The Veggie Man

 

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Soon after settling into life at the Brave House, I felt real pressure to get a job. As a senior in college, I had intellectually understood the importance of finding work after graduation, but did not entirely internalize that pressure until taking off on an independent life. For one, I realized that I had to be much more intentional about how I spent my time outside of the confines of an institutional academic environment. Nobody was scheduling classes or meetings or imposing deadlines I would be held accountable to, so the onus was entirely on me to build a lifestyle that would reflect my needs and values on an everyday basis. It was almost uncomfortable to have that much freedom in my day to day choices–there were no “right” and “wrong” answers that a educational environment might implicate, or perhaps more relevantly to my experience in college, much less of the affirmations and negations imparted by peers, faculty, and staff that might help guide my decisions. Finding work was one tangible means of constructing my own cosmos and building a baseline of purposeful structure on a day to day basis.

It was also a change in consciousness. Over the course of my cross-country journey, I became increasingly aware of the countless Americans who worked in seemingly unremarkable ways to make it possible for my friends and me to engage in such formative yet admittedly privileged life experience. At one point, we had stopped for food in the small town of Tonopah, Nevada, which emerged out of one of the most barren and lifeless landscapes I have ever experienced. The town seemed like a quintessential old western ghost town just holding on for relevance in the 21st century. A single lane road snaked through a series of built attractions conveying an almost desperate plea for our patronage, most notably the ‘Clown Motel,’ which caught my eye with creepy images of clowns glued to the facades of its tackily-colored rooms. This place radiated an ethos of perpetual transience, which was only confirmed when we took refuge in a roadside Subway. Inside the establishment, an endless procession of unexcited and road-weary travelers descended upon the sandwich window, mumbling and gesturing toward particular ingredients as if hunger was an inconvenient annoyance along a necessary yet overwhelmingly mundane highway route. A notably tall, adolescent clerk no more than 17-years-old conformed to their wishes, time after time, and fought off the face of death every time a patron insisted their sandwich be “toasted.” Thus commenced the inevitable 30-second microwave waiting period whereby the next patron would gesture toward another one of the unremarkably uniform sandwich buns and restart the process all over again. The tired-looking man at the cashier would wearily wrap the sandwiches in the same folding motion, time and time again, followed by a mechanical exchange of plastic, at which point the patron would set off with the same unappreciative, tunnel-visioned resolve to dispose of that sandwich and get on with the monotonous trek out of Tonopah.

As I navigated my journey across the country, and relied on the toil of more and more people along the way, I came to value the humble sacrifices of time and energy and wants of hard working people that made this journey possible. It was these seemingly insignificant actions that allowed my friends and me to embark on such rich shared experience without really contending for survival, and though I’d worked hard for the requisite savings, I knew that the sacrifices of others were critical to helping me build certain skills, find work, and cushion me from personally significant financial burden in order to accrue these savings. I realized that people like that young young Subway worker from Tonopah, Nevada constituted the backbone of my life and of American society more largely, and I was determined to have a stake in the working world myself.

Perhaps more tangibly, I was losing money. It didn’t take long to notice that most every personal demand came with a monetary cost. Things like food, drink, the gym, gas, tolls, toiletries, and leisurely expenses that had mostly been absorbed or rendered unnecessary by my lifestyle at college became a quick pocket drain. Whereas “fun money” was a largely a paradigm of the past–for things like eating out, going to a movie, or taking off on a trip with friends–spending money was now an indispensable aspect of meeting daily necessities in a way that wasn’t so sexy or readily enjoyable. Finding a job would allow me to support myself and help alleviate some of the anxiety associated with financial uncertainty.

And so, I was on the hunt. A fellow resident of the Brave House happened to come across a job posting on Craig’s List for a Sales position with a home delivery service of organic produce. That sounded interesting, I thought–after all, I was personally interested in food as an integral component of a healthy and environmentally sustainable lifestyle, and had taken a course in food systems the spring semester of my senior year. I decided to apply. Soon enough, I heard back from the company asking me to come in for an interview. I dressed up and headed over to the office, only to feel overdressed once I realized the ethos of the place was much more casual. I liked that. The interview went well, and I appreciated the mission-driven nature of the company in connecting consumers to healthy sources of food and building awareness about where that food comes from. I received an email from the regional sales manager later in the day asking if I could start on Monday. I said yes.

I reported to the office on Monday morning for orientation, balancing a strange mix of excitement and nervous anticipation. I was joined by a small yet diverse group of new hires, which presented a welcome opportunity for me to cultivate closer relationships with new people from the Orange County area. We were given a break for lunch, and asked to report back at 2 pm for our debut into the world of sales. I dawned my new t-shirt and consciously hydrated as the bedrock of my responsibilities would be door-to-door canvassing. I was excited and geared up for the opportunity as it felt like a “raw” and authentic inauguration into the working world. For one, my job was physically demanding as I had to walk as much as 5 or more miles under the grueling California summer sun, presenting a steady physical challenge I craved. I was also making a tangible difference in in the lives of others–no matter how small–by selling a service that would bring organic fruits and vegetables directly to people’s doorsteps. Moreover, the entirely commission-based compensation structure meant that I had to really “show up” everyday, as I would only go home with as much work as I put in. As we set off for a residential area in the company van, I relived the nerves I used to experience before a big college tennis match. I was up for the challenge.

To kick off the day, I was encouraged to shadow a co-worker with whom I was partnered in a particular area of the map. We were dropped off in a quiet neighborhood with clipboards and a few laminated materials, and it wasn’t long before beads of sweat began gluing my backpack to my back. I accompanied my co-worker as she knocked on the first few doors, self-conscious that my presence as a young male creeping in the background might somehow thwart the prospects of a sale. The responses ran the gamut–nobody home, older woman who can’t speak English, frenetic pit bull, you name it.

After hearing a few sales pitches, I was determined to try it out myself. I walked across the street propelled by a strange fusion of confidence in my prospects and humility in thinking that my many years of formal education had culminated in this vulnerable and lowly exchange at the door of some unsuspecting, middle-class inhabitant of some random cul-de-sac in Orange County, California. I rang the doorbell, backing down to the bottom step so as to communicate the persona of a nonconfrontational “veggie man.” Clipboard in hand, my hopes of “fruition” hung on this awkward period of time between ringing the doorbell and the unknown prospect of an answer to come. No response. I knocked again. No response. I should have known from the shuttered windows and the empty driveway.

And so I kept going, over and over again. Eventually, people began to answer. And so I threw out my best change-up:

“Hi…uhh…my name is Sam and I’m from a…uhh…family-owned organic farm in the area…I mean we…uhh…deliver fruits and vegetables right to your–”

Before I could get through my nervous and embryonic sales pitch, I would often encounter a swift “Not interested,” or even worse, the “get the F*** out of here you F***ing solicitor disturbing the sanctity of my home” look that made the rest of my pitch feel like a fart in the wind.

And so I was rejected. Over and over again. The door-to-door journey was a true test in fortitude–it only took a few sales to make a day’s pay worthwhile but damn did some of those rejections sting. I discovered the hard way that my clipboard doubled as a defensive shield proving mildly effective in fending off the ferocious canine coming after me from the not-too-careful grip of the not-so-enthused homeowner. And perhaps even more disheartening, the 20-minute long conversation full of intrigue and enthusiasm and dietary soliloquy that would culminate in a, “oh…well…I think I’ll just check out the website but thanks so much for coming by.” I tried to console myself, I mean hey, at least I had a peanut butter and honey sandwich waiting for me at the van regardless of my output, not to mention my notoriously large calves were getting their fix for the day…

I kept going, trying to negotiate a proper mentality that would move me forward amid my struggles: ‘Cut yourself some slack, Sammy–who really expects results on Day 1?’ I thought. ‘It’s all about practice and experience to get better over time. Remember, it’s the journey not the destination that counts…’

‘Bullshit. That’s quitter talk! Get out there and sell me some Goddamn veggies,’ another voice told me.

I pressed on. It was all I could do during this allotted period of time before my ‘7:55’ pickup time in the van. Eventually, in a state of enormous fortune and triumph, I managed to pull my first sale. It was an older man with an interest in horticulture who was compelled by the convenience and affordability of our organic produce. He invited me into his home and showed me a small vegetable garden in the back, expressing excitement that he could diversify his access to seasonal fruits and vegetables through our service. He was incredibly gracious and commended me for what I was doing, in stark contrast to the perspectives of many of his neighbors. I left his home with a reinvigorated sense of purpose and spirit. I was the veggie man.

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Slowly but surely, I refined the art of the pitch. I would show up to the office at 2 pm, pound a cup of coffee, and knock on nearly 100 doors until daylight subsided and my voice grew hoarse. I spoke to young mothers, high surfer dudes, dog walkers, sketched-out children, shirtless old guys, and infuriated dogs when an owner was absent. I learned to study the perimeter of a house so as to gauge the demographic I was dealing with, and calibrate my pitch accordingly. I learned to adjust the pace of my voice and regulate eye contact so as to contend with looks of skepticality, impatience, enthusiasm, and an aversion to commitment. I learned to gauge whether Hispanic residents were conversant English speakers, and to redeploy my pitch in Spanish accordingly. I even learned how to balance my need for hydration with my knowledge that there were very few public restrooms in residential areas, not to mention the legal reality that getting caught urinating in public can render you a sex offender in California.

I had owners threaten to call the cops on me. I was offered jobs. I was told through a closed door that there’d been a number of recent murders in one area.  I had an older lady hug me thinking I was her grandson. I was offered beers. I had people give me advice on where I went wrong in my pitch, and how to improve it. I fended off dogs with my clipboard, and later, my iPad. I was told, “if this stuff will give me calves like yours, I’ve gotta try it.” I was told through tears that a resident just lost a loved one. I was asked if I could get people a job. I was greeted by a woman with a talking parrot on her shoulder. I saw the dispirited looks in people’s eyes when I told them our company didn’t accept food stamps.

The job exposed me to all sorts of realities in Orange County, and certainly complicated the preconceptions I had of the area from pop culture. I felt like I got a real pulse on distinct vibes of different parts of the county, all from the sheer act of knocking on someone’s door and seeing how they’d react. I was surprised that the wealthiest communities were often the most stand-offish and abrasive towards me. I got the sense that knocking on doors in these areas was perceived as a foreign challenge to the peace and sanctity of a home, and that these residents were above petty door-to-door salesmanship no matter what I had to offer. Indeed, I encountered many a sign that read, ‘No Soliciting,’ and proceeding was often a sure bet to get a good berating. I have to admit, I was sometimes self-conscious about permeating the private sphere of the home with my agenda-driven enterprise. But I’d remind myself of my purpose, and try to leave every door on a positive note no matter the outcome.

On the other hand, I had the most success in lower-middle to middle class communities. These people were almost always willing to hear me out, and very often enthusiastic about the prospect of convenient and affordable access to organic produce. I think these people would also more visibly empathize with my hard work out in the sun, offering me water and wishing me well even if they ultimately didn’t want to sign up for a box. It was easy enough to define my day by the number of sales I made, but these simple moments of human connection proved that there was intrinsic beauty in the daily door-to-door journey itself. I loved being the veggie man.

I produced better and better results over time, and started to feel real mastery over the art of door-to-door sales. Pretty soon my boss starting asking me to work a number of prominent events throughout Orange County. Health fairs, green expositions, beer festivals, corporate health fairs — these venues offered a welcome change of pace from the daily door-to-door grind, not to mention a more lucrative opportunity to sell. I would haul tents, tables, boxes, and samples of organic produce all over the county, packing and unpacking the supplies to market the product. My boss would give me advice and strategy in taking on these different events, and I refined my pitch to reflect the different environments in which I worked.

It was interesting to observe how these venues changed the dynamics of the sales process as well as my own psyche. For one, selling in a booth provided a much more credible platform than the more vulnerable proposition of knocking on a door. I was more empowered in the dynamics of a sale because people would more readily associate me with something bigger and viscerally appealing. Quite often they would take the initiative in coming up to me because I had the allure of the booth aesthetic, as well as the trigger words of “organic,” “food,” “local,” and “farms” to catch the eye. This was an interesting phenomenon as these usually uninformed passersby would assume a degree of vulnerability in deferring to me to give them my pitch, putting power in my hands, as opposed to the door-to-door paradigm in which I was more or less an intrusive problem until proven otherwise.

At the same time, I noticed my own psyche change as I navigated the high energy hustle and bustle of the event game. For one, I almost subconsciously accelerated the pace of my pitch to adapt to the cadence of events, as interactions became much more of a hit or miss commercial transaction than the relatively more purpose-driven and cultivated connection I might form with someone at the door. People were interested in what I had to offer, but wanted to get on with their lives, and I so had to be more and more of a hustler to close out sales there and then. I began to filter all the lively and diverse stimuli around me through the rather narrow prism of making sales, and in this realm of consciousness, I largely saw people as opportunities to make money. When I interacted with someone and it did not result in a sale, I almost always felt a sense of loss or insufficiency.

It was somewhat startling to introspect and see how tunnel-visioned I could be. Was this what it took to succeed in the world of sales? Indeed, my results spoke for themselves, as I’d risen to the top of our sales team, and managed to exceed 200 sales in consecutive months. But I wondered: can a motivation of rather narrow agenda-driven enterprise and self-centrism be a good thing for the world, even when I ultimately believe in the larger purpose that that self-centrism is channeled toward? To what extent is that self-centrism always connected with that purpose, and at what point could it obscure or even undermine that purpose? More immediately, is that mentality ultimately good for me? Would more sales bring me more happiness and a greater sense of self worth? If my sales were ultimately tied to my happiness and self worth, would I ever be content or good enough? After all, there was always that one couple on the fence that managed to get away. To the extent that I produced enough sales to cover my basic needs in life, which I did, what threshold of output was actually most conducive to my well being? After all, I was paid entirely on commission, and so the decisions of where and when to work were largely my own.

I never quite answered these questions, but I’m glad I took a step back to ask them in the first place. After all, it didn’t take long to realize that the day-to-day world of sales produced an infectious breed of self-centrism and hyper-competitiveness worth questioning before internalizing as my own, even if those values were ultimately bringing people organic fruits and vegetables. Much had changed since my humble first day fumbling words at the door, but sometimes I wondered how far I’d really come.

At the end of September, I gave notice of my intention to leave the company. This wasn’t fueled by disillusion, but because I wanted to take a trip up to northern California before returning to the East Coast to visit my family, as I was set to take off for Sri Lanka in mid November. I worked a 55-hour week to “max out” on my last of opportunities to finish on a strong note and save up money for my imminent travels. I raced around the county setting up for events, went door-to-door when I could, and pitched as many as a hundred people each day. Needless to say, I was exhausted. I understood the opportunity I had seized and was proud of my hard work, but I knew I had tipped the scale a little too far to the detriment of my health and  equanimity. I was ready to move on.

My last day was on Friday. I had worked a number of events lately, but was intent on one more day at the door. I showed up to the office bearing the weight of my emergent nostalgia, and tried to stay present as my mind cycled through the depths of my first “real world” work experience. As I left for the van, I hugged my boss and our assistant manager. They had believed in me and supported my growth in this chapter of my life, and I struggled to express my gratitude sufficiently. We took off in the van for a nearby suburb, and as we made our pilgrimage, I gazed through the window and watched time pass by.

We came to a neighborhood full of townhouses, and our team leader informed me that he was pairing me up with a new hire in the hopes that I could train him. He was a tall, middle-aged man wearing a rather ratty button down shirt. I figured the company was short on t-shirts, so this would have to suffice for the day. He had a pleasantly friendly demeanor, but harbored a discernible anxiety about the uncertain journey to come. He told me he was a recovering alcoholic, and that his family had undergone some troubling financial hardship as of late. As we stepped out of the van, he pulled out a cigarette and initiated small talk as we proceeded into the community of townhouses. He followed behind me as I knocked on doors and started giving pitches, intermittently sharing advice and reflections on the shortcoming I endured. I kept on going with the abiding resolve and meta-perspective that came with my last day, and eventually landed a sale. My partner was elated to share this experience with me, expressing his excitement that the product seemed to sell itself unlike the Kirby vacuum cleaners he’d sold in years past. He was determined to try it out for himself, and eager to adapt some of my technique as his own.

I decided to shadow him for a bit, and offer insight and support where I could. We approached a townhouse with an open garage, where a bald older man was tending to his pickup truck. My partner proceeded:

“Hello there, I’m…uhh…with a family farm and what we do is…uhh…bring fruits and vegetables and they’re…uhh…organics you know…I’m sorry this is actually my first day on the job.”

He froze up in an ultimate state of awkward uncertainty–a middle-aged man with a confused message for a confused inhabitant of this townhouse community. I stood behind him and I stood my ground, channeling the kind of retrospective affirmation of my own journey on the tremendous worth and potential of this man. This was just one door, and there were many more to come. And so we kept walking, and knocking, and hoping. That was all a Veggie Man could do.