I paused in the slender shade of a lamppost to go over my appointment list. Suddenly a kid appeared, a cherub of perhaps five or so, neatly dressed. He was adorable, yet carried himself with a serious, self-possessed demeanor most unusual in such a youngster. Minutes passed. I ignored him while he studied me.
"Are you a boy, or a man?" he asked, without preamble.
A dull pain coursed through my guts, but I said nothing to the lad, because I knew the source of his confusion. I wore a business suit, starched shirt, conservative tie, newly shined shoes. At my feet was a leather briefcase bulging with sales aids. But I was barely four inches over five feet, no taller than many adolescents, and my unlined face omitted mentioning several of my nearly 21 years.
"I am a man," I answered, forcing a smile.
"You don't look like a man," he retorted. "You look like a boy." He ran off down the sidewalk without another word, then disappeared around a corner.
It would be many years before I became comfortable with people deducting a substantial fraction from my apparent age. I was two months out of the Army, where many a military policeman had been certain that my years were too tender to have enlisted, let alone earned a sergeant's three chevrons. But when the boy had gone, I began to consider another meaning for his question.
Was I a man, or a boy?
It was a warm Saturday afternoon, my feet hurt, my pride was wounded, and I was on the verge of quitting my job. I had pounded the Southern California pavements for weeks without making a sale. I lived in a shabby hotel room, worked from ten in the morning to midnight, watched my hard-earned Army savings dwindle away on coffeeshop food, dry cleaning, rent.
As an Army noncom, even a junior one, I had been treated with respect by superiors and subordinates, even by most civilians. As a door-to-door salesman, however, I was regarded with disdain by nearly everyone. Housewives slammed the door in my face. Homeowners threatened me with watchdogs or shotguns for the crime of ringing their bell. Children taunted me in the street. Hoodlums asserting territorial rights demanded to know my business. Police stopped me to ascertain my identity, to warn me against bothering people after dark, to suggest that I work somewhere else. Even friends and relatives turned their noses up when I announced my new profession. Door-to-door sales? Why don't you get a real job?
There were few "real jobs" available for a high-school graduate whose military skills revolved around fire and maneuver, and handling various lethal weapons. If I wasn't selling books, I would be selling something else, or washing dishes.
And every night, when my field manager picked me up on some suburban street corner I had to tell him that I had blanked, that I had sold nothing. My guts curdled under his interrogation: How many houses had I entered? How many doors had I knocked on? How many presentations had I made? What was wrong with me?
Was I a boy, or a man?
I had money enough for one more month. Then I would have to sell my car, or crawl home to my parents in disgrace. I preferred to quit while I still had enough resources to find another job. After all, I had intended to work fulltime only until fall, when I could start college. And I could salve my pride a little knowing that of the seven who joined the company with me, I was the only man still with the company.
But was I a boy, or a man?
Even though most people didn't want to talk to me, I had no difficulty getting into several houses every evening, probably because I looked young and innocent.
My problem was closing the sale. I sold a quality product, but I was less and less comfortable with my sales pitch. I had used this carefully rehearsed presentation, complete with canned ad libs, to sell two sets of encyclopedias on my first night in the field. Afterward, however, I discerned that much of my pitch was only partly true. I continued to say the words, but people could see that even I didn't believe them.
I asked my manager about using another approach, and he explained that the pitch that I had memorized had been developed over many years, and was known to be successful about a third of the time -- a very good percentage. "Stick to the pitch, give it three times a night," he said, and I would average one sale every night.
I no longer believed that. By the time that kid asked his question, I had made up my mind to finish the day, give it my best shot, and quit. I'd buy the Sunday paper and start going through the classifieds. I would accept that I was not equipped to be a salesman, and swallow the bitter shame of failure. I would get on with my life.
But was I a man, or a boy?
A man doesn't quit because he didn't do his job. I had learned that in the Army. A man quits his job because he wants to do something else. And so right there, leaning on that lamppost, I decided that I would quit -- but not until I made another sale. I walked down the street, checking each lawn and porch for the bicycles and toys that suggest that children live in a house. I came to a neatly-kept bungalow with two bikes in the yard. The front door was wide open, and I banged on it.
"Come on in," came a voice.
Inside a trim Latino of perhaps 30 knelt on the living-room floor, unpacking a box that contained a set of encyclopedias. I recognized the brand at once.
"Hello," he said. "I'm Tito. What's in your briefcase?"
"Books," I said, throwing out the canned pitch. "Encyclopedias. The best set on the market. And at the best price."
"These are a gift from my brother-in-law," Tito said. "For my kids."
"That's a pretty good set," I replied. "Your kids will find them very useful for a few years."
"Only a few years?"
"Yeah, by junior high, they'll need to use the ones in the library." I said this with conviction, because it was true. Tito's gift set was for younger children.
"Show me your books," he said. I took out my samples, compared my product with his, talked about some of my favorite things -- and after twenty minutes he said that he wanted to buy. "I'll pack these up and send them back," he said. He offered coffee, and went to the kitchen to make it. When he brought our cups, I took out the contract, and he paused. A thought marched through his face. "Would you do me a favor?" he asked.
"Would you sit here a minute, let me go get my next-door neighbors?"
"Of course," I said, and my heart sank. It was obvious that he'd changed his mind, that he was going to back out of the deal and wanted support. Buy a $400 set of encyclopedias, when he had a brand-new, perfectly adequate set that cost him nothing? Get real, neighbor. When Tito left, I started to pack up my kit.
He was back in minutes with Doris and Herman, an attractive couple in their forties. "This is Marvin," he said. "He's the first door-to-door salesman that I've ever met who didn't lie to me. He's got a terrific product, and I think your kids would get a lot of use out of books like this."
About ten minutes into my improvised presentation, Doris held up her hand. "We're going to buy," she said, looking at her husband, who nodded. "Could I ask you to call my sister in Montebello and show her these books?"
I made another sale on Monday. On Tuesday I handed my manager two orders. Within a month I was a field manager with five salesmen working for me. I bought a new car, rented a nice apartment. Five months after I came to work for P.F. Collier, I opened a branch office in Long Beach, recruited and trained a dozen salesmen.
Not long after that, my mother stopped taking her medicines, the psychotropic drugs that helped her remain in touch with reality. When I went to visit her in the hospital, she did not seem to know me. "I had a son who looked like you," she said, fumbling in her purse. "Would you like to see his picture?" she said, and held it out.
I looked at a photo that I had never seen. In it I was a tow-headed five-year-old, a dead ringer for the precocious boy who had appeared on a suburban street corner to deliver a message, a reality check, at precisely the moment that I needed it. "Are you a boy, or a man?" that little angel had inquired, and I wish now that I had thought to inquire who it was that asked this question.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.