My First Job
by Steven Axelrod
It was the summer of 1971 and Manhattan was molten in the summer heat. The air wavered over the softening asphalt and walking the furnace streets I felt like I’d been dipped in grease and dredged in grit. My girlfriend Marian and I were living in my Mom’s apartment on 82nd Street, looking for jobs. I’d been turned down everywhere.
It shouldn’t have been my first job, anyway: a nineteen year old should have some kind of résumé, even if it’s only delivering pizza or babysitting. But my summers had always been devoted to leisure. At least I did my school reading and kept my room clean. It was my mother’s idea. She figured I’d be working most of my life and wanted me to look back fondly on these sun-dappled, unstressed months between school years, when I had nothing to do but dawdle and dream. I was grateful for that, but those years were emphatically over.
Still, I couldn’t find a job and the newspapers were no help. The New York Times ran plenty of ads for medical technicians and school superintendents, and ‘systems technicians’, but I couldn’t imagine even faking a résumé for any of them.
So I was ready on a humid Thursday morning, when I saw the ad for “Encyclopedia Salesmen Wanted”. Marian was just as desperate, so we went down to the office together.
The office was a dingy fourth-floor suite underneath a Judo studio. The place looked abandoned, with long folding tables like the ones they use for conventions or voter registration, unused desks, travel posters for Curaçao peeling off the walls where the cloudy scotch tape had failed. But there were chairs set up in front of a blackboard and we sat with seven other kids and waited. A slim overly friendly guy in a perverse dark suit shook our hands and offered us tepid sodas: the greeter at an AA meeting. The air conditioner struggled with the solid sauna-bath heat. We listened to it whining, and the thumps and shouts from upstairs.
Finally he arrived, the star of the show — Bob Craig: short, burly, full of barely contained energy, an attack dog in the Sphinx position, sizing you up, waiting for a command: that low growl of undivided attention. He had brown hair and brown eyes and an absolutely forgettable face. You couldn’t pick him out of a line up if you’d known him for twenty years. Blue shirt, khaki pants, madras jacket: everyman.
“So Tad’s taken care of you?” he asked. “You all have drinks? No? Well, Tad takes his time. Don’t you Tad? You can’t rush Tad. He takes an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes.”
We all laughed. It wasn’t that funny but we wanted to please him.
“So let’s get started. I made twenty four hundred dollars last week – just from my own visits. I get commissions on what my people sell but I’m not talking about that because that doesn’t matter to you. I’m talking about one guy in a van, cold-calling families in Mawah, New Jersey. Twenty four hundred dollars. You can make that kind of money here. But you can’t make it anywhere else. Unless you have a gun in your hand.”
Another laugh, but a nervous one. He seemed to like the idea of a gun in his hand: the perfect sales tool.
He picked up a heavy leather bound volume off a desk.
“This isn’t real leather,” he said. “We spend our money on the inside of the book. This is The Merit Students Encyclopedia. It’s the best of its kind. In the world. You don’t have to sell it. All you have to do is show it. Let people see it. It sells itself. I sold twenty four sets last week. Four a night, six nights. On the seventh day I rested.” He waited for the laugh, moved on. “One hundred dollars a pop, commission. This is the sample volume: it gives you a hint of what the set is all about. Look at it.”
He opened it, fanned past pages of lavish color illustrations, acetate overlays, maps and reproductions of great art. It was impressive. He snapped the book shut.
“I know what you’re thinking. How do I even get inside somebody’s house? How do I even start? Well, kids, that’s the easy part. That’s science.”
He was right. Two nights later I was doing it myself.
Pitching and Striking Out
We drove out of the city in Bob’s big white econoline van, facing each other on benches running lengthwise like paratroopers waiting for the drop. “Take this crummy little neighborhood by storm!” Bob shouted. “Show no mercy.” He let me off at a leafy intersection of shaggy lawns strewn with plastic toys and tethered barking dogs. It was also the pick up spot, so along with everything else, I had to remember how to retrace my steps at the end of the night. I had no idea where I was. It felt like I could have been anywhere in the vast uniform suburban America that started at the New Jersey Palisades. I walked for a while, awkward in my suit, lugging my briefcase full of samples. Finally I steeled myself and knocked on a door. A tired looking woman opened it. I could hear the high pitched screeches and shouts of sibling warfare from inside the house.
“Hi,” I smiled, sticking out my hand.
“Gotta smile,” I could hear Bob saying, back in the seedy third floor office. “Big smile, fake smile, make your cheeks ache. And stick your hand out to shake. She will shake it.”
I stuck my hand out. She shook it.
“I’m doing some work in the neighborhood, talking to all the families. Do you mind if I come in and talk to you for a minute?”
I had the words right, but the words weren’t the important part. The important part was wiping your feet on her welcome mat.
“She steps back, you step forward” Bob had told us. “It’s like a dance, kids. It’s a dance contest where you always win the prize.”
“She always steps back?” someone said.
Bob stared him down. “Always.”
“What if there’s no door mat?” some else asked.
“Doesn’t matter. Wipe your feet and walk right in.”
“I could never do that,” Marian had whispered to me.
“Yes, you can,” Bob answered her. How had he even heard her? “Anyone can. That’s the beauty of it.”
So I wiped my feet on the non-existent mat and she stepped backward, just as Bob had said she would. I walked into house, made sure her husband was home, and began.
“Never pitch a woman by herself,” Bon had told us. “Her husband will cancel the deal when he hears about it. She can’t sell it like you can. She doesn’t have the tools. Okay. You walk in. You give her the Qualifier.”
I introduced myself to her pear-shaped pony-tailed husband and sat down on an uncomfortable tilting armchair, facing them on the couch.
I talked about the importance of good reference materials, the critical first years of a child’s education, the inconvenience — and lack of privacy — in the woefully under-funded public libraries, which were not always located not always in the best neighborhoods. How was a parent to assure their child of a quality education? With a home library, like The Merit Students Encyclopedia, which gave you a world of knowledge at your fingertips “Without ever leaving the home.”
Then came the big finish. I hated saying it.
“This is the knockout punch,” Bob had told us. “Learn it word for word. He took a breath and spoke slowly. “‘Do you think you could be interested in a program like this … or is your child’s education something you just don’t care about?’ Snap. There’s only one answer to that one, kids!”
Marian had made the same face I remembered from the night we ate my sister’s special mashed potatoes with whole grapes: disgust, disbelief, despair. I shrugged: this meal was just beginning.
And two nights later I was saying it, and they were hastening to assure me that they were passionate about their kids’ education, and soon I was laying out the big sheets with the illustrated maps and the unfolding accordion placards showing the volumes and highlighting portraits of American presidents and the gallery of great art lovingly reproduced on the ‘fine, acid free pages’.
“Box them in,” Bob had instructed us gleefully. Trap them on that couch!”
It was working, They nodded and smiled as I outlined the study aides and described the yearbooks that would update the set forever.
Then we started talking business.
I explained that under our easy credit terms ‘for well-qualified buyers like yourselves’ the set would only cost a dime a day. Then I took out the piggy bank.
“It says right on it — ‘An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.’” Bob had told us. “So you say – “
I got it out:, let them hold it, turn it over in their hands, read the inscription. “Do you know who said that, Ma’am?’
“Of course she doesn’t!” Bob had crowed at us. “And she’s starting to feel foolish. Do you finish her off and humiliate her and say ‘Benjamin Franklin’? No! You say –”
“George Pal, the President of our company,’ and they both laughed just as Bob said they would, so relieved to find out I was no better than them: a jolly fellowship of educational inadequacy, all of us wanting something better for our kids, friends for life now –
“ –and she signs and her husband signs, and you’re out of there.”
But after almost an hour of high intensity selling they folded toward each other, nervous and embarrassed.
“We just can’t afford it right now,” the man said.
“It does look wonderful though,” his wife agreed.
“Maybe you could leave your card?”
But of course I had forgotten my card.
I was exhausted when I walked out into the dark street.
“It’s like learning a part in a school play,” Bob had told us. “You get the standing ovation and we all get rich. Do well enough and you get a week in Curaçao into the bargain. Interested?”
Of course we had been. It seemed too easy. We both signed up, and agreed to meet there on the following Monday at four o’clock – this was an evening job.
Trudging to the van pick-up after that first miserable night, I remembered walking down Eighth Avenue with Marian after Bob’s high-powered orientation. “I’ll give it a try,” I had said. “But I’d never buy an encyclopedia from that guy.”
Marian shook her head. “You’re missing the point, Steve. He wasn’t selling encyclopedias today. He was selling the job. And we both bought it. So did everyone else.”
The Bum in the Territory
Marian and I pitched each other over breakfast and lunch, walking in the park and riding buses uptown, shopping for shoes she couldn’t afford at Bloomingdale’s. We worked hard.
By the next week we were doing better. Or so we thought. I gave five qualifiers one night, and proceeded to attempt five pitches. Marian gave eight qualifiers but never got any further.
“Do your qualifier!” Bob had shouted at her in the van heading back into the city. It was 10:30 at night and were all exhausted. All of us except Bob. His beady feral energy never seemed to lag. “Do it!” he repeated.
So she started, and he interrupted her every few words. “Eye contact! Show some enthusiasm! You’re doing this woman a favor! Smile! You call that a smile? That’s a grimace! ‘Something you might not care for? That’s what you said? You can’t memorize ONE ENGLISH SENTENCE? Everybody. Together: Or. Is. Your. Child’s. Education. Something. You JUST. DON’T. CARE. ABOUT? Again. Now you – Marian. Do it.” She jumbled the words and started crying. “Great! That’ll sell books! That’ll move merchandise. Cry for them.”
I should have stuck up for her, but I didn’t. Bob scared me. Anyway, it it was my turn next. I had given five pitches — and sold nothing.
I was screwing up the pitch.
“Do it now,” Bob demanded.
“Come on –“
“Do it now or walk home!”
I had forgotten parts, mixed things up, used the wrong emphasis, but the thing that really infuriated him had to do with the giant glossy-paper fold-out map of Italy.
”Did you do the tour, point out the landmarks? The Colosseum, Saint Mark’s Square in Venice? Go on – now you.”
“Well … this campanile is the famous ‘leaning tower’ of Pisa,” I started.
“Yeah, what? It’s the word for a tower attached to another building, and –”
“Yeah I just said — ”
“You just made them feel like idiots because they don’t know as many big words as you do, Mr. Professor. That’s what you did. You lost them right there! Tomorrow night – stick to the script. Campaneely! Jesus.”
Once on the way home Marian had tried to call his bluff. “All that fake negativity doesn’t fool me,” she said.
He twisted around in his seat to face her. Tad was driving, as always. His pout precisely mocked Marian’s. He was a cruel physical mimic. “Oh no, I’m not gonna let that mean Bob Craig reverse me into making some money! I’m too smart for that.”
We went out for cheap dinners before the night’s work and he routinely collected all our receipts – for the tax audit. He wrote off every one of our meals and God knows what else. “I love the tax audit!” he crowed one night. “It’s my favorite indoor sport. I made three hundred thousand dollars last year and got two grand back from the government. Oh man, they hate me so much.”
Once I griped about the ‘territory’ – I had picked up the phrase from him. The neighborhood seemed to be mostly older people who had no interest in a “student’s” encyclopedia. Most of them already had the Brittanica — clearly a better product, though you weren’t allowed to say so. Even The World Book was a better product.
One guy listened politely to my pitch and then spent half an hour trying to sell me a fire alarm.
Bob wasn’t interested in complainers.
“So I gave you a bum territory? Well I have news for you, kid. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A BUM TERRITORY! There’s just the bum IN the territory. And that’s you!”
Years later, I saw the brilliant documentary The Salesman about guys selling Bibles in the Midwest. I smiled when I heard that familiar line. I suspect Bob had absorbed the movie so deeply he probably didn’t even know he was quoting it.
That film was his Bible.
“Uh-Uh for a Week”
If you failed often enough Bob took you on a ‘retrain’ session: you followed him around and watched him work. He had already sold two sets the night a bunch of us followed him, when we knocked on the door of a house with only one light on upstairs.
“They’re probably asleep,” Marian whispered.
“They’re awake! They’re reading. See – no blue TV light. My perfect customers!”
He wound up pitching the couple in their bedroom, with all his materials spread out on the bed, with six of us standing around watching. It was surreal. The husband said no, but the wife was infatuated with Bob’s unassuming good looks and enthusiasm.
She turned to her husband and said in the most matter-of-fact tone imaginable, “Either we buy this encyclopedia right now, or it’s uh-uh for a week.”
So he sold a total three sets that night.
It was the same pitch I always gave. What was the difference? I once heard that the original choice for Rick in Casablanca was Ronald Reagan. And Paramount wanted Frank Sinatra to play the Godfather.
Casting is everything.
The year before the most successful team member was a petite blond named Jennifer. She was a little slow but very sincere. She had never grasped that she was actually selling a set of reference books. She thought she was enrolling families in an educational program (the books were a bonus). They thought so, too. But they also believed that George Pal said that line about an investment in knowledge.
Tad got drunk one night, sat her down and told her the truth.
“You’re a salesperson, honey.”
“I am not!”
He took an hour to convince her. They had to go over the small print in the sales contract. She quit the next day.
The FTC made them change the pitch a few months later. We were giving the revised version.
The only two people who did well with it were Amelia, the chubby blond daughter of wealthy diplomats, and Joel D’Hue, a six foot four, jet black regally handsome impeccably polite Jehova’s Witness from the Seychelle Islands. I thought it was ironic that our best salesman had no interest in Curaçao. It would be like offering me a vacation in Brooklyn. I think Joel intimidated people, not with his size or even his color but with his immense dignity and patience. You didn’t want to disappoint him. Even Bob was intimidated: Joel wouldn’t work on Saturdays and there was nothing the boss could do about it.
“Is there a Jehovah’s Witness Protection agency?” I asked once. “I mean – you see someone turning a woman to stone, you could testify against the guy, put him away for a long time.” Not funny. “God is omniscient, Steve,” he said quietly. “You cannot hide from God.”
I did make Joel laugh once, though — when I told him I liked mangoes. “Mangoes?” he said. “There are twenty varieties of Mangoes where I live. That would be like me saying to you I like ‘the car’ as if there was only one brand. Mangoes!” He laughed and laughed at that one.
“This is the Crap You’re Selling”
The first set I sold I forgot the Closer. I guess I figured it would never come up. Bob had to come in and finish off the paper work. I knew I was never going to live that one down. The second set I sold was to a military couple and they were refused because their credit wasn’t good enough. “But it’s only a dime a day,” I said to Bob. He cackled. “Yeah, for the rest of their lives. They wind up paying a grand for a two hundred dollar encyclopedia.”
How could it be so cheap? I found out the next night. I had barely begun my pitch when the man stood and said, “You’ve never seen this goddamn encyclopedia have you? Have you? Have they ever let you look at it?”
I shook my head.
“Well I bought into the whole education program bullshit last year, and I got the crummy encyclopedia – it’s on the shelf over there. Behind the ficus tree. Take a look. Be my guest.”
I was shocked. It was absurdly, comically cheap – bad paper, runny ink … and they had crammed every illustration in the twenty volume set into the sample volume. It was cheesy and bad. It reminded me of those X-shaped housing projects way up north on the East Side: grim and miserable.
“This is the crap you’re selling,” the guy said to me. “What do you say about that?”
I had nothing to say. I just got out of there.
The Real World
Outside in the street of the quiet little subdivision I could smell barbecue fires. I could hear people having drinks on their front lawns. They were at home, enjoying the night, relaxing with their friends. That was where I wanted to be. Marian felt the same way.
We both quit the next day.
“I don’t think I like the real world very much.” Marian said to me. She had never sold a single set. She actually talked one couple out of it.
We went back to school a few weeks later. We broke up that year. Maybe she’d seen me browbeaten by Bob Craig too many times. Maybe I was just one more part of the real world she wanted to avoid for as long as possible. I know the summer took its toll on us.
As for Bob and the gang, the FTC chased Merit Students Enclyclopedia all the way to Canada, where Bob got to go back to his old, more comprehensively deceptive pitch.
I guess Bob didn’t like the real world much, either. I don’t know if Google ended The New Yorker fact-checking department, but I’m pretty sure Wikipedia eventually killed off The Merit Students Encyclopedia.
I bet Bob Craig is still working it though, all these years later, sunning himself in Curaçao, selling something else.
Maybe even Bibles.
–by Steven Axelrod
Post Layout by Natalia Sarkissian