The white-belt-and-shoes gene

My dad carried the white-belt-and-shoes gene: the stamp of the salesman. He passed it on to my brother and me.

He started out in the ’60s selling encyclopedias — for real! He was good at it so they sent him to Australia to open a sales office in Sydney. He took my mother and two full sets of Brittanica (Unabridged and Junior) on the ship, across the Pacific. Somewhere down under between sales calls and commissions I was conceived, delivered, and proudly shipped back to Canada with the rest of the trophies. My dad had rows of burnished trophies, the little bronze guy in suit and hat, attache sample case in hand, mounted on a marble pedestal. He won dozens of silver beer steins, plaques and engraved ashtrays. Salesman of the month, salesman of the year.

Later he began selling Paymaster Cheque-writers — heavy one-armed machines with sliding numeric keys, used to emboss cheques for “forgery protection.” To show the value of the machine to customers, he would demonstrate how easy it is to forge a signature (he taught me the trick — write it upside-down), and to remove ink from paper with blotting paper and solvent. He could slip a cheque out of a sealed envelope without opening the envelope. I’m not telling you how.

My dad wasn’t dishonest; in fact, he was incapable of telling a convincing lie. He was good at selling because he was good at listening; he was curious about people and their lives. He loved visiting customers in their homes and businesses, listening to their stories, peering through the windows of their worlds. Their hard-luck tales and unlikely successes. The woman with the puppy farm and the man who ran a small chartered airplane service, the hair salons and the muffler shops, the holocaust survivors and the ex-pro-wrestlers. He would accept half a beer and a story or two, and then he would come home for dinner in his black trenchcoat dusted with snowflakes and tell me the stories while he inked up the rollers on the chequewriters. His fingers red and blue with ink.

My brother sells high-quality leather in Toronto – “I’m in the skin trade,” he says. I sell apples and books and bicycles and ideas. We both have the gene.

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