I’m not sure why, but when I was a kid I seemed to get the idea I was supposed to be a great salesperson. My favorite pretend game was to set up a store and arrange the shelves, trying to make them as “real” as possible. I’d rinse out old orange juice containers and yogurt cups, put them on top of some cardboard boxes and voila! Eve’s General Store was open for business, (at least until mom got ahold of the yogurt cups). I could usually count on my brother to be a customer for a minute or two before he got bored and went off to play Atari Pac Man and drink large quantities of Mountain Dew. I suppose maybe I inherited some gene or other from my grandfather, who got his start selling Wear-Ever aluminum pans door to door, and worked his way up to Head-Big-Shot-in-Charge-of-Something. (Warning: this is how much our grandchildren will know about us, one day.)
I used to pore over the opportunities to sell door-to-door that occasionally arrived in the mail, or came home from school, dreaming… But, dreaming what? I can’t even remember what us little snake-oil salesmen were supposed to earn for our efforts- prizes? Money? A guest spot on Star Search?- so it can’t have been about that. I think I just liked the idea of selling, of being the middleman who didn’t make a product, didn’t buy a product, but made that connection which made things happen. Plus, you get to handle money, which for a sixth grader is all kinds of exciting.
So off I went, door-to-door selling all manner of orderable, not-entirely-necessary things- Burpee flower seeds, Christmas cards, California oranges for German club and popcorn in fancy glass jars for marching band. Over the years I think I wore a track into the pavement around our block. Maybe I was ambitious, but despite all that practice, I was also terribly shy, and thus, really very bad at it. Grandpa had sent me the Motivation Gene successfully, but had apparently forgotten to pass on the Silver Tongue Gene to go along with it.
You would think a fringe benefit for my efforts would’ve been getting to know all my neighbors in the process, but that wasn’t the case either. Typical of the weird suburban dynamic where I grew up, you could encounter the same handful of people again and again and never get to know anyone, not even so much as a name- unless they ordered something from me of course. And what if someone answered the door who you did know, say, that skinny, freckly boy in the Members Only jacket who sits two rows over from you in health? Of course you pretend you don’t know him either, and shyly ask if his parents would like to buy some seeds.
The one neighbor who probably singlehandedly supported my not-so-predestined career as a salesperson was Mrs. Daldorf. Mrs. Daldorf was a lovely elderly lady with a big white-blond head of hair that she pinned on top of her head with bobby pins, which I thought meant she was both elegant and wealthy. She lived two doors down from us and was always happy to see me. Mrs. Daldorf would invite me in and we’d sit on her big twin velour recliners in front of the television. She would feed me hard candies wrapped in little foils and talk to me about what I was doing in school while she slowly, slowly perused the catalog I had brought with me this time. It wasn’t unpleasant, but I was perplexed by it, and was all too anxious to head off to the next house and have some more doors shut in my face. It never dawned on me until I was much older that this rigamarole most likely wasn’t because she was indecisive, but because she was lonely and enjoyed the few minutes of company.
Nowadays, of course, my kids bring home the glossy fundraising catalogs selling Christmas wrap, candies and calendars, benefiting various worthy programs, the notable difference being that now they come with a lengthy note explaining that children are expressly discouraged from going “door-to-door” and are instead advised to sell only to family and other friends- all of whom by the way have also just received this same catalog in their children’s backpacks that afternoon.
So we dutifully fill out the first line on the order sheet, leave the other forty-seven spaces blank, and send all the materials back with our one, sad, lonely little check swimming around in the envelope. It feels odd, and it should- this is a system that once made a lot more sense that it does now.
Of course, I completely understand the change. The very idea that my parents had no problem with me wandering off into total strangers houses all afternoon now falls into the ever-expanding category of Things That Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, like optional seat belts and Fluff sandwiches, or Penicillin prescriptions for the sniffles and drinking large quantities of Mountain Dew while playing Atari PacMan. But, it still strikes me as a little sad just the same. I mean, what better time to start learning how to meet your neighbors, and socialize politely with the social security set and other non-kid-encumbered folks in your town than when you’re a kid? What better time to start realizing you live in a community, not just a house? Reasonable precautions granted, but if we follow every lengthy warning note about never talking to anyone you don’t know, you know what happens? You never meet anyone. You live next door to Mrs. Daldorf and you never meet her.
Personally, I wish I had had the presence of mind to visit Mrs. Daldorf when I didn’t have a product to sell. But being friends with a senior citizen? Who had no grandchildren in sight? That just wasn’t a thought that would’ve occurred to me back then. It took me a few decades, and moving to a new state, to realize how great it actually felt to live in a community, not just a house.
Not to mention the fact that my fourth grader is surprising everyone by showing all the signs of being a budding capitalist. She is constantly describing to me the new business she wants to start, from lemonade stands to handwoven coasters to homemade applesauce by order. The good news is, she wouldn’t know shy if she tripped over it. I just smile and shake my head. She’s just like her Dad- she could sell snow to Eskimos. Then again, I wonder: do you think the Super Salesperson gene could’ve skipped a generation?
2 thoughts on “Door to door”
Great article Eve. I miss the days when you didn’t feel so cautious about talking to strangers. I remember when Stephen went out selling and the phone calls I received (most of the people were seniors) telling me how much they enjoyed his conversation. Lonely or whatever, he made their day.
I enjoyed reading your essay as it was a charming reminder of all the fundraising junk I sold to my kinder, suburban neighbors, many, many years ago. I had Mrs. Daldorf’s “twin” (Mrs. Donahue) as one of my best customers. Bless her heart. Thank you for the trip in the “way-back machine”.