Innocent Bystander: Christmas Story

It was the winter of 1952-1953, and a cold coming we had of it, Red Harris and I. Not that, as I remember, it was a particularly severe winter in statistical terms; it was only that we chose it to sell vacuum cleaners in the Godforgotten Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

Washed out of political life forever by the Eisenhower landslide of November-I had been a minor functionary in the John F. Kennedy-for-Senator campaign, with hopes of a permanent berth somewhere in the Democratic organization—I turned up jobless as the cold closed in and made for the doubtful shelter of the Deshler Vacuum Cleaner Company, of Terre Haute, Indiana, with Offices in All Principal Cities. My application was accepted on the spot, and I found myself being trained to sell “The Cadillac of Cleaners,”an improbable basketball-size aluminum sphere on wheels that, with the aid of a tool chest full of attachments, could sand, saw, mix, blend, wax, buff, and even spray paint as well as clean a rug. Or so the instructions claimed.

Actually, as any student of industrial design could readily have confirmed, the Deshler was a survival from the early days of vacuuming, sort of a contemporary antique. The archaism of its engineering was matched by the antiquity of the company’s selling methods. We learned little in our two-day, unpaid training course, except to sing special Deshler pep songs, based on old Big Ten football chants, at the opening of each training session, and to brazen our way into the prospect’s house with the most glittering of promises and the direst of innuendos. We were not salesmen, we were sanitation men, and we were there to sanitize the prospect’s house—no charge, of course-before her wondering eyes.

When we hit the street, with a withering song in our hearts and a blast of November wind in our faces, each man was on his own. And how. Along with Red Harris, a pushing, torch-headed young particle as small and wiry as I was tall and weedy, I was assigned to the unpromising banlieue of Waltham. Massachusetts, whose celebrated watch factory was then departing the last of its nine lives, leaving the city as depressed-both mentally and fiscally—as any other New England mill town in those dreary days. Seeking safety in numbers, Red and I joined up together as a team, halving our individual calls and commissions, if any, in the greater interest of solidarity.

It was tough sledding, mitigated by an occasional sale to a cretinous couple who should have known better than to get on the never-never for a Deshler, and by interminable cups of nickel coffee in a handy Howard Johnson’s.

If nothing else, it taught us technique, though. Glazed into boldness by necessity, we soon learned how to disarm the housewife’s fainthearted objections at the door, and how, once in, to make directly for the bedroom, where we demanded, if necessary, that the bedclothes be pulled back. Once we had the spavined bed stripped naked before us, we proceeded to a medical demonstration roughly as portentous as, say, the discovery of germs. Running the long, jointed arm of the Deshler over the mattress cover with a loud, menacing hum, as of swarming wasps, we covered the entire surface in a trice. Next we opened the dirt bag and shook out the contents—shook them back, in fact, on the mattress cover itself. A pale, pinkish-tan scurf appeared. We asked the housewife if she could identify this late occupant of her marriage bed. Needless to say, she never could. At which point I would cut in, with a menacing Gildersleeve boom, “That, madam, is dead skin!" Shock and mortification, occasionally followed by a sale, more frequently followed by other, tamer demonstrations of sanding, spraying, waxing, and. terminally, carpetcleaning. If she wouldn’t buy on the spot, we asked for a return engagement that evening in the presence of her husband; this request was often granted, and dead skin was produced on cue again in the evening.

What was dead skin? Damned if I know. It might have been lint, pajama tailings, house moss, mattress stuffing, or even, God knows, dead skin itself. Though its identity remained obscure to us, it was the high point of our demos-as we called these playlets in the trade— and most of our few sales were traceable to the housewife’s horror at the implied suggestion of uncleanliness.

And so, call by call, day by day, week by week, we perfected our talents at the shell game. Alas, we failed to perfect our batting average. Three or four sales per week turned out to be our upper limit; even with the inflated commissions made possible by the Deshler’s inflated price (around two hundred dollars, more than twice the price of a good name-brand vacuum cleaner in those days), we could hardly ever count on more than seventy-five dollars apiece each week, out of which came gas, car expenses, food, and all our other ineluctable overheads. Both of us were married, and both were going broke.

Sitting in the Howard Johnson’s one icy day when a dusting of snow made skeins across the streets, we hit upon a plan. Red, aggressive in inverse proportion to his height, suggested we light out for virgin territory-northern Vermont, where he himself came from and where he knew every soul in a twenty-mile radius of St. Johnsbury. Those Vermonters, we knew, had plenty socked away in their dead-skin-filled mattresses; with Christmas coming, couldn’t a local boy and his friend persuade them to part with some of it? A stroke of genius in necessity; we shook hands on the bargaïn and prepared to leave next day.

I packed a bag and left my car in Red’s snowy side driveway next to his two-decker apartment house in an unfashionable part of Natick. We climbed into his spectacularly oxidized, dark blue '46 Torpedo Oldsmobile and were off. This was long before the day of Interstates; most of the roads were winding two-lane byways past miles of tumbledown shacks with dead cars and old Maytags in the yard. This was the postwar fag end of the Depression which still rode New England. It was before the recent era of recovery, and there was little paint or money showing on the houses or in the crabbed towns.

Aldridge, Vermont, was not what I’d expected. It was not a postcard village—all elms and spires and gingerbread houses—but a kind of rustic slum. It served as a dormitory town for the quarry workers in Barre, some twenty-five miles away down Route 302; its mean houses, many of them, were, like Natick’s and Waltham’s, doubleand tripledeckers. Red took me up to a second deck to meet his family: his father, a cadaverous, toothless, gormless old man of forty-five, worn out and phthisic from inhaling rock dust in the quarries; his mother, a fat, pleasant woman who should have looked jolly but looked drained instead. I was to stay with them as a paying guest; they did their decent best to make me feel at home.

But to the hunt. Next day, Red and I unlimbered our Deshler demonstrator and began to call on the modest satraps of the locality. The first week went reasonably well. With Red’s entrée and my scholarly exposition of the evils of dead skin, we made four solid sales—all cash, for, as we had supposed, the money was indeed concealed around the house. And these four, concluded with some real goodwill between ourselves and the customers, led to further referrals. We found ourselves calling on Hawkins cousins and Sawyer aunts in outlying towns. And therein lay our downfall. Bucking our way through a middling blizzard one white-on-white morning, Red spun his worn snow tires on a patch of ice and over-revved the weary engine, which promptly registered displeasure by sending No. 2 piston out through the side of the block. Apart from the stiff expense of the repairs, we were without wheels at the apex of the selling season. And we had miles to go before we slept.

We made the best of this contretemps by listing the locals in Aldridge upon whom we could call on foot—not the meanest of feats, considering that the snow was three feet deep and the thermometer had dropped, after the storm, to a seemingly permanent twenty-four below zero. Walking “over town” to the general store, the breath froze in our noses, and our lungs felt as if they were being pierced with icicles. Nevertheless, we soldiered on, dragging our Deshler and its case of gadgets and hoses behind us through the snow. A couple more sales slowly jelled with repeated callbacks; between bouts of frozenfingered selling, we languished in the Harrises’ kerosene-heated parlor, stoking our personal fires with large, plain meals of cottonwool bread and sticky pasta.

Finally, less than a week before Christmas, we struck at last at our best prospect: a recently widowed Mrs. Willard, the amiable mistress of a large, dust-collecting Victorian ark, who was, reputedly, rich as Croesus. Bracing her in her living room one night, we out-demonstrated our greatest demonstration, forcing the wheezing Deshler to new heights of sanitation. We sprayed moth gas in her closets, cleaned her drapes, waxed her linoleum, beat her old Orientals to within an eighth-inch of their warp and woof. And lo! she was persuaded. We walked out of her house that freezing night with a signed contract and a small deposit, the rest to be collected in a day or two. At last our trip seemed almost worthwhile: we could return to Boston after the holiday with a couple of hundred dollars each to keep the wolf away.

Then trouble struck. When we got back to the Harrises’ one evening, we had an ominous message: a call from Mrs. Willard. A friend, it seems, had heard she was about to buy a Deshler and had advised her to consider an Electrolux instead. The Electrolux man, a sleek deity in a new Pontiac Chieftain, was on his way there now. Would we care to match our machine against his in a competitive demonstration? Of course we would; dragging our Deshler like a travois through the snow, we made our way to Mrs. Willard’s white house on the hill. She was a bit embarrassed at the confrontation she had caused; but, she pointed out, it was only fair that she should be able to compare the two machines, and we of course agreed.

Then the slow murder began. The Electrolux man unlimbered his sleek blue-green machine with its shining wands and politely asked us to go first in cleaning the living-room rug (which we’d already cleaned a couple of days before). We cleaned mightily; we opened our dust bag and showed a pitiful wisp of dust. The Electrolux man set his shining monster sucking at the same square feet of carpet. A moment later he opened his own dust bag, which had previously been empty, to show a fat roll of fresh dirt. The secret was in the extra suction of his more powerful motor, he said (and we believed): to demonstrate this further, he selected a transparent Lucite wand, produced a large, heavy, chromed-steel ball, and proceeded to pick the ball up with the wand and hold it suspended eighteen inches up the wand. He then invited us to do the same. Manfully, Red and I clipped the transparent wand to the Deshler and applied it to the ball. A hiss and gulp; the ball rose leisurely into the tube and then flopped out onto the floor again. The process was repeated. It was no use. We were skunked, whipped like curs, beaten at our own game, vanquished far from home. We returned Mrs. Willard’s contract and deposit and slunk, dragging the tonweight of the Deshler, back down the hill toward home.

The next day was Christmas Eve. Red’s car was ready: we got in in utter dejection and drove back to Boston. Our first stop was at the Deshler sales office, where we collected our meager winnings and renounced our calling forevermore, giving the rattled sales manager our considered view of his product in front of a raw group of new trainees.

Then, at the fountain of a nearby drugstore, we drank a last cup of watery coffee and shook hands on our decision to go our separate ways in search of something better than Deshler salesmanship. We’d be in touch again when we got situated, both of us vowed. Shortly afterward, but not in time to make that Christmas or New Year’s any happier, I finally got a job I’d been after in an advertising agency, and things started to look up. But, of course, I never laid eyes on Red again, though I’ve often wondered what happened to him.

Merry Christmas, then, Red, wherever you are; you were a good companion and one feisty guy.