Death of a Salesman

Conscientious Objector

"You know, lots of us do lousy jobs we don't like," reads one of my lines in a play that opens this week in Dayton. "Doesn't mean we shirk our duty."

Many of us find ourselves in lines of work we would have sworn years earlier we would never enter. These jobs are usually taken out of an obligation or duty; the duty to pay our rent, utilities, insurance — all of those modern annoyances that feed like parasites upon our souls and limited incomes. In the best of cases, we take these jobs because they allow us the flexibility and freedom to pursue other work that nourishes us. In the worst of cases, they swallow us entirely.

Sometimes it's not so bad to be swallowed entirely. There's an awful lot of money to be made in employment with no redeeming social or cultural value. Indeed, these are usually the most profitable businesses around, because they are investments in the status quo. Then there are those of us who find no place for ourselves in the status quo; we need to do something else or risk our mental health.

For years I had the remarkable good fortune to work solely as an artist of one type or another. But since those good old days, I've found myself hyphenating any number of crummy jobs (-laborer, -garden gnome, -telemarketer) in order to maintain some semblance of a creative being. Last month I embarked upon the strangest employment adventure yet, the world of the door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.

I was lured by the promise of big money, pure and simple, and also by a misleading ad in the paper: "Customer Service," the header screamed in bold, "$600 Per Week!" A phone call to the number listed informed me that I would be having direct contact with customers and that the business "manufactures and sells electrical cleaning equipment." They were careful to avoid saying anything about selling Kirby vacuums door to door from a van.

My initial horror at learning the truth during orientation was soon overcome by the product itself (a truly impressive machine), and the sheer theatricality of my new colleagues; these people knew how to put on a show. They knew their lines, they used inflection (or, as they pronounced it, "influction"), they got excited. They had a system to push the buttons of couch potato consumers and persuade them to plunk down $1,600 for a vacuum cleaner. This was a job that did not just suck, but sucks with incredible power.

So I did it. I did my demos in the homes of old friends and complete strangers. I phoned my way in or knocked on doors cold. I made them like the Kirby, want the Kirby, need the Kirby. I tore their old vacuums to shreds with every insult and putdown my trainers had taught me. Frankly, it wasn't hard, because those machines really were crap, and really couldn't compete with what I was selling. I felt no guilt or shame whatsoever. And I sold. For a time. Beginners' luck.

After a couple of weeks, my sales starting dropping off, along with nearly all of the fellows in my class of new dealers. The leads were not there as we expected. We made too many bad deals to people with poor credit, and saw our profits eaten up by the finance company for their own protection. The flexibility I had looked forward to, selling Kirbys by day and rehearsing in Dayton by night, was not working out as planned. I couldn't make my two sales a week. Regardless of being well-liked, Willy Loman I was not. I only lasted a month.

There's a curious thing about such jobs, though. The salesman, the telemarketer, the in-store demonstrator, the actor, the politician, the whore: these are by tradition among the most reviled jobs in the public mind, the people we love to hate and ridicule, jeer at in public, slam the door on at home. (Also Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses.) But in an increasingly compartmentalized and isolated society, where we have done nearly everything we can to remove ourselves from direct contact with those around us, it is these people who keep the spontaneous spark of social interaction alive, who can relate instantly to a complete stranger and convince them there is someone who understands and cares about them and their needs.

So in the future, at least I'll know there are still some other options out there the next time I find myself "between engagements."

"You've got a chance to win a thousand dollars! If you get signed up right now as an at-work listener! You listen to the Mix at work, don't you?" ... "And as our gift to you, you can enjoy all of these products, with the convenient carry-all bag! You'd like that, wouldn't you?" ... "We have a new model out now. It works so well. It's so versatile we want everybody to see it. I get credit from my company for showing you what it can do for your home, and you get this car vac at no charge! That's great, isn't it?" ... "It all depends on what you want, honey. And I like a man who knows what he wants. That okay with you?" ... "Darren and I came by to talk to you today about some of the concerns that may be facing you and your family these days. May we come in?" ... "I think it is criminal that these conditions exist in our public schools, and we as taxpayers have no say in how to fix them. Don't you agree?"contact Michael Blankenship: [email protected]