Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Salesman and the Householder 

The Facts
A door-to-door salesman called at my house this evening, carrying a crate containing, I think, a selection of basic household goods. He began to introduce himself, offering me a card with some kind of official identification, but I cut him short, pointing out the notice by the front door informing visitors that we do not buy or sell anything at the door. We exchanged a few words clarifying each others’ position, then, when it was clear mine was not going to change, he left.

The Story
It was nearing the end of cold, damp, grey November day. As he walked up his driveway, the householder ran his gloved fingers over the water droplets on the rear window of his car – already turned to ice. Much colder than when he left home this morning; he was wishing he’d put a pullover on under his coat.

A few minutes later, another figure walked up the drive. Tucked awkwardly under one arm was a large plastic crate of household cleaning materials – dishcloths, brushes, tea towels and the like. He’d already been out for over two hours, and like the householder, hadn’t realised how cold it was going to get that night. The walk from house to house didn’t generate enough heat to compensate for the cold which crept into him every time he stopped at a doorstep, so he’d been getting steadily colder and colder until by now the cold had penetrated to his very core. He was young, fit and with a naturally bright disposition, but refusal after refusal on a damp, freezing November evening was enough to sap the morale of the most hardened salesmen – and he was young enough and enthusiastic enough not to have become hardened yet; when his enthusiasm did eventually give out, it was likely to do so with a tumble that would not be checked by the cynicism which comes hand-in-hand with experience. As he approached the front door, the thought flashed into his mind that he really couldn’t handle many more evenings of rebuttals like this – why didn’t these people even open their ears to hear what he was saying? The goods were nothing special, it’s true, but they were fairly priced - why did people prefer to give their money to faceless supermarket owners when they could buy goods of just the same quality from him and at the same time do something to help people who really needed it?

He did sometimes wonder exactly how much the organisers made on the deal – he knew they paid people to package the goods – indeed, to make some of them – in their homes, but he didn’t know how much these people were paid for their work. All he knew was that the organisers sold the goods on to him at a price that allowed him to make just a few pence on each item whilst still undercutting the supermarkets.

Just for a moment, he felt a sudden urge well up in him to give up and get back home – not that the hostel had anything particularly inviting about it, but it might at least be a few degrees less cold. But although the hostel charges weren’t high, they still had to be paid, and his meagre earnings did eventually add up to just enough to cover his basic living costs. He knew that a miserable face wouldn’t sell any of his wares, so dismissing the cold and his doubts from his mind, he pulled himself up straight, squared his shoulders, and marshalling every ounce of bonhomie that he could muster – which, under the circumstances of near-zero sales, was a surprising amount – put on his most engaging smile as he rang the doorbell.

The householder muttered under his breath. He wasn’t expecting any callers, he’d had a long day at work without a proper lunch, he’d got cold on the walk home from the station, and all he wanted to do now was get his dinner ready and relax. When he opened the door and saw the salesman, the response came into his mind instantly and without conscious thought: get rid of him; politely but firmly, or if that failed, then impolitely and even more firmly - uninvited door-to-door salesmen do not deserve politeness.

As the door opened, the salesman launched into the words he’d repeated so many times already that evening – and the evening before, and the evenings before that, memory fading into a blurred jumble of doorsteps, doorbells, doorknockers, doors held half open just long enough to give polite refusals, doors slammed in his face without a word. At his first glimpse of the face that belonged to the hand that opened the door, his heart had lifted for a moment – this seemed a kind, open kind of face; he’d made many sales to faces less welcoming than this one. Yet even as he spoke his opening lines, he could see that he was mistaken – behind those apparently welcoming eyes was a mind that was already set against him. He may have been inexperienced, but he was learning fast how to read faces.

He did his best, tried to explain that this no scam, that it was a genuine council-supported scheme to help vulnerable people, but the householder kept cutting across him with flat refusal to listen. “We don’t buy anything at the door” seemed to be all he could say. Yet still the salesman hoped to reach the kindness he thought he’d detected in the householder’s face. He tried to engage the householder in dialogue to examine why he was taking such a rigid stance; such unwillingness to listen seemed at odds with the face he saw before him. But the more he spoke, the more distant became the householder’s eyes, and the more insistent those words, repeated like a mantra: “I’m sorry, but we don’t buy anything at the door”.

The apprentice salesman’s patter may have been someone else’s, learned by rote, but the crestfallen look of disappointment in his eyes, the droop of his shoulders as he turned to go, were entirely his own. The weight of failure seemed suddenly to descend upon him, crushing him and ageing him twenty years in an instant; his whole body displayed the form of the despair that was taking a firmer grasp on his heart with every such failure.

The sight of that stooped back sent a stab of remorse into the householder’s heart; even if the whole thing was a scam, wouldn’t it have been worth the purchase of some small and insignificant item – probably costing less than the price a Starbuck’s coffee – to have put smiles on the faces of two cold and miserable people that night?

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