I don't imagine you could sell encyclopedias door to door even if you wanted to these days. The internet and CDROMs must have put paid to the whole game.

In late 1989, a single year of botched university behind me, I answered an advertisement in a major Australian newspaper offering travel and scads of cash for completely inexperienced but "willing to learn" individuals.

"That's me!" I thought, along with the 50-odd other hopefuls who filed into the small, second story room in Paddington, Sydney. It seems amazing now that high-volume alarms completely failed to go off in my head during that high-voltage presentation. It was more like a revival meeting! "Who here wants to make money? Travel? See America! Europe! Wherever you want! Make great money! $100! $1000! $2000 a week!" The only thing the company flak didn't manage to get around to telling us was exactly what we would be doing.

"Call us if you're interested." The meetin' was over and business cards were handed out; names taken. I had not made it to the train station when I was overcome with what I can only with the passage of years describe as creditable doubt and discreditable greed in equal measures. I called the number.

"We thought you'd call back." The reassuring cockney voice of the same person who'd run the meeting. "You looked keen; not like those other jokers. So, do you think you're up to the challenge? Can I ask you to be in the office at 10am tommorrow for training? Only I've got an immediate position opening up in Adelaide. I think you'd be perfect for it." Flattery? Yes. My alarms going off? Sadly, no.

South Australia, eh? Well, it wasn't Europe but it was a start! I was in the office by 10am and joined 5 others at a "training session".

"Here's your tickets, team. Your buses leave on Monday." There were two going to Brisbane, two to Adelaide, and one poor sucker was going to Perth.

So all that remained for me was to pack my bags and say my goodbyes. Clean socks? Check. Toothbrush? Check. Knife? Hmmmm. Check. Crying girlfriend? Goodbye! Crying girlfriend's Dad? "It's not like he's being drafted or anything!" Oh the unintended irony!

The other Adelaide "trainee" and I weren't in adjacent seats, so 36+ tedious hours by bus later we were still strangers as we were picked up from the central bus depot in an extremely old Ford Falcon. The driver of this rust bucket was none other than the state manager we were to work for. His other car must have been in the shop. He was snappily attired in shorts and thongs. He suggested that the two of us would like to begin work that afternoon, and it must have been 40 degrees (over 110F) in the shade. Sleep had been impossible for almost two straight days. The other guy said "Sure! It's never to early to start!" and I hated him immediately.

I humbly suggested, as we began to fill the un-airconditioned car with sweat on the journey to the trailer park where we would be staying, that most people wouldn't be home early on a Wednesday afternoon. The region manager looked at me like I was something unpleasant he'd found on his shoe, rolled his eyes at the other guy, and said "Only one in two makes it in this business."

It took a week of blisteringly hot afternoons frightening housewives to drive all ideas of my first sale being "just around the corner" out of my mind. A typical "contact" went like this:

ME: Knock knock. (Long pause. Door opens a crack, chain firmly in place.)
MARK: "Who're you?"
ME: "Foundation Learning, madam."
MARK: "Are you collecting for something?"
ME: "No, madam, I am here to alert you to the fact that we're in your neighbourhood this week organising personal seminars on family education. Can I sign you up for a night this week convenient to you?"
MARK: "What's it about?"
ME: "It's about education, madam, for yourself and your children. We've held over 150 seminars in the area already (a complete lie) and we will soon be moving on to a new area. How's tomorrow night? Will your husband be home then, because we want to involve the whole family."
MARK: "What's it about?"
ME: "It's about the future, madam, and preparing for it. Especially the children. Can I make an appointment for you?"
MARK: "What are you selling?"
ME: "We are not selling anything. (a lie) We are associated with the Department of Educational Assistance. (a black lie, there is no such department) It's a personal seminar, madam. There is no pressure at all." (I am sure that Satan owns my soul for this last.)
MARK: "Sorry, I don't think we're interested" or "Ok, well, Thursday night we're free."
And on Thursday night the poor family were subjected to a tirade of clever patter designed to make them feel stupid, selfish, and neglectful of their children. This was delivered by my team manager, with me playing the "good cop". It was evil, and I expect no pity. I can only offer "I was young" and "I'm sorry" and "I've expended efforts trying to dissuade others from network marketing" as sad, years-after-the-fact excuses.

I had to get out. They were bunking us all together in that caravan park, nothing was private and so everyone seemed to know I was packing to leave. The state manager materialised out of thin air:

RM: Where do you think you're going?
ME: Home.
RM: Look. You haven't had a good week, none of us have, but I know you're not a quitter.
ME: I'm sorry, but I can't do this anymore.
RM: Yes you can! We all have rough starts, but you'll come good, you're a natural! As soon as I saw you get off the bus I thought "If anyone can make it, this kid can." And I still think that. We're about to go out again. Don't mess it up for everyone.
ME: I am not messing it up for anyone - I'll make my own way to the bus station - but I can't go on.
RM: (getting agitated) Well, I didn't want to bring this up, but we've invested in you and I don't think you can leave just yet. You haven't sold anything.
ME: Nor am I likely to ever sell anything working in the middle of the day in those suburbs.
RM: Not with that attitude, you're right!
ME: Attitude has nothing to do with it! I've spent a week trying to force innocent people into buying shit encyclopedias! If I had the "right attitude" I don't think I could live with myself!
RM: (shouting) Well, you can't just bloody leave! We've paid for your bus ticket here and everything!
ME: Stiff shit. I quit.
RM: (screaming) You little bastard! Get back in the caravan and put your suitcase down! We're going out in a minute and you're coming with us!
ME: No I'm not, I'm leaving.
He grabbed for my suitcase, trying presumably to force the issue and I resisted. Since I was holding onto the handle, it was a simple matter for him to twist it out of my hands and then push it sharply at me. I ended up flat on my back, and the state manager finished making his point by hurling my suitcase against the wall of the caravan. It split open and my belongings spilt to the ground, including my knife. I'm ashamed to say that I grabbed it off the ground, drew it, told the state manager to get the hell out of my way, and fled.

The knife was useful for one more thing, too. I was able to pawn it for just enough to cover the bus fare home. The single and only problem with this story is that every single word of it is true.

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