The Evaporating Economy

‘I have been picking shit with the chickens,’ answered Billy B.s colleague at SIUC. Billy B. was new to the University and he noticed that one of his co-workers carried a bag on his shoulder and that he looked somewhat unkempt and life worn. Billy B. later found out that his friend was from a town in Little Egypt called Mulkeytown. He had never heard of Mulkeytown although he had spent the bulk of his life living in Southern Illinois. Billy B. also thought what a unique and clear manner in which the ‘Man-Bag’ carrier had described his life. As he considered the implications of a life that would elicit the very ready response of…’Picking shit with the chickens…’ and having the physical appearance to back up his claim…he reflected on a time in his own life that the ‘Tobacco Road’ response would apply.

Billy B. wanted to be a salesman. He had aspired to this lofty goal ever since he had witnessed several examples of successful salesmen who had seemingly gone from rags to riches…before his eyes. Billy B. loved to read the World Book Encyclopedia. Not the online version…but rather the halcyon days of a full hardback version of 23 volumes with an update to add to the 23 each year. His pastor…at the time…had a friend who had been a former school teacher and now was a recruiter for salespeople for Door-To-Door Sales of World Book Encyclopedia. Even in the 70s, a set of World Book Encyclopedias cost several hundred dollars. Billy B. drove to Herrin, Illinois to meet Mrs. Butler. Mrs. Butler looked him up one side and down the other and pronounced that he was going to have to purchase some new clothes to endeavor to look the part of a World Book Encyclopedia Salesman. When she asked him how old he was…he announced that he was 16…but would be 17 in a month. ‘I have never had a recruit as young as you,’ said Mrs. Butler…with a very worried look on her face. ‘I am sure that I can succeed…Mrs. Butler as I am highly motivated…I live on my own and I need the money for groceries,’ Billy B. said with a large grin. ‘You know what…I believe you,’ replied Mrs. Butler. ‘Your area will be Herrin…and you will have the entire town as your territory,’ Mrs. Butler pronounced.

In the mid-70s Herrin had factories such as Maytag and a vinyl upholstery factory. Billy B. began to work under the tutelage of his supervisor, Dennis P. Dennis P. liked to begin each morning at a local restaurant for coffee and doughnuts. Billy B. simply had coffee…as he did not have doughnut money. Dennis P. talked for up to two hours before they began their training. ‘Let’s have lunch…I will buy,’ said Dennis P. ‘But we have not knocked on any doors yet,’ said Billy B. ‘That we will do directly after lunch…after lunch is the best time to catch the customer at home,’ said Dennis P. with confident bluster. Lunch lasted two hours. ‘I just remembered that I have an appointment in Christopher this afternoon…you will do fine Billy B.,’ Dennis said as he pointed him to the street to begin on.

Billy B. had been to three training classes at Dennis P.s’ home in Christopher before the Big Day in Herrin. There was a word-for-word script from the time that the potential customer answered the door that Billy B. would be knocking on…until the sale was secured. The premise was that Billy B. was conducting a survey as to children’s educational needs…and that he had seen some children’s toys in the yard or on the porch and did the kind mother or dad have just ten minutes to discuss education in Herrin? Of course, the opening statement was a bit of a fabrication. The entire purpose of the visit was to sell the books.

Door after door was either slightly cracked…for a moment…in order to facilitate Billy B.s’ scripted opening remarks…and then slammed…or slammed…outright! Door-To-Door sales are almost unheard of today but in those somewhat safer times…it was just the thing for earning a living…if you had the gift of gab. Billy B. soon discovered that the lie that he had been told to say…did not fit with his personality or ethics and thus he began simply telling the person who opened the door what his real purpose was…that he was selling the wonderful set of encyclopedias and that he would like to take a few minutes to show the kind person how kid-friendly the books were and how they could purchase them on time… Suddenly doors began to open and sets of World Book Encyclopedias were sold. Billy B. knew that he had a quality product and most people that he spoke with knew that as well. Honesty and straightforwardness…paid off. Still finding enough of the poor hard-working people of Herrin to facilitate a living selling Encyclopedias…was hardscrabble and a bit like…’Picking shit with the chickens.

The Time Study Man…came to the door after Billy B. knocked three times. Billy B. had first met The Time Study Man when he had worked at Essex International Factory at DuQuoin. Billy B. had been placed on what was called a Carousel. This was with four women and one very young man. It was his first job soon after high school. His colleagues loved to speak of their fun weekends and sexual exploits. Linda was the Shop Steward for the Union. Billy B. thought that Linda…must have said it all one Monday morning when describing her ribald weekend…when she announced, Girls…I would tell you more…but Billy B. is much too young to hear such talk!’ Billy B. discovered that he was a little slow for the fast-paced circular assembly line. He then recalled the strong coffee that he had drunk each morning before he caught the bus to school. He drank the coal-black coffee of his step-dad…and it opened his eyes and gave him an entirely new outlook on life. He began to place his precious dimes into the coffee machine in the Essex Break Room. When he returned to Merry-Go-Round…he was a new man. He had been transformed from Clark Kent…to Superman…and his female coworkers…were amazed. Linda said, ‘I have never seen anyone perform the procedure that Billy B. is doing…faster than him…I am calling the Time Study Man!’ The Time Study Man came and watched and peered at his stopwatch and then at Billy B…and then again at his stopwatch…and gave Billy B… another task in addition to what he was doing so fast…and well.

Billy B. thought…’Chicken Coop…and Chickens…and shit…

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