Friday, June 12, 2009

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 11: Of Brooms and Baptists

It was becoming clear to me now this would not be the easy and quick sale I'd hoped it would be. This seemed confirmed as my gaze drifted from the picture on the wall of the giant Jesus at the U.N. building to the big black Holy Bible atop the buffet keeping company with the family photos. To the woman's question about how my day was going, I observed that it certainly was hot outside today and I sure appreciated the cold lemonade. I didn't want to admit to her this was my first day as a Fuller Brush salesman and that I had yet to make a sale. I think she sensed this though. As I reached down in to my sample bag and brought out a slim catalogue of our latest products, she said, as if making a further comment on the weather, "Do you know that God loves you very much and sent his son Jesus to die on the cross for you?" There followed a moment of awkward silence as she waited for my answer and I tried to think of something to say which wouldn't blow the sale. "Um, yes" I said, "my grandma is a Baptist and I know they told us that at vacation Bible school." I figured this acknowledgment of mine might put this topic to rest and we could get on with discussing our new line of products made especially for the modern kitchen. It was not to be.

She reached over and, before I could draw my hand back from the table, she placed hers on mine. She tried to make eye contact with me but I saw it coming and turned my head as if I had just heard something in the distance which called for my attention. Anything to avoid what I was afraid would come next. She gave my hand a little squeeze and said softly, almost confidentially, as if just between us, "I'm glad you know about Jesus, but do you believe in him? Have you placed your trust in him and asked him to forgive your sins and come to live in your heart?" Another even more awkward silence ensued. I no longer cared about making a sale, I just desperately wanted to extract myself from this embarrassing inquisition as soon as possible and get back to knocking on doors where no one was home. The problem was that this woman had my catalogue under her other hand and the unspoken one-sided agreement seemed to be that, if I would just listen to what she had to say, she was willing to buy something from me afterwards. The odd thing was that her teen-aged daughter had taken a seat at the table with us as if we were going to have a little family discussion. She may have been a mute for all I knew, for she never said a word the whole time. I suspected though that she was praying, with her eyes open, the whole time. I somehow got the impression that I was not the first salesman to fall into the snare of this mother-daughter evangelical tag-team. "Well," I began, "I think Jesus was kind of a revolutionary and said lots of things about love and peace and brotherhood sort of like Woody Guthrie did and the establishment just couldn't take his radical ideas and so they had him killed as a rebel." With this answer I had managed to move things to slightly safer territory. I didn't really mind speculating about Jesus' political troubles in some abstract fashion, but to discuss my sins and how Jesus had died to forgive them was beyond the pale. "The Lord has called us," she said, mercifully letting go of my hand, "to tell everyone the good news of the gospel and promised that his Spirit would help them to see the truth and come to Jesus. I will pray for you that God will lead you to the path of salvation." With that, it seemed she'd done her duty and would soon free me to go on my way. I felt our tension--mine and hers--dissipate somewhat and she asked if I would like some more lemonade. "No, thank you," I said, "I need to be going and so..." She opened the catalogue and pointed to the Easy-Breezy kitchen broom with matching dust pan. After filling out the order form I collected my things and she showed me to the door. I wished her a good day and she in return said, in a sincere tone, "God bless you." Before I turned to go I saw her daughter, still seated at the dining room table, now with her head slightly bowed. I continued up the street in an odd daze of unreality at what had just happened. I'd never forget my first sale as a Fuller Brush man.

This encounter was just one of a number of them I seemed doomed to experience in the next ten months. I would come back to the car where it was parked downtown to find a gospel tract tucked under the wiper. I'd absent-mindedly give the radio dial a spin only to have it stop on a station blaring some preacher. I'd bump into an old acquaintance from high school and they'd start witnessing to me about being "born again." I'd go into a public restroom and there would be a psychedelic sticker saying One Way--Jesus! Mostly these things irritated me, but in tandem with my reading the gospel accounts, they felt "aimed" at me by I knew not whom.

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, part 10: Death of a Salesman

A person can't spend all his time falling in love and thinking about God--one has to make a living. My dad was letting me, his 21-year-old grown son, stay with him but he also expected me to find a job and pay some for my upkeep. I began pouring over the classifieds in our local newspaper, the Riverside Press Enterprise. I had been a paperboy for them back in the early sixties. The day after Kennedy was shot, I rode my route with my big canvas handlebar bags stuffed full with the papers I'd folded and banded that afternoon. As I peddled to my customer's neighborhood, people were stopping me left and right pleading with me to sell them a paper. They pull their cars along side me, waving a dollar bill in offer for a ten-cent paper! Unfortunately, I had not had the entrepreneurial foresight to stock up with extras before starting my route that day. But I digress. That was in 1963. It is now eight years later and I am living with my dad on a little horse ranch and trying to find a job.

I ran down the columns of minuscule type: Auto mechanic; Bartender; Carpenter; Drill-press Operator; Estimator; Fork lift Operator; Fuller Brush Salesman... Hmmm... Career opportunity for motivated person. No experience necess--will train. Base pay draw against commissions for first 3 weeks, straight commission after. Apply in person, Mon thru Wed. In the late-fifties, the Fuller Brush man used to come by our house twice a year. Dad would always buy something--whether he needed it or not. Being a fellow salesman, they shared a special kinship which would not let dad send the poor guy away without an order or some sort, if only for a whisk broom or two. Perhaps the Fuller Brush man was a fellow Mason and had given dad the secret handshake. Then again, dad had nearly zero sales-resistance himself and so perhaps would have bought something no matter what. I think the man came by our house as regularly as he did because he knew 2982 Gertrude Street was a sure sale.

I put in my application to become a Fuller Brush Man and aced the interview--which probably everyone did--and then, after being shown how to fill out an order form, was given a big Fuller Brush sample briefcase, a catalogue and a territory to work. Off I set, a spanking new salesman with shiny black slacks, white shirt and tie and with my long curly hair carefully rubber-banded and tucked up at the nape of my neck. The mustache had been allowed, but not the beard. It had been reluctantly sacrificed to The Man in the interest of gainful employment.

There were fewer and fewer housewives these days so I'd often have to knock on five or six doors before finding someone home. Then, it would invariably be either an elderly couple, or a middle-aged woman in her forties or fifties. In the course of an hour, I'd found a few folks home, but no one in need of any of our well-made and handy products. I was beginning to get discouraged when, at the next house where someone was home, I got invited in. This seemed a good sign. The woman who'd greeted me with a friendly smile looked to be about forty. Being late July it was quite hot out, perhaps in the mid-nineties, and as she ushered me to the big maple Early American dining room table she called out, "Cynthia, please bring some lemonade for this young man." As I seated myself I noticed, on the wall near where I sat, a large framed picture of a giant half-transparent Jesus standing outside the U.N. building. He had a concerned look on his face and was rapping a knuckle on one of the upper floors. This Jesus had sandy blond hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and was draped in Ben-Hur-like first-century robes. I began to feel an itch under my white collar. As Cynthia smiled and handed me a big glass of lemonade and her mom, with a note of concern in her pleasant voice asked me, "How have your sales been so far today?" I already didn't like the direction the conversation. I could see I'd have to try for a quick sale and, I hoped, a speedy escape...