I don’t recall whether I received an allowance from my parents when I was a kid. I do remember working for my father at his shop on certain Saturdays and during the summer. For a short while, when there wasn’t much work at the shop, I found another means of making an income, selling Shaklee products door to door through my friend Mark’s father, Mr. Romano. Shaklee, for those who don’t know, makes cleaners, hair and skin care, and other household and personal hygiene products. Mr. Romano tried to get me, a junior, gum-popping sales representative, to be friendly and to “sell myself” to help sell the products. I didn’t understand the concept of selling oneself until I was an adult, and by that time, it was far too late.
Door-to-door sales were the early predecessor of direct marketing and Internet sales. It was effective in its time, when people interacted more. Door-to-door sales are almost nonexistent now—in an age when both husband and wife are out in the workforce and have little patience for dealing with cold callers like telemarketers. These days, most people look at anyone they spy through the door peep hole, besides friends or expected visitors, as a nuisance. I personally dread even the prospect of a youngster selling magazines, trying to save his school, or an adult from the Sierra Club, trying to save his environment; I am now on the other side of the door.
I would knock on doors and push the Shaklee catalogs at the homemakers. I wasn’t much of a salesman, but at twelve or thirteen, I really didn’t have to be. When I made a sale, it was because the women thought I was a cute kid and they didn’t want me to leave their porch empty handed, and, of course, there were the friends of my parents—that was usually a slam-dunk even if they were small sales. There were, however, the homeowners who would tell me never to bother them again.
The big challenge for me was getting over the fear of knocking on a stranger’s door. Long before I sold Shaklee, I was like any other kid: trusting, curious, perfect bait for a pervert. (Stone Phillips could have used me to catch child molesters and pump up his show’s ratings and his image as a Champion of the People and Enemy of the Sexual Predators in Your Neighborhood.) All of that changed when I started playing with my friend Dave McKensie. Dave was a nice kid, but his dad was a different story. Quiet, private, and much older than the rest of my friends’ dads, Mr. McKensie had a horrible temper if you caught him at the wrong time.
When I knocked on the door one summer evening to see if Dave could come out and play, Mr. McKensie swung open the door, pointed his bony finger at me, and yelled that I should never bother his family while they were eating supper. Besides scaring the crap out of me, his demand begged the question: how would I know when the McKensies were having dinner? Did I miss the big neon sign stating, “Dinner time for the McKensies—do not disturb!”? My family had dinner around 7:00 p.m.; shortly after my father got home, but there were countless times when we ate earlier and without him.
Moreover, what’s the big deal about knocking on the door during dinner, I wondered. Our next-door neighbor, my brother’s best friend, came over all the time when we were eating, big deal! I only knocked on the McKensie’s door around their dinner time one other time in the eight or so years I knew Dave and that was when I forgot it was somewhere in the general time of dinner. Mr. McKensie, clad in a wife beater, said in a low, agitated tone, “Yes?” I knew I blew it and immediately apologized, backing away from the door to give him room for his bony finger. He quickly came back as if he didn’t hear my apology, “Well, what is it?” “Ah, nothing, Mr. McKensie,” I said nervously. “Is that it, is that your message to David—‘nothing’?” his voice building up anger and sarcasm. Just then Dave walked up to the door as his father shouted my message directly into his face, “David, NOTHING!” When Dave cleared the door Mr. McKensie slammed it shut, as if it was Dave’s fault, poor Dave.
I never had a front porch experience like the two at the McKensie house when I was selling Shaklee, and while my sales area included Dave’s house, I gave the angry guy’s house a wide berth. Still, staring at a door just before knocking always made me feel uneasy—would I be interrupting another crazy Irishman’s meal?
While these two experiences with Mr. McKensie finally trained me never to knock on his front door during the early evening. I had one other experience with Mr. McKensie at his door, unrelated to selling Shaklee or interrupting dinner, but I feel I must relate how scary this guy was to children, how he seemed to have no warmth toward any other child, except, maybe, his own.
Dave told me at school one day that his parents were going out and he would have the house all to himself—an obvious invitation to come over and have some unsupervised fun. That evening, when it got dark, I walked over to Dave’s house, hit the doorbell about six or seven times, and then ran around the side of the house. As I ran to take cover, Mr. McKensie’s hunting dog began barking wildly. I heard the door open, but instead of Dave making some wisecrack about me playing an adolescent game like doorbell ditch (we were both in high school by now), it was all quiet. I slowly poked my head around the McKensie’s garage, and to my horror, I saw the unmistakable shadow of Mr. McKensie.
He waited there for about five long seconds, while the dog continued to bark madly, and then said in a loud voice, “Well, where are you, you goddamn son of a bitch?” I stood there petrified. One of the main tenets of doorbell ditch (or ding-dong ditch) is that you have an exit plan before you execute, but I was expecting Dave—I didn’t need an exit plan. I was stuck and when I saw Mr. McKensie’s shadow turn in my direction I knew I had nowhere to go. I ran out in plain view and apologized, telling him Dave said he was going to be home alone, and I... blubber, blubber, blubber... Mr. McKensie shouted me down, something about how he wished I hadn’t come out from hiding. Something like that, I think. I later thought about it. Did he want to attack me? I’ll never know, I guess.
I don’t know whether Mrs. McKensie would have bought Shaklee products, but I never tried to sell her anything. There were some big scores, some from friends of the family and my schoolmate’s parents, and on one occasion, I sold a bunch of junk to a lonely old lady who just wanted some company. I sat down on her couch, took in the strange smell I always associated with old people I didn’t know, and started jabbering about different products in the catalogs that I had no real confidence in. This lady found a product called “Proteinized Velva Dew.” She kept repeating the name, as if she enjoyed saying it. I wanted to tell her to shut up, because I hated the name. She ended up buying a ridiculously large amount of the ill-named moisturizer. Later that day, I returned to Mr. Romano’s house with my order forms. “Hey, look at all the Proteinized Velva Dew you sold! That Proteinized Velva Dew must be some good stuff,” he said, ignoring the obvious fact that this was a new customer and probably had no idea how good or bad the stuff was. As he filled out his master order form, he tortured me by repeating “PRO-teeeenized VEL-va-Dew.”
A few days later Mr. Romano invited me and Dave (that’s right, Dave McKensie was a Shaklee junior sales representative, too) to a sales meeting. On the night of the meeting, Mr. Romano asked me to answer the door while he set up a Super-8 projector and screen, and set out some new products for us to look over.
Our team turned out to be a very strange group of salespeople. There were two morbidly obese ladies who could barely walk. How did they get around, I wondered; they were thoroughly winded from just walking from the front door to the couch, where they both stayed, never getting up to look at the new product line. There was Mark and his older brother Steve, who looked embarrassed about his father’s part-time job—like John Belushi’s character in the SNL skit about the Scotch Tape Store. Steve kept trying to find excuses to leave the room, but Mr. Romano would yell at him to stay put. I figured there was some history between them and Shaklee selling. Finally, there was Dave, and, of course, me. Mr. Romano held up the film while we waited for the last expected salesperson. When I answered his knock, I found a thin, bearded, distinguished-looking man in a brown business suit at the door. Here was the only one in the group who actually looked like a salesman, I thought for a moment. I opened the door wider to let him in and noticed that he walked with a disability—dragging one foot behind the other. As he schlepped past me he slurred a loud, wet “Thhhaaouuu” too close to my face. Throughout the meeting, he kept yelling over the film’s narrator about how his mother bought this product and bought that product until it became clear that his mother was his only client.
Dave and I had assumed positions on the floor while the others sat on the couch and the chairs Mr. Romano had assembled in a semicircle around the screen. The film bored me to tears. It was about what was new and improved at Shaklee. As the narrator droned on I became sleepy, and I began to make myself more comfortable—shifting from Indian-style to a position so my upper torso was leaning on one arm. Then I folded that arm and supported myself by my elbow and forearm, finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and decided to just lie on the carpeted floor on one side, my head supported by my extended arm—watching the film at a ninety-degree angle. During my descent to the Romano’s beige pile, Dave had been trying to suppress his laughter through coughs; it may have sounded to others as though he was having an allergic reaction to something. Mr. Romano asked Dave if he wanted a drink of water. I could tell Dave was laughing at me; I didn’t see the humor in my actions at the time, but I guess it must have looked as though I was making myself at home during what was supposed to be a business meeting with my fellow sales associates—the movers and shakers of Shaklee.
Since I was lying in front of everyone else, I could close my eyes undetected, but just when I thought I might nod off, the film’s narrator started talking about Proteinized Velva Dew. My eyes popped open as my ears took in the annoying name. Then I got the feeling someone was staring at me. Something told me not to look, but I was a glutton for punishment. I looked around and there was Mr. Romano, his face flickering in the projector’s light, all teeth. “Hey everybody, Jocko just sold a whole case of Proteinized Velva Dew! Good ole Proteinized Velva Dew!” He had to repeat the product’s stupid name. The crowd of misfits all groaned their support in unison. The man in the brown suit said he sold some to his mom.
I never attended another business meeting again and inside of about a month or two stopped selling door to door. I found I’d rather clean up wood chips at my dad’s shop occasionally. I would sometimes think about going back to Mr. Romano and taking up Shaklee again, but one summer day, when Mark was in a particularly destructive mood, he disassembled a fence next to my house. Perhaps it was the way the slats on this particular fence weren’t nailed into place—once one came out, the rest were loosened, and Mark just kept taking them out and stacking them. I was guilty of not stopping him, telling on him, or at least running away. I sat there and laughed my ass off at Mark’s funny remarks as he removed all the middle boards from the fence.
I don’t remember whether someone saw me around the fence with the conspicuous empty middle section or heard my unmistakable laugh, or whether I just couldn’t lie to my mom when she asked if I knew who did it. I do remember having to re-assemble the fence without Mark. I could have narced on him, but I did not—taking hits for other people so they wouldn’t hate me was one of my weird traits. Of course, what ultimately happened is that I no longer wanted to be around him anymore, so why didn’t I narc on him anyway? I guess my brain is just wired that way. What was worse is that the fence belonged to a man whose daughter I was sweet on and she never spoke to me after that. The whole experience soured me on selling any more Proteinized Velva Dew for Mark’s dad.
What is glaringly missing here, my college English professors would say, is a conclusion that sums up the whole story of knocking on doors, having a mean Irishman yelling at me from his front door, selling stuff I couldn’t care less about, and, oh yeah, disassembling a fence. (And how did that last subject get in here, anyway?) I guess I did all this writing without a poignant or pithy ending in mind. I never could sell myself.