Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Superior Suckage

He’d been working three jobs and was still not getting ahead. While there are plenty of folks who likely make more for doing less that think Postman is an overpaid position whose union should be abolished along with their benefits and safety regulations, my dad’s mailman salary was obviously going to keep him tied to the upper edge of the poverty statistical charts as long as he held it. Though he’d determined at a young age he just wasn’t smart enough to have a complex career as opposed to that of the common mule, he was just frustrated enough with the state of things to attempt to move up. “Suit people” he called them once, those bright and bushy self-confident paper pushers who earn money for blowing smoke from their asses; he would need to become a suit person.

I’m not sure how he found the “Sales Training Institute”. I’d guess a television commercial during a suit person program, like Father Knows Best or Leave it to Beaver where the men of the household seem to do nothing at all and yet their families have everything they’ve ever wanted. Then, it might have been a matchbook cover as well, like the ones that said “Draw Winky” and send it in to see whether within your mundane, poverty stricken and hopeless exterior there lived the next Norman Rockwell or one of a dozen other “Commerce Artisans” popular at the time. Whatever it was, one day my dad decided that he couldn’t beat his brains against the brick walls surrounding the big kid’s houses any longer; he was gonna be a Salesman!

I remember the first time I saw his “schoolbook”; the biggest freaking three or more ring binder I’d ever seen in my life. It was so tall while lying on its side that I used it now and then as an ottoman. It surely was taller than our living room ottoman, though a damn site less comfortable.

It was so cool, with its seemingly gold leaf embossing on its faux leather cover; it was just like the Sunday Mass book that I would need to read along in during my weekly “Godbligations”, or would have been if the missal were written to cover a different mass for every day of the year and each volume held ten years of devotions within its covers.

It was tabbed and color coded and had really groovy chapter titles that gave meaning to the term “propaganda” beyond its normally commie roots. It was a very serious book for very serious students wanting to make some very serious cash. Dad never spoke of it. I can only assume he absorbed it, on those occasions he’d disappear into his bedroom for hours at a time that were neither simply attempts to get away from my mother, or quite the opposite. (Something I shudder to think about even now)

Then one day he announced he was newly “diploma’d” and certified as a “Salesman”, presumably, “extraordinaire” or “of the highest order” or “Commercialist Cum Laude” or whatever the “school” thought would make the new graduate feel as if they’d not in fact been ripped off by “a sales pitch” proclaiming this home study, no overhead but an ottoman’s worth of paper in a shiny binder” “school”, to be the answer to their prayers.

Of course there was placement; what would an education be if not a job shoehorn. He was treated to his first gig the moment he stepped from the mailbox where he’d received his diploma to the phone where he’d received his first call to arms. He would be the Kirby Vacuum Company’s newest recruit.

I sort of wish he’d looked for his own job and not, mostly out of self-doubt that he could do sales full time and risk everything, take the position offered. I suspect now that the “school” was actually owned by whatever bloated corporate conglomerate owned Kirby and a hundred other icebox to Eskimo’s snake oil operations, and used as a cynical grist mill that took money from desperate people and then had these people sell crap to desperate people until their desperation overwhelmed even them; but hell, what do I know. To hear one side tell it, companies are just benevolent people who have civilization’s best interests at heart, so maybe I’m just full of commie propaganda myself.

Dad was pretty pumped as I recall, and his product, The Kirby Dual Sanitronic 50, was an absolute wonder. You may know already, and may have drooled at the thought of it, but the Sanitronic 50 could do damn near everything you ever wanted to do that required machinery, except print a list of those few insignificant things it couldn’t do, AND it was the finest, most powerful dirt sucker ever invented. My father delighted in showing us his pitch, a little demonstration that included dumping crap on a floor and then, yup you guessed it, zooming it right back up into never-never land. Then out came the accessories; the knife sharpener and meat grinder and all the cool crap that made the Sanitronic so much more than an ordinary, inferior, commoner’s cleaning utensil.

Then, the blessing of his lifetime arrived in the mail; a prospective client list. He called the names on the list as drawn until one answered his request for an appointment in the affirmative. This was his moment, his test, the first day of the rest of his less impoverished life… “Suit People” day! And this is where he accidentally taught me his, and now my definition of right and wrong, of the concepts of ethics and morality, of the meaning behind treating those as we’d like to be treated; and sadly at the same time, the genetic calling to give up, where being creative with adversity might be more advantageous if less comfortable.

I saw him on his return, lugging his 9 billion pound demonstration kit up the incredibly steep hill in front of our house and then up the porch stair. I heard him bang around the cases and bags that accompanied each promotion, until he had the goods, the very vacuum with full accessories that he had to buy in order to do this wondrous job, secured into the back porch mud room. I was smart enough to not greet him with a big smile and a backslap; I could see he was not in congratulations mode. I did though ask him how it went.

It went perfectly he said. His charisma was at super power level, his pitch, perfect. The machine performed every task asked of it and then some, and the woman that he was trying to save from housewife hell with the product of the century was near peeing her pants. She wanted it all, every freaking accessory and a guarantee that if more cool crap that could attach to the Sanitronic came on the market, he would be at her door posthaste where she would buy two of each innovation, so as to have one extra to keep unused, polished and in her closet for those moments when she needed to believe in the concept of heaven on earth.

He was just about to have her sign the contract committing her to modest payments of a little too much for most working people pretty much until hell freezes over… when he asked about her husband and his employment situation. Oh she was without a husband she said, and as for work, well she collected a check, from the government; but that was no problem because the feds didn’t care what she spent her money on and BY GOD she wanted that magical device he was holding in his gypsy wagon tinkerer hands.

I can only imagine the look on his face. I can imagine it from the look on his face as he told the story. He had no bigotry toward people that needed help and found the government their benefactor of last resort. She seemed a lovely woman; her kids seemed fairly well fed though a bit ragged, her house was clean enough though decorated in a sort of early junkyard toss off style. He stopped speaking for a moment and thought; thought about his years and years trying to make chicken salad out of the chicken droppings the world had offered him. He thought about how often he become so blind to the future and so needing to be like everyone else in the present that he’d bought something on credit that haunted him while eliminating actual fiscal progress for years at a time. He thought about what he was doing, selling a refrigerator to an Eskimo, an Eskimo that was already living hand to a half dozen mouths.

Granted, he figured, he wasn’t her dad; and it’s not like he considered himself her moral or intellectual superior. I don’t remember my dad feeling superior to anyone for any reason actually, which is a shame because I believe he was superior to a hell of a lot of people I’ve known; but that’s for another story. What he did know is that he could not sell The Kirby Dual Sanitronic 50 to this woman who pretty much had nothing but a boatload of dependents counting on her to always make the right decision so they’d not have to go to bed hungry, ever. Whether his pitch had worked so well that she’d demand another salesman to stop by her home with another contract, well that was now out of his control. He could only walk away from his very first sale with a little speech that in the end convinced her that it would be too expensive and that she really should sleep on it for some time before making a decision; and then he left after deliberately, secretly picking up his newly printed, presumably gold leaf looking embossed business card.

It was one sale, one he let go, surely there would be others, surely he had the gift. But he never got that taste out of his mouth, the taste of that moment when he realized that in order to be a real salesman, to make his degree and all the work that went into it pay off, to make his and his wife’s and his children’s lives better, he would have to disassociate the word “customer” from the words “human being”; he would need to choose success over compassion, or he would himself go to bed hungry. He gave up all that time and fortune... to go back to the slave pits, where he spent the rest of his life making do.

Sure, I’ve no doubt that there are plenty of sales folk that care, that dump a sale to do the right thing. I haven’t met any and I’ve known a shitload of salespeople, have traveled with CEOs and CFOs and other execs for 30 years during a career boasting what amounted to sales support, helping bosses convince underlings that the sale is ALL that matters and anything else is treason. I suppose it’s a big reason as to why I’m crazy, having hated myself all those years I did the wrong thing because I was good at it and it made me more money than schlepping bales and toting barges.

But still, I have this huge torch burning in me that is like that of the grave of the unknown soldier, except I know the name; it’s the name of the guy that taught me that there are more important things than money, more precarious existences than mine, more honor ofttimes in an ounce of “won’t”, than a ton of “if I don’t someone else will”.

1 comment:

  1. Cool tale. I once bought a Kirby. It died a month after the warranty expired.