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Once again, working on the theory that it’s a poor experience that we can’t get some piece of writing out of . . .
Yeah, the “Acme” vacuum cleaner referred to here is really a Kirby.
“If you get done early, just carry all your stuff down the street until you find a house that will let you in and demonstrate. We’ll find you,” I was told when I was let off in Prairie Grove on my second day of my job. The “stuff” in question was three or boxes of heavy vacuum cleaner attachments and other related gadgets.
They used to tell a very strange (and disturbing) story about one salesman who, when told a couple already had a vacuum cleaner, pulled out his knife and cut off the electrical cord. “You don’t now,” he is supposed to have said.
Over the years, I have considered that the folks running the Fayetteville operation in 1974 actually wanted a high turnover in sales people, for whatever reasons of their own. Well, they are all scattered to the four winds by now.
The Door- to-Door Blues
“All I have to do is bring in forty customers a month," he told me excitedly, “and I won't have to work in the winter months at all. I’ll just live on my savings account." We paused by the jewelry counter, and he fondled a Seiko. “You should see the new TV I have on lay-away at K-Mart,” he said as he reluctantly gave the watch back to the clerk.
“Not bad," I said, “for a guy working at a convenience store.”
He smiled smugly. "The days of hitting a time clock are over for me. From now on, it's Donald Trump time. You should consider working on commission, Richard."
I didn't tell him, but not only had I considered it, in 1974, I “worked” for three days on commission, trying to sell America's finest vacuum cleaner. The three days was too long to waste, by seventy two hours.
I had been in Arkansas about a week, and jobs were hard to came by. Gerald Ford was President, and the entire country was in the midst of a recession. I come fresh from a shoe factory in Pennsylvania, and wanted something with a little more variety. Working on commission seemed divinely inspired.
“All you have to do is demonstrate fifteen a week,” my new boss told me, “and you are guaranteed $150.You don't even have to sell any. You can't beat that.” My weekly take home pay from the Billig Shoe Company in Peckville had been sixty dollars a week. My eyes were shining after the interview.
The interview itself was very simple. They asked for my name, address, and gave me a basic math skills test. Third grade level basic, that is. They asked me to come back the next Monday for a week-long training session, unpaid, of course.
They held these sessions on a weekly basis, which should have warned me right then; if the operation was such a success, why the huge turnover?
Ah, well. I was young.
The training classes were pretty intense, and we learned everything mortal man could learn about vacuum cleaners, dirt and greed.
Did you know that dead skin can fall from your body at night and stick to your mattress? Luckily, the Acme (not the real name of the vacuum cleaner) is especially built to pick up dead skin. “Is this the way to your bedroom?” intoned the masterful salesman in our training film.
“Follow me," he commanded the young couple on screen, And damned if they didn’t follow along.
We practiced sales techniques until we could do them in our sleep. We worked on our sincerity until we shone like beacons on a storm tossed night. We practiced eye contact, body language, and subtle shadings of the truth.
I had seen the Glory, and it cleaned my rug.
The next Monday, I was an official vacuum cleaner salesman. We all got together at around eight in the morning, were introduced to our “Team Leaders,” and mingled together in the conference room for a warm up session.
To warm for the day, we clapped hands and sang songs like “Roll out the Acme. Let's have an Acme of fun!” Or: “Acme Bells, Acme Bells, Acme all the way!”
We were grown men, standing around a cheaply furnished office, clapping hands and singing stupid songs. This wasn't a business; this was a low-rent religious cult.
There were two last details before we left for the day. We were all given a packet containing a thousand S&H Green Stamps (remember them?) in order to entice a potential customer into signing a deal. All they had to do was buy even just one accessory, like a handle, or an extension, and we'd plop out the stamps. The manager told us they were a surefire way to make a sale.
Then, he got all the new guys in a huddle and said, "There's a lot of sexy women out there, guys, but if you have to fool around, make a date for a motel. Don't do anything while you are on Company time.”
I couldn't believe my ears; did all those old jokes about door-to-door salesmen have some basis in fact? This night turn out to be a really great job; my fertile imagination was working overtime on the possibilities.
We found ourselves divided up into two teams, and we were driven out in vans. There were four in my team. We had the Team Leader, the Assistant Team Leader, and two rookies.
We drove for what seemed like forever. I didn’t understand why we weren’t trying to sell in Fayetteville. I asked the Team Leader, who waved some sheets at me.
“Look,” he said. “Every time you demonstrate an Acme, you ask them to give you the names of fifteen of their friends, who might also be interested in buying from us. It’s like a big circle.”
I was so innocent.
“But why are we so far from Fayetteville?” We had just passed the city limits of a place called “Prairie Grove.” I had visions of the Real McCoys.
“Hell, in the past six months we’ve covered all of Fayetteville. There are thousands of Acmes in town since we started.”
Wow, I was pretty lucky to be involved in an organization like this.
We had passed Prairie Grove, and driven even further. Finally, we stopped by the side of the road. “Okay, her’s where we divide up customers,” our Leader said. Each of us got one address. I drew a Charlene Something-Or-Other.
I was let out in the midst of what could only be called the poor side of the tracks. I was helped out of the van, along with four boxes of various sizes, and left outside Charlene’s door.
A thin woman in her 40s answered the door. “You must be the salesman, “ she drawled. Two young children clung to her legs. Toys and cats cluttered the sparsely furnished living room.
“I reckon I am,” I answered brightly. And we were off and running.
I manfully went through every sales technique I had learned the previous week, But I can honestly say the demonstration was a failure. My performance was wooden, and I stumbled over the script, and forgot entire passages. Besides, the woman and her husband had both been out of work for over a month.
Oh, I knew that other salesmen bragged about selling machines to welfare recipients, but I like to think I have more integrity than that. If I’d had the sales skills, though, I might well have done the same, with no qualms whatsoever.
In desperation, I remembered the infamous dead skin.
“Is this the way to . . .” my voice trailed off. To what? Your bedroom? Things are a lot different in real life than on a training film.
She looked at me, puzzled. '”Do you need to use the bathroom?”
“Yes!” I jumped up. Inside, I gathered what little courage I had left, and came bounding out.
“Did you know that skin falls off your body at night?” I asked brightly.
She looked at me with a hard expression, and her voice tightened. "No skin don't fall off my body."
“No, ma'am," I said weakly. No need in even trying to flourish the Green Stamps around. I finished the demonstration as quickly as possible, and the training film be damned. I waited by the street for an hour, waiting for the van to pick me up.
The next day went just as brilliantly. This time I drew a far more affluent home, out in some God forsaken neck of the woods. I was a little more practiced, though, and remembered most of my lines. I even resolved to go through with, "Is this the way to your bedroom?"
The owner of the house, an incredibly beautiful woman in her late thirties, looked at me just as I was about to launch into the horrors of dead skin and said, “You really are a pest, you know that? All the stories I've heard about salesman are true. I’m really sorry I agreed to this.”
After that, I wasn't about to say, "Is this the way . . .” No doubt she'd heard those stories, too.
“You wouldn't be interested in Green Stamps, would you?” No sale today, either.
The third and last day, I finally got around to explaining about dead skin, and how it caused a variety of dread ailments, not to mention severely weighting your mattress down if left neglected for years, and how I really could clean it up, and show you just how much of this nasty stuff you've been shedding.
My potential customer, a grandmotherly type, took me into what was obviously a child's nursery. I scrubbed and scrubbed with this unwieldy machine for at least two minutes, and proudly opened up the bag to show her what I had captured.
A cockroach crawled out, and we both recoiled in horror.
That was it. No more for me, I decided, as the van pulled back into Fayetteville at eleven that night. Three demonstrations in three days, and that meant that I was still twelve away from my “guaranteed” $150.
The next week I was pulling out chicken guts at one of our more prestigious chicken plants. It may have been messy, and wet, but it was a steady paycheck, and that's all I cared about.
I kept the Green Stamps.
Grapevine - April 27, 1990