During my sophomore year in college, I worked as a security guard in a retail store. The only qualifications for the job were a short haircut and navy blue pants. The position required me to stand by the front door so customers could see me as they entered and, I presumed, be intimidated enough to go do their weekly shoplifting somewhere else. In truth, I spent almost every moment of each eight-hour shift either visualizing a ticking clock and trying to guess the time, counting the soup cans in a floor display and eventually falling into a trance, or wishing an important artery would burst somewhere in my body. A small boy once looked up at me and wanted to know if I had a gun. He was stomping on my foot while he asked this, so I suspect he already knew the answer.
Now and then I would take a casual stroll up and down the aisles. I did this to remind the customers of my presence, and because sometimes my foot would fall asleep from all that stationary standing and going into trances. I also hoped to find opened packages in the cookie section.
One day the power went out in the middle of the afternoon. The store was plunged into total darkness as dozens of customers streamed out through the front door, many clutching their coats closed in a somewhat suspicious manner. The manager was furious that I wasn’t following everyone outside to make sure they weren’t stealing. He wanted me to find people putting unbagged merchandise into their cars and demand to see their receipts. By that time I’d lasted longer than any other security guard the store had ever had, but I was burned out and took the power failure and the manager’s anger as a sign that I should quit. It had been a long three weeks.
* * * * *
In my junior year, I was a shipping clerk at a mail order company that sold supplies and accessories to coin and stamp collectors. The technical term for a coin collector is numismatist, while stamp enthusiasts are called philatelists. These words alone should give you some idea of what kind of oddballs these people were. I couldn’t begin to guess how much they invested in their actual collections, but was shocked to see the money they spent in order to get just the right pair of tweezers, that perfect magnifying glass, or a new album with their name embossed in gold leaf on the cover.
We worked in a dusty warehouse basement with no windows, so going to lunch wasn’t just about getting something to eat. It was also about seeing the sunlight, sneezing our brains out, and determining who had gotten the most paper cuts that morning. One Saturday afternoon, I was working alone to catch up from a busy week. As I filled a box on the shipping counter, I heard a sound very close to my left ear. It was a kiss. Clear and unmistakable, as though someone had walked by within two feet, turned toward me, and kissed the air. The radio wasn’t on, so I assumed someone had come in and was being obnoxious. I stopped what I was doing, walked around, and saw no one. Both doors were still locked and latched from the inside. I stood and listened without moving a muscle. It was quiet. There was nobody else there — at least nobody I could see. With the half-filled order still sitting on the counter, I flew out the back door, got into my car, and raced home. To this day, if I hear the words numismatist or philatelist, a little chill runs up the back of my head.
* * * * *
The meeting, it turned out, was a recruitment session for a multi-level marketing operation that involved selling soap and other household items door-to-door, as well as sponsoring new distributors into the business. There were nine other people at the meeting, and as we went around the table and introduced ourselves and explained why we were there, I discovered that I was the only new prospect in attendance; everyone else was already involved. I felt like a zebra with a bad leg in a roomful of hyenas. An hour later I had signed up, forked over fifty dollars, and left with my starter kit, which was filled with overpriced toothpaste, concentrated cleaning products, and some motivational cassette tapes. The idea was that you earned bonuses on your sales, as well as on the sales of anyone you had sponsored. I knew the concept worked because I’d seen photographs of successful distributors standing in front of large, expensive-looking homes. Most of these people had two or three cars and a boat parked outside, and one even had a snowmobile. All had straight white teeth and impressive tans.
But here’s what grabbed me. At the end of the meeting, one of the guys did a product demonstration. He set two glasses of water on the table and put drops of red food coloring in each. Then he poured a scoop of a well-known brand of powdered bleach into one of the glasses and stirred like crazy. The water changed slightly to a murky pink, but that’s as far as it got. To the second glass he added some of the company’s powdered bleach and mixed it in with a spoon. The red water gradually lightened, and in about thirty seconds the color was gone. I was amazed. “This stuff really works,” I thought. I imagined myself in one of those photographs, smiling, tan, and enjoying multiple transportation options.
A few days later, after practicing at home, I called our next-door neighbor and asked her if I could come over to give a product demonstration. She agreed and minutes later I was in her kitchen with my box of bleach and some red food coloring. We got the glasses of water set up, and then I asked my neighbor to bring out her bleach. She went into the laundry room and returned with a plastic jug. All she had was liquid bleach. I was unprepared for this variation in the test, but had no choice but to forge ahead. I poured a capful of her bleach into the red water and before I even had a chance to stir it, the water turned crystal clear. It was instantaneous, like some violation of the laws of physics. I stared first at the transparent liquid, now devoid of any trace of food coloring, and then at the other glass of red water. My box of bleach sat nearby on the counter, looking hopelessly outclassed.
“What happens next?” my neighbor asked.
“You keep using that bleach,” I said. “That stuff really works.” I imagined myself in a new photograph. In the background was a run-down apartment building. My twelve-year-old Chevy Impala with the two flat tires was parked in front. I had very few teeth.
I quit the multi-level marketing business after ten months. During that time I sold almost nothing, sponsored no one, and spent a large sum of money on meetings, books, and tapes. My own mother refused to buy anything from me, and even insisted I pay her back for the bottles of red food coloring I’d wasted on the bleach demonstrations. All told I received one bonus check, in the amount of fifty-one cents. I had heard that many of the people who went on to incredible success in the business claimed they’d saved their very first bonus checks as a stunning reminder of how far they’d come while building their empires over the years. I cashed mine and bought a pack of gum.
Years later, I took another crack at the same opportunity. The emphasis that time was not on just reaching my own dreams, but doing so by helping others reach theirs. I wasn’t a door-to-door salesperson, but an adviser, someone who would help guide fellow distributors to financial independence, achieving an unimagined level of wealth in the process.
But that’s a story for another day.
Right now, I have newspapers to deliver.
Visit Ron Leishman’s website to see his original cartoon art.