Fresh out of college I found myself living with my sister and brother-in-law just a trolley ride from downtown San Francisco. It had been all fun and games up till then. After graduation we met in Deadwood SD, where my Mom grew up, and drove from there to the city by the bay. On the way east coast boy sees his first real mountains – The Grand Tetons! Then a lake like no other in Tahoe. When we arrived in San Francisco it was easy to understand why Tony Bennett left his heart there! Google Tony if you are under 30.
For the first week or so my sister, Barbara was my tour guide. We did the city, Sausalito, Marin, Tiburon. I got the grand tour. You would have thought Barb was working for the Chamber of Commerce. At every turn she was selling the benefits of relocating to San Francisco. I have to admit there were a whole lot of them. She finally convinced me the bay area was for me.
But now the party was over. If I was going to get serious about moving west, I’d have to figure out a way to support myself. I was 21 and one must realize my brain had yet to fully develop. I was clueless in San Francisco. The only source for job openings was the newspaper. Each morning I scoured the want ads looking for that perfect opportunity.
There were three ads that caught my eye and I noticed they appeared every single day which should have been my first clue. One was for some obscure life insurance company, another was an opportunity to “sell education” and the third was selling steaks. I’ll spare you the details on the first two and for now.
Selling life insurance seemed to be the most reputable of the three so I decided it was worth an interview. At the same time I liked the headline for the steak gig: Earn $40,000 Your First Year! That, my friends, was big bread and it seemed like an easy sell. At the time I didn’t know that “easy sell” was an oxymoron!
I did a preliminary interview with the life insurance company and the next day I scheduled an interview with “Steaks R Us”. For both I wore my one and only suit, the one without a natural thread in it – pure poly baby! This light green number was sure to impress even the most discerning employer. I complemented it with a lovely peach shirt and a wild paisley tie. This was the first time paisley was in.
The insurance interview went well. I couldn’t believe how much the guy wanted me to come back for a second interview! I told the dude I had other interviews scheduled and I’d have my people get back to his people (or something like that).
The next day it was off to Oakland for my interview with Mr. Steak! The intrigue was killing me. On my way there I daydreamed about how I’d spend the forty grand I’d be making that first year. The insurance gig was compelling but seemed like a little too much stress. While “steak salesman” didn’t have the prestige “Insurance Agent”, on paper it seemed like more fun.
When I arrived the location I had to double check to make sure I hadn’t screwed up on the directions. Sure enough this was the place. It was essentially a quonset hut surrounded by a chain link fence; the only thing missing was the barbed wire. If I was ever in “the hood” this was it.
I parked the car and walked toward the building where I noticed about 10 small white pickup trucks, parked in a row; they looked identical to one another. Each featured a large cooler in the truck bed. Before entering through the smudged glass front door I checked my reflection to make sure my tie was straight and I didn’t have any of that morning’s breakfast remaining in between my pearly whites. I still wasn’t certain I was in the right place. There were no signs anywhere indicating that this was the steak mecca.
As I pulled the door open I was slapped in the nostrils with the smell of stale cigar smoke. The paneled walls were adorned with a couple of pictures that hung crookedly. The dust and dirt made my room at the frat house in Ashland seem squeaky clean. Something told me I might be a bit overdressed.
There was nobody there to greet me at the reception desk so I took a seat on one of about 10 folding chairs that were situated against the paneled wall. I waited patiently for what seemed like 5 minutes. I hesitated to say anything because I’d read somewhere that “first impressions are lasting impressions”. Finally I mustered up the courage to blurt out, “Anyone here?” From the back room a gravelly voice responded, “Hold tight, I’ll be with you in a minute”. “Okay, thank you” I responded.
Another 5 minutes seemed like 15. It was just me in my light green suit in that folding chair. It felt like the paneled walls were beginning to close in on me. I had half a mind to tip toe out of the joint when suddenly the voice bellowed, “Okay, you can come in now!”
I advanced toward the door to the back office. I took a deep breath and entered. It took everything I could muster to mask what I’m sure was the look of shock on my face. The office made the lobby appear opulent. Files were piled a mile high in every corner of the room. If the reality show “Hoarders” had been created back then this guy would’ve been the poster child!
He remained in his chair as we shook hands. He then directed me to another folding chair that was situated directly across from the oversized desk he sat behind. The desk top featured more piles and a half eaten Egg McMuffin. Oh yeah and the piece de resistance; an ash tray the size of a garbage can lid filled with ashes and cigar butts.
I can’t remember his name but it had to be Nick, Chuck, Bubba or maybe Buck. His frame was large and his language salty. I couldn’t help but admire the off white wife beater he was wearing that I’m sure was white when it came out of the package 10 years ago. As I took a seat he started what ended up being a monologue. It became apparent he was a man of few words.
“It’s pretty simple. You’ll be selling steaks. USDA prime cut New Yorks mostly. You will be an independent jobber which means you don’t work for me; you work for yourself. I provide you with the steaks, the truck and a full tank of gas. You drive the truck to wherever you want and park it in an area where there are lots of retail shops. Your target is everyone. The pitch goes something like this – Would you like to buy some steaks? These fresh cut USDA prime steaks are part of an over shipment to Safeway and I’m selling them for 25% less than what you’d pay in the store. I don’t tell you where to go or how long to stay. You don’t punch a clock. When you are sold out of steaks your day is done. You come back the next day and repeat the process.”
He stopped and picked up his newspaper which was folded open to the day’s racing form. It figured Chuck was into the ponies. I broke the awkward silence by saying something articulate like, “Sounds interesting!” I then waited for him to ask about me. It became evident I’d be in for a long wait so I cleared my throat and offered up a few nuggets for him to digest. I told him I was from Jersey and I graduated recently from Ashland College. I could have told him I was from Mars and was just released from prison and it wouldn’t have made a difference. I hacked my way through a few more sentences and mentioned that I was also interviewing with a life insurance company. Again there was silence. Not once during my verbal offering did he look up from the racing form. His next move fit the script perfectly. He reached for one of his half smoked stogies. He caressed one end with is lips and tongue; struck a match and lit the other.
Meanwhile every comment I made was just a little more awkward than the last. “I see you are a cigar man!” “What kind do you like to smoke?” “I like a cigar every now and then”. I could feel a bead of sweat roll down the side of my face.
As he puffed on that old stogie the room filled with blue smoke. He leaned forward in his chair, the stogie lodged securely in the side of his mouth. I was ripe with anticipation. Was he going to ask me a question?
“Listen kid, people don’t eat life insurance. You want the job or not?” I remember thinking he had a valid point. He shoved a sheet of paper toward me and laid a pen next to it. He continued, “If you want the job read the contract and sign at the bottom. You can start tomorrow. If you don’t want the job you know the way out.”
My poor, not yet fully developed, brain was having a difficult time processing the last 15 minutes. Worse yet I was too flustered to read the fine print of the contract. I looked at the boss man and said, “I’ll do it”. He nodded his head and I signed on the dotted line.
TO BE CONTINUED…