Album cover from http://www.musicstack.com/album/dwight+yoakam/streets+of+bakersfield
My LinkedIn profile (Charles Vono) includes these lines:
“Growing up in the fertile Southern San Joaquin Valley of California, he was no stranger to hard work and hustle. From janitorial work in his home town of Wasco, to farm labor in the fields nearby, or walking the streets of Bakersfield selling door-to-door, Charlie could find work and do it well.”
This, of course, is a reference to the famous “Streets of Bakersfield” released by Homer Joy in 1973. This country tune included the refrain:
Hey, you don’t know me, but you don’t like me
You say you care less how I feel
But how many of you that sit and judge me
Ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?
It was 1971, just before I entered the USAF, two years before Homer Joy released “Streets of Bakersfield” and 17 years before “Streets” was a hit song for Dwight Yokum, when I was walking the streets of Bakersfield selling door-to-door.
It was one of the most valuable jobs I ever had.
It was not the worst or the most pleasant job I had every had. It was easier in many ways than picking peaches. It wasn’t as hot as digging up irrigation valves. It wasn’t as dangerous as spraying insecticides and herbicides from a tractor. It wasn’t as historic as when I drove a tractor as a “scab” to harvest onions because Caesar Chavez was keeping his workers at home. It wasn’t even a real big big money-maker. But it may be the top job I ever had for just learning important stuff about life and work. I certainly give it a lot of credit for my life successes.
The fellow who was my boss in this 2-man endeavor (I’ll call him “Hank”) was introduced to me by a friend of a friend. Although I was too young to appreciate it, he was the epitome of a small business owner. He even had a business license from the City of Bakersfield. More on that later.
We would split up to work a neighborhood and check in with each other on a regular basis. Sometimes he drove us to the neighborhoods and sometimes I drove. We had the paint supplies and stencils in the trunk of the car.
Hank told me, and I soon learned, the pitch at the door was very important. “Hello. I am working my way through college, painting house numbers on curbs. We follow the city ordnances. We use the best highway reflective white paint and stencil on the numbers with high contrast black paint. We use a brush to make the white durable and spray the black paint over stencils to make the numbers clear. We guarantee our work.” Speak clearly, but quickly. Look confident and friendly. Or you don’t make any sales.
I learned that a smile a pleasant demeanor goes a very long way in the business world. Appearances are very important. You need to look clean and alert, but you also have to look like someone who knows how to use paint. And you have to deliver; you have to be able to paint a very good looking house number. There is a skill. And Hank taught me that too.
If I have gotten that far into my pitch without the door being slammed in my face, then the next question is usually, “How much?”. If I get that far, then there’s probably a 30% chance I’ll make the sale. I learned that 1 in 3 is pretty good odds, when you are talking sales.
Selling door-to-door teaches many other lessons as well, if you are savvy enough to notice. There is that obvious one, of course, that getting a long string of “no’s” is just something you should get used to. A lot of people don’t get used to that. I think part of why Hank liked me in that job is that I didn’t get discouraged.
Hank spent a significant amount of time teaching me the skills and chops I needed — and warning me against the green number people.
And who would have guessed? But it turns out that painting house numbers on curbs has its seedy side. Many folks, apparently based on experience, seemed to place my occupation on par with a carnival worker (carney) or, in their minds, other kinds of unpleasant transient day-laborers. I would try to stress the college kid part of my spiel and make sure my clean, alert painter aura also held a touch of the academic. If we fell into a conversation, I would explain that we were not at all like the shady “green number people” who did not even follow City Ordnances, much less deliver a good product.
Hank was a great guy to learn from. He was endlessly optimistic and as enthusiastic an entrepreneur as you could find. I visited him one day at his trailer. His significant other was a beautiful red headed lady. They talked about working to get money, and then spending that money for things they wanted. This left a deep impression on me as it was very countercultural. It had seemed to me that most people buy stuff they want using credit and then worry excessively about how they might pay for it later. He was different.
Hank was a Viet Nam Vet. I think this gave him a special taste for civilian life and being his own boss. He certainly had a clear vision of what he wanted out of life.
When Hank found out I was thinking of joining the Air Force, he quickly realized he wasn’t going to be able to talk me out of it. So, instead, he gave the me best advice I could have ever gotten at that point in time. I really didn’t understand it, but like a knight going on a quest who has been given a magic potion, I committed it to memory and used it. I found it to be amazingly helpful in just about any situation I fell into. He said it had kept him alive in Viet Nam. Who am I to discount or discard that advice?
Here are other things I learned in this job.
There are times when selling door-to-door you may come across angry dogs, creepy strangers, mentally unstable housewives, druggies, and nice young ladies who are not properly dressed. You must learn how to deal with all of these and keep your mind on the goal: sales!
One day I learned that some neighborhoods saw nothing wrong with letting their cute little lap dogs run loose all up and down the block. These delightful little fluffy balls were frolicking and playing happily until they saw a stranger — me! I made the mistake of walking away from them, and then walking away faster, and then breaking into a little jog as I made my way to a front door. I had it in my mind that talking to someone in the neighborhood would make me no longer a stranger. They, on the other hand, had a pack mentality that saw their prey moving away from them.
Of course, the right thing to have done would have been to confront them and scold them. That way I would not have been bitten on the ankle just as I knocked on the door. My voice must have sounded a bit too urgent because the occupants delayed answering the door until they had flushed (their drugs down?) the toilet. But they were very nice to me. Perhaps they were not too disappointed that I had not turned out to be the police? In any event, they were irritated enough at their loss that they did not care to purchase my product.
I composed myself and continued my sales. And in that neighborhood, and from then on, I dealt with crazy little packs of lap dogs via confrontation. Whether they are literal or happened to be fellow workers, they always seem to tuck their tails and whimper away.
Not long after that, I had just had a really great chat with a nice lady who seemed to be ready to give me $5. She asked me to check back after she talked to her husband on the phone. No problem as we were in the neighborhood for a while. It must have been less than 10 minutes later that a police car drove up and the two nice gentlemen asked me what I thought I was doing. I wasn’t the sort of fellow who had had a lot of interaction with the police up to that point. It was easy to feel uncomfortable and intimidated. But looking back, they were probably bored and being as nice as could be. Anyway, thinking quickly, I pointed to Hank who had just rounded the corner (on foot) to check in with me, and said: “There’s the boss”. Moral: When faced with pointed questions from people in authority, direct them to your boss in as few words as possible. Here’s a corollary: If you are the boss, make sure you have a good story before they show up.
Hank was perfectly happy to have me point him out and for him to answer the questions. So much easier than having to correct anything I might have said wrong. “Yes, officer, I do have a business license. Here it is.”
Turns out the nice lady was married to a Bakersfield City Councilman who did not appreciate the curb-painting carnies in his town. (Was she sincerely interested in the curb number or setting me up?)
“Oh, you are right officer. This license is out of date. I will correct that right away!” Turns out Hank was a pragmatic libertarian who only renewed his license when he got caught. There might be a lesson there as well.
As much as I respected and enjoyed my time with Hank, one rather bad-Hank-day especially comes to mind. This is the main reason I made up the name “Hank” as he may not want me telling this story. Hank was coming down with something that day. I was driving my car. I had just gotten in the car for some reason (lunch time?) as I spotted him running up to the block to get me to take him to a gas station as fast as possible. Yes, diarrhea. No, we didn’t make it. Hank sheepishly elevated his butt trying to keep my car seat from being soiled. I, in turn, tried to help him out with a speedy trip to a nearby gas station toilet — without hardly laughing at all. I guess what I learned from Hank that day was how to face every disaster with dignity. Drama, tears, screams, or other outbursts are not usually going to help when you are already having the worst day you could possibly imagine. So just face your poopy pants with all the dignity you can muster and maybe it will all work out after all. I guess he probably had worse days in Viet Nam.
The best neighborhoods didn’t always have the best people or the most sales. But one evening towards sunset, I was working a fairly nice neighborhood and a man came out to meet me at the front, sporting a glass of red wine and a very self-satisfied smile. It was easy to see he was the Lord of the Manor and feeling the fruits of his success. His avuncular manner made me think he had at one time sold door to door and felt some kind of kinship to me. I didn’t spend too much time analyzing his motives, however. I was busy thinking to myself:
“Someday, that’s me. Hanging around in the early twilight, sipping my wine, and enjoying my successes.”
In less than a year I was a cadet at the USAF Air Force Academy which was the launching point for where I am today, 40 years later: Sipping wine and practicing my avuncular chops, albeit not so much in my front yard as I am in front of a computer typing a blog.
Oh, and the advice Hank gave me?
“If you are alone, you are in the WRONG PLACE!”
But as this blog is already double the standard size, another blog will be forthcoming explaining how and why that was the best advice ever.
Curb Numbers Photo is from http://www.johnscreekga.gov/epdnews/2012-07_cops-connect.html where the following cautionary message is posted: “Recently, many neighborhoods in Johns Creek have been canvassed with flyers advertising a service to paint new reflective house numbers on the curbs in front of houses. The flyers are written as to imply that the JC Police Department is endorsing the service, and this is FALSE. The JCPD has no connection with this private company, and is not encouraging residents to pay for the service to increase public safety.”
And from the City of Corona: “Citizens should be on the alert for unauthorized curb painting crews currently operating within the City. The City has received calls from concerned residents who have been visited by individuals asking if they would like to have their house number painted on the curb. In some cases, residents are being charged anywhere from $10 to $40 for poor quality and unauthorized work. This type of scam is common everywhere, especially during the spring and summer months.” http://www.innercirclecorona.com/care-for-coronas-children/
And many more if you care to look. The true curb artisan may be gone and the carney has taken over.
I suspect the green number people.