Hank the son of a bitch who would have left without me without having given it a second thought said, “Oh, I see you made it. Good for you. C’mon, let’s go.”
I had just hitchhiked about fourteen miles from Manchester, Connecticut, to West Hartford, Connecticut, one small middle class town to the east of Hartford, Connecticut, to another more affluent small town to the west of the largest city in Connecticut, and I did it in four rides and arrived just on time at 8 a.m. on a Monday, the start of a sales week consisting of six thirteen hour days with a day of rest to wash clothes and attend an afternoon of sales training in the summer of 1977 when I was twenty years old.
I had taken this summer job that was usually done by college students to make “good money” in just three months of hard, character-building work that could be used for college expenses. The door-to-door sales company we worked for had been around since the end of the American Civil War and had originally sent out veterans of what the southern part of our country called “The War Between The States” to sell Bibles all around the midwest.
But my modern day colleagues and I were trying to sell crappy readers for pre-schoolers and an all-in-one study guide that was hawked by us as all a first grade through twelvth grade student would ever need and which would save a family the expense of a full set of encyclopedias or a bothersome trip to the local library. All this for the very low and extremely affordable price of twenty dollars for the pre-school reader and sixty dollars for the all-in-one study guide.
We sales people handled everything from taking the order and delivering the product when it arrived to submitting two thirds of every sale to the company and pocketing one third for ourselves. Most people who knew how NOT to take “no” for an answer made three to five thousand dollars during the course of a three month summer’s employment. Some losers washed out immediately because they couldn’t cut the mustard. A few like me hung on as if our very lives depended on it, barely getting by on enough sales each week to pay a twenty-five dollar room in some old person’s boarding house and to buy a meager meal each day.
Suffice it to say that if my Mama had seen me with my severely blistered feet and ever-growling and ever-tightening belly she’d likely have wept for her poor, poor baby boy who was trying so hard to be a man on his own.
And as I said before, my plan for all this was to make enough money to buy a motorcycle at the end of the summer, and a handgun for self-defense and move to California to sell pot for a living so that I could realize all the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll that I thought that I needed to finally be happy. To this end, I prayed constantly every day, “God, please lead me to do Your Will,” because I’d read something in my parent’s copy of T.V. Guide that the real life Maria von Trapp about whom they wrote the successful Broadway play and made the major motion picture starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer had said, “The only way to be happy in this life is to find God’s Will and to do it.”
Since by age twenty my childhood Roman Catholicism had transmogrified into a New Age drug-infused mystic belief that I was God, praying this magic prayer made perfect sense . . . until it didn’t . . . until the existential life and death struggle in which I found myself made this mantra, “God, please lead me to do Your Will,” the only thing that I had left in the world.
It wasn’t Hank’s fault that I sucked at a sales job that even women I noted were doing successfully. When Sergio and I told Darrel after the second or third week that we wanted to quit and hitchhike our way back across the country some two thousand miles to our native state of Arizona, Darrell, a college football player, just said, “Well, I guess it’s like coach always says that some men are just pussies.” That one line spurred Sergio who was almost as bad as me to keep trying until he finally finished the summer. Me . . . I just thought to myself, “OK . . . I guess I’m a pussy.” But I lied to Darrel and told him that I wouldn’t quit, and I didn’t . . . not then . . . not yet.
But it was Hank’s job to show me how to do this job right since I’d been floundering for the first six weeks or so. What Hank proceeded to show me as his tag-a-long sales help was how to give ten demonstrations of our crappy books in the morning, ten more in the afternoon, and a final ten in the evening before calling it a day. This formula when diligently applied was sure to achieve at least three sixty dollar sales each day of a three month summer. Do the math and that’s about four grand right there.
Once you got the swing of things and could sell some twenty dollar readers to the cheapskates who wouldn’t buy the all-in-one study guide or, sometimes, sell both to some real goober or more if the idiot wanted to buy multiple sets for all the families he or she cared about, a summer making about ten thousand dollars was realistic for those who got good at this. The story was told of one goofy looking salesman who had a great disarming personality who eschewed the front doors and went, instead, around back where he would stick his head inside the unlocked back door and startle some bored housewife with his friendly, “Hey! I’m here!” and before she could say “What? Get out of here before I call the police!” he was already into a demo complete with folksy humor and self-effacing charm which almost always resulted in him selling the grateful lady something! It was said that guy banked a cool twenty thousand dollars each summer!
Hank showed me how to do the thirty demonstrations that day that he took me around with him which did secure about four or five study guide sales and a few of the pre-school readers. The only one stop that I can still visualize these forty-five years later was when we were driving out in the country from one well to do home to another and we turned into a gravel drive way with “A. Miller” on the country mail box.
When we got out of Hank’s car, Hank immediately extended his right hand to a very tall, professorial-looking man wearing black rimmed glasses like Barry Goldwater used to wear. He was in his yard cutting limbs off a fallen tree with the chain saw in his large right hand. A trim older but attractive woman was helping him by piling up the tree limbs and all I remember about her was that she spoke with what sounded like a German accent. The large man with the chain saw stretched out his left hand backwards and upside down to shake Hank’s extended right hand. This odd but manly gesture mesmerized me as did my realization that Hank was shaking hands with the legendary Arthur Miller who wrote “Death of a Salesman!”
Mr. Miller gave Hank a few minutes to make his pitch, but then he explained, “I’m afraid, Son, that we’ve no use for your books because we have no children nor even grandchildren living here with us, but if you go further down the road to Walter Matthau’s place, he’s got lots of grandchildren. Maybe he’ll buy your books. Now if you’ll both excuse me, I’ve got to get my work done before sundown which is coming on pretty fast you see.”
Hank tried another stab at his pitch until Arthur Miller pulled the starter cord on his chain saw and ended the conversation right then and there. For the rest of my life I’ve wished that I had been brave enough to ask, “Mr. Miller . . . Sir . . . would you please sign my demo book? Maybe write something like, ‘To Mark, Don’t let this job be the death of you!’”
But I didn’t. No guts, no glory. Right? Damn! THAT’s a moment that will never come again, huh? When we got back in Hank’s car and backed out of the driveway past the mailbox with “A. Miller” on the side, I said to Hank, “Do you know who that is?”
“No,” said Hank. “Who?”
“That’s Arthur Miller.”
“Who?” asked Hank with almost complete disinterest.
“Arthur Miller. He wrote ‘Death of a Salesman.’”
“Never heard of it,” said Hank.
“He was once married to Marilyn Monroe.” I said.
“Oh,” said Hank. “So.”
By then we were at Walter Matthau’s house, and nobody was home.
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