Man, am I chagrined. I really thought my ship had come in.

Have you ever thought you had a sure thing in your hands, only to have it slip away at the last moment? I certainly know what that's like now. That's right–I recently learned the hard way that there's no such thing as a free seminar on how to buy distressed properties for no money down.

Ever since losing my job at the Gas 'N' Go on 14th and Daytona, I'd been scraping for any money I could get. Panhandling, donating plasma, collecting empty bottles, the whole poor routine. My life was in a shambles, and my sleep schedule was way out of whack.

So imagine my interest when, at 3 a.m. last Tuesday, I was watching Channel 21, and a half-hour paid advertisement came on that seemed to have been made just for me! This announcer guy asked, "Are you struggling just to make ends meet? Are you tired of missing out on the good stuff in life? Would you like to be your own boss and call all the shots?"

I can't even tell you how strongly I related. It was as if they'd read my mind and made a show out of it!

Next, they introduced a guy who, up until a couple of years ago, was just like me. This was real exciting, as I'd been feeling really alone and singular in my poverty. The fellow's name was Paul Rennert, and he told all these hard-luck stories about losing his job and his car, and I don't mind telling you it sounded a lot like my own life story!

But then–and this was the exciting part–he said he'd come up with an exciting new money-making system, involving the purchase of distressed properties, that catapulted him into wealth and independence so quickly, he hardly knew what was happening! Now he lives in a huge 20-room mansion and, just between you and me, you should have gotten a look at his wife. Whoo! No distressed property on her!

Just about the whole rest of the show was devoted to people who'd learned Paul's system and struck it rich themselves in real estate. There were people telling all these stories about being poor, just like me, but after applying Paul's easy-to-learn system, they started receiving checks for four- and even five-digit amounts! They even showed the stubs from a lot of those checks to prove they weren't lying.

By the end of the show, I was dying to have the secret dropped on me. How can I get in on this and start making money in real estate the easy way? That's when Paul told me that his amazing seminar was criss-crossing the country, giving everyday people the secret to making more money than they ever dreamed possible.

I thought, oh, well, with my bad luck, that seminar probably won't be coming to my area for about a million years. And even if it did come, the secret to personal wealth had to be worth a fortune! I could never afford to be in on such a powerful inner circle of big-money power brokers. But you know what? As if by divine providence, it was going to be at the Columbus Ramada that Saturday and–get this–it was free! I couldn't believe my luck! It really felt like, after years of hard knocks, I was finally getting the good luck I was due.

Despite my joy, I couldn't help but be a little skeptical. I wondered to myself, "Why on Earth would Paul offer a free seminar?" After all, I'd always been told that there's no such thing as a free seminar. But Paul explained that, for all his wealth and success, he never forgot what it was like to be poor, and he wanted to give everyone, even those as poor as he'd been, the opportunity to get themselves back on track. I tell you, I felt like building a statue of Paul Rennert in front of City Hall!

Well, the big day arrived, and in my finest outfit, I caught the bus to the Ramada. Turns out, there were a lot of other people whose lives weren't going so well–there must have been a thousand people there! I wished them well, of course, but I began to worry that some of them might snap up the properties before I could get my hands on them. So I decided to sit way in the back so that as soon as the secret was revealed, I could hustle off to wherever the properties were and start buying before anyone horned in on my action!

Turns out, it wasn't Paul Rennert who was giving the seminar, but "Chuck," a vice-president at Rennert Business Opportunities Unlimited. I thought, that's cool, he's probably a stand-up guy if he's involved with Paul and his philanthropic seminar-giving project.

The first hour of the seminar, all these different people were telling their success stories, about how they made all this money and have great houses now–just like on the show. Part of me was thinking, "Hey, get to the big secret! I wouldn't be here if I weren't convinced!"

After the stories, Chuck started talking about the system and how it's just the thing to get you out of your doldrums and how rewards go to those who take action in the moment instead of putting things off. All the while, I'm thinking, "Okay, so tell us already!"

Well, you know what? Maybe you'd better sit down before reading any further. Because you're not going to believe this.

The big secret cost $129.95! Can you believe it? After all that, we're supposed to fork over hard-earned money for the secret! Talk about disillusioning.

Now, admittedly, the $129.95 buys you a lot: You get Paul's comprehensive guide to buying and selling properties, written in plain, easy-to-understand language; Paul's special book of 101 secrets to making money today; a videotaped guide to using the materials correctly; a special letter of encouragement from Paul; and access to Paul's secret toll-free 800 number where trained experts are on hand to answer any questions you may have about the materials.

But, man! $129.95! What does he think "free" means? I applaud Paul for wanting to give poor people an opportunity to make some real money, and I realize that a seminar costs some money to put on, but I have to say I think he's going about it wrong. That big bundle of cash he's asking for is a huge hurdle that's keeping this thing from happening for a lot of poor people–the people who need this miracle system the most.

If you're reading this, Paul, here's what I think you should do: Print a scaled-down version of the secret on less expensive paper, and hire a modest staff to distribute it door-to-door in poor neighborhoods. Or, even better, scrap the seminar and donate the package to libraries! Then, you can either stop airing the TV show altogether or change it into a show in which you tell poor people that the secret is at the library.

No, it won't be as good as a free seminar on how to buy distressed properties for no money down, but, hey, as we all know, there's no such thing as that.