BACKTRACKING

 

The View From My Side of the Screen

 

by Terry Hogan

 

Do you remember the Fuller Brush salesman? He'd come to the front porch and knock on the screen door. It was a hot summer day. The flies were angrily buzzing around the door and windows. No air conditioning back then. So only the screen was between you and the salesman. Do you remember? I do. But from the other side of the screen. For one summer, I may have been your friendly Fuller Brush salesman.

 

It was the summer of 1964. I had graduated from good old GHS and was bound for a freshman year at Knox College in the fall. But I had two problems. One, I needed money for college. And two, because of my date of birth, I was only 17 years old. I couldn't get a "real job" in a factory that paid good wages.

 

With all the naiveté and optimism that a 17 year old can muster, I became a Fuller Brush man. I started off owing the company. I had to buy the sales case. I had to buy the "free gift" that was to be presented at the approach of each sales pitch. It was a little bit like the "old company store" story but without having to go down in a mine. I had to pay all my expenses - gas, meals and the like. There was no minimum wage. It was purely sales commission. Looking back, it makes me wonder. It had to be one of those mistakes that my parents saw coming, but figured it was mine to learn.

 

So, I was off with great optimism, at least for the first few days. I had learned my sales pitch. Up to the door; knock; "Hi there. I'm your new Fuller Brush salesman. Which of the free gifts shown on this card would you like today? They're absolutely free. Great, let me set my case down and open it up to get your gift. While I'm at it, let me show you a few of the specials we have this month…" Some days I'd make a little money. Some days, I wouldn't make enough to cover gas and lunch.

 

I sold in southeast Galesburg. I sold in Knoxville and in parts of Monmouth. I didn't make much money. But I did loose some naiveté. I learned a little bit about loneliness. I found it as a companion with the old. Surprisingly I saw it whispering in the ears of young housewives. Some were at home with little children. Others just home alone. Their plight was expressed in different ways.

 

There was an old woman in Knoxville that I remember well. She lived alone in a large, neglected two-story wood frame. It was dark inside and obviously too much for her to take care of. She was anybody's, or perhaps everybody's grandmother. Gray hair in a bun. Wrinkled skin on her hands. Old print house dress that had failed to shrink with its owner. She wore her loneliness so that it hurt to look at her. She'd invite me in. She'd sit me on the old over-stuffed davenport. She'd get me water. She'd listen. She'd order stuff she didn't need and didn't want, and probably couldn't afford. I'd write in all down; leave; and tear up the order form. In a few weeks I'd return and we would repeat the process. She never asked about the previous order. She needed someone to share her loneliness, even for just a half an hour. And even if it was just a young Fuller Brush salesman.

 

Young wives had their loneliness to share, as well. Some were overwhelmed by their children and longed for a brief adult conversation. Even if the adult was only 17, and had a blond flattop and looked about 12. Usually these conversations were on the front porch, interrupted by the occasion screech and holler emanating from some dark area within the house, not discernible through the screen. These were bright; often pretty women, just trying to come to gripes with how their lives took a sudden, unanticipated change with motherhood. It wasn't like they thought it would be. Lovers became husbands who became fathers, who became absent. Loneliness came in their absence. Life wasn't what it was supposed to be. But there it was.

 

Young wives who were not mothers often found their own version of loneliness. It was perhaps the most surprising to a 17 year old Fuller Brush salesman. Lovers became husbands who became absent or bored. Young wives sat at home, as many still didn't work outside of the home. They were lonely, bored, and perhaps a little insecure. Up came a young lad trying to sell a hair brush, a room deodorizer, after shave lotion, a mirror, or perhaps a spray to make dusting easier. A young wife appeared to be offering up some of her wares. Or at least innocently testing the old flirting skills. At 17, how can you be sure?

 

Of course some of this insight, if that's a fair term, didn't come to the 17 year old. It came to the old guy, looking back at the surprises confronting the 17 year old that he once was. In hindsight, they are predictable reflections of the human condition in 1964 and in 2005. I just didn't know it at 17.

 

I remember meeting a Knoxville girl in Galesburg that summer so long ago. In the small talk, I mentioned trying to sell Fuller Brushes in Knoxville. She said, as best as I can remember, "So you're the cute boy that I've heard about." Forty years later, I remember that. "Cute" wasn't a term that I heard used toward me very often. Again, in hindsight, it probably was another reflection of the loneliness coloring their vision. But like them, you take what pleasure and comfort you can find it. So that's my story.

 

At least that's how it looked from my side of the screen some forty odd years ago.

 

tmh

8-29-05