(The NPR radio program All Things Considered has been asking people to submit their stories about summer jobs that they have held. This is my submission.)
For two days one summer in college, I had a job that parents warn their children never to buy from.
I sold stuff out the back of a van to complete strangers.
Stereo speakers, to be exact. The kind that you plug into home sound system, full sized and with unknown craftsmanship. Selling these home entertainment enhancements was the only part of the employment ad that was accurate. The full ad advertised the position as being “sales, delivery, and installation”. It also listed a name and a number to which, after a short series of questions, I was given driving directions and an address.
The next morning, I scrutinized my hand scribbled notations as I drove into a very nondescript office park in the next town over. I eventually found the business, tucked between other unrelated enterprises, parked out front, and walked through the front business door.
Anything resembling an office stopped at this point. In front of me was a large open unfinished area with bare cinder block walls. There were half a dozen white windowless vans, all haphazardly arranged near a large rear parking on the back wall. There were rows of cardboard speaker boxes neatly arranged along the walls near some broken couches and a ping pong table.
The manager, whose name eludes, came out of little office that had been constructed within the space. A medium height balding man with a saggy build, what he lacked in stereotypical oiliness in hair he made up for in oiliness of personality. He took me back into his diversely furnished office; an ugly desk, a couple of mismatched chairs, and a sore and worn faux leather sofa across from a out of place state of the art (at the time) wide screen rear projection television.
As I sat in one of the chairs, we talked about the job. Is there delivery? "If you can get people to pay you for it.” Is there installation? “Sure, if you can convince them to pay.” Is this just sales? He simply smiled, a knowing smile, one in which he knew how deep the water was while I’m standing on the edge of the pool. He promised me a training fee, half at the end of the day and half if I came back in the morning, till I made my first sale. Being both curious and dumb, I agreed to try out a day.
When we emerged from his hovel/office, I met my new coworkers. It was like meeting the jocks of Glengarry Glenn Ross high school. Muscle shirts, tank tops, wife beaters, and shorts; t-shirts with sayings that were less than acceptable in polite company. Their language was equally as salty, routinely exchanging profanity for where punctuation should be. I was introduced in passing as the manager gave a quick pep talk, then left in the hands of the van crews.
I helped them load the van and off we went through the bright opening of the parking door, a hot sunny summer day. The premise, as the husky guy riding shotgun explained to me over his shoulder was simple: sell the speakers however you can. To whom? “Anyone!” For how much? “However much you can get over $200 each; the first $200 goes to the manager for inventory, van insurance, and other [crap] and his cut.” Won’t people think these speakers are stolen? “No,” he said, his eyes starting to twinkle like an evil genius as he started to explain. Every morning, each crew makes up a new fake delivery sheet that purports to show that the van was loaded with too many speakers than were scheduled to be delivered. The people are told that they can buy the excess speakers for a fraction of the cost (as shown on the sheet). If anyone decides to report the crew, the telephone number goes to the manager who listens to their story, thanks them for their help, and promises to ‘deal’ with the crew. So, how do you sell these speakers?
For a job that I held for only two days, I was more personally influenced by this job than many I have held since then. The major lesson from this experience is that everyone is approachable. Parking lots, stores, businesses, streets, sidewalks, even (and this is absolutely true) driving up the New Jersey Turnpike at 80 miles per hour in moderate traffic screaming out the window at other cars, “Hey, you want to buy some speakers? For your house?” (Two different times, people pulled over with us to see what the van had.) Long after I left this fleeting job behind me, I took with me the knowledge that, not only are people more open to social contact than they appear, it can lead to positive experiences. Even if there was not a sale made, they left with a smile on their faces and a good story to tell.
For those two days, it was a roller coaster ride. As the new guy, I wasn’t given a chance to sell the speakers but I did get a front row seat to something strange and memorable. These guys worked hard for their sales (every one of them had a girlfriend or wife or kids to support), telling tales of big commission scores and tough sale droughts. They drove hundreds of miles a day over the New Jersey-Delaware-Pennsylvania area while approaching hundreds if not thousands of people engaged in the midst of their regular lives. We met all kinds and types of people as we briefly passed through theirs with a simple sales pitch. (Including an unmistakable ‘urban entrepreneur’ who had us follow him up the New Jersey Parkway at over 90 miles per hour to the shadiest pizza joint I’ve ever seen in my life.)
Truth be told, I knew after the first day that his job was not for me. I went back for the second day because it was so strange, so enthralling, and so very exciting to see how these guys operated. It was a human safari of sorts, roaming through the urban and suburban, and here I was sitting in the van with the consumer hunters. They sized people up within moments, parlayed their sales pitch, and either went in for the kill or moved on to the next. It was a spectacle to behold, a wonder on four wheel hauling ass down the street, looking for the next sale. It was the summer job that I remember the most, and the one that has stayed with me.
And, honestly, who else can say that they’ve done something like that?