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Nashville Scene The Birth and Death of a Salesman

For this I got a history degree?

By Lee Jefferson

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  To graduate, according to Webster's, is: "1. To grant or be granted an academic degree or diploma. 2. To divide into steps." Since being awarded an academic degree, I can certainly divide my life into steps. Unfortunately, they've taken me downward instead of up. In May, I graduated from the University of the South in Sewanee with a degree in history, and in the months that have passed, I have come to realize I am suffering what can only be described as an uneasy bout with post-college traumatic syndrome.

I never knew exactly what I was going to do when I graduated. At parties back in May, the other students' parents would ask me, "So with a degree in history, I suppose you're going to teach or go to law school, right?"

I would muster a blank, alcohol-induced stare and ponder what to say. They would ask the follow-up question: "So then what are you going to do?" That question is the kryptonite to every college superman. To all those parents who ever asked it of me, here is my belated answer:

I moved to Nashville the day after graduation and quickly dug a financial hole for myself. I needed a job quickly to pay the bills, and I didn't care what it was. I just needed money, and I also wanted something to say to my parents. Holding firm to the notion that I was a respectable enough college graduate from an accredited institution, I thought the process would be a snap.

After being rebuffed for waiter jobs at Houston's and Tin Angel, the days began to slip away and the first of the month approached. The rent was due. Desperate times deserved desperate action.

I went to the Job Fair.

About all I can say about the Job Fair is that it was like going on a trip to hell with 300 strangers, none of whom you really want to be seated next to. Held at the Opryland Hotel, the Job Fair was sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. More than 100 potential employers set up booths, and eager young job applicants desperately needing money for their beer and cable TV rushed in to grab the gold. Each of the job applicants was given a name tag listing his college major on it. Everyone wore suits; some even brought briefcases for that additional touch of professionalism.

It didn't take me long to realize that, if I wanted employers to swarm around me, my name tag shouldn't have read "history major"; it should have read "health-care management." All the history majors ended up getting stuck going over the bonus plan at the Cracker Barrel booth.

The Job Fair struck me as a sort of minor- league farm system for corporate America. A bunch of scared college grads are simply gathered in one place so that corporate America can proceed to reap the rewards of desperation. The process works: Hordes of young talent are swept into the system and given security under the warm blanket of employment. Only later do some folks realize that they should have slept on the decision for about a month or two.

I was one of them. At the Job Fair, I fell in with a Nashville company, based in Green Hills, that appeared to like me. I sort of liked them, too. They were not giving away free Red Lobster cozies or hamburger coupons to anybody who filled in an application form. I did not know exactly what they did, but the job I interviewed for was "sales-oriented."

I found solace in the fact that they promised two paychecks a month, paying $19,000 a year. They promised business cards with my name on them. They offered a "good" health and a dental plan, although I had little idea what a good health plan or a dental plan was. They also had a 401K plan, which I still don't understand. That day, I signed on the bottom line. I had a job.

I actually began to get excited about it all. I knew on the front end that there would be travel, and I imagined flying to enthralling locales across America and developing important business relationships. I would be meeting people I liked, having good times, and getting paid for it.

The intensive training began. In a nutshell, my job was to spread propaganda. The company installed poster displays that had to do with health. Cholesterol. Exercise. Healthy hearts. Women's health. Then, slapped across the bottom of the poster, was the name of an area hospital. It was the hospital that was paying my company to put up these posters.

The mental image that came to my mind when I heard "poster" display was of something, at most, a little bigger than a dorm-room poster. Actually, the displays were small billboards. Made of wood and three feet square, they weighed about 40 pounds each. On every trip, I was supposed to meet a sizable quota by installing the poster displays. Two weeks before the sales reps embarked on their sales routes, we were supposed to be selling the product to people over the phone and setting up appointments to show the poster. We were simply given lists of businesses near the hospitals, and we were expected to make cold calls. Who would say no to something that's free? A helluva lot of people.

Talking on the phone all day while trying to push a product on people takes so much out of you that you eventually get to the point where you just hold the phone against your ear and look busy while listening to the dial tone. It didn't take long for me to become the sort of person I had once despised, the type of person I frequently hang up on. I had become the person on the other end of the phone, the one who calls during dinner hours wanting to sell you a subscription to Grit.

But I tried to focus on the upside and stick it out. The company had five of us in the trenches making these calls, and everybody else was just as screwed as I was. Once you had to hit the road alone, though, it was tough to keep your spirits up.

To get to a market to distribute the poster display, I usually had to drive a cargo van filled with more than 50 displays, stacked in the back so that they blocked any chance of visibility through the rear-view mirror. If you had to travel to, say, Black Lung, Penn., you would fly there and pick up the displays at a trucking terminal. Then you just set about delivering them, or at least you tried to deliver them.

When I dropped in on various businesses, some of them were expecting me, but many were not. I would jump out of the van, put on my company backpack--containing a powerless drill, a hammer, and bolts and anchors--and then grab one of the massive poster units. Thus armed, I would meet the business' first line of defense: the receptionist. Most of the time the receptionist just stared at me with a cold look, as if to say, "What in the hell is this snake trying to sell?" Most of the time, before I could even explain anything, the receptionist would pass me over to the Department of Unannounced Visitors.

Usually, people would look at the poster display and say, "But it's so big." I would always say, "Yes, but that's because it contains so much valuable information about health, and nothing is more important to your employees than good health!" The response would be, "I just don't know." And I would say, "Why don't you just keep it for a while and see how you like it?"

All the while, the only thing going through my head would be, "Please, for the love of God, take this damn thing so I don't have to drag it back to the van." More often than not, I would get shot down, always a disheartening experience. Dragging the unit back to the van was always a walk of shame. I always imagined the people who had just rejected me sitting by the water cooler and looking at me through a window, laughing uncontrollably. "What a schmuck," they were saying.

The hardest part was becoming accustomed to the fact that I was doing the exact opposite of what I did in college. One day I had been in the library studying Middle Eastern history. The next day I was in a cargo van with meaningless poster displays that I couldn't even give away for free. In college, I had pulled all-nighters to study for exams, to write papers, and to push up that GPA. In my job, the question was which Spectravision movie to watch in my single room at the Budget Inn as a Meat Lover's pizza lay half-eaten beside me on the bed.

Upon my return from one these adventures, I knew I had to choose between professional sanity and two paychecks a month. I had managed to get about 160 posters installed during about five months of work. But I was losing my mind. So I left.

What I learned in the job is that taking a first job out of desperation is a huge mistake. In my sales job, I met many people whom I still consider friends. Many are in the same situation as I was. The company has a top-notch staff and deserves its success, but the job was not a good fit for me.

This post-college period can definitely be a downer, and taking a job for the wrong reasons will make life even more miserable. I figure, the thing to do is to keep plugging away, to go to that second interview. Just maybe, I might get out of this alive. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Neal Cassady, this probably won't be the last time I commit job suicide.

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