Author Archives: Dave

Wehrenberg 3 – Cross Keys

The theater that I mananged from September 1982 through May 1983

Cross Keys Cinema which operated from the mid 1970s until 1999.

The new theater had just two screens with a small concession stand and was located in a shopping mall at the intersection of New Halls Ferry Road and Lindbergh Boulevard in Florissant, Mo. Cross Keys, built in 1969, contained a number of small businesses, a popular restaurant, and a section of office space used by the McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft Company. The entrance to the theater, which Wehrenberg had acquired from the old Arthur chain, was not visible from the road but only from the rear parking lot. There was no marquee above the entrance, only two signs in the parking lot that announced the movies playing each week.

My district manager Paul, who was slender with brown hair, and about my age and height, explained some of the reasons for the daily inventories of the concession stand candy bars. He was friendly and gave me lots of tips about running a theater. “We had a manager,” he said, “who stole from the storeroom and sold the candy bars out of the trunk of his car. The daily inventories took care of him right away.” I understood that he might have been warning me against similar temptations.

I had two regular assistant managers: Joseph, a young African-American man with a recent business college degree and a young woman Sharon—short, dark-haired, and in her thirties, who had worked part-time for the theater chain for many years. Joseph was slender, maybe an inch shorter than I was, and was always in neat gray or brown suit. He seemed aloof, but was always dignified and courteous. Sharon, the other assistant, was efficient and very competent at all the theater tasks, but she wasn’t very friendly either.

Julie, in contrast, was a gracious and warm young woman who filled in at various theaters. David, the blond man who had interviewed me originally for the job, also helped out at indoor theaters during the off-season at his drive-in. He wanted to become a radio announcer. To that end he attended daytime classes at a proprietary broadcast school in Clayton, the St. Louis County seat. The school, which I walked by often had one of its studios set up behind the front window, both as an attraction for prospective students and to give the public a look inside radio broadcasting.

New movies started on Friday to capitalize on the weekend. Each Thursday before closing, we were supposed to make a recorded telephone message for the theater, listing the movies and show times for the following week. Even after rehearsing the lengthy announcement, it could be difficult to record it correctly, especially if other employees were around the office when you were trying to do it, as David explained,

Once, I was making the recording, and right near the end, I realized that I had made a mistake, but I continued speaking, filling the tape with progressively worse profanity and made-up salacious movie titles. Then I called Julie into the office to check the recording. You should have seen her face.

I quickly mastered the technicalities of running Cross Keys. I balanced the daily and weekly cash and inventories and many weeks received a twenty-five dollar bonus with my paycheck for the accuracy of my accounting. The figures were recorded by hand on a large paper form with two carbon copies required. If you made a mistake, you could erase the top copy but had to use Wite’Out® on the carbons, sometimes creating a mess. Errors crept in on busy weekends from cash register mistakes made by the girls dealing with large crowds at the concessions stand, or from miscounts in the inventories or ticket sales.

The whole system had been perfected before computers by a man named Smith in the central office who was in charge of all Wehrenberg concession stands. He was not popular with the managers because of his obsessive insistence on accuracy, but I could tell that he was very smart. He was the only person who knew how to program every type of cash register in the entire chain, entering the correct codes for the sales taxes which differed from one municipality to another. Besides, his system eliminated pilferage and till-tapping by dishonest employees.

At Cross Keys, I had several teen-age employees, most of whom were reliable and fun to work with. An exception was a young African-American usher named Karl. (His name like others in this story has been changed.) He was short and slender. One Thursday, when my chief usher Mark was off duty, I sent Karl out to the parking lot with the red plastic letters needed to change the marquee signs for the theater. The signs had back-lighted panels with narrow horizontal rods from which the letters announcing the movies were suspended. To change the letters the ushers used a long aluminum pole with a suction cup on the end to take down the departing movie titles and put up the new ones.

The sign once used to display movie title for the Cross Keys Cinema

The old Cross Keys sign announcing the 2003 renovation. Here’s where the movie titles were displayed for the cinema in back. Horizontal rods for hanging  the plastic letters were in the white section near the top. Photo taken after the theater closed.

I drove home that night without checking the signs. When came back Friday afternoon, I saw that the letters on the sign were in the wrong positions and the movie titles were misspelled. After Mark fixed the signs, I felt relieved that Karl, the errant usher, didn’t have the imagination or wit to put something malicious or obscene on our marquees.

During Karl’s shifts, his friends occasionally attended the theater. Sometimes they paid, but other times, I suspected, he let them in through the exit doors. He and his friends once sat in the back of the theater talking and disturbing paying patrons, who complained to me.

After a few of these incidents, I put him on suspension, but he said he would appeal to my district manager Paul. Karl had the backing of my assistant managers, Joseph and Sharon, who told me not to let the situation escalate to the manager’s level. Sharon, the dark-haired woman in her thirties, said, “I’ve known Paul a lot longer than you have and I know that he doesn’t want to be bothered with details like this.” I agreed, with reluctance, to drop Karl’s suspension. I learned later that Sharon was lying about Paul and, with Joseph, was trying to make trouble for me.

Why would Paul and Sharon try to undermine my authority in running the theater? There were two things, I think: Karl the usher and Joseph the assistant manager were African-Americans with whom I felt uncomfortable because they didn’t seem friendly. I never made the attempt to know them well. After all, I was their supervisor, and it didn’t seem appropriate. As an employee, Karl the usher got off on the wrong foot with me when he garbled the marquee signs in the parking lot. And, of course, there was racial unease on both sides that I didn’t feel with the friendly African-American employees and coworkers

With Joseph, the assistant manager, I overreacted in a situation and said something I shouldn’t have. My boss Paul had asked me to have a small part of the concession stand repainted. I asked to Joseph to do it. Several days passed and nothing happened. Paul could appear any day and see that it hadn’t been done and I’d be in trouble, I thought.

I grew impatient and told Joseph that if he wanted to continue working at the theater, he should get the little job done. He got angry and said that I had no right to speak to him that way. The next day he did the painting. We were both caught in a supervisory misunderstanding with racial overtones that I didn’t know how to handle.

The road sign for the Cross Keys shopping center, before its complete renovation in 2003

One of the Cross Keys road signs with mounting rods for movie titles. Photo taken after the theater closed in 1999.

With Sharon, I needed to contact her one evening from home where I didn’t have the telephone list. With no cell-phones or emails, I resorted to the phone book and found a number listed for a person with her unusual last name. I called and reached a woman who agreed to relay a message to her. The next day, she came in very angry at me and insisted that I never try to contact her through a relative. I didn’t understand that either.

I should have consulted my district manager Paul as soon as these employee problems arose, but I was afraid he’d let me go. My fear was overblown. Paul was a decent man who would have the supplied the guidance I needed.

Our theater was cleaned each morning by an elderly couple who I met only once because our shifts never overlapped, but when I arrived each afternoon the place was sparkly clean. One night driving home after a busy evening I noticed that one lens was missing from my eyeglasses. It had popped out before a few times and I had picked it up and set it back in the frame. This time I was out of luck. It was too far to drive back to the theater, turn on all the lights and do an exhaustive search while I was tired and needed sleep more than anything else. I couldn’t afford new glasses, but I could get along OK with just one lens, at least for a while. Thank God they weren’t bifocals.

Wehrenberg's up-to-date soda cup design

A Wehrenberg soda cup with contemporary design.

In the morning I called the theater hoping to catch the cleaning couple close enough to the lobby to hear the phone ring in the office. One of them answered and said they’d be on the lookout for the lens. Less than a half hour later they called back; the missing lens was on the floor at the back of one the auditoriums.

It was time to meet them in person. I jumped into my car and drove the 13 miles up the theater to thank them and to collect my lens. I popped the lens back in and, at home, added a drop of super-glue to hold it in for good.

Most of the time, the Cross Keys Theater was very quiet, even on weekends. Wehrenberg didn’t put high-grossing first-run films in an obscure, difficult-to-find backwater cinema like ours. We usually got grade-B and below pictures or popular shows nearing the ends of their runs. But there were a couple of exceptions.

Nest time – Inchon

Wehrenberg 2 – At Risk

Theater where I began my brief career in cinema management.

Wehrenberg’s Halls Ferry 14 which opened with 6 screens in the 1970s, expanded to 8 in 1982 while I worked there as an assistant manager and added 6 more screens later on. It closed in 2002 and was torn down in 2010.

There were two other assistant managers at the Halls Ferry Eight: a short, young, energetic African American woman who taught in an elementary school during the day and Ed who was there my first night at the Halls Ferry Six. He was maybe a decade older then I was and a few inches taller, but his girth, like mine, tended to obesity. His face was round and large, topped by receding brown hair with a few flecks of gray at the sides. Like most male assistant managers he wore a sport jacket with a tie and dark trousers. (Ed, and the names of several other people in these stories have been changed for obvious reasons.)

We were both bigger than Randy the manager, a compact man in his late twenties with a mustache who was a couple of inches shorter that I was.

Ed had a quick sense of humor, boundless confidence, and a commanding voice. In real life, he was associate superintendent in a near-by school district. These qualities served him well when he had recently confiscated a loaded pistol from a violent student during a fight. And he liked to tease our lead cashier, a high spirited girl—one of his former students—for being a “bimbette.” He explained why he worked at a movie theater.

I need the theater job to pay for the used Cadillac I had always wanted and to fill the weekend evenings before my drive over to East St. Louis to play cards. I have friends there. In fact, I went to high school with one of them, a guy named Red. He runs the kind of high-stakes games I like to play. He has a sign just inside the door to his place that says “NO ONE SHOULD KNOW THAT YOU’VE BEEN HERE.”

I’d already guessed that Red’s operation was well outside the law; this was the early 1980’s, a decade before Missouri or Illinois legalized casinos. And, completing his resume, Ed said, “And I just finishing writing a book—a history of my school district.” Knowing that a fellow assistant manager had an academic side, I began to feel more at ease in the theater.

One night, he called us into the tiny manager’s office. For three of us to fit, we had to drag in a third chair from the box office while Randy, the manager, squeezed in behind his desk. Given Ed’s size and mine, we could barely close the door. He wanted to tell us what had happened the previous weekend.

Last Saturday after I left here for the East Side some car ran me off the road just before the Chain of Rock Bridge over the Mississippi. I wasn’t hurt, and there was no damage, but I got a license number.

When I got to Red’s place I told him about the car running me off the road.”

Wednesday he calls me: “We had some of the guys hang out in a couple of 7-11s on your side of the river to see what they could pick up. Turned out it was a bunch of college kids on vacation from Northwest Missouri State. They were high on drugs and couldn’t remember anything. By the way, one of their houses burned down Monday night.”

Oh No! You didn’t?

“No, No,” Red assured me, “We didn’t do it; it was just a coincidence.”

St. Louis's first casino

The Casino Queen, offering the first legal gambling in the St. Louis region, opened in 1993 in East St. Louis, IL.

I was horrified by the risk that Ed was taking with his illegal gambling and acceptance of small favors from the mob. Besides, he was top official in a large school district and vulnerable to blackmail. I looked at him, tilted my head and shook it a little bit, but said nothing. With all my money problems, I could have used favors, too, but I wasn’t anywhere near willing to appeal to gangsters.  I knew someone back east who had a family connection, but I wouldn’t think of approaching him.

A few weeks later Ed had another tale about Red and his East Side mob:

My daughter is in high school at Pattonville. That’s the district where we live, not the one where I work. She broke up with her boyfriend, and about a week later, some of the boyfriend’s buddies threatened to beat her up and knocked her to the ground as she got out of her car. I called Red and he said that he would send a “unit” over to check things out. A few days later, one of the boy’s parents calls me.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, siccing gangsters on my child? These two large men knocked on our door at six A.M. and threatened our boy with broken legs if he ever went near your daughter again. Now he’s scared to leave the house at all.”

I told the parent that I’ll do anything I need to, to protect my family.

I was more appalled than before: Ed was placing his family under obligation to mobsters, too.

A Wehrenberg logo

Another version of the Wehrenberg Theaters logo. The chain’s official name is “The Fred Wehrenberg Circuit of Theaters, Inc.”

Fortunately, I didn’t have to cope with Ed’s gangster friends. Instead, in the early fall of 1982 I was promoted to manager and given a theater of my own, The Cross Keys Cinema about four miles north of the Halls Ferry Eight.

 

Next time – Cross Keys

Wehrenberg 1 – In Someone Else’s Skin

The crown in the Wehrenberg log originated when the chain opened the Crown Theater in 1936

The Wehrenberg logo as it appeared when I worked for the theater chain in the 1980s

I never felt so out of place, even in my own skin, as I did at age 43 in the first hours of my new job as an assistant manager at the Halls Ferry Six, one of the first multi-screen theaters in the St, Louis region. The lights were bright. The lobby was large, crowded and noisy. In a small cramped office behind the ticket booth, Randy, the young manager was explaining the inventory system for candy bars, popcorn bags and soda cups. I was dazed.

My previous job, preparing income taxes for a small St. Louis firm, had a familiar scholarly feel to it, with repeated calculations, research and paper forms but had ended for the season on April 15, 1982. Before that, I spent nine frustrating and fruitless months attempting to sell life insurance, my first stopgap attempt to support myself after losing my research position at Washington University school of Medicine in June 1980.

Near the end of the tax season, I responded to ad in the paper for a manager at a drive-in theater, The North Twin, in St. Louis County. I found David, the manager, a slender blond man in his mid-thirties painting the women’s room in preparation of the upcoming season. He explained that Wehrenberg was looking for some new assistant managers and that the work could be at his drive-in or in a conventional indoor theater. A few days later, I got the call to report to the Halls Ferry Six.

The theater was in a modest shopping mall at the northeast corner of New Halls Ferry and Dunn roads, just off Interstate 270 in an unincorporated area of North St. Louis County. Other mall occupants included a Target store, several smaller shops and a Wendy’s where we got takeout lunch once in a while. (Unlike the neat offerings from Burger King, McDonald’s and Hardee’s,  the Wendy’s burgers were drenched in a viscous dressing that splattered all over if you didn’t eat them with great caution.)

Now in my third temporary job, at the movie theater, I would have few comfortable clerical tasks. Instead, I would be supervising a large number of high school students who worked part time as ushers and concession attendants, dealing with fellow managers and union projectionists and interacting with the public. What’s more, that public might be difficult; the theater was located in an area with a crime rate well above average, as I learned from the off-duty St. Louis County policeman who Wehrenberg hired to watch over the crowd on weekend evenings. “We don’t go into that apartment complex behind the theater without backup,” he said.

Across from the office was the large concession stand which featured soda, popcorn and the usual movie theater candy: Kit Kats®, Junior Mints®, Milk Duds®, Raisinets®, Twizzlers® and Reese’s Pieces® (for the 1982 movie E.T. the Extraterrestrial in which the candy played a large product placement role.) The closer you got the concession stand, the more it smelled of buttered popcorn. (it wasn’t real butter but a vegetable oil doctored up to taste like it.)

Behind the counter was a storeroom for the popcorn and other goods. Wide corridors on each side led to three auditoriums each. A door in one of the corridors led upstairs to the projection booths. The projectionists belonged to Local 143 of the Motion Picture and Projecting Machine Operators. Their contract forbade theater managers from entering the booths or handling film, except in situations like drive-ins, where it was a long walk from the delivery points to the booth. Then, according to one of the operators, it was not in their contract to carry the heavy film cans so far. In spite of this exception, most were decent men. The manager at the drive-in where the projectionist refused to carry film got his comeback when the St. Louis Cardinals played the Milwaukee Braves in 1982 World Series. The operator wanted to bring a television set into the booth and manager said that TVs in the booth weren’t in the contract either.

Wherenberg's North Drive-in Jennings, MO on Lewis and Clark Boulevard.

The North Twin Drive-In where I interviewed for my job for Wehrenberg Theaters in April 1982. Photo from “100 Years of Reel Entertainment,” the 2006 history of the Wehrenberg theater chain.

The chain was founded in 1906 when Fred Wehrenberg converted a vacant bakery in St. Louis into a nickelodeon to draw customers for his saloon and sandwich business. From that beginning he and his descendants built several more theaters in St. Louis and expanded beyond the city limits to build drive-ins in the 1940s and 50s. The family followed with multiplex cinemas in St. Louis County and beyond. All of this history with many delightful photos and movie business insights has been chronicled by Steven DeBellis in 100 Years of Reel Entertainment: How Wehrenberg Theaters Became the Longest Running Picture Show in America

I learned the mechanics of running the theater in a couple of weeks. I could stock and inventory the concession stand, run the registers and sell tickets and popcorn, help maintain the work schedule for the teen agers, make up the weekly payroll, and balance the nightly and weekly inventories.

After the last show ended, we counted all the cash, prepared deposit slips, double checked our figures, and summoned the armed guard waiting outside in his car. After we locked the theater, he followed one of us to the bank where we placed the canvas bags in the night depository.

My workday started at four in the afternoon when another manager and I arrived, an hour before opening. Our major task was to stock and inventory the concession stand including the heated popcorn dispensers. It wasn’t popped on-site. Instead, it came from a central facility run by the theater chain and was delivered to us a couple of times a week in large plastic bags 25-50 at a time depending on the expected crowd. We hoped that the phone wouldn’t ring to interrupt our opening preparations.

When it did, it was usually one of our high school employees: “Hi, Mr. Crowley, I can’t make it in today. I have a big algebra test tomorrow and need to study. You could call Lisa. Maybe she could fill in.” Since most of the kids were grateful for extra hours, it was usually easy to find replacements at the last minute. Besides, in a pinch, two managers and the projectionists could run the theater if the crowd was light, as it often was.

The old Warwick Theater Marquee in March 1999.

The Warwick Theater in Marblehead, MA in March, 1999, several years after its conversion to twin screens.

The early 1980’s were difficult times for many people for whom a night at the movies became unaffordable. At one point, in July 1982, attendance dropped to a level where my job at the Halls Ferry Theater was cut back to quarter time, placing even more of a financial strain on me than before. At home in my little apartment in University City, I was coping with calls from creditors and for a while was unable to pay my rent. After two or three weeks at quarter time, the crowds returned and I received more hours. My landlady helped too, by granting me loans to cover my back rent.

At first, movie theater employment seemed beneath a person with my education, but the truth was that I loved working at the Halls Ferry Eight. (Two screens were added a couple of months after I started.) When it was crowded and busy, I filled in by selling tickets or soda and popcorn. I came to life and gathered energy from the people and all the activity around me. And, I loved watching movies, as I often did, during the long intervals between the breaks in shows. I saw E.T. and Sophie’s Choice dozens of times.

In fact, I dreamed about the movie theater that I frequented as a child, the Warwick, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where I grew up. In the dream, which occurred several times, the Warwick was huge with many auditoriums in addition to the one I remembered from childhood. The extra auditoriums were offset at different levels and angles from other parts of the theater and were seldom used. The seats in the sprawling dark auditoriums were dusty, and sunlight filtered in though the open back doors.

The Marblehead theater as it looked in my childhood.

The Warwick Theater showing the single auditorium as it appeared when I was a kid. Photo courtesy of Dan Dixey’s “Historic Marblehead Images.”

The recurrent dream prompted me to call Tom McNulty, a slender bearded man about my age and height and the third generation owner of the Warwick, during a visit to my parents in Marblehead. “Sure, I’ll be glad to give you a tour,” he told me when he learned that I managed a cinema. Tom showed me all around the theater, including the vacant apartment off the projection booth on the second floor, where his grandparents had lived after opening the theater in the 1920s. They had named the Marblehead theater for Robert Warwick, a popular silent film actor of the day.

Next time: Wherenberg 2 – At Risk

An Error

A tasteful Vermont road sign

A tasteful Vermont road sign as illustrated by Ryan Fowler of Native Vermont Studio

It was bound to happen sometime—I would use an image in one of my blog posts (Inside Seashell City ) that was copyrighted artwork created by someone else. In this case what I mistook for a simple photo of an old road sign in Vermont that I found on the internet was really an illustration produced by Ryan Fowler of Native Vermont Studio, as he graciously reminded me in an email last night. I should, of course, have sought his first permission first. Please visit his website to check out his delightful creations.

Penitential Life – Part 2

Dave tries commsion sales for Penitential Life

A fictional insurance company like the one Dave worked for

The most successful agents had histrionic skills adequate to this task but I didn’t, I realized about a month into the work. Nor was I willing resort to crass manipulations or outright lies, the bullshit part, that my bosses urged on me when my sales were slack, as they usually were.   My strong point was listening.

Each week we had a meeting at the office. I got used to the catwalk three stories up; I focused my mind on the doughnuts at the back of the room. Eddie tried to pump us up by congratulating the most successful salespeople for the week. For the rest, he urged us on. “Never go home for the night on a ‘No’, always on a ‘Yes’,” he admonished one day. And then, “Go buy a new car or a new house. The debt will be a great motivator. It worked wonders for me.”

“But not for me,” I thought to myself. What about the six-month’s back rent that I owed and the collection agencies that kept calling?

After the meeting I went back to Ben’s office and picked up my new deck of yellow cards. The addresses were in Lincoln County around Troy and Elsbury, Missouri. Some of the people were farmers and some were workers laid-off from factory jobs in St. Louis—The country was in recession. One man, a machinist, was cutting firewood in the forest to support his family. Another had been a boxing champion in the Army years before but had suffered many concussions. We sat in his barn while I listened and he talked and cried.

Some people had problems with their Instant Issue accident policies. When it came to paying claims; confinement at home turned out to be hard to define. We were told just to listen and let the office handle these cases.

I kept a tally of the unemployed among my customers: ten percent just like the country then. Another man, in a trailer park, looked and walked like Toulouse-Lautrec, the artist. He had no legs below the knees from an auto accident in the Navy. Some invited me for dinner. Almost all were warm and welcoming.

As I drove home at night down US 61, I’d turn my dash lights way down and soak in the dark countryside as it sped past. I was at peace, for a while. I had sold a couple of policies but I didn’t feel right about it. I liked these people, and I felt sick when I took their money.

After two months in Lincoln County, the yellow cards led me back to St. Louis. My two small commission checks were nowhere near enough to cover my expenses. In desperation I plunged ahead in spite of the manipulative and dishonest work that I was supposed to be doing. My bosses said that my job was to create the need for our marvelous products, but these people didn’t need life insurance. They needed compassion which I tried to supply in my brief meetings with them.

The card named a single man, but a middle aged couple met me at the door of the house in a St. Louis County neighborhood. He was their son, now in his mid thirties. At age six, they told me, he and a friend had been playing with a gun. The bullet shattered his lower spine and they had cared for him ever since. He wasn’t home that afternoon, but at work. They saw the question in my eyes and explained: He has a wheel-chair equipped van that he drives to his business a few blocks away. He repairs sound equipment for musical groups. They gave me an address.

I found the building, a brick single-family home with bars on all the windows and the shades drawn. I knocked but no one answered. No answer again when I checked back later that day, and again the next. After a week there was a car parked in back and a young man answered the door. He was the business partner of my customer, he said, and offered to show me around. “We’ve had break-ins; that’s why the bars and shades. Druggies like to steal audio stuff.” There were some loudspeakers and amplifiers on the floor of one room, and a small electronics work-bench in another. All the walls in the house were painted black and the other rooms were empty. “He’s not here but you might try his parent’s house again.” I knew that he wouldn’t be an easy sale, but I was determined to track him down anyway. The mother told me to come back the next morning at eleven; her son should be out of the shower by then.

His special van was parked in the driveway when I got there. “He’s in his room dressing but he doesn’t want anyone to see him,” the mother said. “You might talk with him through the door.” I had burned almost two weeks trying to find this guy, so I knocked. “Yeah, who is it?” I introduced myself and gave him the canned sales pitch through the closed door. “No, I don’t need anything like that,” the voice came back. My job was done.

I made a couple of sales calls in Valley Park a few days before Christmas, 1981 and one or two afterwards. I went to Thomas, my boss, and said that I was quitting. “We were thinking that it might be a good idea, too,” he said. He wished me good luck.

A year later I was managing a movie theater in a St. Louis suburb, one of the Wehrenberg chain, with two screens. I didn’t get to choose the movies that we ran; booking was done by the central office. So when my boss told me that we would be showing “Bloodsucking Freaks,” I asked him to repeat the title. We both laughed, but I knew better than to question this choice. Maybe some other theater would get the next turkey that our chain had to take in its booking package. “Freaks” was a grade-D movie that belonged in a porn house or in a rural drive-in somewhere. Maybe eight people bought tickets to see this deplorable epic during the week that we had it. I watched about five minutes: several naked women were cannibalizing some guy in a prison cell. That was all I could take.

I came out of the storeroom one evening and thought I saw the back of a motorized wheel chair disappearing into the “Freaks” side of the house. I had a hunch and sat in my office until the show started. Then I took a tour of the parking lot and there it was: the wheel-chair van that I had spent two weeks pursuing when I was trying to sell life insurance.

I was busy counting receipts so I didn’t him leave the theater.   A week or two later, I saw on the news that he and his partner had been arrested for selling drugs, big-time, out of his business and from the van. The news showed a shot of the house with the barred windows. No wonder he didn’t want to meet me. I could have been a cop.

About four years after I quit Penitential Life, I talked with a man I’d met a couple of times. He was a salesman who had sold everything from encyclopedias to Fuller brushes, all door-to-door cold calling.

“Yeah, I worked there too,” he said, when I mentioned my adventure in life insurance sales. We talked about Sam, the licensing teacher and how good he was. I asked about Eddie, the boss at the agency. “His wife got sick and you know he had their health insurance with Penitential Life.”

“Of course, who else?”

“Guess what? They reneged on his claim. Just about tore Eddie up. A few months later, he’s dead from a heart attack. Not even forty-five.”