Southwestern, Chapter Seven: The First Day

THE FIRST DAY

My hand reflexively smacked the top of the alarm clock, successfully ending the persistent beeping. Two seconds later, I was on the floor knocking out my 30 push ups. Fifteen seconds later, Ricky did the same. By six ‘clock, we were sitting in the corner booth at the diner.

Coffee. Oatmeal. A small cup of fruit. Deb recognized us from the day before, so we let her in on the plan. We’d be in for breakfast every morning throughout the summer. The crowd in the diner was always pretty slim, so it seemed she appreciated the repeat business.

We were silent for most of breakfast. Ricky was looking over his map while I was reading through the script one more time, our nerves starting to fray.

“Here we go,” said Ricky. “This is it.”

“Yep,” I said, lamely. I saw him scribbling something on his map. “Where are you starting?”

Ricky pointed to a spot on the western-most part of the map. “I’ll start here on Mangum Street and work my way back toward 47. I figure it’ll take me at least a week to cover this area.” He traced the neighborhood streets with his finger, showing just how many homes he’d scouted the day before. “What about you?”

I peered at his map and found the spot I’d selected the day before. “There,” I said, pointing at an intersection next to a rail road crossing.

We both fell silent for a few more minutes, waiting for 6:30am. We decided the day before that the goal was to get to the diner by 5:45am, wrapping up no later than 6:30am to get to our respective launch points. The edict from Andrew was to put knuckles on doors at seven o’clock sharp.

I checked my $6 watch (bought specifically for this trip) for the fiftieth time. Twelve more minutes. At that, Ricky stood up.

“I gotta go take care of some business.” He may have used more colorful language here, but for the purposes of this story, I’ll just leave it at that. He headed toward the front of the restaurant and took a hard left before getting to the cash register, disappearing into the restroom for the next ten minutes. This would become an essential part of his daily routine.

While I waited, I checked my gear. At the sales conference, each student was issued an over-the-shoulder bag containing a slew of demo books, a few laminated charts detailing the finance options, an antiquated credit card carbon-copy imprinter, and our selling log (affectionately referred to as the “slog”), among other things. There was a small pouch on the side of the bag for a water bottle and an inside pocket where a couple of sandwiches could be packed. The bag weighed around fifteen pounds, so it was suggested that we switch shoulders every hour to make sure we didn’t develop a strange limp. These people really cared about us, didn’t they.

I flipped through the demo book while mouthing the sales pitch. I’d practiced this speech no less than a hundred times. The demo book opened to the exact page every time – the book’s binding had memory and knew where I wanted to go. I got through the entire spiel twice before Ricky got back to the table. I decided I ought to empty my bladder before a long day. The restroom situation out on the streets would prove to be a challenge later in the summer.

We both pulled out of the lot and headed the same direction for a few blocks before Ricky pulled into the right-turn lane and disappeared over a bridge. I kept heading south another 15 minutes to my spot. I parked the car and checked my watch. I had eight minutes to kill.

I could feel the anxiety rising within. It was a mix of excitement and nerves, with a dash of panic thrown in to keep me feeling uneasy. For the first time, I wondered if people would be awake. Then I worried about whether or not I’d be interrupting breakfast. Didn’t it make more sense to start at 8am instead, I asked myself. But it didn’t. At the sales conference, one of the speakers took a deep dive into the mathematics behind selling door to door. For every one “yes”, we would get a “no” an average of 30 times. So the only way to make this worthwhile was to knock on as many doors as possible. Eighty per day was the goal. Three hard sales was the goal. Seven o’clock in the morning to nine o’clock at night. At least! Fourteen hour days were encouraged. Fifteen-hour days were celebrated. Sixteen-hour days, while rare, basically got you “god” status from the higher-ups.

(As a quick aside, 14-hour days six days a week. That’s 84 hours per week. The program was set up for 13 weeks of selling and one week of delivering. If you remember, my buddy Travis convinced me to join him for the summer saying that the average earnings was $8,000 dollars. All that adds up to about $6.80 per hour. Yikes.)

But before I could think about all that, I had to knock on the first door.

The first house was situated no more than 50 feet from a pair of train tracks. I could see some toys in the yard – a solid sign that the home had school-aged kids living there. It feels creepy to write that, but the trainers encouraged us to investigate these houses the best we could. If you saw MCPTs, you were in luck.

Multi-Colored Play Things, since I know you were wondering.

Anyway, house number one had MCPTs. I checked my watch one last time and got out of the car. I was so nervous I was fighting off nausea. At the front of the house, I climbed up the steps and knocked on the door. Two steps back, face the house next door, look impressive.

I waited thirty seconds. Nothing. I knocked again.

This time, chaos inside. A few small dogs, from the sound of it. “Yappers”. That term, too, came from sales boot camp. I would develop an undying hatred for Yappers that summer. If you have a dog that weighs less than ten pounds and it barks at anything that moves, you and I cannot be friends. It’s not you, it’s your dog.

The blinds in the window to the left began shaking and swaying wildly. The dogs sounded angry, then again, so did the owner. I heard multiple profanities hurled at the dogs, at which point my nerves went from “frayed” to completely “shredded”.

Then, everything fell silent. No barking, no yelling. Just the ambient sounds from the adjacent road. I took a deep breath, my lungs quivering as the air rushed back out. For a split second, I felt this intense urge to cry, almost to the point of nausea. I still cannot understand that feeling, but it has stuck with me all these years. I can remember this moment like it happened an hour ago.

It’s strange how certain moments stick with you forever, isn’t it? There was nothing traumatic about this moment. Nothing really all that memorable even happened. In fact, the door never opened. I waited about thirty seconds before knocking a third time, once again inciting the dogs into a full frenzy, and once again causing profanities and other insults directed at the yappers. But the door never opened.

And for whatever reason, I’ll never forget that feeling. This was the first of maybe a half-dozen memories – feelings, really – from this trip that have been forever burned into my consciousness. We’ll start exploring some of these in the next few chapters because, in some ways, these experiences have been affecting me ever since.

I took the hint. The owner wasn’t going to open the door. In a way, I was thankful. I checked my watch. Three minutes after 7 o’clock. Only 13 hours, 57 minutes to go.

Lord help me.

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