We called ourselves bookmen. Companies seeking encyclopedia salesmen would make “Bookman” the heading in their classified help-wanted ads. Sometimes we’d refer to ourselves as cyke peddlers, and to others we knew — or sometimes, to ourselves — as book bums. But we were all, generically, slat-rappers, door-pounders, at least when we first were getting started, before learning smarter and more effective ways to reach the prospect.
We didn’t, though, call ourselves bookmen with females we were trying to impress. You found out fast that describing yourself as a self-employed commission salesman rang no bells with the ladies and their latent but powerful nesting instincts, even with your bright new car parked outside the singles bar. We told them we were junior executives for a major publishing company.
We did feel we possessed more courage than the clock-punching bozos who traded freedom for a sure-thing paycheck. I knew a young manager back in New York who used to holler at the new recruits brought in by the blind want ads that he was looking for guys “with big brass balls.” Even so, our courage had parameters, else we would have traded our sales kits for Smith & Wessons and robbed banks. In fact, the young manager, who resembled Frank Sinatra in style and profile and who drove a new Jaguar usually decorated with a beautiful girl, later did get a gun and rob a liquor store. And got caught. But we all kind of respected him. He’d proved he had the brass balls he so admired.
When a salesman turns to crime, it’s almost always of a less violent kind. I’ve heard of peddlers, once inside the house, picking up items of value when the customer’s attention was diverted. Others, I understand, used their sales presentation to get inside a home, cased it, and returned later to burglarize it, or passed the information on to a thieving friend. Five years or so into the business, I was making a pitch in a mobile home when the phone rang. I heard my prospect assure the caller I was OK, that I was legitimate. It seemed that two nights before, some guy posing as an encyclopedia salesman (or, shit, maybe he really was one) had talked his way inside a door and raped a woman. And the caller had seen me knocking on doors. I was lucky I wasn’t detained on suspicion; instead, I walked away with an order.
Speaking of trailer parks, these were the places to go to get lucky in ways other than sales deals. I was once out with a crew, a bunch of young salesmen working a large mobile-home complex in a rural area, when one of the guys came running after me. “Party going on two streets over,” he shouted. He’d stumbled upon three young ladies bored with country living who were nice enough to invite us all in. We stayed the night, getting drunk and laid. And went to work as usual the next day. The other young bookmen and I would sometimes spend all night out messing around in New York City, or playing poker, and then go to work the next day without sleep. Recovery times are fast two decades into life.
Another time I was working a trailer park in tandem with a friend, married but always on the lookout to break the nuptial vows, his own and others’. This young woman with a four-month-old baby told us her husband was asleep in the bedroom. Then she leaned over, real slow like, to display each millimeter of her bursting bust. “He’s got to go to work in a few hours, but come back tonight.” She said she was interested and wanted to know more. My friend and I flipped a coin as to who would go back. He won. She couldn’t get enough, he reported, but wouldn’t stop talking about what a bastard her husband was. I visited the next night and she didn’t seem surprised to see me, not asking where my friend was but still ripping into her mate. Between the sheets she got me to promise I’d get her a free set. She said she escaped her clod of a spouse by retreating into books. (And evidently also into casual sex with passing salesmen.) The company did sometimes sell salesmen repossessed sets, but they still were fairly expensive. Guilt rode on my ass for a while, and I later sent her a six-volume set of children’s storybooks, which is more than my friend did. The whole thing was depressing, failings of the flesh. You have to be “up” to perform — I mean as a salesman. On occasion through the years I’ve been gnawed by the dark hound of depression, a dangerous beast to a self-employed door-pounder often but one sale away from life on the street.
I knew a bookman who sold a set to a divorcée with a ten-year-old child. He dated her, and they got married soon after. “Now I’m paying for the damn books,” he’d laugh. It’s not that rare an occurrence. Some women are attracted to salesmen, but not necessarily because they’re fast-talking and full of soothing lies. Socializing is part of the job, and listening to people — even more than talking — is essential. A good peddler is not the Charlie Loudmouth some may think but more an instant friend with psychotherapeutic skills.
Of course, you can never lose sight of the objective. Once, in the Midwest, I was surprised for a short second when the young marrieds told me they would have to pray over the decision. I told them fine, thinking they would adjourn to an adjoining room. But they sank to their knees and asked me to join them in prayer. I thought this would last maybe 10 or 20 seconds, you know, like those perfunctory “graces” you hear at the dinner table of certain friends, but I felt I was kneeling there forever. I blinked open an eye to see what was happening, and they were still praying away. I instinctively felt that if God was taking this long to answer, He might need some help. I spoke up, softly but with enthusiasm. “Oh, yes. It would be a fine program for this couple and for their future children. Amen.” Their prayer had apparently been answered in the same way, because I wrote the order.