In the spring of 1981 I was a year into living on credit cards and unemployment checks. My job had ended when my grant wasn’t renewed and the University had run out of funds to pay me. I still came to my office every day, trying to find another academic job and struggling to write up my last research project. Collection agencies were calling but by the grace of God my landlady had written a loan for my six-month’s back rent.
With the job search and writing going nowhere, I scanned the want ads every day. An item popped out: earning potential with steady employment. I called. The guy on the phone was a smooth talker with a nice warm voice; “Sure, come on out. Today is fine.”
It was a modern building with one of those high atrium lobbies with catwalks pinned to the wall to reach the offices. Penitential Life was on the third floor. I’m terrified of heights, but I took a deep breath and scrambled out of the elevator across the walkway and through the door. Eddie, the boss, looked to be in his late thirties. He wore a dark sharkskin suit, was maybe five foot-six and had a trim mustache. As he led me back to his office he skimmed my resume. How delighted he was to meet me and how impressed he was with my university credentials! Like me, he came from Boston. He had been in law school when an opportunity so wonderful and so unique had led him to change the course of his life.
He leaned into me across his desk. “David, the people who succeed in America are the owners. They don’t work for anyone else—they work for themselves. They help other people, people from all walks of life, to achieve financial security, and in the process they achieve it for themselves. Every time they help a family to reach its goals using one of our financial products, they take ownership in that family’s success. And every year, when that product is renewed, they—you, David, if you choose to join us—receive an income, and that income is for life!”
“Is he really offering me a job,” I wondered.
“David, I hope you’ll consider us. You must have so many good opportunities, with your wonderful qualifications”
“Is this life insurance,” I asked.
“David, it isn’t insurance, it’s protection for people’s lifetime security.”
“OK,” I said, “when do I start?”
When I headed to the elevator I didn’t notice that I was on a catwalk thirty feet above the atrium floor. I was elated to have a job, at last. The realization crept in slowly that evening as I lay in bed: The job I had accepted was commission sales with no regular salary. I had noting else. Might as well give it a try.
There were maybe 15 people at the meeting of new trainees. One was a recently fired air-traffic controller; one was a young blond woman who looked like Daisy-May from “Li’l Abner,” another had been a policemen, and another a minister. There was coffee and two big boxes of doughnuts on a table at the back of the room. Eddie explained that we’d have to pass the Missouri Insurance Agent’s licensing exam before we could sell the company’s wonderful financial products. In the meantime we’d be in class with Sam, our licensing instructor, or in the field with an experienced agent, learning the ropes.
Sam turned out to be a marvelous teacher, and drilled us on the ins and outs of insurance theory and of Missouri Law. It made perfect sense: people banded together to share the risk of unforeseen events, like accidents, fires and illness. Death was foreseen, but its time was not. I passed the exam with no trouble, but in my cynical mind I concluded that each provision of the law had resulted from some egregious fraud, probably perpetrated by some sleazy insurance company on its gullible customers. I kept this reservation to myself.
I trained with Johnny, Ben and Thomas. Ben had been hog farmer and truck-stop owner. He was large in both dimensions, friendly and direct. “OK That’s good,” he said after hearing my recitation of our standard presentation that we called a “Pre.” “And you have to listen to people, too, to gain their trust,” he added, ‘”but sometime you gotta bullshit ‘em. It’s just part of the business.”
Johnny had a deck of yellow cards on the seat between us as we drove. Each had the name and address of a potential customer, someone who had bought a kind of accident insurance called “Instant Issue.” Teams of agents went door-to-door selling these policies from a large pad for thirty-five dollars. They promised to pay a fixed amount for every day the person was confined at home or in the hospital after an injury that required a doctor’s care. A computer at the home office generated the cards and sent a new batch to the local agency every week.
Several months after the initial sale, we went back to the Instant Issue customers and pitched our life insurance as a beneficial upgrade to the accident policy they already had. The qualifications for selling Instant Issue seemed to be youth and high energy. After all, they were cold-calling. For us, on the life insurance side, the requirements were grey hair and the appearance of wisdom and compassion. I was forty-two and had enough grey to qualify.
With my agent’s license and yellow cards in my new folder, I went out on my own for the first time. The cards took me to a lower middle-class neighborhood in north St. Louis County where I knocked on several doors and found a couple of single mothers at home. We were supposed to make appointments for the evening to meet with both husband and wife. The ideal was to provoke tears in the wife by projecting dismal images of destitute widows and orphans. “It usually brings the checkbook out,” Ben assured me.
Next week – More shenanigans at Penetential Life.