Saturday, December 22, 2007

Multi Level Marketing and The Juicemaster 3000

My Dad was an optimist. In the mid-nineties, he bought a Juicemaster. The Juicemaster 3000, an improvement on its predecessor, had seven special features including a pulping mechanism. On the limited counter space in our apartment kitchen, it took up a position of influence – the can opener was relocated above the refrigerator so that the Juicemaster could have full time access to the electrical socket.

To compliment the juicer, my Dad hung a three-tired copper fruit basket and filled it with produce – celery and carrots, pound bags of apples and oranges, and the occasional kiwi or pear depending on what was on sale at the Osco. He also tried growing wheatgrass on the kitchen sill, but it never looked better than a lawn in midwinter.

The Juicemaster was part of a Lazarus like effort to shed the skein of a series of entry-level sales positions that my Dad, at 48, felt were beneath him. He had over the years sold advertising for a local newspaper, sold carpets, sold cars, sold computers, sold medical supplies hospital to hospital, delivered daily papers and telephone books and represented oil paintings at art fairs in hotel convention rooms where tracksuited Midwestern couples went in search of pastoral scenes for the downstairs bath.

He couldn't afford the long dreamed of Jaguar in British racing green, the sailboat, or the American promise of owning his own home. Car insurance for the recently repossessed Ford Taurus was a stretch. He was a single father. He had few friends. The plan: to juice our way to a better life.

Good living through homemade juice was to be symbolic of a greater shift in our condition. Healthy people juiced. Happy people juiced. Successful entrepreneurs juiced. And juicing along side my Dad (someday) would be an appreciative and supportive wife (blonde and over 5’6”) and a daughter who would stay eleven forever.

His optimism hit its zenith in the summer of 1996, my freshman year in high school, when my Dad discovered the concept of No Money Down, which arrived in the midst of his revelation on multi-level marketing (also known as the pyramid scheme). Catalyzed by the elevated levels of Vitamin C coursing through his veins, my Dad sent away for a brochure promising that he could make hundreds of thousands just by sitting in front of his computer (which was ideal at this point because we didn’t have a car).

People think get rich quick schemes are for folks that want the easy way out. People who refuse to do the work the rest of us are resigned to. And if this is the case, I have never seen my Dad work so hard at not working. My Dad took the longest, slowest road to getting rich quick.

His favorite phrase around this time was, ‘you’ve got to spend money to make money.’ Five hundred dollars off a credit card for the brochure and first round of supplies to start a home business selling Excel phone service (a deal at 7 cents a minute). Another few hundred dollars for a fax machine and an extra telephone line.

Excel was the second choice for a home business. The first, selling Pollen Burst, a powdered health drink endorsed by Lorenzo Lamas to GNC types stores and gyms, was abandoned when my Dad discovered that after the initial sample, he had to purchase supplies in expensive bulk orders. On the upside, my Dad had a brief but ego building email exchange with Lamas himself in which they discussed old movies and Shotokan Karate. The hundreds of unsold powder packets went into the closet with the undelivered phonebooks, pipet machines from the hospital sales job, and carpet samples (great for the dollhouse we were building together).

The Excel plan seemed god-sent. Every man could be, myopically, at the top of his own pyramid. It was the American Dream writ accessible. With low start up costs and a one time only fee, a man could be the owner of his own business, the arbiter of his hours, the master of his soul.

The idea behind Excel was to recruit a sales force to work under you. From every man he recruited who sold an Excel plan (either to an actual phone customer or to another hopeful salesperson), my Dad would get a percentage. And as his sales reps recruited their own sales reps, he would get a cut of those sales too, and so on down the pyramid. My Dad could continue to sell Excel plans himself, or he could simply sit back and count the commissions coming in from his army.

My Dad worked very hard at this. He spent night and day on the phone. I was the first of his sales reps. When not hostessing at Lone Star I spent two hours after school cold calling. It’s a good thing we had Excel phone service at 7 cents a minute or our phone bill would have excelled our earnings. We photocopied, stapled, enveloped, stamped, bought phone number lists, called, cajoled, encouraged our nebulous pyramid sales force, all the time slurping carrot-apple juice and checking the mail box for the dollars that were supposed to be pouring in. Instead of girlscout cookies I hawked Excel service to the secretaries in the principal’s office.

The kitchen table was covered with the white plastic sales binders we had to assemble with the information for the troops. It was okay, because most of the time we ate in front of the television supplementing my formal education with a course in the history of my dad’s favorite cinema. He had over five hundred movies he recorded off cable, from Citizen Kane to Citizen Ruth. He cooked barbeque chicken for dinner and we juiced and for desert there were Klondike bars or Little Debbies. We bought a few new things in anticipation of the avalanche-like payload he expected.

I accepted the new clothes he wanted to buy me, and I watched him sign the credit card slip with a smile and his not so palliative 'I wouldn't spend it if we didn't have it,' or ‘it’s only money.’ I knew there was no such thing as a get rich quick scheme. No easy way out of this mess. No easy. Didn't he know this too? I could never understand. Did desperation make one desperately optimistic?

Very few Excel plans were sold to individuals wanting to change their phone service, and the bulk to men like my father who saw this as their chance to sprint to top of the pyramid. For my Dad, the smokescreen of having his own business fed a powerful need.

I don’t think it’s outdated to say that a man’s self-esteem is related in some part to his autonomy. America was borne on the spirit of self-determination and my Dad was weaned on a regular diet of Hollywood fantasy. A baby boomer, a Haight-Ashbury hippie, a Peace Core volunteer, Vietnam avoider, a college educated son of a self-made man, he has one of the toughest STDs to cure. It was going around heavy in the boys of his generation. It’s the Supposed To Disease, the Disease of the American Dream.

My Dad rebelled against and then coveted what his father had, what he saw in James Dean movies, what he thought others had that he didn’t. With his artistic personality and congenital lack of contentment, the STD rippled and metastasized.

Symptomatic of the Supposed To Disease is an incessant interior voice that feds the sufferer a stream of competing half-truths. For my Dad, I’m guessing it sounds something like this: Real men answer only to themselves, real men have careers, real men make the decisions, real men are materialistically successful, success is supposed to look like this, real men have families, real men own houses, real men have stock portfolios, real men wear suits, at fifty years old you’re supposed have this, a father is supposed to do that, a husband is supposed to be this. 

In the absence of the unqualified achievement of these things, this voice eats away at the self-esteem and can, in the worst cases, lead to depression and complete paralysis.

I met a lot of men like my Dad during those years, his sales reps, whom he would charm on the phone and bring to our home to hard sell and discuss strategy. They huddled together in deep concentration on the pink Rent-A-Center couches my Dad let me pick out; fired or frequently out of work, beleaguered by debt and family responsibilities, too old to be hired by companies looking for cheap fresh starters they could train, men who felt entitled to, and went through their lives always looking for something better.

These sessions were part business, part therapy, but no one stayed on as friends. The three tiered copper fruit basket become a home for unopened bills in descending order of final notice.

I have nostalgia for the mid-nineties and the desperate optimism my Dad must have had, his misdirected energy. I miss the man who thought he could juice his way to a better life. There is something sweetly heartbreaking and endearing in that.

My feeling is that the culture has not significantly changed, not for men, or for women who experience their version of the Supposed To Disease. A friend recently told me he thought he was supposed to move to New York, because that’s where you’re supposed to be if you’re artistic, ambitious, if you want to have a career, if you want to succeed. Once he got there, he was wise enough to realize that Supposed Tos are powerful myths, and success is idiosyncratic. For those who can’t see it, this is a sad defeat, returning home, changing courses. For the ones who figure it out, silencing the Supposed Tos helps a person listen more closely to what they really need.

I’d like to lift my glass in a toast. To carrot juice and a clean slate. I want a round to the end of Supposed Tos. And a cheer for the soldiers of the pyramid scheme.


mefranny said...

glad you're back, scaredy cat.
to life, love, the pursuit of happiness and pyramid scheme hustlers.

Jenny said...

i love this. a lot.

Adam Szymkowicz said...

Great post!

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