Articles, observations, and fictions by Sam Girdich: history & philosophy buff, pop culture fan, aging martial artist, husband/parent, and proud owner of a pleasantly odd mind. Co-creator of the graphic arts project Strongarm Labs with illustrator and storyteller Mark Gonyea.
January 1997 ushered in a horrendously bad job decision. I had been looking
to leave the mall retail management rut when a “friend” (notice the quotations
marks) informed me that selling accident and life insurance was good money.
Very good money, in fact, and it just so happened the company he worked for was
hiring new sales reps. It had to be better than working mall hours and dealing
with shoplifters, right? I applied, was hired, trained, and then set loose with
a group of other noob sales reps to earn the money I kept hearing about.
And we lived happily ever after.
July 1997 rode into town with little money (good, bad or otherwise) to show
after months of cold calls, literally knocking on doors, and using every
company sanctioned half-truth sales pitch I could convince myself was not
damning my eternal soul. My then fiancé/now wife and I were broke, and in the
grip of a deep malaise. I was 30lbs. overweight, driving 300+ miles a week with
no mileage or gas allotment. Every fourth week or so our team went out of town
to work in different areas of Eastern New York. These trips, I was repeatedly
told, generated more sales and more income because sales agents working away
from the distractions of home could concentrate on making calls and selling. I
was told this by several people. With a straight face. It was about this time I
started noticing the worried looks on several of my co-worker’s faces when
their own rent or mortgage was due.
I had reached my limit by then. I informed my manager I was leaving. Sales obviously
wasn’t for me. He implored me to give it just one more month. If I still
wanted to leave, he would not try to stop me. He would spend more time with me
and help me turn my job and finances around. He asked if that sounded
reasonable. Not wanting to feel I quit without a final try, I agreed. Perhaps I
should have remembered my last out of town sales trip. I had $20 with which to
feed myself for five days. I ate once a day at a grocery store salad bar,
bought a soda every other day, and at the end of five days had fifty-six cents
left to splurge on the motel’s Indian Jones pinball machine. The key was not
pouring dressing on the salad before it was weighted at check out. Yeah.
Perhaps I should have remembered that. At least I lost some weight.
(I later learned agents received a cash bonus for recruiting new people. I
also discovered managers received a bonus for having a certain number of agents
in the field. It had never occurred to me that a supervisor might use sales
techniques on their own people. Fool me once, as the saying goes.)
So, two weeks later I am traveling to Long Island. It was a warm week, drunk
with sun and blue sky. The drive down was quite enjoyable. The directions were
clear and I found navigating through the city toward Mastic Beach was easy.
Maybe this was the turning point I had been hoping for? I checked into the
hotel finding most of my co-workers already there. They seemed agitated. I
poked around and found the source was that the hotel didn’t provide free local
phone calls. We would have to pay (1997 remember) for the 50-60 calls necessary
to book sales appointments. That worked out to almost $30 worth of calls per
day. Okay, maybe this week was going to be like all the others. Freeing a sigh
of annoyance, I sought out my room and the hotel’s cable. My wife and I had
canceled ours to save money a few months earlier. A couple episodes of classic
Star Trek later our group got a call at the front desk from a nineteen-year-old
agent. A thief stole his wallet when he stopped in Lake George while traveling
down. That sucked. We told him just go home. He said it was too late for that because
he wasn’t calling us from Lake George, but the New Jersey side of the George
Washington Bridge. Um, what? He spent the last of his pocket money on
phone cards to call us. He had no means of paying the bridge toll or buying
more gas. He was stuck. Being the team players we were taught to be, we called
our district manager who hadn’t arrived yet.
What the hell do you want me to do?He’s on his own, was the
Being the team players they were taught to be, the rest of the reps agreed
that was an excellent plan of action. I was livid. When the agent called back
some ten minutes later, I told him I was on my way. He asked if I could hurry
because people kept pointing at him. One woman threw a piece of paper at him as
she walked by. He was panicked enough that he wasn’t even sure of the motel’s
name or how he got there. I jumped in my car and left.
The next 115 minutes are hard to describe. You see, the only directions he
could offer me were, “I’m near NYC, I can see the GW Bridge to my left, and I
may be in New Jersey.” I was only twenty-six myself. This was my first time in
The City, as well. What I did have was a good idea of what the lights on
the bridge looked like, as it was early evening, and what kind of car he drove.
I quizzed him on the size, perspective, direction, and height of the lights compared
to him. I got lost in Fort Lee for about thirty-minutes. Somehow ended up almost
in in Hackensack. Almost ran out of gas (of course), but eventually my gut told
me to turn down a back street using the bridge as a marker. And there he was.
To this day I am not sure how, but I found him based on that mental picture in
my mind. He was locked inside his red “LOOK AT ME!” sports car next to a
motel's outdoor pay phone. Whether the small parking lot held more cars than
garbage was debatable. The smells were...interesting. I exited my car, handed
him $20 through his driver's window to pay the tolls, ordered him to follow me,
and returned to my car.
We rolled about twelve feet toward the roadway when the world suddenly
turned into swirling Christmas lights as four unmarked police cars seemingly
teleported in front of us.
What the police saw was a young, white male in a red “LOOK AT ME!” sports
car place several calls from a known drug/prostitute haven, then sit an hour or
two before another young, white male drove up and gave him money. I cannot
stress how absolutely clear the officers made it that we should stay in our
cars, or how bright their spotlights were. I turned my car off as fast as I
could, turned on my interior light, and placed my wrists on top of my steering
wheel in the most ‘I am not a threat’ manner I could muster. The
nineteen-year-old, however, decided the wiser course of action was to NOT turn
his car off, to YELL Everything is okay! at the police officers, and to
EXIT his car.
That’s when the guns came out to play.
Mentally, I was fuzzy at this point. I was scared, confused, and raging
angry. How did this happen?! I pulled off a solo rescue mission that
never should have happened, played 'find the human needle' in an urban haystack
(and won), and now I am watching an idiot ask to be shot. Worse yet, the idiot
could get me shot. The whole scene brought the term “long moment” into
my understanding. Something sank into the idiot’s understanding too, because he
finally did what he was told to do.
Slowly the guns disappeared.
The police grilled us separately for over maybe thirty minutes, no doubt making
sure our stories matched and didn’t change. (Not that I was thinking that
clearly at the time.) I made damn well sure all the sales materials on my back
seat were in the face of everyone I spoke with, along with my anger at the
person I was trying to help. Once the officers were satisfied, they laughed at
the whole affair. They admitted they were fairly sure we were not completing a
drug deal when we didn’t try to, “…smash into their cars and drive away.”,
though what exactly we were doing needing vetting. They even took us on a
little tour of all the dents and scrapes on their cruisers from people trying
to bolt. They then gave us directions to get us directly to the bridge and sent
us on our way.
Just like that, it was over.
When we returned to the hotel, not a single person asked me how it went. The
district manager, now snug in his room, never thanked me for retrieving his
valued team member. That was the final straw. We were granted a mileage
allowance(!) for this trip, so when I received my $100, I determined to put it
to good use. I spent the next five days attending the morning sales meeting,
lip syncing the Go Team! song and dance, and wishing everyone a great day as we
left to hit the field. At night, we would all meet to share stories about how
the day went, exchange sale tips, and plan for the next day. For most, this
meant buying beer. What I somehow failed to share at our gatherings was the
fact that every day I drove around aimlessly for about two hours before heading
to a Cinema 10 three exits down the Long Island Expressway. Yup, every day for
a week I did nothing but go to the movies. I did take three hours out of my
busy movie schedule on Wednesday to try to sell. Surprisingly, I moved some
policies. In fact, I out sold some of the guys who went out and actually tried.
Never underestimate the power of not giving a damn. But, 96% of the time, I
parked my tush like a lazy mule in the only theater I had ever been to that
served Mt. Dew. It was great. On our final day, after the free pizza and wings
promised us at the beginning of the week, I told my shocked and shaken district
manager to sod off and thanks for all the heartfelt concern towards the young
agent I collected. I was done. I drove home the next morning and told Kathy the
Credit must be given when due. I learned a lot in the homes of strangers during
those months. I saw boredom and awful loneliness. I saw deplorable poverty. I
met individuals who planned for nothing, cared for nothing, and blamed the
world at the end of the day when they had nothing. I stomached the discomfort
of sitting tight-lipped across from a father of three (maybe ten years my
senior) who loudly exclaimed he didn’t care what happened to his family after
he died while they were in the same room. Explaining a financial product
when all you want to do is wrap your hands around a dirty, puffy throat and
squeeze until your palms touch is a feeling time finds difficult to erode. I
tried helping families manage the financial hardships of death when I didn’t
know how to pay my own bills. I saw one family torn apart by stress and another
saved when I told them of a life insurance policy no one knew existed. One
elderly gentleman living in a trailer I thought was abandoned told me how the
State took away his infirmed wife of over fifty-years because he could no
longer take care of her. I think of him whenever I smell kerosene. Then
there was the woman who let her pet pygmy goats drop piles of tiny meadow muffins all over her
living room floor. All. Over.
All of these are stories I might one day tell. We’ll see. It was a glorious
end to a decidedly inglorious career. Career choices, ain’t they a hoot.