If I never grew a conscience, I probably would’ve been a salesman. I’m better at it than I’m comfortable being. Convincing people to give me their money is like cocaine: once I tried it I realized I had to stop right away or else become a whore. Sure, I’ve only had the social skills/septum to pull it off for a couple years; even so, I’ve battled my inner Baldwin since birth.
Salesmanship is equal parts ego, smoothness, and product. Ideally, a good salesman is egotistical enough to believe that his personality should sell things, is smooth enough to hide it, and has a product his mark actually wants. The more unnecessary the product, the more the salesman has to do to sell it. The more a salesman’s work affects a mark’s decision to buy, the bigger the rush.
That paragraph’s boring, I know, but bear with me. I worked at the Apple Store in college, where most people already knew what they wanted and I was just there to ring it up, non-commission. To a stimulant addict, that’s like a cup of black tea—technically against the rules, but if you call your sponsor over it he’ll hang up.
Before that, though, I was a “charity fundraiser.” I put that in quotes because it’s a lie. I was a telemarketer. But, still, for charity! I rationalized this in my head like so: “telemarketer” is bad, but “charity” is good, so if I put “charity” before “telemarketer” it’s okay! Even if I take commission and performance bonuses!
That’s just the Baldwin speaking. In reality, putting “charity” before “telemarketer” is like putting “baby” before “murderer.” Not only was I a Menace II Society, I preyed upon people’s love of cuddly things like polar bears and NPR. What kept me going was this: compared to the Apple Store, convincing a stranger to give you her credit card over the phone is like jamming a bike pump full of Bolivian freebase into your jugular.
Being good at telemarketing also has roughly the same affect on your soul. At the end of each shift, I’d walk home feeling like Kevin Garnett after the 2008 NBA Finals. Then I’d get home and collapse into a pile of guilt for the annoyance and insincerity I’d inflicted on the world. Every day I took my ego on a rickety carnival rollercoaster, hurtling from swingin’-dick alpha male to self-loathing catatonic and back in minutes.
Should’ve seen it coming. This wasn’t my first time getting into the mess that is ego-driven selling. It all started at the International Culture Fair at Chippewa Elementary.
I was ten years old and entered in a sales contest. The fourth grade teachers assigned everyone a country, and we each manned a booth selling something we made related to that country’s culture. At the fair, the teachers gave everyone fake currency to spend at the other booths. Whoever made the most won. Most kids went the obvious route and brought food—tacos from Mexico, samosas from India, flags from North Korea.
I had Greece and insufferable arrogance.
Just a couple weeks earlier, I won my first writing award, and I won it in style. After a trial, a story of mine had earned Illinois Public School District 2’s Young Author Award. The panel at first refused to believe that a ten year old could write with such eloquence, such panache, such synonyms, and so my teacher and parents had to swear that they had seen me write it unassisted. (Whether this had more to do with my skill or with the fact that the district’s budget was a pack of saltines and an assisted suicide doctor I’ll never know.)
Riding high, I decided to play to my strengths and write a comic book about the Greek gods. Sound like a good idea? It is, except OH WAIT! I’M WEIRD! The comic was about the hapless underdog Death applying to join the Twelve Olympians, who laugh him off the mountain. Still sound like a good idea? Pepper in a bunch of “jokes” and anti-jokes written by a ten year-old who lives off of Monty Python, Weird Al, and Daniel Pinkwater books, then give it a “hilarious” anti-climax where Death just gives up and leaves.
Take that and try to sell it to a bunch of ESL kids who live next to the airport and see how you do.
If your answer is anything less than “great,” The Baldwin is not within you. I sold the fuck outta those comics. It was all in the pitch. “Everyone else is selling food. Why not get something you can take home and cherish forever? You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. All in the latest classic from award-winning young author Peter Lundquist. Okay, now say that to them in Spanish.”
I had created something subversive and original, and the rewards were pouring in. At ten, I had no stimulants to compare this to, so I guess I’d call it a big hug on a nice summer day (note: we need to start kids on drugs earlier).
My teacher came by to grade me. She flipped through my comic, bemused, and let out a half-laugh. “Okay, Peter… uh, what is this?” I contained myself. “It’s Dada. You expect it to be funny, and then it isn’t funny, which makes it funny again. So were you right or not? You don’t know!”
She bit back laughter, as if to avoid asking “How do you know what Dada is?” followed by “Wait, you clearly fucking don’t.” So began the end. Juan after Juan filed up to me, waving copies of my book, claiming it was unfunny bullshit and they want their fake money back because Belgium is selling waffles. The ruse came apart, Jack Lemmon got arrested, and goddamit I just crossed the threshold of too many Glengarry Glen Ross references.
Anyway, my brief empire had fallen. I was crushed. But then I figured I was too smart for them and learned nothing because I was a dick. Follow me on Twitter.