Feature Article from the Orange County Ledger-Times An Inquiry into Mall Magic :

A Feature Story in Five Parts

November 10, 1998: The First Encounter/The Interview

The First Encounter: A few months ago, this reporter was witness to a scuffle that took place at the Bet Your Life store in the Huntington Mall. I was shopping for tennis shoes at Penney's when I heard shouts from the other end of the corridor. Having finished my purchase, I drifted down--idle curiosity mostly. First, the corn dog cart had been turned over. And, in front of the Bet Your Life store, a kind of fortune-telling place, I saw a crowd of angry teen-agers trying to break in. The proprietor had left a "closed" sign on the door, but this did not deter the eager customers. Security personnel soon disbanded the mob. 

As I wandered away, I wondered: What was going on at this place? Who was the owner? And what had created such a furor with the customers? I made a note to get back to Bet Your Life, but other work intervened. One day in late October, I chanced by the store. It was full of teenagers, young men and women, and even senior citizens. The time had come.

The Interview: I decided to start at the source. I made an appointment to talk to Annabelle Thompson, the owner of "Bet Your Life." She asked me to come late, at the end of business hours, so I arrived at the mall close to 10:00. It was a warm night, and the cars were just leaving the parking lot. The lights inside the mall were beginning to dim, the stores to close. Annabelle Thompson's store is at the far south end. The display windows are bare except for one computer in the window. The screen flashes a series of numbers. I had imagined a kind of hippie shop, in keeping with the fortune- telling motif, crystal balls, black cats, mystical symbols, abracadabra. There was none of this.

I lingered by the door, waiting for Annabelle to conclude her business, and I saw that the numbers were punctuated with a kind of chorus. Several screens of small type- face numbers in columns would be followed by a series of single, large-face numbers: 0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 144 233 377 610. And then the columns would begin again.

Annabelle escorted her last customers to the door and invited me inside. The store was nearly empty except for some folding chairs and a table with an hourglass holding down some sheets of paper in the middle. Behind the counter were three computer screens with more numbers going. A large trash can sat against the wall, filled with discarded printouts. Annabelle was dressed not in the flowing robes of the fortune teller, but in a leather miniskirt, boots, and a sweater made of what appeared to be yellow ostrich feathers. Not contemporary, but not traditional, either. Her smile, however, was dazzling, and she greeted me warmly, indicating a seat at the table.

I went right to the point: "So what are you selling?"

"Insurance," she said.

"Life insurance?" I wondered why the crowd of eager teenagers would want insurance.

"Yes, only the reverse of the way you mean it," she said. "Think of this, if you will. Most Americans insure themselves when they are old, against all kinds of things, death, illness, interruptions in mortgage payments. But the things which happen to the young are important too, perhaps more critical. It makes good sense to have insurance against the wrong thing happening.   You have to look out for the telescoping sum."

"Can you give me an example?" I asked, still a bit mystified.

Annabelle pulled a couple of the papers from under the hourglass. "Let's take this illustration. Here's one option that the customer did not take up. This young woman wanted insurance against her boyfriend breaking up with her. By the way, would you like some crackers and cheese? I am amply supplied."

"No thanks." I was more interested in this insurance game, for the moment. "Why would a young girl pay you money--they do pay money?--for this? You don't have any control over her boyfriend."

"Whyever not? Your life insurance company knows you are going to die, and so do you. You pay them. Your auto insurance company doesn't have any control over whether or not you get in an accident. You pay them. "

I objected that I only hoped to cover the cost of the auto repairs, damages to other parties.

"Exactly so. But what you are gambling on is that you will have money to compensate for the effects of the accident, yes?" She said.  "And so, my customers want the same, only they are taking different risks."

"This girl here, the one with the boyfriend, why didn't she buy the insurance, then?"

"She will be back." Annabelle swooped behind the counter and produced a plate of snacks, began munching on some gouda. "She thinks the price is too high just now." I asked her how she determined the price.

"Oh, the customers actually decide how much coverage they want and for how long. This customer feels a brand new jeep would compensate."

"Why doesn't she just buy the car?"

"She doesn't have even close to enough money for a new one; that's why she wants insurance.  She can play the odds."

I imagined that Annabelle looked closely at my battered brief case, the old tape recorder. 

And how, I asked, are the odds figured?

"It's all done by computer."

She waved a couple of crumb-covered fingers. She said she was tired, long day, and invited me to come back during business hours, early if possible, and become a customer.

"How much were you going to charge her?"

"Four thousand,"  She said, and let me through the back hallway, past a door with numbers and sunflowers painted on it, out into the parking lot.  I imagined the stars spiraling above, keeping their own rhythm.