In my final year of university the news about job prospects for graduates was so bleak that I took a job as a door-to-door salesman. In Arizona, in the desert. My friends thought I was joining a cult.
“Mate, seriously, I met a guy who went to Arizona and literally disowned his parents! He’s in rehab now. Seriously mate, you’ll never come back.” A friend, Olly P, told me this after spreading the news on Facebook that I would never be seen again. As it happens, he was almost right: I was chased out of one gated community by a man with handgun truncheon blunderbuss, screaming “get out of my town!” A sign in a more salubrious area read, “This neighbourhood is armed!! Thieves and trespassers beware!” And I rented a room from a liberal-hating Vietnam War veteran ZZ Top lookalike who would drunkenly point his pistol at me as I trudged through the door after a soul-destroying day of selling (or not, as was often the case) children’s books.
One grey January day in Edinburgh I was reading an article for an anthropology tutorial in a stark white canteen when two smartly-dressed young businessfolk burst in with a flurry of importance, flung a leaflet on my table and motored around the space doing the same for everyone else. Having endured my fair share of painfully boring flyering while at uni, I filled in the questionnaire. “Would you like to have fun in the summer?” YES. “Would you like to earn money in the summer?” YES. “Would you like to go abroad in the summer?” YES. “Name”. “Phone Number”. Back to my studious reading and within moments my leaflet was whipped away as the secret agents disappeared onto the next student establishment.
Later I received a keen phone call from an inexplicably chirpy individual. I almost swallowed my phone in disgust at the positivity of this human being who was desperate to meet me and offer me a life-changing opportunity. A company wants me, at this time of supposed unemployment and recession? 5 interviews later and I had agreed to become a door-to-door salesman, somewhere in the U.S, with the promise of riches and guarantee that I would be a “future leader”. 5 months later after my finals I was standing on a corner in Cottonwood, Arizona.
Your first day of “direct” sales will always be one to remember. My “mentor” Gary woke me up at 5.59am (“You’ll be awake at 6 – raring to go!”), with his alarm and half-croaked, half-halleluljahed yelp, “it’s going to be a great day!” He jumped into the shower for a 1-minute cold wake up call and I sat up, trying to focus. We were soon in Hobo Joe’s diner, guzzling pancakes and hash browns, before venturing outside for a happy-clappy dance-song about what a great day it was going to be. The waitresses glued to their cameraphones alerted the local newspaper that a bunch of crazy Limeys were loose on the town.
Gary was a politics graduate from Leeds University so I thought, “great, this guy will have some interesting conversation topics for our morning drive”. He spent the first ten minutes banging the steering wheel, chanting, “It’s gonna be a great day, great day, great day. Everybody’s getting them [the books] – Woo Hoo!” This, I later learnt, was the much-heralded technique of “self-talk”, developed like W. Clement Stone’s Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) and motivational philosophies of the 1920s in order to sell, sell, sell. Self-talk is essentially a way of blocking out all the pain and frustrations of your life as a salesman (Gary cried almost every day on the bookfield) by repeating the same mindless phrases; at least until Sunday when you can have a day off after a 74-hour working week.
From the pine forests of Flagstaff, Gary and I drove down through Oak Creek Canyon, past the Red Rocks of Sedona, and arrived in the high desert valley at Cottonwood at 8.29am, where he dropped me at a street corner. It was a Saturday. Not a soul stirred. Dust billowed past, tugging at a ball of tumbleweed and Gary’s battered old Ford. “Quick, you should knock on your first door by 8.30!” Gary yelled as he sped off. “I’ll pick you up at 9pm from this exact spot!”
I was alone. On the side of the road in a town 100 miles from where I had spent the previous night, with no mobile phone, no bank card, no passport, just a passing promise that I would be picked up from the same location in 12 hours time. On the other hand, I had a bag of books, a little bit of sales training, a lot of intrigue, and nothing else to do with my day. I didn’t have a choice.
On my first day I sold to no less than seven customers. Seven. My best day of the summer by a mile.Garypicked me up at 9.30pm from our spot, having been queried by the cops for curb-crawling, looking for me for half an hour while I was finalising my seventh deal. On Sunday’s meet-up with the other salesman in our group (mostly students from the Universities of Bucharest and Loughborough) I rocked up with $300 cash in my fanny pack and was rewarded with a “Golden Hammer Saturday Hammer” for my efforts. It was a confusing award repeated every week.
These weekend (ahem, Sunday) sessions bordered on the insane. Supposed to be a day of rest, we would have a “lie-in” until 7am, then drive 160 miles to Phoenix for a Denny’s breakfast, sales training in a Holiday Inn (which we paid for) and maybe an activity if we were lucky.
It is hard not to recount these details in a negative way, but looking back it does seem pretty deranged. Half our group quit in the first 3 weeks. Walking around in 40-plus degrees heat with nothing but foul words, slammed doors and not a demonstration – let alone sale – of the products for hours and days (a no sale day was called a “donut”) had many clawing for home. They were set to lose around $2000, having paid for flights, $900 visa and expenses themselves (read: parents). We were made to arrange for “Parent Release Forms” to be signed before agreeing to the programme, so there was no chance of playing the naive student “I didn’t know what I was in for” trick.
We worked 74 hours a week and were not paid a wage. It was all commission-based at 40% of the sale. Yet the pressure to work hard from our managers and mentors was intense. 5% of what I sold went to Matt, my manager, who had flung the flyer on my canteen desk earlier that year, so his arm-twisting was logical (though worded in such a way that it was all in my interests). Another cut went to his recruiter, a multi-level marketing mogul and frankly repellant snakeslug of a man.
We paid for everything, and were not even given a place to live. Most of us knocked on doors looking for accommodation, asking if anyone in the area might rent us a room on the cheap.
My landlord was Frank. An Obama-hating, lonely, just-about-loveable rogue with pink oval glasses, wet-shaved head, long white wispy beard with badger stripes, all-body tattoos, nipple rings, daily attire of white y-fronts, pulled-up white socks and black Crocs, spindly legs, pistol ever-present at his side, Fox News blazing on the TV, picture of George Bush framed just above it. I had to help out with yard work, and bleach the kitchen counter after every use, but it was worth it for 20 bucks a week and plenty of eye-popping intrigue.
After a few weeks of “boot camp” Frank came to trust me, stopped pointing his gun at me, and relaxed the house rules somewhat. He also appreciated the fact that I was making my own money in difficult times. “America’s going down the f***ing shidder cos the f***ing youth can’t get off their sorry asses and do a goddamn day’s work.”
With the profanities spewing from Frank’s mouth at the TV – he would point the laser of his handgun (who has a laser on their handgun?!) unerringly accurately at Obama’s head whenever the President appeared on Fox – I found it hard not to swear during my days on the bookfield. I would catch myself mid-f***ing when demonstrating the products: “isn’t that f….really great?!”
Knocking on strangers’ doors is just such an exciting and terrifying way to pass the days. “Hi, how are you today?” I would beam as a front door opened, stretching out my hand to shake the air as I faced a second mesh door and figure behind it. A grunt might come as a response. “My name is Tom and I’m a college student from Edinburgh University in Scotland.” “No you’re not.” Yikes. “Well, I studied in Scotland, but I am in fact Englis…” “No you’re not.” “OK, I’m from Ohio.” “Right. What are you selling?”
“Well I’m the guy who has been selling those awesome books that folks like Sally Schneider and Joanna Quick from the Verde Valley Adventist School have been picking up. All the way from the little rug-rats and troublemakers to the teenagers and even college students! Do you know Sally or Joanna, or the Nicholses across the road? Everyone’s been so friendly in the neighbourhood. They love the books and it doesn’t take long to show you. Do you have a place we can sit down?” Break eye contact, go for the bag of books, scuff feet on the rug and get ready to walk in. We were given full scripts for every aspect of the sale.
I was frequently mistaken for a Mormon missionary in my first week, so stopped with the white shirts. If anything I was an unconventional Mormon with bumbag, running shoes, shorts and shirt, and sweating from riding a bicycle through the steep high desert valley heat. I bought the bike from Sheriff Carlitos for 25 bucks (sort of a part-exchange for bilingual baby books), later had it stolen and borrowed a 1985 Honda scooter from a kind old doctor. Frank, who rode with the Hell’s Angels in the 70s, was mortified to see my “red f**king pansy bike” next to his Harleys one morning.
But the sales went well. I was always driven to the next door by the compelling forces of unpredictability. What weird and wonderful, or bleak and miserable, experience was I going to have next? Who was I going to meet? Another Frank with a pistol pointed at my brain? A gang of hounds to rip me apart limb from limb? Worse than being chased out of one neighbourhood by a gun-wielding war veteran were the icy cold words of one lady at her window as I left her property having received no response from my knocking: “Get a real job”. That really hurt. It was similar to what my Dad had said when I announced my decision to go to the States. “You’ve got a great degree from a good university, Tom. Don’t lower yourself to this ridiculous job.” He told his friends I was going to sell Bibles in Utah.
The discouraging voices against my plans were many and loud: I was joining a cult, I would fail, I was better than this. But the daunting forecasts of youth unemployment propelled me out to Arizona. That, and the burning curiosity to know what it was really all about. And I think it paid off. I sold $19,000 worth of books in 14 weeks, making $7000 as an independent contractor running my own business. I went on a road trip to New England with 64-year-old Frank (sharing a bed to keep costs down) and filmed a documentary about him. I lived in America for 5 months. I met meth-addicts, Mexican families, white supremacists, body-broken Vietnam War veterans, people who hated or respected me, bullies, Mormons, Jehovah’s witnesses, Romanians, and Frank. I wouldn’t change it for the world. Time will tell if The Company’s “future leader” rhetoric will come to anything, but did I “go abroad in the summer”, “have fun in the summer”, “earn money in the summer”? YES.
by Tom Huntingford