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Sell or Die



The actual time spent doing it was a day, or even a little less. Or about half as long as I spent thinking I would make a wonderful Arctic explorer. One-third the time that I daydreamed that I could prosper as a crime boss. And less than one-seventh of the hours that I fantasized I would make my way through life by seizing Cyd Charisse under the arm and behind the thigh while something by Cole Porter hummed in the background.

Talking, of course, about my long-ago and unlamented career in sales. You heard me correctly. Sales. Selling people something. Something that they may even actually need, although surely no salesman worthy of his expense account would ever be held back by such a technicality. Sales! Selling! The American Way of Life. Searchlights sweeping through the clouds on opening night, a six-piece combo playing in the corner, chicks in short skirts passing around trays of complimentary cookies!

And in the middle of it all, yet on the edges at the same time, the man of some social standing after work -- especially when paycheck stubs are being compared -- yet striving, too, to be as inconspicuous as a pickpocket. Yes, the mighty salesman, that hardy symbol of American can-do spirit, that flimflam man-turned-civic saint.

"Too much intelligence, in fact, has been found to be a handicap in sales work; the salesman who is too intelligent talks over his prospect's heads and has no patience when they are slow to catch on. Getting through school is a satisfactory test of one's intelligence; the applicant who has finished public schools with an average grad has about the right intelligence for most sales jobs." -- Donald A. Laird, "The Kind of Man Who Could Sell"

How did I ever figure that I had the right sort of intelligence for this sort of thing? Truth be told, I didn't figure because to this point I hadn't showed the ability to sell personal floatation devices on the deck of the Titanic. "You can do it," my grandfather reasoned. "Christ, anybody can sell." He was known in the family as a one who could sell anything, from Jack's Cookies to Dutch O'Neal Fords, although I often wondered how. So far as I could see, he never met a man he truly liked.

(My other grandfather never seemed to meet a man he disliked. As a young man, he was a milkman and an iceman. In later years, I learned that these occupations had a certain reputation of their own, so maybe Gramps never met a woman he disliked either.)

Anyhow, I had no discernible sales skills or yearnings. Like the old saying goes, however, hard times'll make a monkey eat red pepper, and these were unquestionably hard times. So the blind ad in the paper was answered blindly, and after a 20-minute orientation where I was clearly shown how the guaranteed wage was for "losers," I found myself an encyclopedia salesman-in-training.

This meant three unending days in which the basics of good salesmanship were examined at breakneck speed. We were taught how the famous Hoover sales close was somewhat irresistible, e.g. "If Hoover goes, the dirt stays. But if the Hoover stays, the dirt goes. Now tell me, which do you prefer?" We learned verbs are good and strong: "You want it; you like it; you need it; you can afford it. Why not buy it?" And we learned what to say if the lady of the house said she just couldn't possibly buy a set of encyclopedias till her husband got home.

After three days of this blather, I was ready to take the first step on my Sales Highway to Commissioned Success. The "supervisor" loaded three of us door-to-door virgins in his Plymouth Valiant and off we headed for Baton Rouge.

"I'll meet you on this corner at 4:30," he promised as he distributed each of us in front of some sleepy bedroom community.

Mine stayed sleepy. I knocked and rang and rang and knocked. Many are called and none get chosen. Few answered the door and most that did were maids and babysitters, folks largely immune to encyclopedic charms. Finally I was admitted inside of one home for a glass of iced water. The maid who let me in was a nice lady, and she may have been somewhat swayed by my tears.

Some time thereafter a cop car rolled up. "Didn't we tell you people never to come back to Baton Rouge?" Sheriff Buford T. Justice asked rhetorically, and before I could answer, I was in the back seat and charged with Attempted Salesmanship in a Serene Neighborhood, etc. Do Not Pass Go. Go Directly to Jail.

So here I was in the heart of the East Baton Rouge prison system, trying hard to ignore the demonstration of delirium tremens taking place at the other end of the cell. When suddenly, we started playing What-Are-You-In-For. The guy next to me told of catching the lip of his sister's boyfriend on some pruning shears, and then it was my turn.

Time for some real salesmanship. Time to sell the idea that I was thoroughly at home in a cell and a truly dangerous man. ...

"We was playing Nine Ball and this guy says I cheated and I got this cue stick in my hands. ..."

By the end of the story, no one could have guessed that my crime involved unauthorized selling in a residential area. As far as they knew, I was a junkyard dog.

My greatest sales pitch ever.

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