Life Lessons from a Craigslist Scooter Lord

Posted on November 1, 2011


so about two years ago, i really got into mopeds and small scooters.  i didn’t have any previous experience with them growing up or anything, they just seemed like a good way to get around the city since we only had one car.  since then, i have bought or sold close to 15 of them, and have made enough profit to buy two out-of-pocket, hopefully the last two i will own…for the rest of the year.  and since all of those sales were done over craigslist, i have learned a ton about human nature, including my own.  for instance:

1. Never trust high schoolers.

I bought one moped from a teenager in virginia who was asking $300 for his bike.  i looked the bike over and tried to start it up, but it wouldn’t turn over.  so the kid picked up a stick, and jammed it directly into the air intake of the carburetor to force the throttle into a higher position.  if you don’t know what a carburetor is and why that’s incredibly stpuid, it’s this device that precisely mixes gas and oil and releases it into the engine to be detonated – it’s very sensitive and full of little holes and passageways that get easily clogged, especially when you jam a dirty stick in them and twist them around like a chimpanzee digging into an anthill.  i offered him $50 for it and took it home, and spent the next day trying to clean bits of bark out of the carb.  but i somehow managed to get it fixed up and running well:

got the bark out

another time, i was selling a moped to a high schooler who blew me off twice over two days, and so i sold it to someone who actually showed up at my door, kind of a requirement when it comes to selling something.  but the kid texts me later that week to ask if i still had the moped and i told him, no, it was sold.  and he then proceeded to fire off an indignant and expletive laden text about what an a-hole i was for not holding the bike for him.  boo-hoo-hoo.

and so what i have surmised about high schoolers, particularly the ones who are interested in mopeds, is that they are idiots.  they have no idea what they are doing, are completely immature, and have no common courtesy.  they exhibit this almost total lack of self-awareness, where in the moments they are being the completest of morons, they somehow imagine that it is everyone else who is actually wrong.  but then i realized that i probably wasn’t any different at that age – ok fine, i was worse.  i was so holier-than-thou, so prone to moral outrage, so cocksure i knew better than anyone else around me.  so really, all the idiotic kids i have had to deal with make me feel sorry for all the adults who had to deal with me.  i personally would have hated selling a moped to my younger self.

2. Constant vigilance is required.

$500! Winning...

the scooter market in DC is pretty intense.  if there is a good quality vehicle being sold for a good price, it can be sold in under 24 hours.  and because of that, you have to constantly search craigslist for the most updated postings so that you don’t miss a thing, and so you are the first one to contact the seller.  i eventually discovered that there is an iPhone app for craigslist that will allow you to filter out results and search multiple areas at a time, far more functional than the actual website is.  at some points, i found myself checking craigslist more often than my email or facebook account.  and to be frank, this mentality actually paid off – because i was so quick off the draw, i was able to buy some high quality scooters for way less than they were worth.  and if i didn’t like them for personal use, i was able to sell them for a little profit.  so if you want to be a craigslist scooter lord, constant vigilance is required.

however, if you want a fulfilling life, constant vigilance should be avoided at all costs.  when i found myself obsessively focused scoring the best craigslist deal, i also found my real life passing me by.  i was never really listening to what my daughters were telling me, but would just distractedly respond, “okay, that’s nice.”  my thoughts were constantly elsewhere, thinking about when this person would email back about that bike, instead of on family or on ministry.  i was a successful craigslist scooter lord, but a below average father, husband, and pastor.  you see, there are some habits that make us great when scoring deals or getting ahead at business or work, like competitiveness, an obsessive attention to detail, and extra hours.  but these same traits can actually wreak havoc on our personal lives.  sometimes we can successfully draw boundaries between the different fields of our lives, and be super driven at work but caring and patient at home.  but we have to acknowledge the fact that that won’t always be possible: if you invest more time with your family, you may not climb the corporate ladder as quickly as others.  if you work long hours, there will be a price to pay at home.  as badly as we wish it, we can’t have it all.

sometimes…you must sacrifice the truly great scooter deal to play with your kids instead.

3. Be prepared to go where no man has gone before.

DC to Hagerstown MD

like i said, the scooter market in DC is pretty intense, and it’s hard to get a good deal within the city.  so the trick to getting the best deals on a moped or scooter is to go outside the city because most people who are looking to buy a scooter don’t have easy access to a vehicle to transport said scooter, and can’t get out to remote areas to buy.  but fortunately, i have a minivan, flexible work schedule and a forgiving wife.  and so i am able to buy bikes cheaper because i am able to drive farther away than the average scooter buyer, and so there is less competition to drive up prices.  i have driven to baltimore, fredericksburg, hagerstown, and west virginia to score deals.  that is the best way to consistently get the lowest price – to drive further than other people are willing to drive.  that probably is some profoundly simple principle of economics.

and i think it is a profoundly simple principle of human life as well.  if you are only willing to go as far as everyone else is, then you should content yourself with the same results.  it’s foolish to think otherwise, that somehow you can get ahead by simply keeping pace.  the fact is that if you really want something, you must be prepared to go further than others, to work harder than others, to drive further, to sacrifice more.  and this is something that i realize that i have a problem with because i have this deeply embedded sense of self-entitlement, where i expect extraordinary results with minimal effort.  for example, i must confess that i have been frustrated that my blog hasn’t been as popular as others i have read, especially since so many of them are filled with TRIPE…but then i realize that i post once or twice a month, while other people post multiple times a day!  i think i need to transfer some of my cutthroat craigslist attitude to my approach to life.  if i want to have a blog that is at least as well read as others, i need to at least post three times a month.

4. The one jerk ruins things for the rest of us.

i have met some super-cool people on craigslist.  one guy i bought from was a cancer survivor who could no longer ride because of treatments.  i told him that my wife was going through chemo at the same time, and we talked for a good half hour about fighting the disease, and what that battle was like.  when we parted, we very sincerely wished each other well.  one guy came with his 5 year old son to buy a moped from me – he needed one badly because he had gotten a DUI and couldn’t get to work any other way.  we rapped for a while, and it really seemed like he was trying to turn his life around for the sake of his son.  so i gave him a discount and delivered the bike to his door.  i talked to one guy for an hour about Christianity while we got eaten alive by mosquitoes on my front porch, and why i felt it wasn’t really compatible with Buddhism – he wasn’t a real Buddhist, just to the extent that so many young spiritual people are nowadays.  so i have had overwhelmingly good experiences when it comes to people i’ve interacted with through craigslist.

but that isn’t to say that all my interactions have been so positive.  there are the high schoolers, which i mentioned before.  and one guy in particular stands out to me.  i sold him a chinese scooter that i had been using myself, very quick and with low miles.  he came by with a friend and they both tried it out, and after extensive kicking-of-the-tires, decided he would take it.  but the next night, he called to tell me that the scooter wasn’t working well, that it wouldn’t start.  and so, i drove out to stinking woodley park to work on his scooter, at night…in the rain…and even gave him part of his money back so that he could take it into a professional mechanic to get it serviced.

uh yeah, plug that in.

but it didn’t end there – he continued to call and gchat me constantly, bitterly accusing me of purposely selling him a lemon and that he should report me to the police.  i had never experienced any problems with his bike, so i asked him to open up his engine compartment and shoot a picture of his carburetor and send it to me.  he did, and i saw right away that his electronic choke wasn’t plugged in – without that, it was nearly impossible to start the bike because the flow of gas to the carburetor wouldn’t be properly regulated.  i told him to plug it in, and VROOM!, started right up.  all that rancor and all those accusations, just because he didn’t know have the sense to plug in a basic component.  since that experience, i have become much more careful about my craigslist sales.  i tell people that i’m not a professional mechanic, and i can’t give a warranty on scooters.  and i always provide a bill of sale that makes that very clear.  that one guy really turned me off to selling things on craigslist.

but i have made a realization since then, that he very well could be on his own blog, saying the same things about me.  i could be his cautionary tale, a story about a guy who sold a bike to him that immediately broke down, but claimed that SOMEHOW there had never been problems before.  and even though he has had positive experiences in the past, i could be that one jerk that turns him off to buying on craigslist.  it’s funny, how we can so readily identify the jerks and meanies and bullies who have hurt us in some critical way and have soured our opinion of humanity in general, and yet, are generally unaware that we probably have played that role ourselves.  we remember every slight and every insult that has ruined our day…but are oblivious of the times we have done the same.  so it’s true that one jerk can ruin our day or week – it’s just that that jerk is sometimes us.

5. Nothing is worse/better than owning a broken/fixed moped/scooter.

plug CHOP! hiyah.

i once broke down on a moped 2 miles away from home, and had to push it up one of the biggest hills in DC.  i once broke down seven times over the course of three miles, and was almost late for a speaking engagement even though i left an hour early.  i have ruined countless pairs of nice pants, smearing them with gasoline or transmission fluid.  i once grilled my calf on a hot engine cylinder head.  i have outrun teenagers who were trying to pull me off my bike to steal it right out from underneath me.  worst of all, i have had to deal with teenagers unnecessarily.

but despite all of this, i have to say that there is nothing so liberating as putt-putting down the road in an overgrown bicycle that has an engine smaller than the average lawnmower.  and what makes that experience all the sweeter is if you have fixed that bike yourself.  i’m sure it’s great to have a moped that works perfectly from the beginning, but it’s even better if through your own effort, you’re able to get it running well.  your appreciation for the vehicle runs deeper because your experiences with it run deeper as well – it is the embarrassment of walking your bike down the sidewalk that makes the joy of riding it all the sweeter.

i have found the same to be true in my personal life as well.  i love my life, i love my family, i love doing ministry.  but i love them all the more because of the hellishness that we endured over the past two years.  going grocery shopping with my family is a joy, because i remember the desperation i felt when carol was sick and i was discouraged at church.  taking care of jonathan when he’s cranky is fun…because it’s a miracle that we even have him in the first place.

i asked carol a very tough question earlier this month: “do you think we would be as happy as we are now if we hadn’t gone through everything we have?”  we both quietly ruminated on that thought for a while, but then both agreed: no, we wouldn’t.

8 Year Anniversary

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