Books & Other Writing
The Story Behind Responsible Men
My father is a salesman, my grandfather was a salesman, and my great-grandfather was a salesman. So, growing up, I felt bound to become a salesman myself.
Like Caleb and Abe Wolinsky in my novel, my father works as a manufacturer's representative, a middleman, selling textiles for various mills. He sells to companies that make clothes. He works on commission—usually one or two percent—with no guaranteed salary and no benefits. My grandfather started the business in 1926. My father followed in his footsteps and they shared an office—a small office—for close to sixty years. For the last twenty-two years, my father has had the office to himself. These days, he doesn't travel as much as he used to, but he's still often on the road, visiting old clients.
When I was around ten years old, my father occasionally took me on the road with him. Maybe there were a half-dozen trips, maybe there were more. The morning rituals were always the same. When my father finished shaving, he woke me up, the sharp smell of his after-shave filling my room. He'd tell me to hurry, to be quiet, and I'd hustle to get ready. I was wearing small leisure suits back then, eating bowls of sugary cereal for breakfast. We slipped out of the house in the dark and I couldn't wait to climb into the front seat of the car. I was the co-pilot for those trips.
My father's business cars were a world unto themselves, a world in which he seemed to live at least half his life. There was a silver Plymouth Sport Fury that didn't last long, a brown Datsun 280Z 2+2, but most of the time he was behind the wheel of a Chrysler New Yorker, an enormous sedan that rode like a luxury liner.
My father kept everything he needed within easy reach. He had a razor he could plug into the cigarette lighter. There were mints and no-doz pills, sunglasses, leather driving gloves that snapped around his wrists. I can remember the 8-track tapes (Beethoven, Glenn Miller, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel).
Despite the salesman stereotype, my father's never been much of a talker, at home or at work. We were quiet when we left the house and we stayed quiet in the car. I could have drifted off to sleep, but I wanted to stay awake. I stared out the big windshield, hoping to see something that would give me an excuse to break the silence—an exotic license plate, a low-flying plane. I was a little kid and I wasn't going to make a sale or close a big order, but I could still feel the possibility of the day before us as the sun rose.
Everywhere we stopped, people were happy to see my father and me. Secretaries offered me donuts and apple juice. Someone else gave me a velour shirt and told me the kids at school would be jealous. A few people took me on tours, leading me through rooms with endless rows of men and women at sewing machines, the sound of their hard work almost deafening.
In factory after factory, people joked with me, telling me that I looked like a smart little businessman. Then, one day, outside a conference room in Baltimore, a buyer put his hand on my shoulder. He had jeweled rings on a few of his fingers. "Someday you'll be taking over for your father," he said. "Do you think you'll be as good a salesman as he is?"
"I think I will," I said. "I'll try."
"I'm glad to hear it," the buyer said. "But you need to remember that it takes a lot of work to close a deal."
My father didn't say anything right away, but I could tell from the way he shut his briefcase that he was angry. He was still angry when he tossed the briefcase into the car and slammed the trunk. Inside the car, he started to calm down. "I want you to understand something," he said, looking over at me. "You are not going to be a salesman."
"Because it's a miserable job," he said. "That's why not. Because I wish I wasn't a salesman and I don't want you to be wishing the same thing some day. You can be whatever you want when you grow up, just not a salesman. Okay?"
"Okay," I said.
He slipped the keys into the ignition. "I'm glad we got that out of the way," he said. "Wish my father had done the same for me." Then he shifted into reverse, stretched his right arm across the bench seat, and turned his head like he always did to back up. "Don't get me wrong," he said. "You could easily be as good a salesman as I am, but you're going to do something better."
That was the last business trip I took with my father. He gave me the college education he longed to have, pushed me to become a doctor when that was what I dreamed of, then pushed me to become a writer when I discovered that was what I wanted to be.
Still, those road trips have stayed with me, shaping not only what I write, but also how I write. For instance, I like to be in my study early in the mornings. When the work is going well, I'm in my chair in time to watch the sunrise. I see it brighten the room and I can feel the day opening up in front of me, like a clear highway, full of promise.