At twenty three, fresh off of making an independent film with my brother, I moved to Chicago along with, or on the coattails of, many of my good friends. A recent graduate with a creative writing degree and mounting credit card debt, I had no idea how I was going to make ends meet as I signed the dotted line and moved into my first apartment. And for a short while, I simply did not. My debt grew, I relied heavily on the generosity of loved ones and friends. I ate a lot of noodles and used my deodorant until I cut my underarm on the sharp plastic that emerges from the bottom of the applicator as the product thins away into nothing.
Desperate, I interviewed for a job selling coupon books door-to-door with a company based in Oakbrook, IL. I know, it sounds almost impossible that such an occupation exists – but it did, and likely still does. The interview took place in a musty, windowless office decorated only with empty cardboard boxes along its perimeter. Three telephones sat, side-by-side-by-side, atop the desk between Kevin, a shiny scalped and intelligent sounding man doing the interviewing, and myself. The interview was short – probably ten minutes in all. Kevin asked me a few simple questions about my education, why I wanted the job, where I lived, how I got to and fro. Upon completion of the interview I was awarded the job with a handshake and a congratulations. Kevin asked if I could start that very same day.
In the weeks to come, I realized that this little enterprise was more of a cult than a business; a small community of people who were unemployable for one reason or another – be it an extensive criminal record, a lack of experience, or a sheer lack of skill – shepherded by a manipulative group of smooth-talking operators. But at the time, it appeared to me only as an opportunity to make money – money I desperately needed for the sake of my stomach, my underarms, and for my self esteem.
As coupon salespeople, we drove out to distant suburbs of Chicago and walked neighborhoods in pairs. We knocked on doors, delivered a short pitch, and more often than not, had doors slammed in our faces. Our product, the coupon books themselves, featured steep discounts for various products from both local merchants and national chains — an oil change for half price; free delivery when you order flowers; twenty dollars off weekly lawn mowing service. Better still, the books benefited a “good cause”. We were told that a percentage of each sale was donated to the organization whose logo was featured on the very first page of the book. The official relationship always seemed murky to me, as every few days, a new logo appeared on page one. Needless to say, my skepticism about the quality of the product rung through in my sales pitch. I failed to move a lot of product.
After a week or so of under-performing, Kevin pulled me into his smelly office. He told me to keep my head up, and reminded me that overall sales weren’t the most important thing, effort was the most important thing. He pointed out a colleague as an example – a fellow named Pat – who I’d never met or seen in person, but heard a lot about. Pat was a veteran at the company – he had an MBA from Notre Dame – and was leading his own small team of salespeople. “Pat didn’t put up the biggest numbers out on foot,” Kevin told me, “but he has certain intangibles that make him very valuable to our company. He’s a leader.” Kevin looked long and hard at me, the hint of a smile breaking through at the corners of his mouth. “We can talk about all this later. Just get out there and work hard today. Don’t worry about the numbers.”
That afternoon I walked in a pair with a really tall black dude named Peter Dobson. Originally from Baltimore, Peter was long and lithe. He was good looking and smart and much younger in spirit and appearance than actual age. He spoke without a hint of an accent and with perfect elocution – like a news broadcaster. I took an immediate shine to him, and I like to think he did to me. Peter played college basketball at a small university in Texas in the 60’s – which, in case you know nothing about our nation’s history, were incredibly racially charged times. He’d been pelted with batteries. He’d been called “nigger” probably ten thousand times. And he’d fucked a shitload of white women, he said. Oh – and his sister was Cleopatra Jones. Really — I shit you not. He had a picture of them posing together in his wallet and showed it to me. She was so very beautiful, and I told him that, and he looked at me like he was going to punch me in the face. Then he laughed and put his arm around me, and told me we should go get some hot beef sandwiches for lunch.
After lunch, meandering the sidewalks of a northern suburb, Peter revealed that he’d come to Chicago from Houston in the wake of an acrimonious divorce. His relationship with his kids was ruined, he said, but he still sent them something every week. Sometimes a gift, sometimes a card, sometimes just a handwritten note saying he was sorry for how things had turned out, but always, he sent something. “I send it overnight, signature required,” he said. “And when I check the tracking and see that it was received, I know they got it, that they’re thinking of me.” Unsure what to say, I asked what he did for a living back in Houston, and Peter told me that he’d spent the last few years dealing diamonds. “It’s a funny game, man, you call some rich motherfucker up and be like – look, I’ve got an incredible opportunity coming up – and then you’d take a long pause and flip through some paperwork and then be like – oh, I’m terribly sorry, I’ve made a mistake. I’m just looking through my notes from previous calls, and this probably isn’t right for you. It’s probably a bit too big, and maybe a bit too risky — not what you’ve indicated you’re interested in.” According to Peter, if the person on the other end of the line didn’t hang up immediately, he knew he had them. “These guys only want what they can’t have. You make it seem like you think it’s too rich for their blood and they’re falling all over themselves to get it.”
Peter sold like forty coupon books that afternoon. I sold three. As the sun set on the early autumn day we packed all our things into my trunk and headed back to HQ, over an hour drive from our territory. Once the entire collection of ragtag coupon salesman and women were gathered in the shabby office – which is what we did at the beginning and end of each day, we rallied as a group, this legion of undesirables, to be fired up by our leaders, to share stories and humiliations from our day on foot, to celebrate victories, to bond and unite and to feel part of something larger and more significant than ourselves – Peter rang a cowbell, which was the recognition one received for selling more coupon books than anyone else on any given day. He was praised by management and congratulated by the rest of us. Kevin would be buying drinks for anyone interested in attending a happy hour at a bar down the street – nearly everyone was interested. Eager to get home and into bed, I sneaked off quietly; my feet were sore, my ego battered and bruised, my pockets and gas tank empty. At least I met an interesting person, I thought to myself as I drove east on the Eisenhower toward Chicago, someone with fantastic stories who’d lived a rich and colorful life, experienced a lot. Someone with a big heart.
At home I popped my trunk and was surprised to find Peter’s bag still saddled up against mine; we’d forgotten to unload his things back at HQ. I picked his bag up and was taken aback by its heft. Curious, I unzipped it, and found it was still stuffed to the brim with coupon books. A quick count revealed Peter had more inventory left over than I did; the odds that he’d actually sold forty books to my three were absolutely zero. Peter was a liar, I had the proof in my hands, and suddenly, everything he’d told me that day, everything that made him so unique, so distinct, everything that made him the best part of my day, vanished. It made me incredibly sad.
The next morning I phoned the office, and when I got Kevin on the line, I told him that I was done. “You can consider this my two weeks,” I said. He took a deep breath and let out a disappointed sigh, then told me if my heart wasn’t in it he didn’t want me coming in and poisoning the well for everyone else. Then he thanked me for my efforts, and hung up the phone quickly, without wasting another second.
With time, I’ve come to believe the business must’ve been a front. I’m not sure what for, but I am confident something horribly illegal must’ve been going on beneath the surface. There is no other explanation for this bizarre little business, or this strange cast of characters, or this meaningless, soul crushing job, other than covering up for some sort of illicit enterprise.
Three years later I was reading the New York Times and saw the news that Tamara Dobson – best known for her role as Cleopatra Jones – passed away of pneumonia and multiple sclerosis at the tender age of 59. My heart skipped a beat. In the last paragraph of the article, Tamara’s brother, Peter, was quoted. He commented on his sister’s beauty and intrepid fashion sensibility, noting that she’d changed the way women dressed, especially tall women. They identified Peter as being from Houston, which I took to mean he’d moved back home to be nearer to his kids.
It cost me forty dollars, but I was able to find what I believed to be his address on the internet. I pulled his bag, still packed full of coupon books, from the back of my closet and stuffed it in a cardboard box along with a simple handwritten note that read “I’m sorry about your sister.” I sent it overnight, signature required.