Friday, June 6, 2008

Anything Could Happen

[Note: a postscript was added Monday, June 9, 2008, and appears at the end of this story.]

I spent the summer of 1975 with a cadre of ruined, red-nosed old men, Willy Loman types in stained white short-sleeved polyester shirts, pocket-protectors and brown ties, denizens of a smoky room with mustard walls and no windows on the third floor of a seedy office building in north Minneapolis.

We were telephone salesmen. Me, Ira, Floyd, Lloyd, Seymour, Ernie, Arne, and Bud. What we did is we dialed up older women living alone who couldn’t get to the grocery store and tried to sell them a contract to buy home-delivered frozen meat in bulk quantities that could feed an African village for three years.

When it dawned on the ladies of a certain age that we couldn’t quite squeeze a half-ton truckload of frozen meatballs into the fridge, it was then our job to make the real money sale: a 25 cubic-foot freezer purchased on a five-year amortization plan at 12% interest. (You had to do it today, or the deal was off.) If such a freezer could not fit into the customer’s bungalow in Robbinsdale, I'm sure we could have set her up with a gargantuan free-standing aluminum shed in the back yard on the same terms of financing. But if she did not have a back yard, we left it at that and went on to the next grandmother. Capitalism was a great system, but there were certain limits.

In hindsight, it wasn’t the most honorable work in the world. Unfortunately, there was a recession going on – this was right after Watergate – and I couldn’t find any other job. I had answered an ad in the Tribune and took a bus ride with two transfers across town for an interview. They hired me on the spot for two dollars an hour, plus commission; that sounded great to me. I was eighteen. I showed up for work the next morning with an eager smile and a baloney sandwich in a brown paper bag. Then I realized I was the only employee in the phone room under the age of sixty-three. That would be except for our supervisor.

Miss Roche was a fortyish dame from Chicago with red helmet-hair and a skirt that was no match for what it had to cover. She sat in the corner and chewed gum and smoked cigarettes, occasionally cussing out loud as she eavesdropped on our lame sales pitches. She fired Seymour one day right in front of everybody, just to put the fear of God into the rest of us.

It turned out that I was pretty good at this line of work. On the glide-path to young manhood, my verbal dexterity and charm had slightly outpaced the development of an inchoate moral value system. I was too adept, by half, at doing whatever I was told by any grownup in charge. Miss Roche was in charge. This is what she told me to do, if I didn’t want to end up like Seymour, so that’s what I did.

I was a kid who had written a fan letter to Richard Nixon in seventh grade, telling the President about my parents’ missionary work in Ecuador. I got back an autographed picture from the White House: “To Jeff Swanson with Best Wishes, Richard M. Nixon,” it said, in a slightly pinched-looking scrawl.

My friends at school didn’t believe the signature was real, so I wrote back to the White House requesting official documentation of the authenticity of the President’s signature.

In due course, a second missive arrived from the White House. The letter said, “Dear Jeff: The President did indeed sign the photograph you received. The President admires the fine missionary work that your family is doing in Ecuador. If you plan to visit Washington, D.C., upon your return to the United States, please let me know in advance, so that I may schedule an appointment for you to meet the President.” The letter was signed by Hugh Sloan, then a scheduling aide to Nixon.

My dad bought a nice frame for the photograph and I tucked Hugh Sloan’s letter inside, between the picture and the cardboard backing. I pounded a nail into my bedroom wall and hung up my prize. I kept the picture for years, until it got stolen out of a locked steamer trunk in the storage room of the Hall of Graduate Studies at Yale in the summer of 1980.
[Hey YOU! If you’re out there reading this, send the darn thing back to me, willya? All is forgiven . . .]

I was sorry to lose the inscribed photo of Dick, but a certain cloud arose over my letter from Hugh Sloan. It turns out that Hugh became the bagman for the Watergate burglars. He was the treasurer of the Committee for the Re-election of the President. When he got ensnared in the scandal, he flipped on his colleagues and started sharing with Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. There was Deep Throat, and there was Hugh.

In January, 1973, Hugh also found himself answering some pointed questions under oath from Judge John Sirica. The gig was up by then, so Sloan copped to disbursing $199,000 in secret campaign funds for G. Gordon Liddy’s covert campaign espionage operations – a transaction approved by Nixon's campaign director John Mitchell, who went on to distinguish himself as the first U.S. Attorney General ever to serve time in a federal prison.

(Hugh Sloan left Washington and went to work for a company in Michigan that makes foam for car interiors, so I still can’t be sure that some autograph machine didn’t sign Nixon’s name on my lost picture.)

After I’d been calling up grandmothers all over the suburbs of the Twin Cities for a month or so, I got promoted to Head Telephone Solicitor. Miss Roche summoned me to her cubicle with the happy news of my promotion, which meant that I would now get the priority list of “marks” to call. (Or was it leads?) She said I had a real future with the company, Sweetie.

I was honored. But after awhile, I wasn’t seeing myself as Head Telephone Solicitor. Things were starting to crack. I was seeing myself as a college student who hadn’t quite made it to college. It wouldn’t be long now, and I was going to look Miss Roche straight in the eye and say: “Therefore, I shall resign the Head Telephone Solicitorship at noon effective tomorrow. My friend, Mr. Floyd Liebow, will be sworn in at that hour, in this office.” Then I would walk out the back, thank everybody, hop on a waiting helicopter and make a break for southern California.

* * *

My dad dropped us off at the junction of I-94, on the shoulder of the on-ramp. Eric Kaufman and I sat on our backpacks for awhile. We had shoulder-length hair and bandanas. We stuck out our thumbs and twenty minutes later found ourselves crammed into the cab of a Mack eighteen-wheeler, bound for St. Cloud and points west.

The trucker left us somewhere outside of Bismark and we waited there for our next ride. A rusted-out Ford Galaxy sped past us into the prairie sunset, stopped dead in a cloud of smoke and screaming tires, then backed up on the freeway. It was Tonto and the Lone Ranger, coming off a binge. Tonto was the designated driver.

"You boys got a license?” Tonto shouted. “This fella here picked me up to drive his car, but I just got out on parole and I don’t have a license.” He nodded toward the Lone Ranger dozing peacefully in the back of the blue Galaxy. A pickled-looking Stetson covered his face.

Eric took the wheel. The Lone Ranger roused in the back seat and told us to pull into the next town. About ninety miles further west, we found one. The hombres told Eric to stop at a convenience store so they could pick up something they had run out of, which turned out to be a case of Schlitz. Back on the freeway, our fellow travelers proceeded to down the beer at a prodigious rate and launched the cans out the window. Before long, we were hearing a mournful tale of the Chippewa with no land. Then came the singing.

By the time we got to Bozeman, the Lone Ranger was three sheets to the wind. His hat had flown out the window and parachuted into a deep canyon along with the last can of Schlitz. And his mask.

We left the pair at a gas station, walked away and didn’t look back, called my old girlfriend from a pay phone. We stayed with her family for a couple of nights. Her dad had some old inner tubes and we floated down a river of melted snow. I stared up into the blue heavens and thanked God that I wasn’t stuck in a smoky room with mustard walls selling giant igloos of chicken wings to the matriarchs of Minneapolis in their sunset years. Release and redemption were at hand.

We left Bozeman when Kim’s current boyfriend showed up and her dog started growling at me, not him. A couple of days went by and we wound up in a Chevy pickup between Winnemucca and Reno, taking turns driving for another urban cowboy who wanted to make it to San Francisco before the strip clubs closed. He left us in the Tenderloin at one-thirty in the morning and we slept in the BART station.

At dawn we called our friends who lived on the East Bay. Eric went his own way. My friends took me to the Greyhound station to pick up all my earthly belongings. My parents had shipped my stuff from Minneapolis in Grandmother Dillon’s ancient steamer trunk, still labeled with her name: Rev. Mrs. C.T. Dillon, McCool Junction, NB. That was about all the address she needed. Right then, I didn’t have an address of my own, but I was about to get one. Within a week I moved into the freshman dorm at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, to start the rest of my life.

* * *

I must have closed my eyes and dozed off for a few minutes. I wake up on a flight landing in Santa Barbara. An hour later I’m meeting another flight. It’s the kind of flawless day in southern California that moistens the eyes and breaks the hearts of people like me who live on the east coast. I stand outside in the sun at the edge of the tarmac and watch the passengers emerge, one by one, from the Delta Express prop-jet just in from Salt Lake City. Then I see the passenger I’m looking for. He’s the lanky blonde seventeen-year-old in the khaki shorts and Cameron Crazies T-shirt. It’s my son, Matt, here to meet me for a college tour. I’m looking forward to the weekend. Just for a moment, I wish I was seventeen again, too. When you’re that age, anything could happen.

* * *

Postscript: (added Monday, June 9, 2008)

This postscript is prompted by reader response to “Anything Could Happen” (posted above, Friday, June 6, 2008), and also by Dean Sam Wells’ sermon Sunday morning at Duke Chapel, which piqued my Christian conscience. Among other things, Dr. Wells mentioned his personal practice of writing drafts of his own obituary from time to time. It’s an interesting idea; according to Sam, it begins as a prideful exercise (like puffing your vita), but turns out to be a humbling and motivating spiritual experience.

Personally, I took it as a suggestion to reflect on the journey of life as if it were already over – write down what we’d like others to say about how we lived, and what our lives might come to mean, by then, to anyone else. The point, of course, is to live now towards that hopeful end, and try to make the obituary of our dreams come true. (A bit morbid perhaps, but I might take a stab at this sometime.)

In any event, I’ve decided that I do NOT want my obituary to read, “Jeff Swanson began his career at age eighteen working as a telephone solicitor in north Minneapolis, where, on a daily basis, he invaded the privacy of nice people who were eating supper and minding their own business, shaded the truth and got them to spend money they didn’t have, to buy something they didn’t need or want. He never bothered to apologize.”

Therefore, I would like to offer a belated apology to my elders who, upon my urging purchased a frozen-food delivery membership, with or without a 25 cubic-foot freezer, in the summer of 1975 – assuming they didn’t really need or want or could not afford such a thing. I knew better, even then, though I told myself it was for a good cause. (I was trying to earn money for college, which I would have distinguished from the more venal motives of, say, Hugh Sloan, my erstwhile correspondent who also figured tangentially in my reverie and who paid off thugs and burglars to re-elect a paranoid crook to the Presidency of the United States. But I make no excuses.)

Given the mature age of most of my customers at the time, I suspect many are no longer with us and have gone on to their just reward. In that case, I would like to extend this public apology to the heirs of these people. If it’s any small comfort, I really enjoyed talking to your grandmother, and I hope the feeling was mutual. It sounded as if she’d had a wonderful life except for a spate of recent medical problems, and was blessed with a number of handsome, witty, and brilliant grandchildren – she mentioned you, in particular.

I think the real reason she bought the frozen-food membership is that I told her about my own life up to that point: that my parents were missionaries in Ecuador, that I would be attending a Christian college in the fall and really needed to earn some money to get there and pay my tuition – all of which was true. (For the record, I did use my savings from that summer to make my first payment to the bursar at Westmont.)

Finally, I hope you’re enjoying the meatballs your grandma left behind. I can’t imagine they would have run out by now; it’s only been thirty-three years.

Dean Wells in his sermon also mentioned the journey of the Old Testament patriarch, Abraham, which brought to mind my hitch-hiking odyssey to California. I set off on a journey to transcend my past, and ended by re-encountering that past through new eyes - those of my seventeen-year-old son. (In truth, I wrote the story for Matt, who is pretty astonished that his grandparents really let me hitchhike to California when I was about his age. It was a different time.)

Like the journey of life, my youthful trip west in 1975 was full of possibilities, chance encounters, exhilaration, danger, enchantment and disenchantment, bad decisions (like getting into a car with an ex-con and a drunken cowboy headed for Montana) and roads not taken. Still, in the end I made it to Santa Barbara, started college, and by the grace of God lived to tell the tale.

Someday, I hope that my obituary will show I made something of my journey for those who will follow. If not, or at least in the meantime, I hope the telling of what’s happened so far makes somebody smile.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hallelujah. With this published apology for the sins of your youth, at long last made clear to all victims and heirs alike, my personal evaluation is that you have acquitted and redeemed yourself admirably. With the notion of Limbo suspended (noted earlier this year); I have ever confidence you’ve knocked a good week or two off your obligation to Purgatory. Accordingly, imagine this protestant awkwardly making the sign of the cross and saying onto you my cousin, “Go in peace and sin no more!”

June 9, 2008 1:37 PM