WE WERE WALKING through the mall and reflecting on the troubled state of the economy when a shopkeeper tackled me and dragged me into his store.
"Please buy this camcorder!" he begged, eyes wide with fear. "Only $630! Our lowest price ever!"
"But I don't need a camcorder," I said.
"OK, $530 and I'll throw in a free set of bath towels!"
He was whimpering now, but showed no signs of relaxing his grip on my legs.
"Bath towels?" I said. 'But . . .?"
"God, why don't you use a ski mask and gun and get it over with!" he shrieked. "OK, $430 and a free lube job, plus dinner for two at the restaurant of your choice! What do you say?!"
By this time I had pried his fingers from around my ankles and managed to stand up, which was when he lunged and got me in a bear hug.
But I broke free using a quick spin move and bolted for the exit. Ignoring his shouts ("Hey, come back here! We can work a deal!") I sprinted away until certain that I had finally shaken this madman.
If truth be told, I do need a camcorder. But I think I'll hold off buying one for a few weeks until they're going for, oh, $39.95.
Then maybe I'll break down and pull out the credit card -- providing that offer of the free lube job and dinner is still on. If that's off, forget it.
Still, gazing around the deserted shopping mall, it wasn't hard to see what had driven this poor store owner over the edge.
Instead of waiting on droves of customers and listening to cash registers sing, bored sales clerks stood in the doorways yawning and looking at their watches.
The more aggressive (or the more unhinged, depending on your point of view) were actually yoking unsuspecting shoppers around the neck and dragging them into their stores.
Which is how the guy in one department store got me. One minute I was walking along, singing a song, the next minute I was gasping for breath in a choke hold.
"Listen and listen good," a voice said. "We have a large-capacity washing machine with two cycles and two temperatures that has to go."
"How . . . much?" I wheezed.
"How much will you pay?" he said.
"Two . . . hundred?" I said.
He loosened his grip on my neck slightly.
"But only if you throw in a free dryer," I continued. "And it better be gas."
For a moment, the color seemed to drain from his face.
"OK," he said finally, shoulders slumping in resignation.
As soon as he went off to take care of the paperwork, I slipped out of the store. Dirty pool? You betcha. But, hey, we're in a recession here. Who has money for a new washing machine? What am I, Johnny Carson?
Besides, the way I figure it, in a few weeks you'll be able to pick up a new washer and dryer for around $29.95.
The stagnant economy isn't just affecting the malls, either, as I found out by visiting a car dealership.
As soon as I pulled up to the showroom, a half-dozen feverish-looking men rushed out the door and surrounded my car.
One dropped quickly to his knees and began vigorously applying polish to my shoes and buffing them.
Another stuck a fine Cuban cigar in my mouth while a third rushed to light it.
"Boys, boys . . . I'm just browsing," I said. "Somebody go get me a nice cold beer, OK?"
For the next 45 minutes, all six followed me around the car lot, taking turns holding the parasol over my head and refilling the platter of chicken wings.
At one point, the sales manager offered to carry me the rest of the way on his back. But the man was 62 years old, so I politely declined, opting instead for a piggy-back ride from a strapping 28-year-old they called "Moose."
In the end, I had to disappoint these nice people and tell them I wasn't ready to buy a car. Naturally this set off a good deal of wailing, ameliorated only somewhat by my offer to buy two floor mats for 50 cents each.
Way I figure it, in a couple of weeks, you'll be able to pick up a 1992 American luxury sedan for around, oh, 20 bucks -- not counting title, tags, taxes, etc.
I assume they'd throw in the rust-protection package for free.