Thursday, July 13, 2006

Bookfield, The Projects

I had reviewed the map of my territory again and again. I couldn’t figure out how I was going through it so fast. I also wondered how Mary sold so many books, yet managed to have plenty of territory. Such a big area of my territory was the housing projects. If only I could sell there. Of course I had been warned repeatedly about the projects: stabbing rapist, gunfire at whites, and low delivery rates. But, what if I went there early in the morning, I thought? I couldn’t picture anyone taking a shot at me in the morning light. I decided to try it at eight in the morning one day.

It wasn’t at all far to the projects from where we were staying and I rolled there in no time flat. I decided to go to the ‘nicer’ housing projects and to stick to the units facing out of the complex. That way all I would have to do to get out is cross the street. The buildings were built at least within the last 10 years and were one storey tall and constructed of brick. Two families lived in each unit. As I rode by I noticed that all of the buildings had pretty well kept lawns. A pair of little girls with their hair in braids played on orange and yellow big wheel bikes. A small cluster of boys tossed a plastic football across the street to each other. A woman was going back into her house with an empty laundry basket, having just hung her wet things out to dry. I decided to start at her house since she was up and around. I rode up the walk and dismounted the bike.

I rang the bell and stood back a pace. Only the screen door was closed, so I saw Mrs. Jones when she came up to the door. She was wearing a pink and white striped cotton house dress and chenille slippers. Her face was of a young woman, but it was deeply lined with worry. I smiled and gave my approach. She opened the door without hesitation to let me in. I was curious because I had never been in a housing project before. The house was clean but poorly furnished. The sofa fabric was the color of golden rod flowers and was worn through on the arms. The piping was coming away from the seat cushions. Perhaps they had gotten it used. The wooden coffee table was nicked and scratched all around. An ivory colored leather bound family Bible was displayed proudly on the table. The curtains were gauzy graying pink nylon. No breeze was present to flutter them and they hung limply. The floor was bare institutional type linoleum that had seen better days. It had lost all possibility of shine after many scrubbings, I supposed. The interior was depressing, to say the least.

Mrs. Jones went to the door to call to her children to watch my demonstration. They came running obediently. Two of the children I had seen playing were hers. The little girl was precious in her braids with airplane barrettes. She was about four, I guess. The boy in a red and white striped shirt and shorts was maybe seven, and did not look happy to be called away from his play to see about any books. But, there they sat attentively; she had them trained.

I showed them the Family Bible Library set. The kids liked the color pictures and seemed genuinely interested in the books. Before I could close, Mrs. Jones asked the kids to go back outside and play. They ran out happily. She looked me in the eye and said, “Now I want them books. I want them for my kids, but I bet they cost.”

I was straight with her. “Yeah, they cost $100, but you pay when I deliver them at the end of the summer. All I would need right now is a deposit so that I can order the books.” I thought that it was important for her to make a commitment to assure delivery went well, because the sale was too easy. She seemed so agreeable, bordering on gullible.

“I don’t have any money today, but I want them books. Hold on a second.” Mrs. Jones got up and walked out of the room. When she returned she was holding a women’s black pump that had surely seen better days. “Here take my shoe as a deposit and I will pay you at the end of the summer.”

Her shoe. She wanted me to take her shoe. I couldn’t take her shoe, it wouldn’t be right. “Mrs. Jones, please keep your shoe. I can take your order without a deposit.”

“No, no. You said you need a deposit, and I want you to take me seriously. I insist you take my shoe on deposit. I want them books, and I will pay what I owe at the end of the summer. Now you make out that order.”

I wrote out the order. I still didn’t want her shoe, but how could I refuse and let her keep her dignity? I closed my order book and put the sample book back in the case. She handed me her shoe. It had a thin black leather upper, and man made sole. The toe and heel were scuffed through the finish. The leather was lined like the woman’s face, pressed that way from mileage more than time. The shoe just fit into my case on top of the books. I thanked the woman and left.

I got on my bike and rode out of the projects. I felt like a long bike ride out to remote territory would be good right about now. All I could think about was the shoe in my sales case. What right did I have to take this woman’s shoe? There was no way that she could come up with $100 by delivery week. Where was she going to get it? Would she have to cut into the food bill, the rent? Somehow it didn’t seem right to show her the books at all. Her kids saw them and wanted them and it was just one more thing she couldn’t give them.

The sale was too easy. It seemed that the woman did not have the will power to say no, even though she knew that she didn’t have the cash. I could probably make many more sales like that one in the projects today but I knew that only a low percentage would take delivery. My sales total for the week would look impressive, but would not be real. I felt guilty for trying to sell in the projects.

I just didn’t want to be in that position again. It wasn’t like barter, where someone has a supply of goods that you need, and trades them for your goods. It was humiliating to have to take that shoe from the woman. It would only be more humiliating if she gave me her children’s shoes. She might as well have for how I felt.

Who was I, this advantaged, middle class, white college kid, to shake down this poor mother of two for her money? I couldn’t live with doing it, so I never sold in the projects again.