In the fall 1966, my first year at Ashland Community College, I was hitchhiking to ACC for my morning classes when the salesman picked me up. Hitchhiking was a normal thing in those less enlightened times, when we didn’t yet know we were supposed to be afraid. I was thumbing my way to school because my driver’s license was resting in a cigar box in Kenwood Kentucky, safely held there for 30 days in the possession of a local justice of the peace due to a rather over-exuberant trip I had made through his community late at night on my motorcycle.
The salesman pulled over on Belmont Avenue, I opened the door of his no longer new two door sedan, and climbed in. He was a smallish fellow, probably about 35 or 40, with slicked back thinning hair and a stiffish suit of shiny black. He smiled broadly as he told me of his errand .
In those pre-internet days, there were ads for insurance companies in the back pages of many magazines, companies that offered cheap policies with low, low monthly payments and no medical exam required. Readers of the magazine who might be interested in such things filled out a coupon, cut it out of the page, and mailed it in to the company for “more information”. Those crinkly bits of paper then got collated into bundles by towns and salesmen, like my benefactor, were sent there to make visits to the homes.
“Hey,” he said, “you look like a bright kid, you know your way around this town, how’d you like to make a little money ?”
Classes now ditched for the day, I sorted the coupons into areas there in his front seat and we made our first stop at a group of little houses on Oakview, down near 13th street. We walked up to the porch, the salesman knocked on the door and an education of a different sort began.
The housewife answered the knock, the salesman told her what he was there for, the coupon inquiry and she started to close the door in his face. He stuck his foot in the closing door, not a cliche’ but actually put his worn wing tip in the gap, and started talking faster. On the spot, in his words, I became a poor struggling student working his way through college at the insurance company, the salesman became a kinsman if not in blood then in spirit with the woman in the doorway and in less than 3 minutes we were inside. I sat dumbly on the settee and watched as the salesman, on the couch, worked his magic. We left about a half hour later, having sold a policy to the housewife for her husband, one to her neighbor who had come in the back door to see what was going on and we had been invited to a cookout at their home later that evening. I was gobsmacked.
Over the next few hours I watched in fascination as the power of personality triumphed over resistance and suspicion in neighborhoods all over Ashland, from shanties in the poorer sections to some of the nicest houses in town. His demeanor morphed to match the surroundings, from down home good old boy to country club elite, without a hint of the deception. Thinking back on it now, I don’t recall any failures to sell something on our visits though I’m sure there must have been some. Though I seldom spoke a word, in his pitch I became whatever was needed, from starving student (well, I was sort of skinny then), maybe a clean-cut college boy like you would want your daughter to bring home or perhaps even a nascent insurance executive learning the ropes in the field. He never actually said any of those things directly, but they were implied, as needed. His transitions were seamless and seemed spontaneous, springing from whatever situation he assessed as the door opened.
When we parted that afternoon, he handed me $10, a lot of money to a kid in 1966 Ashland, and took my phone number. He said when he came back through, he wanted to work with me…that was the phrase, “work with me”…again. A few months later, after I had already started working for an appliance company (a story for another time) I came home in the evening and my mother told me that the salesman had called for me that morning. She told him I was out and in those pre-cell-phone days, that meant I was unreachable. He never called back.