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Aug 23 2006
Birth Of A Salesman Comments (4)

PaperboyWhen you're liberal—very liberal—you're supposed to be against big business. To be sure, big business has a lot wrong with it. Where there's a money business, there's funny business. But am I alone as a liberal capitalist pig?

See, communism...would be a nice idea if it weren't so stupid. Sorry, Evangelicals, but communism is the answer to, "What would Jesus do?" And I'm an atheist.

Actually, I'm very communistic on the issue of health care. I know that to a lot of people, even middle-of-the-roaders, it's disgusting to picture some lazy slob somewhere going and ruining his liver and getting a free ride on all of our backs. I'm sure that there are abuses of socialistic healthcare systems just as there are abuses in big business. But it doesn't mean the whole idea is rubbish. Ultimately, my thought is that we are all born with an equal chance for poor health in that none of us can control our genes or our environment. There will be poor people who are perfect specimens, and there will be rich people who are wrecks and vice versa, but not one of us chose who we were born to, at what point in history we were born or how we were raised. Our health is so common to us all that I really can't feel cheated if my money were to go, partly, toward ensuring that everyone—even those people who ruin their own health—can count on being taken care of.

Health is universal, so I'm very in favor of universal health care.

Now when it comes to business and personal wealth, I think the idea of attempting to keep everyone on an even keel is counter-human nature. I can't imagine free enterprise being harnessed in favor of a "no citizen left behind" policy. Keep human beings healthy and housed to keep them human, but let us attempt to bulid wealth or at least better ourselves in order to make us feel challenged and alive.

I wasn't always a lefty (I think I liked Ronald Reagan as a kid, and I know that in high school I was very anti-abortion...something I can hardly connect with myself today), but I was always an entrepreneur. It may be in my blood because my father's mother was a lifelong beautician with her own salon and my mother's parents owned and operated a locally famous (in Flint, Michigan) series of family restaurants. I remember selling anything that my elementary school suggested we sell, from bags of Pelton's Popcorn (specially named for a very, uh, colorful teacher in our school who ran the program) to cheaply made candles with stickers of children praying on the sides and a layer of glittery glass chips all around the outer surface. Why people in the winter wonderland that is Michigan were such suckers for candles with snowy scenes on them, I never knew. But I sold more than you could shake a wick at, helping to make up for the fact that I could not sell girl scout cookies.

I also sold candy bars. Lots of them. So many that I was once declared the best saleskid in my grade, which earned me a shot at reaching into a jar of dollar bills and—with one try—removing as many as I could. Anything I pulled out, I could keep, but I could only use one hand. I was fat. My hand was fat. I'll never forget that I took out $24 to everyone's shock. (Of course, I was fat partly because I had eaten a lot of the candy bars, selling them to myself.) I'd had help from my father, who would take them to sell at the high school where he worked in the city. I guess as I'm typing this I'm realizing there is something racial about a cracker boy in the white-flight suburbs profiting from the sale of overpriced candy bars to black schoolkids in downtown Flint. (Please don't tell Andrew Young. But I swear I only met three Jewish people growing up and never so much as shared air with a Korean until college.)

Another aspect of my desire to sell-sell-sell was that it forced me—a painfully shy kid who spent much of his childhood in his room—to leave my house and traipse all over my neighborhood, ringing doorbells and asking homeowners if they'd like to, um, buy something. Now, this would be unimaginable. If any one of them had invited me in and closed the door, I might never have been found, sold into slavery somewhere—how ironic that would have been, considering my earnest mission. But it was transformative for me in that it allowed me to slink out of my shell in certain circumstances, learn how to speak persuasively and earn money. Money that I would spend, with my cousin Wally, on Doritos, Flowers In The Attic novels, goggles and snorkels for our Great Lakes camping trips and Pop Rocks. The porn was free thanks to his wild older brother with the unlocked van.

My business-minded business mind expanded when my Madonna obsession turned into a passion for collecting turned into buy five copies of everything—one to save, four to sell. From 1987 on, I have always lived in big cities, so I would buy exotic foreign magazines with Madonna on their covers and move them at $20 or $30 a pop to fans stranded in small towns. I never felt it was unfair—and I say this remembering that a fan on a Madonna blog yesterday called me a "greedy asshole" for daring to be upset that someone had stolen 100 copyrighted Madonna images I am in the process of licensing. The reason I never felt bad about profiting on the magazines was that Madonna magazines are not food and water—they're luxuries. Want them? Pay the price. My price sucks? Get them elsewhere. I can't imagine Madonna would disagree. Besides, I was using the money to buy still more expensive items from other people like me. So I did that for many years and practiced a form of that when eBay was born

Then I gave all of that up when my job became too demanding. Now, I wouldn't get out of bed for $20 a day, let alone spend my time selling magazines for $20. Unless you count publishing them, in which case I'll sell them for $3.99 a pop—but only in the hundreds of thousands.

Later on, after the more hand-to-mouth eras of it were over, I realized that my drive to move merchandise influenced my life tremendously. I've always gravitated toward entrepreneurial ventures and my steady jobs have almost universally been somehow linked to that spirt of selling while simultaneously supporting oneself over a barrel. I've worked for a literary agent and for magazine publishers and I've written books—hardly 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. desk jobs, even if desks were always a part of the equation. I feel I couldn't be happy without sell-sell-selling, so whatever I wind up doing, I can only guess it will always involve my convincing someone to buy something I've made or assembled.

One day, I'll tire of my Madonna collection and sell that and I'll be right back where I started! Ending up where you started is okay provided the journey in between was fulfilling.

Industry has its flaws, but—at least for me, who still gets excited remembering the massive amounts of candles and cookies I once sold to geographically beholden customers—the desire to be industrious supersedes any common-sense disdain I might otherwise have for the Wal-Marts and Starbucks of the world. (Starbucks...what a cancer...what a great idea I wish I'd had.)