We were at home on a sunny Sunday morning, getting ready for a house concert. Our two musician guests had just got out of bed when two well-dressed men wearing suits and hats came to the front door. They were clutching literature and, from the weighty look of their satchels, they had much to show and tell.
She Who Reserves The Right to Edit This Stuff When It Affects Me (Ed.) said: “No thank-you. None of us are the slightest bit interested,” which of course had no impact. By this time the dog had come to the front door, tail wagging, ears pricked, very interested in proceedings.
“I said none of us here are the slightest bit interested,” SWR etc repeated, “So you can leave now.”
After they left, I protested that perhaps SWR was speaking peremptorily on behalf of other people who may (or may not) have been interested. Moreover, the Staffie, with the rather misleading name of Nibbler, seemed vitally interested and had started that curious throaty Marge Simpson whining thing that Staffies do when people leave.
“What if Nibbler had been interested?” I asked. “They say dogs have a spiritual life.”
When was the last time someone knocked on your door and wanted to sell you something? It does not happen much anymore. There was a fair bit of door to door sales going on when the electricity industry first got privatised. But many companies ended up in the Federal Court charged with making false and misleading representations and engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct, so we doubt it is the preferred sales tactic today. I could be wrong.
We live on the edge of a country town and to get to our place you have to walk 100m down a bitumen driveway where you might encounter one or even two dogs. So no, we don’t usually get people going door to door selling electricity supply contracts, solar panels or mobile phones. And, apart from the occasional proselytizer, we don’t recall ever seeing anyone going door to door selling bibles.
There’s a classic low-budget documentary made in 1968 about bible salesmen, falling on hard times but resolved to carry out the mission no matter what. The documentary ‘Salesman’ tells the story of four determined door-to-door salesmen crossing America selling expensive bibles to low-income Catholic families. ‘Salesman’ is reality TV before there was ever any such thing. It graphically portrays how these men deal with rejection, homesickness and boredom. Former bible salesmen Albert and David Maysles directed the movie but reportedly did little more than hold microphones and cameras while they followed the bible salesmen around, chronicling their daily struggles.
The film received good reviews but was shunned by Hollywood as being too depressing for mainstream audiences, but it seems to have endured. If you have an interest, it can be found here.
York Times reviewer Vincent Canby ranked Salesman as a fine, pure picture of a small section of American life; a film that pulled no punches. He watched it three times.
“The movie’s lower-middle-class, Roman Catholic-oriented landscape is not particularly pretty, nor are the hard-sell tactics employed by the salesmen as they pitch their $49.95 ($330 in today’s dollars), Bibles to lonely widows, Cuban refugees, boozy housewives, and to one young couple that can’t even pay its rent.
“Be sure to have it blessed,” a salesman reminds a customer to whom he’s just made a sale, “or you won’t get the full benefit from it.”
Working as a door to door bible salesman was quite the thing to do in the penurious 1920s and 1930s. It was considered to be a step above selling pots and pans and bric-a-brac, even though some organisations were already giving bibles away (the Gideons starting leaving bibles in hotel rooms in 1907). Today, with more than 50 billion copies distributed and websites where you can download an e-version for free, there’s not much call in 2015 for bible salepersons.
There’s a scene in the Coen Brothers movie O Brother Where Art Thou when Big Dan Teague (John Goodman) a one-eyed con man masquerading as a bible salesman, befriends convicts on the run (George Clooney et al). After a leisurely lunch in a field beside a big tree, Big Dan breaks a branch off the tree, beats up Clooney and friend and steals their money.
If you’ve ever watched the dark, expletive-laden Glengarry Glen Ross, about a posse of desperate real estate salesmen, hounded by their dark master (Al Pacino), you’d come to realise that for a salesman, sometimes you’d be better off committing larceny than being forced to sell to someone who clearly doesn’t want to buy.
Glengarry Glen Ross is a play by David Mamet. It was not made into a movie until 1992, where it attracted an A list of actors (Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, Alex Baldwin, Kevin Spacey and Jack Lemmon).
The drama portrays a group of salesmen; most are just getting by, but one is really struggling, probably because he’s in the wrong business, and the axe is hovering.
I was telling a friend who understands my reticent nature that somewhere in my working life (I left school at 15); I’d had a crack at door-to-door sales. When he stopped laughing and lightly mocking me: “Oh please buy this, oh, so sorry to trouble you, I’ll leave now,” I recalled it was encyclopaedias I was trying to sell, on a time-plan. I also forced myself to recall that I was plain bad at it. A timid little knock and if no-one answered I’d leave (trying not to notice the lace curtain twitching). ‘Dangerous dog’ sign – I was out of there.
Decades later, having found my niche working in the news side of the newspaper business (which exists, let there be no doubt, to sell advertising space), I had cause to remember the day I succumbed to a door-to-door salesman.
He came to my door referred by his nephew, Bazza, a journalist colleague at the time. Bazza knew I was in the market for a new vacuum cleaner so he told his uncle to drop by. Uncle came in with the top of the line Electrolux and proceeded to show me just why the $50 second-hand one wasn’t doing the job.
He had me there. I could have bought a 20-year-old Corolla for what that machine cost, though it was on what the old folk called the “never-never.” But hey, more than 30 years later, it still works!
The dog has chewed the end off the rubber nozzle, the hose is held together with gaffer tape, we make filters out of scraps of foam (I didn’t know that – Ed.) and buy bags by the dozen lest they become obsolete. But I repeat – it still works.
It sometimes makes me sad to think that this old vacuum cleaner outlived Bazza and probably outlived his Uncle too.
I hope he spent his commission wisely.