When I was in my teens, my older brother Bill got me into a variety of sales. We sold cookware, encyclopedias, Bibles, guitar lessons, and at one point Bill even sold rugs. I sold magazine subscriptions both door-to-door and by telephone. I set up appointments by telephone for home improvement and siding salesmen. The 1987 film “Tin Men” does a nice job of portraying the aluminum siding business. That world no longer exists.
We never really made much money. There were good days, of course, but we spent more time in coffee shops talking about making money than actually making it. After I graduated from high school, I got sick of sales and got a job in a luggage factory. It was nice to get paid every week and not have to talk anybody into buying anything.
Looking back on it, I realize that we were contemptuous of the people we were selling stuff to. We weren’t exactly con artists, but we weren’t entirely honest either. When we sold guitar lessons, we gave bogus music aptitude tests to kids to enroll them in a ten-week guitar course. At the end of the ten weeks, high pressure salesmen sold their parents electric guitars they probably couldn’t afford. Once we got hooked up with a guy who paid us $20 for each candy or gum vending machine we could get installed in places like cafes and gas stations. There were already a lot of vending machines around, and the guys who owned them didn’t like competition, so the places we talked into taking them weren’t in great locations. The man who paid us sold not very promising vending machine routes as business opportunities to people who didn’t have great heads for business.
Once, Bill was offered a part of something that was completely fraudulent and illegal. The slick-looking, well-dressed man—let’s call him Joe—who approached him called his business “Laying the block.” Joe drove a Lincoln Continental and always insisted on paying for drinks. Laying the block worked this way: Joe would drive his Lincoln Continental into a gas station and ask for a fill up. When it came time to pay, he would be horrified to find that he had forgotten his wallet. He explained to the attendant that he was late for a very important business lunch:
“Listen, I can’t miss this lunch, and I have to pay for it. The people I’m meeting want to invest a million dollars in my casino project. I have to be there. Take my Rolex watch as collateral, give me $50, and I will come back in two hours, pay for the gas, give the $50 back, and give you $50 for your trouble.”
Nine times out of ten, the attendant took the deal. Joe had a trunk full of cheap knock-off watches and never returned to the gas station. Joe couldn’t stay in any one city very long, so his work involved a lot of travelling. But he lived well and stayed in the best hotels.
Of course, Bill didn’t get involved in laying the block. He knew it was a criminal activity that carried high risks, and he wasn’t a criminal. I’m sure he thought of himself as honest. But I don’t remember that we had any great moral outrage either. It certainly didn’t occur to us to turn Joe in.
Bill remained in sales all his life, but eventually he got into the rather respectable real estate business. An expanding economy and easy access to higher education catapulted me out of that world, and along with a higher economic status came a more conventional moral standard that allowed me to laugh at jokes about dishonest lawyers.
Watching Donald Trump’s rise and the revelations about how Trump University operated, I can’t help thinking that even with all his wealth, Trump has always remained in the moral universe of the scam. And he could be President.