Blue Sky

The first job I had when I got out of the joint was selling burial insurance on the telephone. I lasted about two weeks It was one of my several forays into the seedy occupation of telemarketing. My success in that field was never great mainly because while I give pretty good phone, I hate telemarketers and could never put my heart into being one of those annoying interruptions. Besides it was morally depressing to be selling graves. I had been locked up for four years and I wanted to think about life and love and music. So I got my second job as a salesman for a dating service. That was pretty funny considering that I had spent Reagan’s entire second term in a monastery. It was before the internet and eHarmony and Match.com etc. and matchmakers were still mom and pop operations. I forget what this company was called, DivorcesRus or Date-Rape Depot or something. It was run by a bunch of slick young marketing sharks who had devised a sales program that was almost diabolical in its effectiveness.

The pitch went something like this. After being bullied into accepting the appointment by some pimply faced girl in the phone boiler room, the mark would get a home visit from one of our ‘counselors,’ which is what we called the salesmen. The pitch was presented as an ‘interview.’ The illusion was that the poor social loser was being interviewed to see if he or she was worthy to be a part of this very exclusive social club. First we asked them to take a psychological test to determine, they were told, if they would be socially compatible with our membership, weed out the perverts and ax-murderers etc. It was a psychological test alright, but what it told us was just how to work the mark, whether to appeal to their hearts or their heads, whether to be familiar or formal, how to cost-justify etc. Then we would do the interview which was a series of questions designed to help the mark realize what a dismal wasteland of a social life they had. If they weren’t ready to sign up after that, there were some more severe techniques that involved beating them up pretty bad psychologically but I always hated to take it that far just to get a Master Card number.

The memberships weren’t cheap. It cost a thousand bucks to meet the person of your dreams in this break-neck, impersonal world of neo-professionalism. The company had sold four million dollars worth of their snake-oil remedy for loneliness in the previous year. When I first started, I naively asked how old someone had to be in order to sign up? “A thousand dollars,” the sales manager said.

“No, I said, ‘what is the age limit?'”

“A thousand dollars,” he repeated.

They were selling absolutely nothing but the fantasy that somewhere out there is a person who is just made for you. Pictures were painted of a high-tech scientific method which required computers large enough to fill a stadium. In fact the matches were made in a little side office by a couple of secretaries who munched Doritos, painted their fingernails and paired the suckers up by their photographs. It was a complete scam. I did it for awhile on the theory that fools and their money will inevitably be parted but soon my numbers fell off because I would go into these people’s homes and they would be nice to me and tell me the most amazingly intimate details about their personal lives and the first thing you know I would start liking them which is the kiss of death for a salesman because that makes it hard to rob them of a thousand bucks. As the sales manager was firing me, he said, “You are a good salesman. I think you could go far. You just need an actual product .”

He was right about me. I’m not a bad salesman. I’m personable, direct, honest. The catch is that I have to believe in my product. This was even true when I was selling dope. I never had a moral problem with being a dealer. My transactions were all between consenting adults and I made sure that my products were effective and safe when used as directed. It’s an honest business at the level on which I operated. A family practice depends on trust. It fulfills real needs and gives value for value. I felt much better on an ethical level being a pot dealer than selling blue sky in some of the straight jobs that I’ve had.

Today the Supreme Court made a ruling that practically knocks down a 1988 law called the honest services law because it is designed to protect people from being deprived of “the intangible right to honest services.” From a legal standpoint I have to agree with the Justices, the language in the law is disturbingly vague. It’s one of those laws, like conspiracy laws, which is a prosecutor’s dream because it is so wide open to interpretation that a crime can be defined almost extemporaneously. The letter of the law needs to be clarified but the spirit of the law is a good one. We need protection against fraud that involves bad-faith performance of services or offering services that you can’t or don’t intend to provide. It’s also sad that we would need such a law. We are having growing pains as we move from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. When you make nothing, you have to learn to sell nothing.

Bernie Maddoff sold 68 billion dollars worth of nothing to his marks. You can’t open your email without being touted by a score of ads which offer services that you don’t need or want and that they can’t really provide. I don’t know what I would do with three extra inches no matter where it was added. Financial security by working in my pajamas sounds nice and apparently I can do it while hooking up with horny married women in my area, I can pay people to find out what I can find out myself for free and I can go into debt in order to get out of debt. There is a huge market for nothing out there. And it’s not that hard to sell. The oldest profession is based on selling an empty space. A little packaging, a little sex appeal and Whammo! A marketing sensation.

The Poet’s Eye delights in the blue sky. It’s better than the ocean for imagining eternity. I give it away because I got it for free. I wouldn’t know how to sell it anyway, by the mile or acre or the cubic yard? No, if you are going to buy the sky, you have to buy the whole thing.

Blue skies shinin’ at me
Nothin’ but blue skies do I see
Blue days, all of them gone
Nothin’ but blue skies from now on.
—Irving Berlin

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