also works." "Cutter makes a soap?" I asked. "No", she said. "Cutter bug repellant. It has the same chemicals as Nutra-Gena." "Uh huh." I said while trying to write on the box. The conversation wandered among the various merits of "Cutter" versus "Off", and other aspects of hygiene. When I finally finished, I was again confronted with a barrage of "Thank you. Thank you very much." She drove off and I started walking back to Ichthyology. By all appearances, I had won this battle. I thought back to that day in Tahiti with Koko, and how similar this day had been. Then I remembered walking the streets of Tahiti through town, seeing all the jewelry shops. There are lots of jewelry shops in Tahiti for a good reason: most of the world's supply of black pearls comes from there, and the jewelry shop windows are FULL of black pearl necklaces. I pondered this connection, and then remembered the final outcome of my Tahiti ordeal*: after apparently winning that quest, the next day we discovered that almost all the fish had died. Would I wake up Saturday morning with FAA agents pounding on my door? Would the pearl get lost in transit? Would Barbara not like it? I couldn't waste time worrying about it, because I still had some unfinished business with an HP DesignJet 650C, model C2858B color plotter, and I needed to leave soon to go help Hannah finish the move.
I hope this story will have a happy ending!
The epilogue: I found the pearl under my pillow on Sunday morning. It's beautiful and I love it. No, it's not "perfect" in shape. But what can a person expect! The culturers stick a grain of sand into the gonads of an oyster--ya get what the oyster gives!
* The Tahiti story is just as funny as the black pearl story, but alas, I don't have a written copy.