An eBay Horror Story – "Oh, I Am In SO Much Trouble"

So there’s this guy in Canada who wants to buy a 16mm movie that I put up for auction on eBay. The listing includes information about who can (and cannot) bid. The listing states, in large type, “This auction is open to U.S. bidders only.”

You’re saying, “Don, are you nuts? Why would you, a unidexter, wanting to get the highest price for an item, exclude any bidders, let alone the entire rest of the world?”

And you know, that’s what I like about you, gentle reader.

You’re always looking out for my best interests. You’re always ready to gently question my judgment, because you’ve seen how far wrong it can go. Bless you for thinking that.

To begin at the beginning: a boring piece of trivia you’ve heard a million times: the longest undefended border in the world is the border between the U.S. and Canada.

Less well known, less trivial, but equally true, is that the U.S. and Canada also share the longest indefensible, incomprehensible set of shipping rules and regulations two countries have ever conspired to deploy.

What about the Universal Postal Convention, which both Canada and the U.S. endorse, I hear you saying.

I’ll never finish this story if you keep interrupting. Hesh up.

Let me put it this way: If I send a film to Cawker City, Kansas, home of the world’s largest ball of twine… I get the special Media Mail rate (only $7.06 for 13 pounds). I put stamps on the package and wrap it with twine as my contribution to the 2010 Twine-A-Thon, the twine-winding picnic, cook-off and parade held the third Friday in August each year. And that, as they say, is that. Bingo-Bango-Bongo, as Mike Sexton says on World Poker Tour. Done deal.

Ah, but let’s say I have to send a film to Chilliwack, in Canada, home of the largest neon sign in British Columbia at the time of its building.

Forget Media Mail. Cheapest available postage to Canada will be $40. And – I’m no longer just a seller – I’m an exporter!

That means I will need a written customs declaration stating contents and value. If the parcel is a gift and worth less than sixty bucks, or not a gift and worth less than twenty bucks, no duties or taxes will be due from the purchaser.

What this means, in practice, is that Canadian purchasers will suggest mail fraud as the optimal way to go with the customs declaration. Ah, Canadians. They say “oot” for “out,” they love their hockey and their beer, and they rank number one in the world in the receipt of gifts worth sixty dollars or under.

Now wait, you say…

I thought I told you to hesh up.

Canada Post is going to levy an additional $5 handling fee for taking charge of the parcel once it reaches the Great White North. What about that?

No Canadian has yet suggested that I could potentially outwit their dimwit government once again by mailing the parcel from Toronto, but it’s just a matter of time until someone does. (This would involve mailing from Toronto, Kansas, the “Prairie Hay Capital of the World,” in the hope that a Toronto postmark of any kind might slip by Canadian authorities, circumventing the five buck fee).

While I’m pondering the possible seqellae of defrauding the Canadian government, I note that tariffs are separate and distinct from duties and/or taxes. This would be a problem if there were no 325 page .pdf to help me figure out precisely what I owe.

Bear in mind that all of the foregoing is moot if the parcel contents fall under revised provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) designed to reduce or eliminate tariffs on various goods imported from the United States and Mexico into Canada. Specifically, tariff acceleration (meaning reduction) has been proposed for “black and white motion picture film of a width not exceeding 16mm and of a length exceeding 14 m.” If the ‘m’ means minutes, old cartoons could be sent tariff-free to Canada, unless they were in color. If that ‘m’ means meters, the length of the film, converted to feet, assuming 16mm at 24fps, would burn up 36 ft. per minute, meaning that only a black and white television commercial could qualify as tariff-free.

So… as I said… in large type… “This auction is open to U.S. bidders only.”

The auction opens. The e-mail questions begin to roll in. Here’s the text of the one that concerns us:

Would you be willing to ship this item to Canada? If you would be willing, what would be your price for shipping this item to Calgary, Alberta, T2E 0E8 via USPS? Thank you.

I consider the answer “Yes! One Million U.S. Dollars.”

I consider the answer “No. That question is addressed in the listing. What part of “U.S. Bidders only” is confounding you?”

I ultimately settle for a third, more polite reply: “I’m sorry, but the auction is open to U.S. Bidders only.”

I mean, this is the country that gave us Michael J. Fox, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. Even when you figure in grievous insults like Paul Anka, Howie Mandel, and William Shatner, Canada still deserves to be let down easy and gracefully in eBay auctions.

And so, that’s that. Sorry, you can’t bid. Bingo-Bango-Bongo. Or so I think.

The auctions end. People pay, movies get shipped. Then, I receive this email:

I am in SO much trouble! I was supposed to bid on this item for my brother in Canada: 16mm Disney TECHNICOLOR – THE MOONSPINNERS Hayley Mills, but for some reason I ended up bidding on “Whistle Down the Wind”, which he was also interested in, but didn’t want me to bid on. I WILL pay for “Whistle Down the Wind”, but if, for ANY reason, the winning bidder of “The Moonspinners” does not want to purchase it, I know my brother would much rather have it. He’s the one who asked if you would ship to Canada. Oh, I am in SO much trouble!

So here, we have a good sister, a great sister, probably, who’s trying to help her brother get around the “U.S. bidders only” problem on eBay by placing bids from the good ol’ U.S.A. on his behalf.

The brother can be forgiven, I suppose. After all, this is the film containing Hayley Mills’s foxiest role: the sensuous, not-quite-innocent Nikky Ferris of The Moon-Spinners, the movie that pushed the limits of Disney live-action films into PG-rated territory with Hayley’s smoldering, sensual, first on-screen kiss with the hunky Peter McEnery, who had previously been utterly convincing as Dirk Bogarde’s gay love interest in Victim (1961).

The charms of The Moon-Spinners notwithstanding (that first kiss takes place in a hearse) we now face a developing international trade incident.

Twice, the American sister wails about how much trouble she is now in, due to the fact that she bid on the wrong film. She is an innocent bystander, caught in a swirling, never-ending nightmare. She writes of her problem with raw emotion, bravely saying she will pay for her winning bid, but… oh, she is in SO much trouble.

Well, Mr. Canadian bidder, we are Americans, dammit. If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? Fear not, fair lady. Fear not, fellow American. For if I can solve your trouble, will I not do so?

I forward the entire text of the “I’m in SO much trouble” e-mail to the person who was the ‘underbidder’ on the film, then said:

[The American sister of the Canadian] will take the print and pay for it, but if you are interested in purchasing the print for your final bid, let me know, and I’ll let her know. Just to be clear, you’re under no obligation to purchase the print – I’m just making the offer. I’d rather see the print go to someone who wants it!

The underbidder accepts the ’second chance offer,’ as such things are called on eBay.

I sacrifice a small portion of the final sale price, but think how good I’ll feel, how proud I’ll be, when I can write back to the sister to let her know that single-handedly, I have rescued her from the dire consequences of her tragic mistake:

I went back to the underbidder on this item, and he agreed to purchase the film at his high bid. So you’re not in trouble at all any more on this purchase… you’re totally off the hook.

Wow, my good deed for the day. My mitzvah.

The feeling of exhilaration continues until this e-mail shows up:

Oh, no no! Since I didn’t get Moonspinners, my brother DOES want this film! It’s just that if the winning bidder on Moonspinners doesn’t want it, my brother surely DOES, in which case THIS film can go to the underbidder! Oh, what a mess I’ve made! I’m so sorry!

 Insert your favorite expletive here. I did.

“No good deed goes unpunished.” I remember the first time I heard someone say that. I thought they had made a mistake, which is to say I didn’t get the joke.

I responded with a request for agreement to cancel the transaction on the item, in order to set the eBay record and bookkeeping straight.

The response:

I got the request to cancel the transaction on this film. I still DO want to get it, unless Moonspinners has become available. Have I made too much of a muddle of this? I must blame it on chemo-brain. I am SO sorry.

The counter-response:

Yes, it’s a dreadful muddle at this point. By trying to help you when it seemed as if you were going to have to pay for an unwanted item, I now find myself in an untenable position, and would greatly appreciate, in the spirit of sympathy and understanding that created this mess, your agreement to the transaction cancellation.

John Diefenbaker, Canada’s 13th Primer Minister, famously said “I am a Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose those who shall govern my country.”

Fine with me, Canadians. As long as you know you’re not free to bid on my eBay auctions.

And by the way, I’m STILL waiting for that transaction cancellation, and I’m going to act as if I never saw the adjective ‘chemo-brain,’ which… which I’m going to act as if I never saw.

Can the completion of my transformation from hero to villain be far away? They’ve penciled-in an exploratory initial conference for me at mustache-twirling school.

Oh, I am in SO much trouble!

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