The room smelled like disappointment. If you’ve never smelled disappointment before, you’re lucky. The aroma is something like burnt coffee in styrofoam cups mixed with week-old sweat and off-brand cologne. We’d all seen better days.
None of us grew up wanting to become flooring salespeople, but there we were, most of us in midlife, sitting on folding chairs in front of a blackboard, learning the ins and outs of subfloors and installation methods. For two weeks we absorbed what we could about carpet, hardwood, laminate, vinyl and ceramic tile. We practiced measuring rooms, calculating square footage, presenting pricing and closing the sale in a single visit.
The last part was very important. They told us If we didn’t close the sale on the first visit, they would stop setting up appointments for us. These appointments were like gold, they promised. Hot leads. The company spent millions of dollars advertising on national television for them.
We lugged the samples around in our personal vehicles, zigzagging from house to house and county to county. They weighed about 500 pounds and from that day forward our cars heaved, sagged and scraped over hills and speed bumps. Fuel efficiency went out the window along with our suspensions and ability to carry passengers.
I worked at that job for seven years ― long enough to learn that little dogs are more likely to bite than big dogs, folks in mobile home parks often have better credit than folks in fancy neighborhoods and most importantly, the locations of the cleanest public toilets within a two-hour radius of Seattle (if you ever need suggestions, drop me a line).
I also learned people are jerks. Not all of them, of course, but more than you’d imagine if you’ve never been in a position to view them in their natural habitat.
Many of them didn’t even bother being home at their scheduled appointment time. That happened multiple times a week, sometimes multiple times a day. It happened so many times I got to the point where I recognized the situation before I got out of the car. It wasn’t anything obvious like a lack of lights or cars in the driveway. No. Sometimes people were home under those circumstances. It was more of a hollow energy. An emptiness that radiated from the house to the street. I called it “that not at home feeling.”
“I learned people are jerks. Not all of them, of course, but more than you’d imagine if you’ve never been in a position to view them in their natural habitat.”
I still went through the motions, knocking on the door, ringing the doorbell, calling, texting, cocking my head to listen for sounds in the backyard and finally walking back to wait in my car another half an hour in case they showed up.
It was particularly infuriating when the weather was extremely hot or extremely cold because the company classified me as an independent contractor and didn’t reimburse me for expenses. I couldn’t afford to run my car to keep the heater or air conditioner going. Instead, I tried to find shade in summer, and in winter I bundled up and shivered under a fleece blanket.
I hated waiting for tardy customers, but the job was 100 percent commission. If I didn’t wait, I wouldn’t make money. Worse, I’d lose money since I paid for my own gas to drive there. Most of the time the customers never arrived, but occasionally I got lucky and they showed up. Other times, it turned out they’d been there all along but didn’t hear me because they were taking a shower or playing video games with their headphones on. Why they’d do either of those things during their designated appointment time, I’ll never know, but I always smiled and acted like it was no problem, the most natural thing in the world, not inconvenient at all (I don’t know how much you know about sales but it’s hard to sell people things if you tell them off the moment you arrive. You have to be nice.)
I used that same smile when I pretended to believe the dog only recently started defecating on their poop-encrusted carpet or that their house was so filthy because their housekeeper was out sick last week even though it smelled so badly it made my eyes water and it was obvious it hadn’t been cleaned in months or years or maybe ever.
Sometimes I fake-smiled. I didn’t even bother hiding it. I looked them in the eye, pressed my lips together and raised the corners of my lips without the slightest trace of mirth. This smile was reserved for people who asked me to wait in the living room while they ate dinner, bathed their children or hopped on a conference call upstairs.
Once, a lady who’d already asked me to wait while she changed out of her pajamas and took a shower, returned in different pajamas, only to disappear for what seemed like 45 more minutes. I was about to go investigate when she walked back into the room. “I’m so sorry,” she said, with a wave of her arm, “I was making lumpia.”
After that, I put my foot down. If you weren’t ready for your appointment, I got in my car and left. People like that rarely bought anyways and they invariably made me late for my next appointment.
As I hurried to the next town I’d send an atheist’s prayer toward the heavens that the next people would buy and put me in the red for the day. But, of course, there was no way of knowing what was in store for me. This was one of the hazards of working for a company that offered free estimates. People weren’t always in the market for what you were selling. Sometimes they just thought it would be fun to spend Saturday morning looking at samples for a dream house they were going to build as soon as they won the lottery. Other times, they didn’t even want to look at samples. They just wanted measurements so they could go buy flooring at a discount center and install it themselves.
Such appointments were especially stressful because the company required me to make sales on at least 50 percent of my appointments, which included people who weren’t serious or not at home. Most of the time I was successful, but there were many weeks it wasn’t possible and I’d toss and turn at night, worried they’d cut off my leads the following week.
The hardest appointments were the ones that didn’t have anything to do with flooring at all. These, I’m sorry to say, were mostly booked by women. Recent widows and divorcees who scheduled appointments at 7 p.m. because they didn’t have anyone to talk to. I felt for them, but I also resented driving through two hours of traffic on my own dime to sit at their kitchen table and watch them cry.
I’d take the lonely women over creepy men any day, though. Men who opened the door stumbling drunk in their underwear and expected me to follow them back to the bedroom, which just happened to be the only room in the house that needed flooring. Men who told me I had pretty hair and stared at my body. Men who called me darlin’ and sweetheart and asked if I was sure I knew how to take proper measurements.
Once, I met a gray-haired man in Tacoma ― a retired police officer, judging by the framed photos on his kitchen wall. There was something immediately unsettling about him that I can only describe as a flatness of expression that made it seem as though he was far away, even though we were both in the same room. My discomfort only increased when he said he needed me to give him a ride to pick up his car at a mechanic’s shop. We hadn’t even discussed flooring yet.
I smiled and told him it was against the rules for sales representatives to have customers in our vehicles. This wasn’t true, but I was sure he’d back off when he heard it. Instead, he pushed harder.
“It’s really close by.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t. I’ll get fired.”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
“No,” I said, firmly.
His face burned red as he slammed his fist on the counter, shouting, “Then how am I supposed to get there?”
I didn’t even say goodbye. I just grabbed my bag and ran. I’ll never know if he booked the appointment because he wanted a ride or if he wanted to get me away from his house so he could pull out a knife or gun and kill me.
This isn’t to say I didn’t meet nice people. I did. There were people who offered me drinks of water or even, twice in seven years, the use of their bathroom. People who filled my tires with air because they noticed they were getting low. People who kept their porch lights on when it was dark to help me find their house. People who didn’t call me repeatedly at midnight to ask questions about future installations or text me pictures of stairs they were unhappy with on Christmas Day. People who treated me like a human being.
Eventually, I quit. Not because of the customers but because of myself. I was tired of fighting traffic and the insecurity of income. I was tired of getting bit by dogs and limiting myself to a couple of swigs of fluid a day to minimize trips to the bathroom. Most of all, I was tired of lying.
We were trained to convince customers that polyester carpet was just as good as nylon, that our prices weren’t outrageous, that all those one-star reviews on Yelp were from a handful of unreasonable customers and not at all a reflection of the company. The first couple of years I actually believed it. But the longer I stayed, the more guilty I felt every time I told customers they were in good hands. It was all a lie, and gradually I realized I was in on it. You see, when I said people were jerks, I was including myself.
Toward the end, I was selling a product and company I no longer believed in. I knew there was a good chance we weren’t going to show up on installation day because we couldn’t find enough installers willing to work for low wages. I knew that I was selling mediocre flooring at a premium price, and that if there was a problem they’d have a hard time getting anyone to return their calls.
I justified staying because I needed the money and because sometimes installations did go right and customers were happy. This is true, but what’s also true is that I stayed because I was scared.
Sometimes, the longer you do something, the harder it becomes to imagine yourself doing anything else. That’s what happened to me. I lost confidence in my ability to make a living any other way. Fear kept me in place.
“People are the most relaxed, the most natural, the most themselves, within the privacy of their own home. I know people now.”
I didn’t quit until things got so bad that my stomach seized every time I left for work in the morning. Until I burst into tears each time a customer called, yelling that their installers hadn’t shown up. I didn’t quit until it got to the point I couldn’t lie anymore. Not if I wanted to sleep at night.
I learned far too much to regret taking the job, though. People are the most relaxed, the most natural, the most themselves, within the privacy of their own home. I know people now.
I know the person in the million dollar house is just as likely to have cat pee saturating their floorboards as the person in the beat-up trailer, and that both parties are equally prone to leave seven voicemails in a row if you don’t answer your phone. I know that people who are rude to salespeople are probably rude to everyone else in their life because in the end, If you’re mean and unhappy, new floors aren’t going to change that. You can makeover your home all you want, but if your life is miserable, dark clouds are just going to roll in and rain all over it again.
Most of all, I learned never to judge by exteriors. Not houses and certainly not people. You never know who’s going to offer you fascinating conversation, a dollop of wisdom, or a cold drink on a hot day. There are so many people worth knowing, but you’ll never find out who they are unless you talk to them.
These days I make my living as a freelance writer. My income is still insecure, but I work from home and don’t have to spend $500 a month on gas to get here. I drink all the water I want and answer the phone with the confidence of a person who knows the party on the other line isn’t calling to yell at me. I like myself again.
It feels good not to be a jerk anymore.
Tamara Gane is a freelance writer in Seattle. In addition to HuffPost Personal, she has had bylines in Ozy, She Knows, Grok Nation, USA Today’s Reviewed, and more. You can follow her on Twitter at @tamaragane.