Thursday, April 19, 2012

Getting Stoned with John

Getting stoned with John Schlesinger was a bad, bad idea. I knew it would be a bad idea, but John and Mitch insisted, and it's not like I had any veto power. So we got stoned.

Now, John, who was an a**hole at the best of times, became nearly intolerable when his thin veil of self-control was removed by the weed he had smoked. His high pitched cackling laughter was increased in volume and frequency and his desire to piss people off grew beyond all reason.

We went driving to get some munchies and gas. Mitch was behind the wheel. This was not the first time I had ridden in a car driven by a stoned Mitch Clinton (in addition to Crazy Sheldon), and while I shudder at the insanity of it all with my 18 years of hindsight, at the time it didn't seem so strange. And while I'm sure his reaction time was impaired, to his credit, he certainly showed a reasonable level of attention and care to the road, to the pedestrians in his path, and to other drivers. John rode shotgun and I was in the back.

We were making a left turn at a 4-way stop sign with a pickup truck stopped opposite us going straight. As we were in the middle of the intersection directly in front of the pickup, without any warning John leaned over to the steering wheel, gave the horn an extended honk over Mitch's protestations, and to our horror put his other hand out the window and gave the pickup driver the finger. Yessir, flipped him the bird. Oh, and cackled like he had heard the funniest joke ever and was just gonna die. He held his belly and cackled and cackled.

The pickup driver apparently didn't think it was so funny, however. He decided that he didn't really want to go straight after all, and turned to follow us. Mitch was also unamused. "John, I am so pissed at you for doing that. It really shows disrespect for your friends  and makes me sorry I shared my weed with you. Plus, I am driving this f***ing car and you do NOT lean over into my space to f**k around and . . . oh s**t, that guy is following us now! You see what you did? F**k! Now I have to be the one to somehow defuse the situation. Thanks very f***ing much, John." The cackling died down a little, but didn't stop.

Mitch pulled into a deserted parking lot and got out of the car. The pickup pulled up behind us, and the driver got out too. The driver started with "What the f**k is this s**t? What are you f***ers trying to start with me?"

Mitch dialed up the charm and dialed down the ego in full salesman mode with "Look man, I am so sorry. It has nothing to do with me, and was totally nothing personal, you know? My boss is a real dick when he's drunk, and he leaned over and honked the horn and all that against my objections. I'm totally sorry, and I totally understand why you're pissed."

Mr. Pickup seemed somewhat mollified and let it go with "Well, you really need to watch out for that f***er. He's gonna get you all in some serious trouble some day."

And where was I this whole time? Sitting in the back, stoned, eyes wide, feeling like I had landed on a movie set or some parallel universe. Was this really my life?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I'm not interesting

Dear reader, thank you for your patience. Seven months of writer's block and crazy busy life have left my little blog neglected, but not forgotten. Hopefully, we'll be back to regular posting.

I may have mentioned in the past that travelling door to door encyclopedia salesmen were not a very politically correct community. We had all sorts of stereotypes about different types of people (wealth, type of car, neighbourhood, and yes, race, gender, and country of origin) to try to model our sales pitch or even give up at the beginning to save time.

One of the groups that we tended to avoid was immigrants. Not always, especially if they seemed really friendly, but as a rule I guess if English wasn't their native language it was just too much of a communication barrier against forming a trusting repartee to make a successful pitch.

One of the interesting little bits of trivia I never noticed until Mitch pointed it out to me was how different immigrants would tell you at the door that they weren't interested.

Not being interested was a very common situation for travelling door to door encyclopedia salesmen to be faced with. A significant majority of the doors we would knock on would simply end with "I'm not interested" and there would be nothing you could do, especially if they closed the door after saying it. Not that I'd give up, mind you. Probably more than half of my sales started out as "I'm not interested" too.

In fact, it seems like "I'm not interested" was a sufficiently important part of Western culture that it was one of the first phases that immigrants would learn. I don't recall a single one, no matter how fresh off the boat, who could't say it.

Not that they said it correctly, mind you. No sir. But what Mitch pointed out was the uniformity of the (grammatical? pronunciation?) error among various communities. Punjabis, Russians, Chinese, Koreans, Italians, and more would almost invariably tell me "I'm not interesting" or maybe "I'm no interesting".

Mitch, ever the comedian, would answer back, "That's OK! You don't have to be interesting. I have to be interesting. So mind if I step in for a minute?" It was a laugh riot, I tell you. I liked it so much, I started responding the same way to any foreigner telling me he or she wasn't interesting.

Not that it ever worked, of course.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Crazy Sheldon

So there we were in Edmonton: two crews sharing adjacent motel rooms and hanging out together every night. In addition to the folks I introduced you to last time, there were also Bryan and Crazy Sheldon. Bryan was a former member of the Canadian military who talked about his stint in the army all the time. I was intensely jealous of him for one particular reason: he had been stationed as a UN peacekeeper in the Golan Heights, and I, a Jew, had never even been to Israel. But, aside from his interaction with Crazy Sheldon, I'll write more about Bryan another time.

Crazy Sheldon. I wonder what his problem was. I mean, I wonder what his official diagnosis would have been. Borderline personality maybe. Still, a nice guy, and aside from the time I went along with him in almost getting us both killed, he was definitely a fun guy to be around, if you were able to make concessions to his craziness .

One of the ways it manifested itself was in his utter lack of fear of dogs. Dogs are one of the hazards travelling door to door encyclopedia salesmen have to deal with. A lot of our work was done in trailer parks, and a dog in the yard could be a very real obstacle. For me, it would just mean that door didn't get knocked on, but for Sheldon, it was as if the dog wasn't even there. Now I know that in theory a dog can't harm you if you're not afraid of it, but I'm not sue how I could possibly test that theory. I have no particular phobia about dogs, but if there's a big dog I don't know barking at me because I'm invading its territory, I'm gonna be pretty scared.

Sheldon would simply ignore it. Only if it would actually charge him would he even acknowledge it in any way, by staring it down and yelling at it to shut up. Worked like a charm.

One evening we were off in some distant bit of territory on our own. We knocked on a few token doors before Sheldon decided we should go to the 7-Eleven and play Mortal Kombat for over an hour. I just stood there watching him, a guy in his 20s yelling at the screen and feeding it quarter after quarter. Once in a while, if he made a particularly successful move, he would taunt his computerised nemesis by yelling "Go-EEEEEED!!" very loudly. The first time he did that, he was rather proud of himself, and looked to me with raised eyebrows hoping for some affirmation of his tremendous wit. I smiled. "Sheldon, don't you think we should try to go make some money?"

"Yeah, I guess. One more game!" Pow, kick. "Go-EEEEEED!!"

By the time we were done trying to sell encyclopedias and were ready to drive back to the motel and meet up with the rest of the crew, it was pretty late. We had a good half hour drive ahead of us on an unlit snow-covered two lane highway full of sharp turns. So as we got in his car, he of course pulled out a baggie of marijuana and some rolling papers and proceeded to roll a fat doobie. I mean obviously.

Now I was certainly getting the feeling that this was not a smart thing to do, and it is something that wouldn't have occurred to me to do in a million years, but I went along with it. Yes indeed I did. I sat there in the passenger seat while Sheldon drove the suicide road back to Edmonton and we passed the joint back and forth. Despite knowing that this was crazy and dangerous, and not really wanting to, I did it. Why?

There are a few reasons, I guess. For one thing, I was 21 years old, and people do more stupid things at that age. I mean you're basically still a teenager and the power of peer pressure and a certain feeling of immortality haven't totally worn off yet. And I was a pretty go-along-to-get-along kind of guy. I'm glad my friends in high school weren't bank robbers or heroin dealers, or I might not be here today. Whatever it was, I shudder today to think that I did something so incredibly insane. But it's OK because Crazy Sheldon made me do it!

Eventually, it was time for Sheldon to go. He had been a travelling door to door encyclopedia salesman much longer than I, but one day he got in a fight with Bryan the ex-soldier. Bryan was a pretty high-strung guy but he was far from insane. He knew how far to take the fight without losing his job, but Sheldon went completely bats**t and may have become dangerous if Ray and John hadn't pulled them apart and calmed Sheldon down. Having missed the first few minutes, I have no idea what they were fighting about, and I'm sure it doesn't matter.

Because Sheldon was crazy.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Karaoke Nights

When you're on the road with a travelling door to door encyclopedia sales crew, you gotta let off steam on a regular basis. And karaoke is as good a way as any.

I'd say that in my six months behind the lines, we probably went to karaoke bars three or four times. And the star on our team was definitely Andy Bailey. He was fearless and shameless. One time he saw "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" on the song list and picked it. Of course, it was Bob Dylan's original arrangement, but Andy did a full-on Axl Rose impression anyway. "Aww, aww, aww-aww yea-eah!" I still smile when think of it.

But without a doubt the funniest karaoke memory I have is from when we were at a redneck bar in some little town in the middle of nowhere. Most of the men there were wearing cowboy boots, and I believe there was sawdust on the floor. Ah, but the karaoke machine was off-the-shelf! In addition to country hits and standards, it had every other genre ever made for karaoke. Andy looked through the song list until his eyes lit up and he looked as happy and excited as a kid with candy. He had found the song. "Bust a Move" by Young MC.

I wish I had the words to do the scene justice. Try to imagine an 18-year-old 100-pound stoner kid from Vancouver on stage with a big smile on his face doing a dorky little elbow dance (and occasional spin) while rappin' away to In the city/Ladies look pretty/Guys tell jokes so they can seem witty.

Now imagine a room full of boots-and-flannel-wearing rednecks far far away from "in the city" staring at him like he was some kind of weird new bug they had never seen, and didn't know what to do with. While rednecks, stereotypes aside, are not generally slack-jawed, they sure were that night.

Finally, imagine Mitch, Ann, Nathan, and me laughing at the above scene until we were close to passing out. Man; good, good times.

The only other memorable karaoke experience from back in the days when I was a travelling door to door encyclopedia salesman was when we stopped in Cranbrook, BC for a couple days. It's where Mitch was from, so we met some of his family. One night, we went to a bar and they were having karaoke night. Mitch's cousin, a very attractive young lady named Vicky, got up and performed an old romantic standard. She was quite a singer, and between her voice and her looks there was hardly a man at the bar who wasn't smitten.

She came and sat with us afterward and we chatted. She had lived in Vancouver for a while, but had moved back home to Cranbrook to work as a massage therapist. (No dirty thoughts, people. Just a regular massage therapist.) That was that, except as we were driving out the next morning, Mitch (ever the diplomat) shared one or two little tidbits about his cousin.

"That Vicky. She's really pretty, eh?" We all agreed. "You know what she was doing when she lived in Vancouver? She was a prostitute! Not the street-walking kind. She shared an apartment with a friend. She'd go out to a bar and let herself get picked up by a rich-looking man with a wedding ring. She'd take him home and seduce him in such a way that his clothes ended up in the living room while she and he were in the bedroom. Her roommate would sneak out and rifle through his wallet. By the time he got on his clothes, left, and then discovered his wallet was much lighter, there was nothing he could do about it if he didn't want his wife to find out. Vicky did that to lots of men, and was making a killing till she got tired of it. So she moved back home to be a masseuse."

I think some of the other guys got a thrill from Mitch's story. I wonder what Ann thought of it. But I just found it depressing. I'm glad she got her life back on track, because it sure could have ended very badly. She was so pretty and lively. And a real karaoke champion!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Scraping the Bong

Note: This is more or less a sequel to Prince George was Smokin'. The same disclaimer applies.

So there we were in Prince George and we'd finished Ms. Crewcut's swaggy weed. No need to worry however; Andy Bailey came prepared too. Not only did he bring a little bit of weed also, but he also packed one of the most unique and ingenious pieces of smoking paraphernalia I've ever seen.

It began its existence as a large plastic travel mug with a tight fitting snap lid, the simple kind without any sliding closure or anything. The lid of course had two holes in it: one for drinking out of, and a smaller one to let air in. Into the drinking hole he had fitted the shell of a disposable plastic pen that he had heated and softened in order to make it fit snugly, as well as to bend it to a convenient angle for sucking without tipping the mug or straining the neck. He completed the seal with plasticine.

To the bottom of the smaller hole he attached a similar pen tube so that it went down almost to the bottom of the mug. The truly brilliant idea was how he created a bowl to attach to the top of that hole. He bought a springy metal door stopper. He removed the rubber tip, then held the narrow end of the spring over a flame until it was hot enough to melt plastic. He then screwed it into the lid directly above the small hole and held it there until it cooled and the plastic hardened. He was then able to screw and unscrew the door stopper from the lid at will. He inserted a piece of wire screen into the top. You put your weed there.

Voila: a perfectly functional unbreakable bong that collapses in about fifteen seconds into what looks like a normal and inconspicuous travel mug. "Andy, if only you could use your powers for good and not for evil," I said. Andy laughed.

Now kind reader, as I'm sure you know, after one has smoked any kind of pipe enough times, deposits of resin start to build up on its inner surfaces. We were all out of weed, so Ms. Crewcut decided it was time to scrape Andy's bong.  I and a couple other folks went along with this bold idea, even though Andy was out knocking on doors and trying to sell encyclopedias. I'm sure I must have had a fleeting thought that it wasn't very nice what we were doing, but I guess I made peace with myself. After all, it wasn't my idea.

So the bong got scraped and the resulting powder got smoked (along with whatever healthy supplements got picked up from the plastic mug or the chrome-plated door stopper), and a good time was had by all. Until Andy returned, that is. Andy Bailey was not pleased with Ms. Crewcut's initiative. In fact, one might say he totally lost it. After a few minutes of yelling and screaming and berating a very carefree, cool, and collected (ie. stoned) Ms. Crewcut, he made the point that  think was the one that loomed largest in his mind. "Do you have any idea how many bowls I had to smoke through that bong to get so much resin to build up?!"

I decided it was my opportunity to pipe in (so to speak) and defuse the situation. Thankfully it worked. Andy laughed, and peace did once again dwell among fellow travelling door to door encyclopedia salesmen.

"That was quite a sacrifice, Andy."

Update: Holy smokes! (So to speak.) When I wrote this post I was unaware of a movie called The Cabin in the Woods. But I see that a lot of you are, and I have come to understand that a travel mug bong is featured quite prominently in that movie. Apparently, it's quite different from mine (that is, Andy's), but I'm still a little touched and flattered that so many of you have visited my humble little blog based on it. Thank you, and feel free to stay and read a few stories!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Selling to Indians - Part II

. . . Continued from Part I

My bosses, crew leaders, and more experienced crew mates always said that Indians (not the kind from India) were in a special category for travelling door to door encyclopedia salesmen. The whole idea of profiling in that way made me rather uneasy, not to mention skeptical, but eventually I got to experience the reality face to face.

So there we were in 100 Mile House, British Columbia. I was knocking on doors, and an Indian fellow in his late 50s or so came to the door. He lived alone. I wasn't sure exactly what to do. On one hand, our whole package and pitch was geared towards younger families with small kids, but on the other hand he was an Indian, which is virtually an automatic sale, especially if he owns his own home. I was leaning towards excusing myself, but he pretty much made me come in and show him the product. He said he had grandkids and was interested in getting something for them. Folks, if the customer tells you at the door that he's interested, this is very very good news. It kinda eliminates the whole process from "why are you knocking on my door" to "well, yes I guess I can see why this would be a valuable addition to my home".

My entire interaction with him was totally unlike any other customer. In a different (non-Indian) context I would have concluded that he was utterly indifferent to my pitch and to the sales points I was making, but in this case I think he had already decided he was going to buy whatever I was selling, and didn't have any questions or concerns, and didn't want to waste time. It was only his innate respectfulness that kept him from asking me to cut to the chase. Every time I'd ask a question ("Do you think that having quality educational products in the home is critical in giving your child the best chance possible for success?") he would simply answer, "Yes" and wait for me to continue.

So of course in the end he bought it. As I was filling out the order form with him, one of the questions I had to ask him was who his employer was. He named a major local logging company. I asked him what his position was there. Please remember that I was a 21-year-old city boy and a former university student with no clue and little respect for rural and uneducated ways (I've learned since), so when he answered "pine cone picker," I could hardly grasp what he was saying. I asked him what that involved. "When the loggers remove the trees, I go over the cleared ground and pick up the pine cones." Idiot that I was, I actually had to hold myself back from laughing at him. Of course, he was making a living and I wasn't, so who deserves to be laughed at?

Then there are the other Indians. You know, the kind that actually come from India. The first time I ever knocked on a Punjabi Sikh's door I had not yet been told by the travelling door to door encyclopedia sages that Indians are the polar opposite of Indians. One politely says, "Oh, sorry, wrong door" and moves on, because Indians never ever buy.

There I was in Prince George, BC, and expecting to have a wasted night, having been stuck in one of the better neighbourhoods there. All nice big well-kept houses. The Sahara desert would be a more hospitable place for a travelling door to door encyclopedia salesman. A man wearing a turban came to the door, and after I introduced myself, he invited me in. So far so good, but then he made me break one of the cardinal rules that was drummed into us during training: NEVER talk to just one spouse without the other. If necessary, make an appointment to come back, or else excuse yourself, but don't waste time on just one half. No matter what they say at the beginning, in the end it will always be, "Oh, I have to ask my wife/husband". Always. So just don't bother.

Well Mr. Chadha was having none of it. When I asked him if his wife was home, he considered my question impertinent. "You can show me what you have to show me, and I'll decide if we need it or not." I tried again to get him to agree to have his wife join us (I could see her busy in the kitchen, and my trainers were really clear about not trying to pitch half a couple) and he started to get a little annoyed and short with me. "She does not need to be here. I make the decisions, OK?" This was not boding well, neither with his cross attitude, nor with my breaking the rules, but since I had no other prospects that night, I just charged forward with my pitch.

When I got to the end, he was silent for a moment, then said, "Yes, that sounds fine". Unbelievable.

When I got back to the motel that night, I knew it would be a funny and impressive story; I just didn't know how impressive. I told the crew "I made a sale to an Indian tonight!"

"Big deal," answered Mitch. "Who can't?"

"Wanna know his name?"


"Surinder Singh Chadha."

"WHAT?? An Indian Indian? That's impossible! They never buy!"

In my six months as a travelling door to door encyclopedia salesman, it was the only time I ever truly impressed and astonished all my superiors with a truly great sale. The warm glow of pride must have lasted . . . hours.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Selling to Indians - Part I

Being a travelling door to door encyclopedia salesman does not lend itself to political correctness. Unofficially and off the record, our bosses and crew leaders drilled into us the correct profiles of people likely to buy, and of those we shouldn't waste our time with. And a waste of time it was, since if you did a good job of getting in the door (which is a really big part of getting the sale) and spent a good hour or two on the schmooze and the pitch only to get turned down, you've wasted a good part of the night. Ditto if you waste hours knocking on doors in a neighbourhood where nobody will talk to you.

So there were two general demographic profiles that we would focus on in our sales: rednecks and Indians. Today let's discuss the latter.

(Natives, Native Canadians, First Nations. The politically correct term changes from time to time, but the ones I met were happy to call themselves Indians, so I will too. While I don't go too far out of my way to be super-sensitive, it is also not my intention to be wantonly offensive, so I hope you understand my words in the spirit in which they are meant.)

Indians can either live on a reservation, or in a town or city along with white people. Reservations (as far as I could tell, and on the testimony of fellow salesmen) come in two general categories: ones that are obviously poverty-stricken, and ones with a brand new pickup in every driveway. I'm not sure what determines that, but my guess would be the exploitation of some sort of valuable natural resource, such as oil or timber.

As for why Indians are so open to travelling salesmen, I'd be surprised if any research had been done on the topic, but I can give a few educated guesses. First, a characteristic that they share with rednecks is that they are generally located relatively far from major urban centres and their accompanying wealth of choices in retail establishments, as well as libraries. Remember, this was before the days of the internet.

Aside from that, I'm sure there were cultural aspects, such as a general desire for self-improvement and a chance for a better education for the kids, for which an encyclopedia was a powerful symbol and, potentially, a useful tool.

Whatever the reasons, very often if you knocked on an Indian family's door, they would act like they were lucky to invite you in, listen spellbound to the pitch, and then sign the sales contract and credit application gratefully at the end. Too easy.

Only two problems: one, they actually had to pass a credit check and two, you don't want to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs, so we were careful about not overworking the reservations. In fact, a night of knocking on doors on a reservation was used as a reward to be teased with for a particularly hard or motivated worker. There was no bigger carrot. As for the credit check (and, more generally, being able to afford the product at all), that's why we looked for the brand new pickup in every driveway. That's the right kind of reservation for a travelling door to door encyclopedia salesman.

Sometimes, of course, one would simply get lucky and find an Indian family living among the rednecks. That's what happened to me in 100 Mile House, British Columbia. The first time Mitch told me we were driving there, I had to ask him if this was the real name of a town, or if it was some kind of inside joke. No joke: 100 Mile House is a real honest-to-goodness town. They even have a McDonald's.

(To be continued . . .)