I’ve been contemplating all afternoon and the only conclusion I’ve reached is this; life is a four letter word. A steady spring rain runs down my windowsill. Another Vermont winter has begrudgingly passed, flowering into a lush and fragrant May. Everything is green, everything is new, but still there is rain because nothing comes easy. I’m slumped back in my easy chair with the last survivors of a six pack beginning to sweat next to the growing collection of gnats and dust on my coffee table. My glazed eyes drift around the room as shadows creep down the walls. My feet sink ever lower into the wrinkled sheets at the bottom of the laundry basket. I’m in what I could best describe as life-block, which is a lot like writer’s block except this mental malfeasance sucks the joy out of all aspects of my life. Where to begin? I have struggled for weeks to write, still waiting for the goddamned right moment to hit me over the head as the beer bottles pile up. I call myself a poet, but no matter how much meaning I try to inject, my prose comes out shallow and dirty, like the puddle forming at the end of my driveway. I can’t tell if I’m feigning talent or simply lack the grammatical toolbox with which to harness it.
The working world is not what I thought it would be either. Up until last month I was employed in the grotesque and depressing world of retail. It was my first job out of college, in one of those department stores that we all grew up with but now decays before our eyes until the inevitable day where what was once a proud piece of America becomes merely a footnote in history. There was a bit of initial excitement when I started the job. I had gone out and acquired the position without my dad’s help for the first time, and I confess it made me feel more like a man. It was also a relief to finally be done with school, no more ten-page papers or 8 a.m. lectures. All I had to do was go to work, busy myself for six to eight hours and then come home to do whatever I wanted. It couldn’t be that hard – fold the clothes, keep the place neat, help customers check out when they’re ready – not exactly rocket science. It seemed like a good plan, a way to make some bread while I built up my portfolio, but I was mistaken.
Anybody who’s worked retail for enough time will tell you that the customers alone are enough to make you want to tear your hair out. I remember a time I was in Women’s Cardigans. It was my section for the day and I’d finally gotten everything tidy, folded and neatly stacked. It was the first time I had ever been entrusted with a section on my own and I was proud of what I had done. Then in walked this rolly-poly woman, sporting what I could only assume was a parachute, patterned in paisley and topped off with a sweat stained pink sun hat. Without a word she began rifling through my work, callously tossing the smaller sizes on the floor.
“Miss, do you need help finding anything today?” I asked, choking back the indignation.
“Nope,” she said.
“Was there a particular size you were looking for? If we don’t have it on the floor, I could take a quick look in the back and see if it’s in stock.”
“I’m good, thank you,” she replied. She then shot a glance down at her work. “Think of it this way, you didn’t look too busy, I’m just helping you do your job.”
“Go to hell,” I mumbled.
“Already there, kid,” she said, baring her rotten brown teeth, “same time next week?”
I watched in horror as she approached the checkout counter and my manager, convinced that she would report me and get me fired. But she kept walking, apparently having inflicted enough humiliation for one day. I spent the next several minutes refolding and restacking until I had once again made the display presentable. I was proud of the restoration. Then my manager came over and informed me that I had not been spending enough time greeting and caring for the customers.
“Michael,” she said curtly, “I’ve watched no less than seven customers walk into your section without you so much as looking up to acknowledge them. This is no good. They have to feel welcome.”
“But that table was a mess!” I protested. It seemed el jefe had entirely missed the customer from hell.
“The store should be neat yes, but our first responsibility is to the customer. Multitask, it’s part of your job! Here are some customers in your section now, go see if you can help them.”
I obliged, saying hello and offering to assist each person. All of them replied with barely audible salutations and said that they were just looking. So much for my attempt at customer service. Another time I was at the checkout counter as it neared Christmas. I’m seven hours deep into a ten hour Saturday shift and can feel the soreness flowing from heel to toe. This woman, with a stick so far up her ass she could be a Muppet, rolled up to the counter. She announced that she wanted to pay with her store credit card but, alas she did not have it on her person. I replied that it was alright, I could look it up with her social security number. That’s when the Meryl Streep performance kicked into high gear.
“Of course not!” she bellowed in a flawless baritone, “What d o you take me for a fool? I’m not giving you that information! Call the credit card company, they can sort this out.”
I called over the nearest manager, who simpered and smiled and called up the credit card company while I got our customer squared away. Immediately I offended her sensibilities by daring to place her clothes into a plastic bag.
“No, no no!” She thundered, “You put those in a paper bag right now! I didn’t just fall off the boat!”
Unfortunate epitaphs aside, I continued to smile and fold to the rudimentary best of my abilities until we arrived at her final item. By that time a line has swelled behind her and despite other associates diverting customers to other registers I had quite the queue to work through and the humor had left me. She placed a fake cashmere on the counter and after I had rung it up I began to fold it into neat little squares. This action brought her to a fever pitch.
“No! You need to fold that the European way!”
I looked at this woman like she had five heads. What the hell was the European way to fold a scarf? A cheap knockoff at that? With not the foggiest clue I began folding up the scarf into triangles like somebody was playing taps behind me. That didn’t make her any happier and she snatched the scarf away from my grasp.
“Here! This is how you do it!” she snapped as she proceeded to roll up the scarf like a sleeping bag and stuff it into the paper bag. Seriously, she couldn’t have just said roll it up? I didn’t know people could be that snobbish but I certainly know better now. When I handed her the receipt and she mercifully walked away another woman came up behind her. With a straight face this woman placed her things on the counter and said to me,
“Kid, I would’ve told that witch to go fuck herself five minutes ago.”
My manager and I both doubled over laughing but sadly this sort of comic relief rarely ever manifested itself. Instead customers like scarf woman and cardigan killer piled up. At first I was able to forget it all, come home to my X-Box and a stiff drink and shake off the building tension in my shoulder blades. But, as time pressed on, weariness soon gave way to bitterness. I became aware of just how dead end a job this was and how futile my efforts were. I went online to see what my friends were doing. There were those over-achievers who already had jobs with Fortune 500 companies. A handful of others went onto grad school or law school, but nobody seemed to be folding clothes in the faux upscale section of a department store for minimum wage like me. What was I doing wrong? Had I erred in earning a liberal arts education? Would some business classes or perhaps a well-placed internship have allowed for an expedited rise towards a livable wage? I was growing increasingly frustrated and by April of 2010 I’d had enough. I submitted my notice and exited the world of retail with only a few shekels in my pocket and a lesson in how the world really worked.
A few weeks passed and after some false starts and grammatically unfortunate cover letters, I landed my first interview with an insurance company to sell policies over the phone. After waking up late and madly dashing about to get vaguely presentable I suited up in my Sunday best; a gray dress shirt with perma-press stains lurking under each arm, a checkered gray jacket that crept up to my knuckles, black pants that were too tight for my expanding waist line and gave me the appearance of a matador, holey black socks that sorely needed to be retired and black shoes with salt stains I could never quite seem to exercise. I deluded myself into thinking that this outfit simply screamed slick and educated. Yes indeed, I was ready to sell out and join the corporate lockstep. I told my parents that I hoped this opportunity would turn out to be a rewarding, fiscally successful career.
Of course, that was bullshit. Truth be told I desperately wanted to join a company where I could engage in hilarious office hijinks, do little work, and fall for the beautiful, feisty receptionist. Drats, the boob tube strikes again, just as Edward R. Murrow was afraid it would. “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.” I wonder what Mr. Murrow would make of Keeping up with the Kardashians and Fox News. I can’t imagine he would be terribly impressed with the state of television or America in general sixty five years out from the war.
Who was I to say such things though? I could stand on my soapbox all I want, but by that night I’d be watching Two and a Half Men and sucking down another cold one. I climbed into my Honda Civic, the combination of heat building up and the strong aroma of moth balls which I used to keep mice out of the cab had a most dizzying effect. I had to put all the windows down to keep from being sick and immediately all efforts made to tame my thin, brown hair were undone. Trying to drive with one hand while continuously glancing at the GPS on my phone was more than a bit disconcerting. Google Maps also didn’t exactly help when I was looking around a large office park. Finally, I discovered the correct building number and was miraculously a few minutes early for the interview. Sitting in the car I could already feel the sweat beading down my forehead. I lifted up my arms one at a time and… yep each pit was already stained. My kingdom for a deodorant that could finally dam the reservoirs of perspiration under my arms! I used a tissue to wipe away the sweat from my face which undoubtedly served to inflame the acne that has plagued me these past ten years.
I tried to pull up the e-mail that informed me which door I was supposed to use and the person I would be interviewing with but the damn thing wouldn’t load. How could I be in a dark spot? I was in the middle of Williston for chrissakes, not Belevedere! With nerves starting to coat the bottom of my stomach I climbed out of the car and started toward the first door I saw. It was frustratingly locked so I walked around the side of the building, awkwardly looking in office windows. It was only after circling around the entire building and being mortified beyond words that I saw a tall guy in a dark sweater and power purple shirt taking a drag off his cigarette back at the first door I tried. I hate talking to random people but with little other choice I sucked it up and asked if he knew where I was supposed to to go.
“Excuse me sir, do you know where I can find the Fox, Owen & Stanley Insurance offices?” I asked.
“Right behind me buddy,” the man said. Then he looked me up and down. “You’re not Michael Reilly, by chance, are you?”
“Yes, yes I am,” I said.
“Awesome. I’m John Vash,” he said.
We shook hands, me tardily realizing that this was probably my interviewer. John had a sharp crew cut and his shave was as smooth as a baby’s bare ass. His shirt and tie were straight, no fuzzies on his sweater, no wrinkles on his pants or scuffs on his shoes. I’ll bet he doesn’t even have stains under his arms despite being dressed for a holiday party on an eighty degree day. I figured even if the interview was a bust maybe he could tell me which deodorant he used.
Fox, Owen & Stanley reminded me of a doctor’s office, complete with sterile white walls and gray carpet. In every corner there were pictures and posters that were designed to be motivational and calming but just struck me as fake and cheap. By the time we reached John’s office I was already having my doubts about the interview. I wasn’t sure I was prepared to work in this bloodless environment but, I didn’t get dressed up for nothing so get on with it already. John’s office didn’t possess the fluorescent lighting that infested the rest of the office, instead lit by a few muffled floor lamps. The walls were painted a dark maroon and the only poster hung was of the band Pink Floyd, vintage 2009 from Spencer’s Gifts. I was so distracted by the J-Crew catalog assembled in each of the pictures I supposed were his family and friends I nearly airmailed my chair.
“You’re just out of college? Ready to conquer the world?” John asked as he sat himself behind a mahogany desk, seemingly oblivious of my foibles. I folded myself into a chair that was some six inches lower than John’s own fake leather number.
“Yeah, something like that,” I replied, trying to get comfortable but knowing that my butt was going to be asleep in nine minutes flat.
“Good, because this job takes confidence and if you don’t have it, you’re dead in the water.”
“Because you’re not just selling insurance, you’re selling yourself, too,” I said.
“Exactly! You hit the nail on the head, Michael! People love a good pitch and if they can’t buy you as a competent salesman, they’re sure as heck not going to buy something as important as life insurance from you, are they?”
“Good! And don’t call me sir—it makes me sound old. Call me John.”
“I can do that, sir… uh John.”
“You studied English in school?”
“Yes. I earned a BFA in creative writing.”
“Outstanding, I was a Sociology major myself but I always enjoyed English,” he said. I noticed that he hadn’t looked up at me once so far, like he’d rather study my resume than look me in the eye. He continued, “Now what made you want to get into insurance?”
“Hmm…” It was dawning on me that spending five minutes on a company website did not constitute interview prep. Who’d have known? “Well the way I see it, everybody needs insurance, right?”
“Right you are.”
“I figure by selling insurance, I’m making sure that people can take care of their families while I get to take care of my own.”
“That’s a good way of looking at it. What else?”
“Well, this seems like a growth industry because again, everyone needs insurance so I figure I can make good money doing this.”
John ghoulishly grinned and made eye contact for the first time, “We’ve all got expenses, don’t we?”
“Michael, do you have a pen on you?”
“I thought I did,” I said as I pretended to fumble around in my pockets for a pen I knew wasn’t there.
“Okay. Rule number one for interviews—always bring a pen.”
“Sorry about that,” I said.
“That’s all right. Here, take my pen and write this down.”
“Thanks John,” I said as I reached for the pen and legal pad he put in front of me.
John leaned forward and smiled. Nervously, I smiled back. “Let me tell you a little bit about how we do things around here,” he began. “There’s a thirty-day training period. You will spend the first two weeks watching how our sales staff works and the other two weeks memorizing our script. When your training’s done, you will have to pass an exam in order to get a license to sell insurance in the state of Vermont—costs about sixty dollars. Once you pass, you’ll make three sales calls with Tom, our top salesman. You’ll split the twelve hundred dollar commissions—eighteen hundred dollars in your pocket right off the bat.”
“Wow, that’s something.”
“Yes, it is! And let me tell you, some people can’t handle making that kind of money. I knew a kid who made twenty five grand in one month here and paid cash for a BMW right off the lot.”
“That wasn’t smart.”
“No, it was not. Last I heard he flips burgers at McDonald’s and smokes skunk weed in his mother’s basement. Okay, after your training you will receive a stack of contacts, or leads if you will. These people have already expressed an interest in purchasing insurance with F.O.S. It’s your job to sell them on our policies and close the deal. I’ll be honest, not all of these leads are going to be fresh; some might be six months old. Work with what you’re given, show me you can close the deal, and your leads will improve. We require that you contact a minimum of ten leads per week. But the good news is, you don’t have to be here in the office to do that, you can make the calls from home or wherever. The only time you have to be here is to do the paperwork for a sale, and of course, to get your paycheck.”
“I want to tell you something, Michael. Did you know that I get paid for every promising applicant I send to a secondary interview?”
“I did not.”
“Do you think that is what’s most important to me?”
“Um… yes?” What the fuck, seriously Michael?
“No. What’s important to me is that I find the most qualified candidates, the future leaders of this company. I’m not going to accept just anybody, am I?”
“No, you’re not.”
“Out of every hundred candidates I interview, I might pick twelve to call back, and Michael, I don’t know what it is, exactly, but there’s something about you that tells me you’ve got the potential to do great work here.”
“You think so?” I was all astonishment. Nothing I’d uttered in this interview so far could be confused for potential.
“I do, but you have to really commit to this because a lot of people don’t succeed in the insurance business. You might have even read some unflattering things ex-employees have said about us online.”
Goddammit I have got to get better at this research thing.
“Well that’s just the nature of this business,” he continued. “You can’t keep everybody happy, and there’s always going to be a few losers who blame us for their own failures.”
I nodded, unsure of how to respond to that little gem.
“Do you have any questions for me Michael?”
I wasn’t expecting things to wrap up this quickly. What do I do? Think…don’t ask about money first. For the love of God, don’t ask about money first.
“Yes. What kind of salary can I expect?”
“You would be on a commission-based salary. How much you make each month depends on how many policies you sell. Let’s say you do a good job and average ten policies a month. Figure your commission on each sale will be around six hundred dollars. Now that would put you at six thousand dollars a month, and around seventy thousand for the year.”
“Whoa,” I said, my mouth hanging open a bit.
“Not bad for just out of school, huh? Any other questions, Michael?”
“Um…” Come on, be at least a little insightful.
“I’ll tell you what, you think of any other questions—let me know. Otherwise, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to take this application, go into the break room and fill it out for me. Once you’re finished, come get me and we’ll set up a time to come back in for a follow-up interview.”
“Really? You want me to come back?”
“Absolutely! Like I said, I don’t know what exactly it is about you, but I get the feeling you were made for this business, Michael Reilly.”
“Thank you very much, John.”
He got up, shook my hand, and walked me out the door. The break room was just across the hall. As John ushered me to an open chair he leaned over to a short, angry-looking man at the table opposite.
“Hey Tony, Michael here was an English major just like you.” Tony didn’t seem overly impressed, and the only word I could hear over the mumbling was “terrific.” I took a seat in the waiting room and Tony quickly vanished, leaving me alone.
I nervously tapped John’s pen on the application. I was still trying to process all I had just seen and heard in what I was convinced was a five minute interview. After my head stopped spinning and my heart rate went back down, I sat there trying to decide if it was all bullshit or if John actually believed I was an undiscovered super salesman. I was leaning toward the first conclusion. I stood up and looked down the hall where I saw a conference room filled with people, maybe a sales team and their boss. The man walking and talking had ghostly white hair and a sharp nose—very wasp-like. His face was beet-red with anger. I couldn’t decipher what exactly he was saying but the gist of it seemed to be that he couldn’t do their jobs for them and they had better start selling some fucking policies. Most of the poor bastards seated around the conference table had their heads down, probably from fear of being singled out for abuse.
I wandered from the break room. A little further down the hall I found an office with four long tables lining the walls, each one cluttered with coffee mugs and mounds of paper. There was only one man in the room. He must have been at least sixty, rail thin, with loose gray hair that stuck out in every direction. He was on the phone making a sales pitch.
“Is this Dana Barrett? Hi there, Tom Chambliss here from F.O.S. Insurance. I’m calling today because you expressed an interest in our fifteen hundred dollar life insurance policy. Now I can sign you up today at no cost to you.” He emphasized the last words, obviously part of the script.
The old man was shuffling his papers and furiously tapping his foot against the desk. He continued, “Are you still interested in receiving the insurance? Excellent, let’s set up an appointment so I can drop by and get you all squared away…” He then listened intently.
“Why do I have to be there? Well, to physically present the policy to you and be there in case you have any questions or… No, Miss Barrett, you would be under no obligation to purchase any further insurance. But this is an unpredictable world, Miss Barrett. We have fires, floods and accidents—”
Miss Barrett was obviously giving Tom a lecture. He got up and paced back and forth in front of the table, running his hands through his thinning gray hair and grimacing.
“Ma’am, I have been in this business a long time and I can assure you that none of my clients have ever regretted buying additional insurance. Take it from me, Miss Barrett, life happens. Now if you’ll allow me, how about I stop by the house—”
The salesman nodded his head a few times before uttering, “All right, you take some time to think about it and call me back. You have my number here, right? Yes you have a wonderful day as well, Miss Barrett. Bye-bye.”
He gently put down the phone and stared at the wall in front of him, remaining silent for a moment before talking to himself rather audibly. “Recession or not, why can’t these dipshits understand that they’re getting a steal here? I used to sell ten of these damn things a week…” Tom looked over and saw me staring at him.
“Can I help you?” he snapped.
“No. Sorry,” I said and I walked back to the break room. Each minute I sat on that uneven plastic chair the picture was becoming clearer. I could see it now. Me, hunched over at a corner desk on my sixth cup of coffee, staring at five-month old leads, getting nothing but management breathing down my neck to make quota or get my sorry ass out the door. Then, when the workday ended, I’d shuffle away and straight into feeding my alcoholism or a newly developed opioid addiction. I would end up like a bad Mamet caricature. Panic was beginning to come over me, like a liberal caught in the middle of a Tea Party rally. To hell with this, I needed to get out of that place as soon as humanly possible.
I didn’t know the legality of leaving an interview like this and it took a few minutes before I convinced myself to quietly place the half-finished application on the seat next to me and slip out the door. Sneaking away I felt like I was in a spy movie or something. I was convinced that, at any moment, alarms would start going off and men in tan trench coats would be after me. Jesus I have really got to cut down on the television.
Once I had escaped back to my car, I went over the lessons learned today. One: unless you’re a natural born salesman (and I’m no Ricky Roma), avoid commission-only jobs. Two: always bring a pen to an interview. Sound advice from dear John, and I’ll remember it every time I use his shiny, navy blue F.O.S. ballpoint pen to fill out future applications. Until today, I had forgotten just how much I hated interviews. Just like first dates, every time I go on one of these things I feel like I’m on trial and the verdict is never favorable. They sit there and weigh and measures you, to determine whether or not you are worthy of them. Okay, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic, but I do have to ask, is it this awkward for everybody, or is it just me?