At eighteen I was forced to get a job, forced mostly by my parents, who were beginning to suspect that they had a high school drop-out and serial lay-about on their hands. They were exactly right and I was as reluctant as hell to go and work for somebody.
The options were hugely unappealing. The most obvious choice was to become a waiter but there was something sadistic about the idea of the heir of a crumbled restaurant fortune serving hand and foot on the patrons of some rotten franchise. I could not become a lowly digger in the gold mine that we had once enjoyed.
Fortunately, while walking through the back streets of my neighbourhood one day, fate struck me like a newspaper strip blown into my face. I pulled it away and glanced at an advert. It boldly read: EARN BIG BUCKS! Get out on the road and earn big bucks as a ‘Global Book’ representative! That was enough for me. I loved having big bucks.
My friend George and I arrived at the location for the interview, a drab acid-rain etched building in the centre of town, about half an hour from away home, as the hitchhiker flies. My tremulous hopes of becoming a sort of international roving reporter for a BBC style magazine were quickly dashed and replaced by hammy faced, vodka nosed salesmen. I had entered the seedy secret underworld of the Encyclopedia Salesman.
The door to the Big Bucks might be narrow but the waiting room was large. There appeared to be no barriers to entry, given the evidence of the twenty or so people who waited with us like a support group for rejects. As it turned out, the first and major qualification for the job was memory.
We were each given a piece of paper with about a hundred words on it and were told to read it for ten minutes. After that we were separately asked to repeat the gist of the message. This canny step cut out three quarters of the hopeful room but I was fortunately armed with a photographic memory and repeated the paragraph almost without fault.
I got the job. My mother was delighted – she had always dreamed that I might one day become a roving journalist for a glossy magazine.
On the following Wednesday night I fully submerged myself in the mealie mouthed underworld of hocking encyclopedias. Each team was met by a Kombi and a team leader and we would be driven out to some desperate edge of city neighbourhood. The better teams had ‘hotter’ areas to work in but I only ever saw the most frigid of lower middle class clientele. These people were actively resentful of salesmen and I quickly learned that this was because their areas were the most heavily visited. They were a testing area for amateur reps.
The way the scam worked was this: Very few people in the neighbourhood could actually afford the set of eighteen encyclopedias but they were offered amazing terms over long periods. At the end the encyclopedias cost more than their cars and when people eventually defaulted on payments, the encyclopedias were repossessed, recycled and the clientele were forced to pay hefty penalties.
One of the most critical steps was to collect a deposit, ten percent of the value of the total set, close on R2000. The company preferred to get it in cash, if at all possible – this was where you earned your special bonus.
The encyclopedias were so rubbish that most people returned them the next day, but once you had signed the form, the deposit was gone. There were in fact only sixteen beautiful pages in the whole series and they were only in the sample copy you carried. These pages had double spreads of coloured transparencies showing the layers of the body. The rest of the series was black and white
That’s where the memory came in: you had to rehearse an exact speech while you flipped only to those exact pages, creating the impression that the entire series was just as impressive.
Our team leader, and stand alone inspiration of the company, was a big Australian named Ronny Digby. People called him the Digger. He was the self proclaimed King of the pyramid scheme. Any pyramid scheme worth the name had known the touch of the Digger. Even as you were being bled dry by this guy, you still felt that you were part of his crew. He was the only man I ever knew that could rob somebody while patiently explaining how he was doing it.
My first night on the job I had the privilege of watching him work as I partnered with him on my training session. Each person in the team had an area of about sixty houses that they worked doing wife hour, around four in the afternoon. It was important to get them about two hours before hubby, the decision maker, came home. Normally they were a little nervous to let us in but that was no problem for old Digger. By way of example:
–I’m afraid my husband isn’t home.
–No problem Miss (presumably in Australia he called them Sheila). You can’t be too careful these days. In fact, I insist on only speaking to you when he is home. That’s only fair. I am going to back in this area around six, maybe I can pop in for a few minutes around then?
That was the purpose of women hour. There was no objection that he couldn’t overcome.
–No problem Miss, I can’t meet with you now either. In fact I’m meeting the mayor at around five to discuss educational issues. Why don’t I nip past you, on the way home, say at around six?
When husband hour arrived, the Digger entered his domain, his space of true power. I imagined that at the rising crest of moon, colours became brighter and smell’s sharper.
On the first call, he had the audacity to put his arm around the reluctant husband and walk him out into the garden. He complemented the man on the enormous hedge of Bougainvillea that clung to the garage awning like a demented octopus. They spoke about it for a while.
-Well anyway mate the conversations not outside. Let’s go back inside and have a quick word with the missus.
He led him back into his own house.
I was in awe already but words could not express the ease with which he took control of that house. He immediately sent the kids to their rooms, turned off the TV and sat in the ‘husbands chair’. This of course forced the couple to sit together on the ‘wife couch’, a position from which they could not possibly feel that they were not back in school. It was a standard technique in the encyclopedia game but it was only the Digger that would ever use it, so vast was the egoistic energy required to apply it properly.
They fell like buffaloes trying to stampede a crocodile filled river, every seventh one falling, screaming and rolling in the waters of his compelling argument. By eight o’ clock our zone had enough encyclopedias between them to build a communal church. Husbands were sitting back on their husband chairs feeling confused and out gunned, their wives still sitting on their wife couches, mentally reorganizing the house budgets.
After we had finished, the buoyancy of our victory was met with the cruel edge of the debriefings. At the end of every night, the team leader would take each rep aside and interrogate them on every aspect of their night’s activities. There was absolutely no excuse for a low sell. If you got into the house and you said the speech and you turned to the right pages, you would get a deposit, finished.
As it turned out, most reps did not get many sales. It was a vicious and thick skinned business that required a callous indifference that most people simple did not possess. For the Digger however it represented a weak link in the pyramid, a partial commission that he would not claim and with the same sense of cold skinned confidence that was required to sell encyclopedias, he cut people apart.
I was terrified of my first debriefing and determined to be successful. The following Wednesday night we were dropped off in a zone in Benoni, an area so utterly without charm that in South Africa it is has become a sort of generic term for nowhere. It was cold too, cold in the way that only the high veldt can be, the air so thin and dry that it felt scratchy.
From the first appointment, I could tell how difficult this was going to be.
–Evening Mam, I would like to talk to you about an opportunity for your children to expand their educational …
–Are you selling encyclopedias?
–Um no, well yes actually.
–We don’t have kids.
–Okay but maybe when I’m in the area a little later I can chat to you and your husband?
–He’s playing poker tonight.
–Did I mention that I was meeting the Mayor at five?
–We don’t have a mayor.
–Okay well, have a good evening then.
The night did not improve. Over the next hour I met with stony resistance and as darkness descended like a bruised plum I came across a really rundown house. They did not respond when I knocked on the door so I went around to the side of the house and peeked through the curtain and saw an ancient couple running out of the room in alarm. Embarrassed, I rang at the front door again to apologise and a fierce looking wizened old goat of a man opened the door, pointing a small revolver at me.
I ran down the street in a desperate terror, utterly shattered, wanting more than anything to be sitting at home in bed, eating sherbet and reading a comic. My mother was risking my life, for this? More powerful than the gun however was the promise of the coming debriefings. Attempted murder was no excuse for zero sales. Man I was scared. With the sample encyclopedia and its sixteen good pages, I approached the last house on the block.
The man who answered the door, Gerrie Britz, had a firm handshake, hair like an inner city pigeon and smelled strongly of cheap brandy. Having said that he was endearingly hospitable and offered a big smile that displayed horse yellow teeth. Behind him stood a tired looking but cheerful woman and eight kids.
They were running their own daycare centre made up of their own kids. The place was a mess, the garden a sculpture of rusted car steel and cable thick weeds. It had probably been an intolerably hard thing to accomplish but Gerrie Britz had, in some stretch of the word, provided for them.
They all seemed to love each other and were ranged in age from two years to a sassy young girl a year or two younger than me. They had no fancy toys and no fancy TV but played together just beautifully.
While I clutched my sample encyclopedia and tried to remove my grip from Gerrie’s meaty bolt-cutters, they all ran around me like pikkenen’s with blond hair and Afrikaans blue eyes, waving me into the house. Gerrie immediately offered me a beer and his own chair, the best chair in the house, directly opposite the radio.
He sat with his wife on the wife chair, holding her hand with a clumsy sensitivity. The kids sat around my feet on the carpet like an expectant audience at a conjuring show. They were dead keen on seeing my book.
I gave the speech and turned to the pages and then looked down, ashamed of the dark hypnotic spell that I had unleashed into their happy home. I saw the panic in his eyes as the kids turned to him as one. Their desperation to own a set of Global Book encyclopedias was lazered into their eyes. They were seeing the dollar signs of knowledge.
He agreed in principle eventually to commit to the series. That of course wasn’t good enough. I needed to get the deposit.
–Gerrie my man, the only way you are going to get the last of our stock is if you pay your deposit and sign the contract now.
–I don’t have that kind of money with me, ou pal.
–Can you draw it from the ATM?
Now I was committed. I had stepped over the edge of some moral precipice into ruthlessness. I did not care about this man or his family and he was going to draw the money that he would almost certainly lose. Finished.
He bought it. He had no choice. We jumped into his big white bakkie and drove a kilometer into town. I was starting to feel awefully guilty about the whole process when Gerrie returned to the car.
–Sorry ou pal, the machine is not working.
–Is there another one in the next town?
Unbelievably he drove to the next town. Once he had decided to do it he became perfectly accommodating. If I needed to get that money then that’s what he would do – it was a deal between men. He paid me in cash and we drove back to his house. He signed the contract and I left, warmly shaking his hand.
On the way out, after he had closed the door I shoved the whole sample encyclopedia into the post box. I was fired an hour later in a tirade of elephantine proportions with an Australian accent. Nobody had ever lost their sample encyclopedia.
My parents were not happy. Once again I had failed. Instead of earning money we ended up owing them money.
Gerrie Britz however was delighted when he checked the post box two days later and found the encyclopedia with a torn up contract and two grand in cash in its most colourful centerfold.
I hope to God he has the wisdom not to repeat his mistakes.