Thursday, December 31, 2009

Traveling Salesmen

Okay here's something I love about my husband: he used to be a traveling insurance salesman.  I didn't realize until I met him that anyone actually knocked on people's doors trying to sell them stuff anymore.  If a stranger knocked on my door I'd probably lock myself in the bedroom and call the police, nothing good could come from someone who is obviously unable to use a phone or email.  But he did it, and he was good at it.  By the time he was about 23 he was one of the top producers in the nation for his company.  He doesn't do it anymore, for one thing because I think these companies now realize that the days of the traveling salesman have died with the people who actually lived in the days of the traveling salesman, and also because it was stressful, putting on an act, a different act, for every house you entered and trying to guess the right act as soon as the door opens.  But like I said, he was good at it, and I now reap the benefits both in a slowly dwindling renewal check and more and more exaggerated stories. I sometimes try to get him talking about his sales days.  The other night I asked him how he would sell this charity stuff over the phone, like I have to try to do every day.  We talked and laughed for hours.
Justin and his partner Jerry and Marshall and Justin's dad and there are others whose names I hear regularly in the stories always worked in groups.  They would travel to small towns together, stay in cheap hotels, get breakfast in the morning and head off in different directions down the street, planning to meet back for an early lunch.  They sold life insurance and cancer policies mainly to older people to whom letting strangers into the house was not so frightening and weird.  There was always friendly competition going on and they would sabotage each other every chance they got.  Jerry came to lunch one day talking about the woman across the street who he had just called on.  She was sold.  He just had to get the papers in order and head back over there to get them signed.  At that point Marshall stood up flipped his plate onto the table, food and catchup flying and walked out the door.  Nobody payed much attention as Marshall was given to these little outbursts they went back to eating. They watched as he walked out the front door and as he started dodging traffic making his way across the busy street.  Jerry straightened up in his seat, leaned forward, put his hands on the table, and as it dawned on him what was happening, he started gathering his stuff.  He was calling for the waitress, fumbling with his wallet, trying to make change and finally running out the door.  The others followed behind and stood on the sidewalk laughing and watching Jerry dodge the traffic as Marshall walked out the front door of the woman's house grinning.
As Marshall walked down the steps he said, smiling, "it's okay Jerry, she's taken care of. You don't have to worry about her anymore, if anything happens to her, her family will be provided for."  That's not the worst of it though.  One time Marshall broke Jerry's finger.
Another day when they met for breakfast Marshall went up to Jerry saying "I bet I can break your finger."  Again, nobody payed too much attention because Marshall was always joking around, but given the nature of the two stories I'm writing I don't know why nobody payed attention.  
"Here, let me see your hand."  And Jerry handed him his right (policy writing) hand. Marshall wove his fingers between his, set it on the table and slammed his other hand down on top of it.  Jerry yelped and pulled his hand away, finger obviously broken.  "See, I told you I could break your finger."  And to this day Jerry's finger is all bent up from that. 
It occurs to me that the way I've told it, Marshall seems like a really bad guy.  That's not the case.  The Marshall stories are always the most crazy, but everyone loved him and he was always making people laugh, and all these guys were like him, to some degree.  They made their living on commission, that is on being likable, charming, and witty and it became an art.  I can't figure out if when they were not selling they were caught in the "on" mode and just trying to be funny and entertaining to each other, or if they were so "off" that they completely let loose and did what they wanted to do, or maybe it was both, maybe in that life it was the same thing.  One of my favorite things is to get Justin talking about those days.  A lot of the humor is lost when you're reading it and not listening and seeing it.  Someone out there ought to make a documentary about these old traveling salesmen.

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