I remember reading the play Death of a Salesman in college, but I never thought I would meet Willy Loman in person.
Truth is stranger than fiction
In the spring of 2011, I was living in the blue house on Valley Street in Burbank, California. One day, my doorbell rang and an older gentleman stood on my front porch. While I opened the front door, I left the screen door, which was composed of thick metal and painted white, shut. I didn’t open it because it prevented people from seeing inside our house, and I had to restrain our English Mastiff Winston whose bark sounded ferocious even though he was a gentle giant.
The man outside said I knew him since we were neighbors. At that time, I had lived in the blue house on Valley Street for almost ten years. While I didn’t know most of my neighbors’ names, I recognized them on sight. I saw them at Costco, at Vons, at RiteAid, etc. Moreover, everyone within a four-block radius knew Winston and called him by his name. This man’s definition of a neighbor was different from mine, but I digress. He went from ‘we are neighbors’ to trying to sell me his book.
When I was a small child, I vaguely remember the occasional door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. One year, my mother bought New World or World of Knowledge encyclopedias (I can still see their navy covers with gold trim), but once we owned a set, the salesman was out of luck. Mormons and Christians often attempt to proselytize by going door to door, but they don’t sell their literature, they give it to you. Charities can solicit donations by asking at your door, but in California, they must present a “Solicitation of Sale for Charitable Purposes Card.” In all my life though, an author had never attempted to sell me his book by knocking on my door.
My neighbor Bob
My neighbor — whom I’ll call Bob because I didn’t know him — was a slim, Caucasian male who appeared to be in his mid-fifties. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt; neither item seemed clean. Bob presented his book — a thick, spiral-bound manuscript that practically screamed, “I am a product of Kinko’s.” He pointed out his book’s features: the large typeface, the sharp images, and the detailed glossary. He said that the book had been professionally edited, and he had received excellent reviews. “Not a negative one yet!” He told me how much time, energy, and money he put into writing the book. Who cares? He offered that the book was appropriate for all age groups, and it would be an excellent learning tool for teachers. Putting aside for a moment that selling a book door to door is beyond unconventional, here are the reasons why Bob was a terrible salesman:
- He never stated the book’s title. I caught a quick glance of it but I forgot it;
- He never said the book’s genre. I thought it was science fiction until he showed me the glossary;
- He stressed the wrong things. No one cares about typeface unless something is wrong with it, and his appeared blue instead of black;
- He misunderstood his selling points. Readers expect well-edited books, and reviews are completely subjective and rarely matter unless Oprah loves your book; and
- He didn’t tell me why I should read his book. I didn’t have children and I was no longer a teacher so his perceived benefits didn’t apply to me.
In an effort to be supportive, I suggested that Bob might consider selling his book online.
He snorted and replied, “People do this thing. They make assumptions. I’ve already tried that. Only sold two copies.”
For some reason, I played nice. “Maybe you should try a website.”
“Yeah. There are a million of them. Maybe billions by now. I’ve had more luck doing this (selling to neighbors).” Not with me buddy.
Bob was lucky he caught me on a good day. At any other time, I would have chewed him up and spit him out. Not only would I have mentioned all of the bullet points above, but I would have told him that:
- I was a freelance writer/editor with experience in a variety of sectors;
- I obtained a master’s degree in writing from USC and a bachelor’s degree from the same school;
- I had been an adjunct professor as well as a secondary and primary school teacher;
- I had taught many subjects including college freshman composition, English, journalism, and more;
- I had won awards for my nonfiction writing; and
- Although my book wasn’t published yet, my writing website (at the time) had “a relatively good traffic rank in the city of Los Angeles (#28,584)” and visitors spent an average of ten minutes on my site.
Instead, I said to Bob, “No thank you.” Considering Winston was still barking, I thought Bob would leave, but he was a persistent man.
Bob the Beggar
“Can’t you give money to the project?”
I shook my head and said no again. I began thinking how I could ask to see his Charitable Purpose Card since he had specifically asked for a donation instead of selling me an item.
“Can’t you give money to a starving artist?”
It was my turn to snort. Starving artist? Seriously? Bob may have been disheveled, but he was not starving.
“What about a dollar?”
I suddenly wished I had created a signal for Winston to growl since his barking failed to scare Bob. With one last firm “NO” I shut the door in his face.
Winston stopped barking; I knelt down and told him to bark louder next time. He wagged his tail. As I walked back to my office, I thought about my neighbor Bob and cursed myself for already forgetting the title of his book. I really wanted to Google it.
Then I realized I had given Bob the wrong name. My neighbor was just another poor salesman, a Willy Loman with a book and a dream that would most likely go unfulfilled. Yet, despite his desperation, Bob aka Willy inspired me enough to write about him.
Originally published on May 4, 2011 on my previous blog titled Pondering happiness, hope, wisdom
Also published on Medium.