Thursday, October 13, 2011

Just Another Day in the Life

In retrospect, it was a rather poor career choice. Imagine that your job description is, ultimately, picking out a product for strangers and encouraging them to commit to a monthly bill that they will theoretically pay the rest of their life. When you’re someone who becomes anxiety-ridden at the thought of picking out a restaurant for you and your three closest friends, you have poorly chosen your vocation.

But the thing is, it’s February 2009, no one can get a job, and this company wants you. So you get your life insurance license and memorize a sales script. By your third sales convention with grown men in suits running through the aisles performing back handsprings- one carrying an American flag, the other a flag embroidered with your company’s insignia- you’re sort of in on it.

Your new career consists of calling present and prospective clients of your firm and setting appointments to meet with them in their homes. Once you’re inside, your task, in short, is to convince them they will very likely die or become disabled in the near to distant future but most likely tomorrow. Pulling this off involves a new trait your sales trainers have been working ardently to drill into your brain. They call it assumptiveness and you’re pretty sure it’s not a real word. This is the delusion mannerism that will allow you to walk into a stranger’s home as if you belong there, sit at their kitchen table as if you’re just popping in for an iced tea like any other day of the week, ask them a series of extraordinarily sensitive questions- which they will actually answer- then ask them to write you a check.

In order to be successful, you must fine-tune your assumtiveness to the same frequency of a doctor whose professionalism persuades thousands of people a year to disrobe. Yep, you console yourself as you slip your arms into a backless gown made of cheesecloth, nothing to see here; just another day in the life of my doctor who sees hundreds of naked people a week.

My first sales assignment is in ­­­­Meeker and McLeod County, Minnesota. My goal, as much as increasing present clients’ monthly expenses coverage and finding more paranoid people enrolling new clients, is to gain the acceptance of these good folks. I want the inhabitants of these towns to feel that their world is the center of my world, to feel that I am one of them- an advocate. I want to camouflage the fact that in the twenty years I’ve lived in Minnesota, I’ve left the twin cities twice. Also, I just really want them to like me. I attempt to achieve all of this of course by occasionally wearing my hair in pigtails, peppering my speech with newfound colloquialisms such as “this isn’t my first rodeo” and “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”- which I most definitely misuse- and managing to slip the fact that my dad was a soybean farmer into as many conversations as possible, leaving out the part that it was ten years before I was born.

I praised myself for my swift acclimation to the area. Within five minutes I realized that the nearest Starbucks was twenty miles away but learned within a week that in a pinch, Casey’s General Store offered those Starbuck’s double shot things in the can. Within two weeks I could mentally envision the map-placement of Dassel, Litchfield, Hutchinson, Glencoe, Cosmos and Silver Lake in relation to one another and could navigate by landmarks such as “Clay Coyote Pottery” in Hutch (as the locals call their town) and “Nelson Farm” on Csah 1 in Litchfield. For added authenticity, I namedrop these monuments as often as possible. And finally, within three weeks I had learned that when phoning a home in this region, this home might be a farm and if so, when the voice of a man answers, that voice will not necessarily belong to a man.

On a Tuesday afternoon, I pull into the long gravel driveway of two hardworking farmers- a husband and a wife. In the distance I see an old man on a riding lawn mower. He waves to acknowledge my presence. To my left is a barn and a miscellaneous spackling of horses, chickens, pigs and an abundance of dogs and cats. I ring the doorbell and assume my professional, assumptive, confident stance. The woman who is host to the gentlemanly voice I spoke to when setting our appointment the day before answers the door. She’s as gruff and weathered as her voice, but even at first glance I recognize she’s close to twenty years younger than her husband. She leads me to the kitchen table where the couple’s life insurance policies are laid out for my review. A few minutes later, her husband enters. As lean and lanky as a heroin addict and dressed in a tattered Harley Davidson t-shirt and black jeans, he looks more like a worn out rock star than a farmer. He takes his place at the head of the table and the conversation flows easily as I start to adopt their brusque mannerisms and dry speech patterns. While assessing their present coverage, I notice her insurance policy is much larger than his and begin to investigate why this might be. His response to just a few initial questions reveals that he is a recovering drug addict with three DUIs who has survived two heart attacks, one of them only six months ago. My company will not be extending to him further life insurance coverage. The mood has been light and so in order to distract from the sensitivity of the information he has just revealed I decide to make a hilarious joke. I lean in towards his wife who is in perfect health with a spotless record and gesture towards her husband, who at this point I’ve learned is eighteen years her senior. With teasing, mock concern I inquire, “What are you doing with this bad boy?”

They wear matching weathered and vacant faces as they regard me with indifference. After an eternal pause, the man slowly forms the words, “If you saw our basement, you wouldn’t need to ask what we have in common.” His wife, expressionless, turns to me and in a deadpan voice endowed with a Y chromosome and an additional thirty years of use says, “We’re very… compatible.”

I am far too bashful to relay the ghastly, horrific visions that ran through my mind.

“I… I…,” I stammer with my face growing hot, “I have no idea what that means.”

I cannot bring myself to peel my eyes from the papers I’m now shuffling and pretending to find most important and fascinating. I excuse myself to visit their restroom, contemplating my exit strategy as I run the faucet. My attempt to remove the revulsion from my face is faltering as the unwanted images continue to swarm my mind. I begin to ever so slightly fear for my life.

Looking away from my horrified reflection, I notice a giant vat of blonde-brown liquid in the corner of their vanity. Grasping at this diversion, I shake the distressing question of the basement’s mysterious contents from my mind and exit the bathroom.

“Wow, you guys brew your own beer?” I ask admiringly.
“No,” the woman corrects me, “it’s Riesling.”
“Riesling?” I ask trying to hide my skepticism. Surely you mean moonshine.

My pulse returns to normal. I am in the home of aromatic German wine aficionados and crafters.

I love Riesling,” she growls.

Placated by my newfound theory that Riesling enthusiasts are surely harmless, I take my place at the table once again, wrap up our meeting and hand them a comment card to rate my customer service.

As they walk me to the door, my curiosity overcomes me. No doubt emboldened by the homemade elk jerky I’ve been gifted, I start hesitantly, “So uh…,” then blurt out, “what’s in your basement anyway?”

Their bodies separate to clear the doorway, a broad grin spreading over both of their faces. The man clicks on the light and I peer down the stairs into the basement to find a taxidermy paradise. And by paradise, I mean a veritable museum of stuffed creatures of every shape and size conceivable. “We had you pretty freaked out didn’t we?” he chuckles.

It’s moments like these, finding relief at seeing sixty pairs of beady eyes staring back up at you, that you become glaringly aware of the fact that your priorities and values have been radically altered.

I walk to my car with practiced self-assurance. I wave at the couple, their faces still beaming and grip my car door, swinging it open in an air of detachment as if to say, “Yep, nothing to see here; just another day in the life of an insurance agent who sees hundreds of stuffed animal carcasses a week….”


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