It had been a rough morning for Travis. It was 11:30 in the morning and he hadn’t even gotten a chance to give a full demo. I could tell he was irked and I joked over and over that I was a bad luck charm. He always downplayed it, saying I was being dramatic. But by 11:30am I think I may have persuaded him. He made a comment about how unusual it was to go an entire morning without giving a demo. I laughed harder than I’d laughed all summer, simply because his “unusual” situation was my “normal”. It was funny to me. I was also maybe just a little delirious.
We jumped in his car and Travis drove to a small diner on the main road. He treated me to lunch while we discussed my future in New Mexico. I truly appreciated what Travis tried to do that morning. He certainly didn’t have to do that. And no one asked him to (as far as I know). But watching him get frustrated about not doing a single demo – which, like I said earlier, was a normal thing for me – just made me that much more aware of how poorly I was doing. Having a bad day here or there was to be expected. But to have weeks and weeks of bad days is a different story. At some point, I had to come to the realization that it was time to cut my losses.
I was proud of how long I’d lasted. I’m not sure if it was stubbornness or stupidity that kept me there for over eight full weeks, but either way, it was time to call it quits. While we dug into our entrees, I gave Travis my decision. It was time to go.
“Yeah. I’m sure.
“Can I change your mind?”
“Well, hell.” Travis stared at his plate deep in thought. A few moments later he snapped out of it. “Well, if this is going to be your last day in New Mexico, we might as well make the most of it, right?”
We spent the afternoon not selling books. Instead, we went to see “Talladega Nights” in the movie theater across town. At some point we stopped and got ice cream and a frozen pizza from the grocery store. We basically screwed around the entire afternoon. I apologized a couple times for messing up his selling day, but he said he didn’t mind. It’d been a grinder of a summer and he needed a break.
I woke up the next morning and fell into the normal routine. Except this time, I grabbed my suitcase on the way out the door. I’d only been in town two days, so packing the night before had taken less than five minutes. Travis and I ate breakfast together one last time. He didn’t bother asking if I would change my mind. He knew I was mentally already miles down the road. The checks for breakfast came and I picked up both of them. It was the smallest possible “thank you” to my best bud for getting me into this extravagant mess.
Four hours later I was crossing state lines into Texas. At that point, I decided it was time to call Andrew. He picked up immediately and it was fairly obvious that Travis had tipped him off. Andrew half-heartedly asked if I would reconsider, not knowing I was no longer in New Mexico. He then instructed me to call Dan. Remember Dan Something-rather?
Dan answered my call like he knew what was coming. He asked me what was going on and I admitted that I’d decided to cut my experience short by a few weeks. I talked about how it’d been a tough summer and I hadn’t been enjoying as much success as I had hoped. Dan let me talk for about five minutes before he said a word. It was super awkward because I felt like I had to carry the conversation by myself. There would be these long 15-second pauses where he wouldn’t say anything, so I’d keep talking. Finally, mercifully, Dan spoke.
“So you gave up, huh? You made it to week nine and decided you’re done. Am I getting that right?”
Dan’s tone was not a pleasant one. He continued.
“So when did you make this decision. huh? Was it before or after Ricky folded? Is that why you quit? Because you saw Ricky wuss out, so you decided it was okay for you to do the same?”
I didn’t know what to say. Dan was being kind of a jerk. I started tripping over my words in response, but Dan cut me off.
“All that time and energy we put into training you, and you’re just going to walk away? Really? Did you even try? I mean, I’m looking at your numbers and I’m not sure you really did any work this summer.”
That pissed me off.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“You can’t honestly tell me you knocked on 80 doors a day for eight weeks, can you?”
Dan had a point, but then again, did anyone knock on 80 doors a day for eight weeks? I highly doubt that.
“Look, Dan, I’m sorry this didn’t…”
Dan cut me off again.
“I just can’t believe you couldn’t make it through one short summer doing this. You know, I thought you had a spine when we trained you in Nashville. I’m usually a pretty good judge of character, but I missed on you.”
At this point, my vision flashed white and I was absolutely livid. There have been a few times in my life when I’ve gotten so incredibly mad – to the point of rage, even – that my vision blurs for a split second and I temporarily lose any and all filters. It feels like a fight or flight response, honestly, almost as if a shot of adrenaline is released in my brain causing my eyes to narrow in on the thing I want so desperately to destroy. It’s frightening, to be quite honest. Though, sometimes practical.
“Wait a second, Dan. You want to question MY CHARACTER? What about you? You lied to every single one of us.”
He didn’t bother addressing what I said.
“Did you tell Travis you were leaving?”
“Of course I did. He’s my best friend.” To this point, I’ve been paraphrasing this conversation. It’s been almost 14 years since the summer of 2006, so my memory certainly isn’t 100 percent. But this next part I will never forget as long as I live.
“Why did you do that? Are you really that much of an idiot?” Dan was yelling at this point. “He’s our top seller and you’re trying to bring him down with you? Are you seriously so selfish that you’d try to ruin his summer too?”
I couldn’t believe this dude was not only yelling at me, but questioning my character and asserting that my goal was to ruin Travis’ summer. In all reality, Dan was angry that I was ruining his summer. It became obvious that he was losing people left and right, and I must have been the straw that broke the jackass’s back. I was speechless.
“That was a question, Sam. Are you really that selfish? Or are you just an idiot.”
I hung up.
Never in my life had I been talked to like that by a person I barely knew. In fact, I’d met Dan in person once and we talked face to face for no more than five minutes. And here he was belittling and demeaning me over the phone. I was shaking I was so mad. Even rehashing this now, I’m jittery. There are so many things I wish I would have said to him in that moment, but I was too upset to think straight.
Dan called me back at least four times, leaving voicemails on two occasions. The first one was a curse-laden rant about how disrespectful and immature I was being. It was rich. The second one came later in the day when he’d been able to calm down. He was still an asshole, but this time he was trying to do damage control. I didn’t give him the courtesy of speaking again. That was the last time I ever spoke to Dan Something-rather.
At the time, I was hurt, mad, upset, confused…you name it, I felt it. But looking back now, I can see that Dan’s response sort of validated my decision in a way. It was proof that the company didn’t care about me outside of what I could bring in for them. Sure, they wanted me to be a successful salesman, but only because that meant lining their pockets all the more. As soon as I said I was out, I was no more than a waste of time to them. I learned a lot from Dan that day.
My spectacularly terrible summer had come to a fantastically crappy end. But, I still had 1,400 miles and about 21 total hours of driving ahead of me. I learned a lot about myself during that trip. I left Tularosa shortly before 7AM and drove nearly 18 hours to Mount Vernon, Illinois. IN ONE DAY!! That’s 1,167 miles. IN ONE DAY!! I passed through cities like Amarillo, TX, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and St. Louis. All IN ONE DAY!! And frankly, it was one of the most memorable days of that summer.
I made it to Amarillo in a shade under five hours. When I stopped, I made the most of it. I filled up my gas tank at one of those half gas station, half fast food restaurant sort of places. Getting gas, buying a half-dozen $1 cheeseburgers and some coffee, and emptying my bladder only took about ten minutes. Oklahoma City was a little under four hours away and I was trying to make it there before 3:30pm. I was giving myself time hacks to keep the drive interesting.
For this next anecdote, please keep in mind that I was a nineteen year-old college student. On more than one occasion, I found myself peeing into an old Gatorade bottle while driving 90 miles per hour down the interstate. Stopping to use the bathroom was simply too inefficient. Let me just say this one thing: you don’t know anxiety until you’re driving way too fast but happen to be running out of room in a 20-ounce Gatorade bottle even faster. Good times.
Something else I learned to be anxious about: I didn’t realize the interstate between Oklahoma City and Tulsa is a toll road. I also didn’t realize that the lovely folks at the toll booth only take cash. I learned that they are more than happy to let you pull off to the side to search your own vehicle for loose change to make the toll payment, though. I only came up with about $3.76 of the $4 I owed. They eventually let me go, but I caught them laughing at me through the window as I frantically searched. Jokes on them, though. I left my repurposed Gatorade bottle on the curb outside their crappy little office. I never liked Oklahoma anyway.
Another memorable moment. I remember being struck by the stark change in humidity as I got a little further northeast into Missouri. I’d forgotten what humidity felt like. Rolling through the hills in central Missouri around 10PM with my windows down, I could feel the moisture in the air. It was stifling. It’s the one and only thing I think I’ll ever miss about New Mexico. I’ll take dry heat over oppressive humidity every time, all other things being equal, of course.
I distinctly remember feeling lucky to have made it to my uncle and aunt’s house shortly before 1AM that next day. I felt lucky because I’d nearly drifted off to sleep at least five times during that 75-minute stretch between St. Louis and Mount Vernon. It was the toughest part of the drive, by far, and I certainly pushed it too far. I honestly feel like I cheated death that night.
The next morning, I woke up early. My body was used to it, whether I’d driven 1,167 miles the day prior or not. My aunt made coffee and pancakes and we chatted about that stretch from St. Louis to their house. My uncle commented how much he hated that drive on account of how mundane it is. Glad I wasn’t the only one.
After breakfast, I got back in the car and finished the trip. All told, I drove 21 hours and 1,400 miles in the span of about 28 hours. As I pulled into my parents’ driveway on that Thursday morning, I couldn’t help but thank God that I’d made it home. Just a day before, I’d woken up in Tularosa, New Mexico. But there I was in Westfield, Indiana. Nine weeks before that, I had to convince my parents that it was a good idea to spend my summer in the Southwest. And now I had to walk inside their house and admit I was wrong.
Relative to everything else I’d experienced, swallowing what was left of my pride was a piece of cake.
When I sat down to write this story, I had grand plans to lay out all these super helpful lessons I learned that I could pass on to others. Truth is, it really just feels like a lost summer. Every part of it. I lost time. I lost money. I lost a lot of weight (great!), but I also lost self-respect (not great). I eventually got a job with a family friend working in his warehouse, and by the time the summer was over, I’d made enough money to pay back what I owed to Southwestern and had about $1,000 left to use for tuition. I’m not super great with math, but $1,000 < $8,000.
So I wish this had a happy ending. I wish I could tie up all the little loose ends to tell a really uplifting story or give some great insight. But the fact is, that summer marked the first time I ever struggled with depression, although I didn’t recognize that’s what it was until a decade later. Giving it everything I had and falling short messed with my head. In fact, that failure sort of set the tone for the rest of my early adulthood. As a young adult, this experience changed me.
Writing this story hasn’t been cathartic like I thought it might. I’ve struggled to finish it. Well, that’s not really true. I finished it weeks ago. I just haven’t posted it. There are valid reasons for that, of course, but I also haven’t wanted to admit that I quit. I haven’t wanted to announce to the world (or maybe just the 32 readers out there) that I couldn’t hack it. Even with the understanding of how a pyramid scheme works and hindsight on my side, it still stings to admit I failed.
It stings even more to be able to pinpoint this summer as being the start of my mental health struggles. The heartache I both felt and caused over the next decade after the summer of 2006 seems disproportionate to the actual experience in New Mexico. One summer – nine weeks – shouldn’t have affected me the way it did. Or maybe it should have, I don’t really know. Maybe I’m downplaying it as a way of being self-deprecating. Right, because that started happening a lot more frequently after that summer as well.
The one positive thing I can take away from this story is perspective. I learned a lot about myself that summer, both strengths and weaknesses. There’s no way I’m the person I am today without that experience, for better or worse. On the lighter side of things, I really did set the bar pretty low. I can laugh about it now because I’ve grown a lot in the last 15 years. You have to catch a few losses before you can learn how to win.
So with that, thanks for reading. I never intended the Southwestern story to go 15 chapters, but it did. And you read it all. Nearly 25,000 words about one story. You’re incredible. Thank you for your readership. It was a challenge to write but I’m glad you stuck it out. To reward you for your diligence and persistence, I want to leave you with the greatest lesson from that summer. This is the big one, the lesson that means the most to me and the one that will soon mean the most to you.
So here it is: always choose left.♦