I didn’t play baseball that summer for the first time in my life. Instead, I signed up with a small crew to sell dictionaries door-to-door in Montgomery, Alabama. My coaches and parents in Pittsburgh were disappointed, but I wanted to see deeper into the South, and this was a way to pay for it. After a few days of intensive, direct sales training in Nashville, we drove to Montgomery in Irwin Cofield’s car. He was a year older than the rest of us and had worked for the Southwestern Company the summer before, so he was now qualified to lead others. I thought Irwin’s silly, ingratiating smile and the zany twinkle in his blue eyes were stupid, but he did convince me to join his sales team.
Pay was by commission only, in a kind of pyramid structure. The Southwestern Company has been in business for almost 150 years, though, so they are not running a Ponzi scheme. Such scams collapse, by definition, after the originators make their killing. The Southwestern system is hard but fair. As I remember in the summer of 1965, the dictionaries we sold retailed at ten dollars. I made four on each book sold, and my immediate recruiter made a buck or two. The salesman who brought him into the enterprise also made something, and so forth on up the hierarchy. The real money to be made is by selling the business, not just the books.
The theory is fascinating, but the devil was in the details, as is generally the case in network marketing. First, the product was not very good. For the price, the dictionary held too few words. For half the money a better one could be purchased at a local book store. Hidden in the back of the book was a special tutorial section designed to impress potential customers. Hidden, as well, was its actual practical value. Only an extremely bright and motivated young person really could use this book as a springboard to higher learning.
“Exploitation” extended to the student sales force. For the small minority with a special gift of gab and motivation enough to take advantage, Southwestern was a real opportunity. Most of us are Willy Lomans, though, self-deceived dreamers who need approval more than power or money. One of the three raw recruits in our crew couldn’t sell enough to buy food or pay the rent on his room. He had to call home for help. The other guy and I managed to survive and save a few measly bucks for the next year of college but hustling door-to-door in the ungodly, Alabama summer heat was hell.
Selling is part of life, and it was good to learn some of the basic tricks of the trade, even if mainly for self-defense, but the most important thing I learned that summer is that I could never be happy doing it for a living. I hated stripping the humanity from my prospects and myself and relating to them strictly as potential buyers. You need a thickly-callused shell to sell, a polished, affable puppet persona. In place of a human heart, install an automatic calculator of profit and loss, pumping green ink instead of blood.
Perhaps the ultimate in cynicism were the Southwestern salesmen who specialized in mugging prospects in poor black neighborhoods. Of course, I was curious enough to venture into those ghettos from time to time, too. The third world conditions opened my eyes, and nose, to the reality of poverty in the USA. No statistics could convey the suffering of these people like one pungent whiff. Piss and shit from chamber pots composed the throbbing baseline because most of the clapboard shacks had no indoor plumbing. The tang of rotting garbage wafted up from bits of escaped food fertilizing dirt floors, where scrawny kids with distended abdomens had mashed it between their toes. From time to time, there was a hopeful hint of mother’s milk, but these infants had to compete for it against swarms of flies, which also sucked up their tears before they could dry. Penetrating everything, was a demonic Tambura drone of fear drenched sweat, both fresh and caked on clothes that hadn’t been washed. Soap is expensive.
Taking a two dollar deposit from a person in such circumstances nagged at my conscience. Education is important, but knowing where your next meal is coming from takes precedence over looking up the definition of “parsimony” in a dictionary. And even if I happened to catch somebody with two bucks on hand, where was the person going to get the other eight dollars to pay for the book at delivery? Yet, that was my job – sell the book by hook or crook!
There were some nicer parts of the black neighborhoods: a few even had paved streets, but needless to say, they were all segregated from the white areas. I remember spending a few minutes one afternoon on a shady porch with a charming sixteen year old who gave me a glass of water. The first time I heard “The Tracks of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson was from her transistor radio. She had no interest in buying a book, but I didn’t care. Webster’s New World Dictionary sat in my sample case, forgotten, while I wasted precious time enjoying a moment of genuine, human communication.
Of course, the precise nature of the hooks and crooks required would vary according to the targeted prospect. In the black neighborhoods, the basic idea was to inflate dreams. Start with the ubiquitous photo of the late President John F. Kennedy on a bare wall of nearly every shack. Praise JFK and the opportunities opening up for “everyone” thanks to him. The key to taking advantage of this new society was obviously education. “Only ten dollars, Mzz. Jones. Now that’s not too much, is it?”
Dreams had to be inflated in the wealthier, white neighborhoods, too. But there, JFK was a son-of-a-bitch who deserved to die. After all, good Southern Dixiecrats had gotten him elected, and then he turned on them like a pet Copperhead. Even his successor, an embodiment of Southern pride like Lyndon Johnson, had sold them out. The seminal Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches had been held only a few months before, provoking brutal police attacks and a number of Klan murders. Federal law enforcement of the marchers’ right to protest followed, inciting local resentment.
Raw racism sometimes exploded in my face, especially when my good-old-boy mask slipped. Almost no one would buy a book from a Yankee. Xenophobia was raging in Montgomery that summer of ’65, so as far as my white sales prospects were concerned, I was a North Carolina college boy. It’s all relative, though, and many people still asked how I liked it down south. “I sho’ do luv it, Mzz. Jones. I sholy do!” I would reply in my very best approximation of a Deep South accent. In retrospect, it’s remarkable I wasn’t hung on the spot.
I’d try to find an air conditioned restaurant for lunch and occasional breaks. Ray Charles was always on the jukebox with his current hits, “Born to Lose” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” The sound track for that summer also included Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and “The Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire, which were never on the jukebox. It’s amazing that any local radio station would have played them, but hearing my private feelings blared over popular media was a pleasant surprise, if only once or twice all summer.
Then with a week or so left to go, I got a surreal phone call from my parents. Rich Shevchik was in the hospital in critical condition after a serious car accident. Though I hadn’t been in touch with him for over a year, he was a baseball buddy and one of my best friends back home. A day or two later, I got another call confirming that he had died. I was shocked by the news, but almost as shocked by my reaction, or I should say, lack of reaction. Dry-eyed and numb, I remained deep in denial, lost in the Heart of Dixie where my own heart had lost the capacity to feel.
“Big boys don’t cry” had rung in my ears for the preceding nineteen years, and I’d cultivated a Bogart cool and thick skin. The whole process had culminated in this summer of door-to-door sales, during which I’d learned to treat people as “means of production.” Maximizing profits meant minimizing the humanity of my customers, treating them like things instead of people. Many of them repaid the compliment, making me the impersonal target of free floating hostility. But with experience, the insults people often fire at an intruding salesman started to bounce off. I learned to reply with contemptuous and controlled wit, to keep the smile in place while gathering as much “pre-contact” information as possible about my next sales target. Suddenly, when I got the tragic news about my friend, all this protective insulation transformed into a barrier of alienation that kept me from experiencing life.
I picked up my sample case that day and trudged out into the territory as if nothing had happened. As usual, the brutal August sun baked my head and shoulders like hell’s own oven: sweat streamed down the sides of my face and torso; but inside, my heart stayed deathly cold. It choked off my humanity like a large, ludicrous lump of artificial ice cream. I resembled some absurd variation of an exotic dessert. Call it Baked Alabama.
Rich’s funeral was in a few days. I could have flown home in time. But that would have meant spending half my summer profit on air fare, and leaving the other half in the pockets of customers, owed on undelivered books. I was caught in a classic no-win situation; abandon my profits and customers or abandon my old friend, Rich. Inertia prevailed, and I stayed in Montgomery to finish the job. Baked Alabama, I dutifully delivered the dictionaries, rode back to North Carolina with Irwin as planned, and then caught a Greyhound Bus to Pittsburgh. I had a week to spend at home before returning to Wake Forest for my second year of college, but everything had changed.
Steve Lehman is a writer and teacher at John Abbott College. “Baked Alabama” is an excerpt from a memoir in progress titled “Life Before Canada”.