It was the summer after Grade Ten. I had just turned sixteen and it was time for me to get a job in the real world. Not that the jobs I had worked at to that point were not real, there just seemed to be something different about going to the big city and finding work. Mom helped me put a few pots and pans, dishes, kitchen utensils, and some bedding together. I packed up the '63 Ford Falcon and off I went. Traveling 80 miles to Calgary, I had no sooner arrived in the city when the little car broke down. I walked to a gas station and called the Reeds, who were family friends. Marc came and rescued me and we towed the car to his shop. I don't recall exactly what was wrong, but Marc helped me fix it and get it back on the road.
Settling into an apartment, I was renting with a friend from my home town, I began to scour the newspapers looking for work. I came across an ad for a construction laborer job, phoned the number and set up a time for an interview. The appointed time came, the interview went well and I had me a job with Paradise Construction. Turns out the company was misnamed and it wasn't paradise after all. I was told to buy a 22 oz. framing hammer, a tool pouch, and measuring tape, and show up for work at 5:30 a.m. There we would to meet the crew van that would take us to our work site for the day.
Morning came and I commandeered the little red Falcon down Macleod Trail to the chosen meeting spot. I climbed into the fifteen passenger van with no windows and met my fellow workers. They were a pretty rough bunch, and a lot older than I was. They looked at me with my shiny new hammer and tool pouch and probably thought, "How is that skinny kid going to swing that hammer all day? It must weigh about half as much as he does!" Our driver, Pat, was a particularly colourful character and would start drinking Jack Daniels as soon as we left the parking lot. Pat must have taken driving lessons from Grandpa Norbo because his creativity knew no bounds. There were some days that if he felt the traffic was moving too slow or maybe was backed up a little, he would just send the van careening into the ditch and drive along until he thought it best to return to the road. This was especially troubling as most of us could not see out any windows. The crew would all sit on the floor, because there were tool and parts bins installed on either side of the van walls, and most of the seats had been removed. In retrospect, that may have been a good thing, as we didn't know how much danger we were actually in.
Through the summer I worked pretty hard swinging my hammer and learning something about building. We were constructing hog barns and pole sheds down by Okotoks. Maybe because I didn't know any better, or maybe because I was the new kid on the block, the crew took great amusement in giving me all the grunt work. I would tar around the concrete pony walls, my body squeezed between the cold earth and concrete. When it came time to install the rafters, I would be sent along to ride up with the first two. The crane would hoist me thirty or forty feet in the air and I would tack the first starting rafters together so that the roof could be installed. Never really afraid of heights, up I would go, with no harness or rope, simply hanging on for dear life. I enjoyed the work and the money, and would come home hungry as a bear and completely tired out. We would often head off to Mother Tucker's where the food portions were large and we would get our money's worth.
Towards the end of the second week of August, I was coming around the corner of a barn, with a wheelbarrow full of dirt. I got a little to close to the flashing that went around the bottom of the wall. The flashing caught my hand and ripped a good sized tear. I was bleeding badly, so one of the crew drove me back to Calgary's Rockyview Hospital. The wound was cleaned, and stitched up, and my hand was put in a splint. I was told I shouldn't work for several weeks and was sent on my way. Disappointed, I returned to the apartment wondering what I was going to do for the next two and a half weeks before school was to begin.
I sat down that evening with the newspaper and began to comb the want ads. I came across an ad that said, "How would you like your next pay check to be $2,000.00?" The ad stated that training would be provided and gave a phone number. I called the number that evening and a girl answered the phone. It turned out that I had reached the Calgary office of Filter Queen vacuum cleaners and they were recruiting door to door salespeople. I had always enjoyed selling things and had some limited success over the years. When I was in grade school, I would sell "Special Editions" of the Three Hills Capital outside the Dining Hall during fall and spring conference. These special editions were priced at ten cents. They included write ups on the speakers and the school and sold like hotcakes. Later I sold decorative soaps door-to-door for my Mom and made a little spending money. I had, however, never considered selling vacuum cleaners! The secretary explained how easy it was, and that they would train me. She indicated that I could make some good money before returning back to school that fall. I was told they had a strict dress code and to show up in a suit and tie. I agreed to go along for an orientation session the next day.
The offices of Filter Queen were in a very unassuming section of the city and looked plain and nondescript. There were a series of offices past the reception area and a large training room. A bunch of guys were seated in the room. I was introduced to Al, a hyper, chain-smoking guy dressed in a fancy suit, who talked a mile a minute. Al was the sales manager. He told me to take a seat as the show was about to begin. And what a show it was! Al would jump on the table, recite some crazy Filter Queen poem like a mantra, sing a Filter Queen anthem all the while juggling his cigarette. In between these highlights he would talk about what made Filter Queen a great vacuum cleaner and emphasized all the money we would make if we were to sell this fine product. At the time, I think the commission structure was about one hundred and twenty-five dollars per machine sold. There would be some extra bonuses if you were the top guy that day, week or month. The company had prepared a sales binder and Al assured us that if you followed this well-researched and time-honored sales manual you would get sales. It may take a few calls, but you would sell.
I don't recall all my reasons, (the money may have had something to do with it), but I signed up. After another day or two of "training", I was ready. Shelley, the office girl checked out a complete sales kit for me and gave me two machines and power nozzles as my starting inventory. She was an attractive blond, who wore midriff baring shirts that, while not exactly office attire, showed off her belly ring to good effect. Not having been overly acquainted with this type of jewelry back at PBI, where even pierced ears were frowned on, this was a sight indeed. I learned after a couple of days that her nickname was Shelley belly.
The Filter Queen franchise for Southern Alberta was owned by a fellow named Vito Carlini. Rocco, his brother, owned the Vancouver and lower mainland franchise in British Columbia. Vito drove a big, black Lincoln Mark lV and would sometimes dispatch me to the airport to pick up representatives from head office or other business associates. I enjoyed driving the car and was always eager to go on any errands that Vito had for me to run.
These guys had a real system down. The salesperson at the bottom would be fired every week. There always seemed to be new blood to take their place. If you were late for a sales meeting there would be fines handed out. If you forgot to wear your tie you were fined. If you skipped a sales appointment you were fined. After a couple of misses, you were fired. Donald Trump had nothing on these guys. Wow! These guys had more rules than Prairie. Their system worked, the sales numbers the organization was putting up were staggering. If I remember correctly there were about forty sales people. The office would manage all our sales leads. They also had another team out canvassing neighborhoods or attaching small leaflets on cars at malls. The leaflets informed people they had won a prize, and if they just would call a certain number, arrangements would be made to deliver their prize to them. Just one catch - they had to listen to a brief presentation on an exciting new product the company was promoting. The prizes were your choice of a bamboo salad bowl set or a macrame owl. You wouldn't think such cheesy prizes would work, but they did. The phone rang off the hook.
To make a long story short, I was on a roll. I worked my butt off for the next two weeks and sold over forty machines. Their ad was right! Toward the end of the summer I received a sales lead to go out to a farm east of Strathmore. I packed 2 machines and power nozzles in the car, threw in my briefcase and headed out of the city. It was the end of August and the crops had started to turn a beautiful golden color. The farmers were just waiting for harvest. Arriving at the farmyard, I noticed two farm houses at either end of the yard and decided to drive up to one and take my chances that it was the right house. I parked the car, took out a machine and power nozzle and grabbed my briefcase. I had started up the sidewalk to the house when I noticed a large black lab bounding across the yard toward me. I love animals and this guy looked very friendly, so I continued to walk towards the door. Arriving at the door I was able to juggle my wares enough to be able to ring the bell. As I was standing there waiting for someone to answer the door the dog leapt up the stairs and stood beside me acting as friendly as could be. "Good dog", I said, unable to pet the animal due to the equipment. "Good Dog . . . good boy, thata boy."
Just then the door opened, and the lady with whom I had the appointment indicated I should come in. At the very same instant her huge dog lifted his back leg and peed. From the knee down I felt warm liquid making it's way all the way down to my shoe. As my shoe was filling up, I thanked the lady for inviting me and stepped into her house. I wasn't sure what to do. If I took my shoes off, as is the custom in Canada, I would leave one wet footprint wherever I went in her house. If I said something to her about what had just happened, I could distract or offend her, and may not get the chance to demonstrate the vacuum. In a split second I decided to say nothing, be rude, stay in my shoes and soldier on. As I walked in I could hear a faint squishy sound coming from my shoe. She invited me into the living room where I proceeded to run through my entire demonstration. I was not able to sit or kneel on her carpet during the demonstration for fear of a leaking shoe, so I stood the entire time. I got out the dust scope to show her how poor a job her present vacuum was doing. I vacuumed up big lead "bullets" to impress her how powerful the Filter Queen was. I went through all the options that came with the machine: the shampoo unit, massager and various other attachments. The lady seemed very impressed. I am sure she was wondering about the smell, but she said nothing. Finally she spoke up and said, "This is fantastic! If you could just give me a minute, I would like to call my daughter-in-law over at the other house. She would love to come over and see what this machine can do."
"Are you kidding me?" I thought. My foot was now starting to stick to my shoe. My pant leg and sock were firmly glued to my leg and the smell... "That would be great", I answered and off she went into the kitchen to call her daughter-in-law. After about a ten minute wait, which seemed like an eternity, the daughter-in-law showed up. The lady of the house introduced me, instructing her daughter-in-law to take a seat. She then asked me to run through my entire demonstration again! I finished up, wondering if I was ever going to get out of there. Just then the older lady spoke up, "I just love this machine", she said, "We'll take two." This was music to my ears! I thanked the ladies for their business, wrote up the contract and went out to the car to get the other machine. Squish, squish, squish...
Trying to look as if this was all in a days work, and that there was no real hurry, I gathered my briefcase and headed back out to the car. Heading out of the driveway and onto the main road, I found the first turn-out I could see. Pulling my car off the road, I quickly stripped off my pants, socks and shoes. Rolling the sticky smelly mess into a ball, I put the whole thing on the rubber floor mat on the passenger side. I drove back to Calgary as fast as I could go. Arriving in front of the apartment building, I got out of the car, tied my suit coat like a skirt around my waist, and headed into the building. I can only imagine what the neighbors were thinking as they saw this barefoot, barelegged guy with a dress shirt and tie and a suit coat wrapped around his waist hightailing it up the stairs of the building. A shower never felt so good as it did that day. The commission check made the whole thing seem a whole lot easier to take. The next time I was approached by a friendly dog, I kept an eye on that hind leg!
Note: At the end of the summer, Vito called me into his office and suggested that I not return to grade eleven that fall. He promised me that if I would make a commitment to his organization, he would set me up with my own office in Lethbridge, Alberta. Lethbridge was the next area of expansion for the Carlini operation and he told me that I was just the kind of kid he was looking for. Flattered, I thanked him for his generous offer and told him that I would think about it and get back to him. It didn't take a whole lot of thinking, as selling vacuum cleaners was not something I wanted to do as my life work. When I informed Vito of my decision, he was visibly upset.
Flash forward. A few years later, Dad came to me with an article that he had clipped out of the Calgary Herald. There, as large as life, was a picture of my old boss, Vito Carlini. It seemed that maybe Vito and his organization had diversified somewhat, and maybe pushed the limits just a little too far in the sales department. He was under arrest and facing jail time in a major fraud bust. He had been accused of selling bogus freezer packages. It was quite popular at the time to buy a freezer along with its contents. When it was delivered, it would contain an assortment of various cuts of beef, chicken, pork and frozen vegetables. As it turned out, the authorities discovered that the "Grade A" Canada beef, that Vito and company were selling, was hardly fit for dog food. I was really happy I never took the job!
© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.