My Dad, The Salesman

My dad had an unimaginable number of jobs, but the one he was the best at was sales.   When we left the dairy farm and moved to Skyline Dr in Carbondale,  Dad kept his old green Ford truck  and had “Fresh Fish” painted on the side of it.  He’d pack the bed with ice and fish from the Ohio River, mostly channel catfish and sell it door to door around the countryside.  Hating the smell of fish himself, he used vinegar all over his hands and arms to remove the odor when he returned home at night before washing up.  It was with much humiliation for mom and we three girls that this truck sat parked on our driveway every night in the newest, most affluent neighborhood in town.  It didn’t bother dad at all because he figured his was probably the only house on the block without a mortgage.  It was with much relief to mom and us girls however  when he applied for a job selling insurance and got the position.

It came about quite unexpectedly.  After reading the want-ads dad bathed and stood before the mirror in the pants to his funeral suit and a tank undershirt, shaving very carefully.  I stood shyly in the hall peering around the opening of the door.  There was something mesmerizing about his shaving ritual.  After rinsing off, patting dry and slapping on “Old Spice” he’d return to his bedroom to put on a white shirt, clip-on tie and the jacket of his funeral suit.  Carrying the newspaper in hand, a smile on his face and twinkle in his eye he said “Goodbye Baby”.  And of course he wouldn’t say anything like ‘Wish me luck!’ as he always believed his destiny was totally in his hands. I was the only one there to see him off for this important interview.  The others hadn’t mentioned it again.  Not after he announced it at dinner the night before and mom had laughed at the thought of them hiring him.  Having not finished fifth grade, it was amazing that he had the confidence to even read a policy, much less sell something that most people didn’t want to spend money on.

Dad entered the second floor office of the Reserve Life Insurance Company.  A secretary took his name and gave him an employment application to fill out and he joined the other three suited men waiting for interviews.  His printing was awkward but legible.  He wrote slowly with his left hand, the wrist high and bent above his fingers.  As a child, his parents and teacher tied his left hand behind his back to force him to write with the “right” hand.  It didn’t work.

When it was his turn he entered the inner office smiling, and offered a firm handshake with his thick, meaty hands to the office manager.  After reviewing his job application, the man amusingly listed off his qualifications—ironworker, coal miner, dairy farmer and salesman of fruits and fish.  The dapper salesman with manicured nails asked, “What makes you think you could sell insurance?”

Without hesitation, dad declared, “I don’t think I can, I know I can.”

And he could.  He sold a lot of health insurance.  His sales pitch consisted of using a technique of convincing the customer that he didn’t care if they bought or not—sort of it’s your loss kind of attitude.  That worked for selling something like insurance because most everyone could be convinced that they wanted and actually needed it and then he fading with “it makes no difference to me whether you buy or not”.  In three months he had the manager’s job.

Dad made me go with him a lot during a couple of summers when I was a teenager because he said if you can sell insurance you can always make a living.  Though I hated going on those sales calls, I admired his honesty with his customers.    He wouldn’t lie about coverage or waiting periods or pre-existing conditions.  Back in those days there were a lot of dis-honest insurance salesmen, but he had a set of principles.

But as an adult my secondary job is selling the art I make. When it comes to art, his technique of indifference doesn’t work on the average possible consumer or patron.    They want to hear the story.  And that’s when I get tongue-tied. I learned growing up under his roof, to keep secrets about what went on behind our closed doors.  That fosters a reluctance to share, for fear of being ridiculed or misunderstood.  Getting past that hurdle is a big deal.  Relaxing enough face to face, especially out of my environment, is difficult making it harder to tell the story behind the work, rather than just the technical details.

Though dad was a greatly flawed man, his self-confidence has always been an inspiration for me.

 

 

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