Oh yes, times are tough, economically, as we keep hearing. You can tell times are tough when all the necessary jobs people used to do are still there, still filled by regular folks, and then there is this whole subset of extra jobs, strange jobs, filled by the balance of others. Jobs that don’t even really seem like jobs. Or they don’t seem like things people can possibly make a living doing. They are the offerings to the desperate. Or just people who can’t stand the idea of reporting to a given place at a given time, taking orders all day.
I was sitting outside a Starbucks the other day when two young guys dressed in faded black slacks and threadbare white dress shirts with black ties walked up to the table and asked me if they could have a moment of my time. One was doing all the talking, while the other was just quietly holding an overstuffed sack, like some kind of hobo Mormon Santa Clause.
The talker said, “Okay well we’re just here in town today doing a special promotion.” With this he reached into Santa’s bag and grabbed a super beat up box. The picture on the outside of the box showed a toy helicopter in flight. In flight! “We’ve got this?,” the guy said.
Okay. No matter what, no matter what…I don’t laugh in people’s faces. It’s just not in me. But it was really hard not to in this case. I thought, ‘what the hell kind of establishment does this person purportedly work for if they are sending teams of people like this one from town to town? If this was their “special promotion,” what were their everyday promotions like?'
I said, “Ummm, no, I don’t really need one of those.”
He was, however, obviously a seasoned and professional salesperson (naturally, that’s why they’d sent him out of town on this mission). He reached back into the sack and pulled another janky-ass box out, this one featuring an electric hair/beard trimmer. “This?” he said.
“Um, I definitely don’t need one of those. But thanks.”
“All right,” he said, already three steps in the direction of the next occupied table. The guy with the sack took off behind him, still struggling to get the mangled boxes back inside it. Wow, I thought. How far have these guys traveled today carrying these stupid things, and how much did they possibly stand to make, even if the bag came back empty? I mean, I’m sure they had replenishments in a car somewhere, but how likely were they to be needing them? It was clear the helicopter box had been participating in this pitch for some time.
The incident brought to mind a near miss I myself had with one such job over a decade ago. I was living with my grandpa in SoCal and waiting tables at a Chevy’s “Mexican” restaurant. At the time I was looking for a second job (to this day I cannot figure out why on earth I was working two jobs during that time. I guess because, having taken time off from college, I was trying to prove to myself that I wasn’t just being a lazy loaf?).
Back then, one still consulted the want ads in the newspaper to find employment (that seems so crazy now), and I found a promising one! It said a warehouse nearby was looking for managers. No experience necessary! I called and was scheduled for an interview, and, when I showed up, was surprised to enter a waiting room already overfull with people. Shocking that a management job opportunity where no experience was necessary would actually attract folks, right?
We were called into interviews two at a time. The interview went something like this:
Interviewer: What would you say your strengths are?
Other interviewee: I’m good at video games. I got my friends’ backs in a fight.
Interviewer: Okay thanks. And you?
Me: I am reliable, dedicated, a fast learner and hard worker. I get along well with coworkers, etc.
Interviewer: Great, great. Okay, next. What do you think you can bring to our company, as a manager?
Me: I am a hands-on worker. I can lead by example with my strong work ethic and enthusiasm. I am good at making decisions, even under stressful circumstances, etc.
Interviewer: And you?
Other Interviewee: I like to tell people what to do. I’m harsh when I need to be. I’m big so people listen to me.
Interviewer: Great, great….(folds hands and leans forward on desk) Well, I think you’d both be great additions to our company. We’d love for you to come back tomorrow. You’ll spend the day meeting with some of our accounts and clients. Plan on spending 10 hours with us. Don’t worry about bringing a lunch because we will be taking you out to lunch. Oh, and be sure to wear comfortable shoes.”
Amazingly I was not that concerned at this point. Yes, I was baffled as to how both Other Interviewee and I could be exactly what this company was looking for. I had no idea what this company did, what kind of warehouse I’d be managing, or why it was so important that I wear comfortable shoes. I think what I was thinking was, ‘Wow. They are going to treat us to lunch!’
The next day I put on some sensible loafers and set out to make our 9am meeting at the warehouse, NO lunch in hand! I got there and there were about 20 of us, all looking around trying to guess what was going to happen next. Interviewer came along and separated us into groups of four, three managers-in-training and one experienced “manager” who was going to “introduce us to some of our clients.”
For some reason (and thank GOD he did), the manager of our group opened the trunk of his car just as we were all about to get in. There I spotted a pile of long, thin blue and white patterned boxes that looked eerily familiar. Only because I had seen them the NIGHT BEFORE, when some apparent manager-in-training had wandered into Chevy’s while I was working and gone table to table, trying to peddle long-stem roses to people so cheap, they had taken their dates to Chevy’s.
Wha? What was this?! I was going to be managing a rose warehouse?
I understood in that moment that there was no part of this that had anything to do with established clients, management, or even a bona fide warehouse (glamorous as that had sounded). And there was no way I was getting in that car to be trapped selling roses, table to table, door to door, for the next 10 hours, not even for free lunch!
I said, “Wait. Are there roses in those boxes?”
“Oh. Wait. So are we going to be walking around trying to sell roses to people?”
“Um,” (hemming and hawing, like how long were they planning to keep this a secret?) “Well, yes.”
“Yeah. No I can’t do this. I won’t be joining you.”
“Oh really? Why? What’s wrong?”
“I just. No.”
Who knows? Those guys who approached me at Starbucks the other day might have been managers-in-training, too. Maybe I caught them at the very very end of a very long day, the beginning of which had promised management opportunity and free lunch. I’d be similarly low on enthusiasm by that point. I’d be ramming that flying helicopter box back in the Santa sack too, with little regard for how it would look to the next person who was going to reject my sales pitch either way.
I hope, for their own sake, that a “real job” with real potential to make them a decent living became all too appealing after that day of footing it. Otherwise, they’re going to have to think of a much better approach to beard clipper sales.