Birth of a Salesman
“Ah, Marty, ready to get rich?”
Flashing a practiced grin, Irv leaned forward and presented beefy fingers, recently manicured. Slightly overweight in a good way, he wore a perfectly cut navy pinstripe suit. Flecks of gray peppered his abundant dark hair, carefully combed in gentle waves. The scent of Old Spice clung to his jowls.
“Yes, sir,” I said, presenting a heavily bandaged hand in return.
I had arrived in Chicago by train barely a week before, escaping a small town in rural Wisconsin on the day of my high school graduation. I immediately found work at a bottling plant where I promptly gashed myself on a massive shard. The owner, a surly Pole, refused to take me to emergency until I signed a waiver relieving him of liability, causing me to quit in disgust.
I scanned the classifieds in the Chicago Tribune, braking at an ad that screamed “Unlimited Income!” The next day, I caught the subway to a cheap hotel in the Loop to learn more. Jammed into a sweaty conference room, I listened to a hunched sales manager extol the virtues of the Fuller Brush Company and door-to-door sales, the revelation of which caused most of the twenty or so attendees to flee. I remained steadfast and was assigned to their top hitter for training.
Irv reached over to a table stacked with promotional material and grabbed the Fuller Brush Catalog. Glossy in four-color print, it illustrated the full range of household and personal care products—from the Bristlecomb, the famed boar-bristle hairbrush; to the Debutante cosmetics line, to the powerful oven cleaner—along with a brief description and the suggested retail price. He stuffed two catalogs into a handsome faux-leather black demo case replete with samples of the most popular products.
“We’ll meet tomorrow, 10:00 a.m. sharp, Belmont and Kimball,” Irv directed, all business. “Take the case and study the products.”
“Great,” I replied and turned to leave.
“By the way, I’d like you to do one more thing,” Irv said, almost as an afterthought.
“What’s that, Irv?”
“Erase all the prices in the catalog.”
“But how will I know what to ask?”
For an instant, he regarded me with pity and then smiled.
“See how bad they want it.”
That night, I sat at the wobbly desk in my rented room furnished in Goodwill contemporary. Under the inadequate illumination offered by the naked ceiling light, I spit on the eraser of a No. 2 pencil and methodically erased prices. I regarded the seeming stupidity of the exercise as a barometer of my desperation. I needed to make money to pay the bills and save for college in the fall, a mere three months away. Higher education would fulfill my immigrant father’s dream and enable me to be a productive cog in the American economy.
I periodically checked the prices in the second catalog and tried to at least gauge the orders of magnitude. Eyes blurry, I glimpsed the hard-shell Samsonite suitcase opened on the floor. Among the tossed clothes was a plastic bag filled with dimes and quarters, a gift from Mom to ensure I phoned at least twice a week. She had implored me to attend a nearby community college and never leave. The thought of having to return home in disgrace jolted me awake. Eighteen and scared, I erased furiously.
The “L” train was crammed at peak morning commute. From my abode on the West Side, I could simply have taken a bus north for a few miles, rather than take the subway east into downtown, transfer, and take another train back to the northwest side. But what the crumpled Rand McNally map failed to disclose was that two months earlier, in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, the area along West Madison Street had erupted in violence and flames: eleven dead, more than 2,000 arrested, and over 200 buildings destroyed.
And more shit could break out at any minute. Hippies and anarchists were already streaming into Chicago for the Democratic National Convention in August, and the cops, “Chicago’s Finest,” were buttressing the defenses. The only rational response was to adopt a siege mentality. Shielding my demo case as if it held atomic bomb diagrams, I quizzed myself on the price of hair spray.
“Whatcha lookin’ at, Opie?”
A militant woman, street-lean with an immense Afro, glowered at me. My contact with black folks growing up had been limited to televised images of them getting pummeled in the South, and more recently, doing some pummeling of their own in the North. Caught off guard and with no concrete experience to draw on, I winced and stared out the window. Perhaps I should have mastered the city dweller’s ability to avert a gaze and so disguise fear.
But a sliver of memory suggests I also felt frustration at not having been adroit enough to ignore stereotype and engage her at eye level, without regard for our differences, perhaps with a smile and even the hint of flirtation, playing the rube and, against long odds, making her laugh. Such deftness and wisdom, akin to a Zen monk disarming a samurai, would need to be developed.
I emerged from the subway station and scanned the intersection. An arm extended through the open window of a parked Cadillac DeVille and beckoned me. I hopped in with Irv, who drove to a nearby neighborhood of modest, well-maintained homes while dispensing general instructions on how to write up an order. He pulled to the curb, told me to meet back here at two o’clock, and ejected me like a pinball as he sped away to ply his trade in the more prosperous zip codes.
The first house loomed before me. I pressed the doorbell but heard no ring, so I moved down the block. What followed was a montage of misery. A furtive shadow in the window drawing the curtain. An angry dog biting through the screen. A refrigerator-sized guy in a wife beater regarding me quizzically and then speaking in a foreign tongue (I apologized and left). And my favorite, the voice of an annoyed housewife emanating from somewhere inside the shuttered premises: “There’s no one home!”
By 2:00 p.m., I had not made it inside even one house. Disheveled and humiliated, I waited on the corner until Irv’s Caddy materialized curbside. I reluctantly opened the door and slid into the air-conditioned oasis.
“Irv, I can’t do this.”
He took my measure, probably knowing me better than I knew myself, and simply stated, “This is a business for men.” Pausing a beat, Irv continued, “Half of the trainees don’t even wait to meet with me—they’re gone by noon. Most of the others wash out in the first week or two. I’ve seen big guys break down, bawl, and go back to their real job.”
“But I’m only 18. I’ve never . . . ”
“‘But, but, but.’ It doesn’t matter. Too young? It doesn’t matter. Don’t know enough? It doesn’t matter. Can’t stand rejection? No one can, but it doesn’t matter. You must want this so badly that nothing else matters. So, kid, what’ll it be?”
My thoughts swirled. I had to make a defining life choice, on the spot and under duress. We sat in silence for a long time. Finally, I whispered, “Okay.”
For the next hour, Irv taught me how to sell. As he drove off, I stood exactly where I had earlier that morning. Pulling back my shoulders, I strode purposefully to the front door of the first home I had tried earlier, knocked, paused, and then knocked again.
“Who is it?” a feminine voice inquired.
“Good afternoon, ma’am . . . it’s Fuller Brush.”
“I don’t want any.”
“I have a little gift for you.”
The door opened a crack, as much as the security chain would allow. I espied a mass of unkempt hair and a worn housecoat.
“We have a nice spatula or pastry brush,” I stammered. Irv revealed that these two items were selected not only for their utility in the kitchen but precisely because they could fit in the narrow gap formed by the jamb and a door clutched by a suspicious homemaker.
“Maybe I’ll take the spatula.” With that, she snatched the gift from my hand, sized me up, and then reluctantly let me in.
I entered the foyer and then the living room, decorated in the Old World style with legions of tchotchkes. She offered me a soft-cushioned chair and remained mute. Irv cautioned that I only had precious minutes to gain trust. I complimented her on the beauty of all the family members whose likenesses hung on the wall. Trembling, I opened the case, considered the contents, and extracted the lemon-scented furniture polish and a soft cloth. Begging indulgence with my eyes, I secured tacit approval and shined the coffee table. “We have a special . . . today only!” I blurted, straining to summon Irv’s basic prompts for creating a sense of urgency. “Buy three and get one free.”
She eyed the spray can like radioactive waste. “How much?”
At a total loss, I squeaked, “$1.99 for all four?” She remained impassive, a Sphinx.
I slowly lifted out the toilet bowl cleaner. “Your neighbors really like this product.” I beamed, recalling Irv’s dictum for spurring envy. I peered down the hallway. “May I demonstrate?”
Intrigued, she led me to the bathroom. I lifted the lid and instantly recoiled from the grotesqueries I beheld within. Flushing several times, I proceeded to do wonders on the head. As we hovered over the sink, I held up the bottle and stammered, “Are th-three enough . . . Are s-six too many?” Irv had instructed me to offer six or even twelve units if the customer displayed a hint of interest. I had asked him incredulously why anyone would want that many, to which of course he replied with measured restraint that it didn’t matter.
Fifteen minutes later, she opened the front door to let me out. I had sold six bowl cleaners, four cans of furniture polish, and a hairbrush that she had caressed longingly and for which I quoted a favorable price. With a flourish worthy of Caesar at Gaul, I declared, “Thank you, ma’am. My name is Martin, and I’m your Fuller Brush Man.”
By the end of July, I had hit my stride, cherishing every secret I learned from Irv. Erasing the prices was simply Irv’s way of teaching me that pricing was fluid . . . elastic! Of course, the Company didn’t endorse this stratagem, just as it forbade selling non–Fuller Brush merchandise from the case. But Irv would stuff in whatever he could pick up at a deep discount as he plied the affluent suburbs of Chicago’s North Side. This month featured women’s leather gloves courtesy of a relative in Skokie.
Irv’s maxims etched my brain like a laser. Upon receiving a customer’s order, the company required a week or more for fulfillment, and it was up to the individual salesman to personally deliver the products, receive payment, and pay back the house. After a customer sweet-talked me into canceling her order, Irv thundered, “We’re not in the business of selling, we’re in the business of selling and collecting!”
Unlike me, Irv could afford to pay an old guy who couldn’t be argued with to deliver his orders. In the rare event that he had to do it himself, Irv would arrive in a rusted ten-year-old Chevy Impala, sporting J.C. Penney garb and occasionally accompanied by his son disguised as a waif. Irv’s knowledge of the human animal left me breathless.
I had by now missed Sunday Mass three weeks in a row. One side of my brain argued with the other that I had justifiably been too busy with self-survival and that the Big Guy would understand. I regretted most missing the previous Sunday because I had something legitimate to pray for. The following day, I was scheduled for my military physical; the reward for being in decent health was a card marked “1-A” and an all-expenses-paid vacation in Vietnam.
My wisps of memory of that day: gaping at the roiling clouds amid stifling humidity that surely portended thunderstorms; riding the L with all the windows open (most of the antiquated rolling stock still lacked A/C) and thus trading the risk of heat stroke for hearing loss as the train executed the ninety-degree turn below Jackson Street, the wheels flanging at probably 110 decibels; approaching the drab induction center in a drab neighborhood, picketed by anti-war demonstrators whose numbers that day required the presence of a couple of cops, appearing even burlier in riot gear.
As I wended through the demonstrators, a tough Italianlooking lad took a mock punch at an emaciated hippie who stumbled over himself. The kid laughed and proceeded into the building. A cute flower girl with pleading eyes—dressed in Levi’s, tie-dyed tee, and indigenous paraphernalia—cut me off.
“You don’t have to go in there. Do you want to napalm innocent women and children and then die yourself?” My silence hinted no.
“We can help you. Show you how to beat the physical.”
A confederate chimed, “Yeah, sneak in some bad pee-pee and tell them you like boys.”
The girl continued, “Or you can become a conscientious objector. Worst case, we have friends in Canada.”
When I started high school, the word Vietnam barely registered on people’s radar screens. Four years later, young men were coming home in body bags, even in tiny Prairie du Chien. While many of the townspeople still expressed loyalty to the government, the mood had shifted. In Chicago in the summer of 1968, I found myself in the eye of the storm. All the anti-war and anti-everything forces of the cosmos were converging on Grant Park, to be unleashed like the Furies at the International Amphitheatre the following month.
The hippies’ arguments were not novel to me, but their swelling numbers represented an influential voice that argued it was right to not do your duty, serving as a sort of summation argument for the jury in the court of public opinion, a ready response I could give my children and my children’s children and all the others who would, for the rest of my life, ask me why I didn’t go. I hesitated, then took a deep breath and stepped around the girl.
The specific details of the examination process elude me. I undressed to my shorts and stood in line with young men of all shapes and colors, startled not at how different people are but how similar when confronted with the same fate. Apart from occasional outbursts of fake bravado, the prospective inductees remained mute, most likely reflecting on how the dice would be rolled half a world away. As the day wore on, I passed more and more tests.
The windows on the L were closed on the ride home in deference to the rain whipping off Lake Michigan. Nauseated by the BO, I nonetheless crystalized my thinking. Ho Chi Minh, the top dog of the North Vietnamese communists, had been pals with Stalin—enough said. Whatever the morality or “justness” of the war, I reasoned that more communism would make the world a worse place. Also, as a first-generation immigrant, I hadn’t yet forgotten the value of what I had, marveling at the hypocrisy of the so-called activists, unemployed by choice and unwilling to support the greatest country on earth. Eventually, all this soul searching was reduced to its essence, like cooking sherry for a glaze. My inner voice simply said: Be a man. I resolved to attend college until called to serve.
With only three days left in August, I stoically endured the mob of protesters squashing me on the L. Tomorrow, I would board the Greyhound Bus bound for the University of Detroit, located smack-dab in the middle of another racial cauldron. I needed to meet with Irv for the last time to return the demo case and square accounts.
Like a hurricane crossing the Atlantic, the weeklong protests gained momentum, and today was landfall: The Democrats would nominate their candidate for president on the last night of the convention. The train stopped shy of downtown due to the riots in progress and everybody piled out. I decided to leg it across the Loop to the transfer station and broke out in a quick walk—Irv didn’t countenance lateness even if attributable to epic social unrest. I was quickly met by an onrush of protesters chanting:
“Hell, no! We won’t go!”
“Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many boys did you kill today?”
They hurled expletives and solid objects at the cops, who responded with a vengeance, wielding billy clubs, chucking tear gas grenades, and scooping up the less mobile, writhing and kicking, into paddy wagons. I suddenly realized that there were no innocent bystanders from the cops’ POV; in fact, they might mistake my sample case for something more sinister. I broke out in a dead run, slaloming through the chaos, and finally reached the transfer station.
Half an hour later, I spotted Irv at a back booth in the coffee shop. Ignoring me as I slid in, he continued to scribble calculations.
“Top it off, Irv?”
As Irv nodded imperceptibly, the waitress refreshed his coffee. “Here, hon,” she said, pouring me a cup. I sat patiently until Irv finished his arithmetic. He reached into an attaché and produced a handful of checks, which he slid toward me.
“This covers the orders from last week. My deliveryman will take care of the open orders and I’ll mail you the remaining checks.”
“Thanks, Irv.” I handed over the demo case. “Just seem to be short a bottle of lotion.”
Irv shot the cuff and glanced at his watch. “From the look of the August numbers, you’ll be the number one rookie and ahead of most of the pros.”
“Irv, I can’t thank you—”
“Ah, Marty, gotta go.”
Smiling that Irv smile, he rose, fumbled in his pocket for a money clip, and proceeded to liberate a Benjamin, which he stuffed into my pocket. Gathering his attaché and my case, Irv moved toward the doorway with the grace of a big cat. The waitress opened the door and patted his butt on the way out, then resumed watching the riots on the diminutive black-and-white TV suspended in the ceiling corner.
I neatly folded the checks and tucked them in my wallet.