Today, my story from our most recent Strangerville Live. Check it out on Strangerville--written version below:
This time in Strangerville, a discussion about “Oh, The Places You’ll Go.” Then Eli takes the Strangerville Live stage to talk about the time he called 911 on a door-to-door salesman.
StoryDoor-to-Door, by Eli McCann
Production by Eli McCann & Meg Walter
By Eli McCann
My great grandpa Hinckle had Alzheimer’s. He used to gather us in a circle at family parties so he could tell us stories, which nearly always began with him saying, “do you know what hell is?” Then he’d answer his own question, “taxi cab driving in Omaha.”
One million points to anyone who happened to guess that.
Grandpa would tell us a series of stories about the heartbreak he encountered, the human condition he embraced in the backseat of his Depression era yellow sedan when he drove a taxi in Omaha for a living. The story would end—not a dry eye in the house. We would sit in quiet contemplation for a moment. And then grandpa would break the silence, by saying “do you know what hell is?”
By the third or fourth round grandma would scream at him to shut up.
For at least the first 8 years of my life I believed hell was literally being forced to drive a taxi in Omaha Nebraska for an eternity. Like, when people said that sinners go to hell, I actually thought they were just picking up “floozies” and “scoundrels” in the Midwest and then driving them across town.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered that hell is not actually taxi cab driving in Omaha. Hell is door-to-door sales. On both sides of the transaction.
I never sold anything for money, per se, but as a 19-year-old I knocked on a lot of doors as a Mormon missionary, during which time I must have really loved my religion because there truly is nothing worse than knocking on a stranger’s door to try to sell something.
Maybe there are people who thrive on the rejection, but in my opinion door-to-door salesmen are living a life no one deserves. They should have to pay fewer taxes. We should have to let them get off of planes first.
Understanding my feelings on the matter, you would think I would have had a little more patience when, in 2015, I called 911 on a door-to-door salesman.
I must have been in some kind of mood when it all started. He must have been in some sort of mood as well. That’s the only reason I can come up with for why any of the rest of this happened.
It was a sunny spring afternoon when I saw a very happy-looking man with a bounce in his step, whistling, and gliding down the street toward my house, a clipboard in his hand. I could tell he was selling something.
I didn’t want to hear a sales pitch that day. I was doing yard work in my front yard. I just wanted to be left alone. And so I did the grownup thing—I went inside and hid.
The salesman came to the door, having seen me just go inside, and he rang the bell. I stayed still. Quiet. He rang again. I stayed stiller. Quieter. He rang a third time. The ringing and the stilling went on for several minutes as I crouched down inside below a window trying not to breathe loudly.
Finally it occurred to me that this was getting ridiculous. I could have sent him on his way by this point had I just stayed outside and greeted him like a man. Also, this was my house. I didn’t need to be a prisoner in my own American home.
And so, I went outside to greet him. I didn’t answer the door he was knocking. I took the side door and approached him from the front, acting surprised that he was there, as if I had come from the backyard and had not heard the ringing, because I’m a liar and I don’t deserve happiness.
Before I could finish my Academy Award winning performance of Man Who Was Caught Off Guard While Gardening, Gary, as he was called, cut me off, and shouted, “DO YOU WANT YOUR WHOLE LIFE TO GET BETTER OR WORSE.”
It sounded more like a threat than a pitch, but I knew what he was doing.
This was a trick. I knew it was a trick. If I said that I wanted my life to get better Gary would tell me he had a thing that I needed to buy in order to accomplish that goal and I would have to buy it or else I would look like a giant liar who didn’t really mean it when I claimed I wanted my life to get better. But if I said I wanted my life to get worse, well then wouldn’t I look silly.
Gary knew that he had put me in a predicament. That’s why he used this tactic. He probably got all sorts of sad losers to buy crap they didn’t need by putting them in the same impossible position.
But unfortunately for Gary, he finally met his match when he knocked on my door. On my American door. Because of my extensive background in holy sales, I was ready for Gary.
I threw him a curve ball. “Neither,” I said, with the wisdom of nobility, choosing a third secret option he hadn’t made available to me. “I would like my life to stay exactly the same.”
I know. I’ve tested near genius level on several online quizzes.
Let me tell you why this answer is genius. A. It communicated that I was already successful without implying that I wanted to stop being successful. There isn’t a B. Just an A. I don’t know why I started that off like I was going to list things.
The point is, my answer is brilliant and I should write a book.
I could tell Gary had never heard this answer before because he looked shocked. Or rather, he looked like he probably felt shocked and was doing an excellent job not showing it.
“No one wants their life to stay the same,” Gary informed me.
Look. I wasn’t looking for a fight here. I had planned to just shake hands and have us agree to disagree. Two men who are experts in the ways of sales communications deciding to respect one another’s game and move on. But there was something about his tone that made me really feel like I needed to dig in.
Yes, technically he was right to call my bluff. Obviously I didn’t really want my life to stay the same. At that exact moment, I had athletes foot and a moderate to serious hoarding problem. But when Gary challenged me right in front of my home, my American home, I blurted out, “actually my life is completely perfect.”
I didn’t think Gary would be able to challenge this assertion, knowing nothing about me, but instead of just letting it go, he responded, “Oh really? Then why are your flowers all dying?”
My flowers were in fact dying. But not because of anything I did. They were dying because of things I didn’t do, like water them.
But that so wasn’t the point anymore. Gary was clearly just heckling me now, so I turned it back to him and, I don't know if you've ever been in a position where you had a jerk in front of you and you were able to say the exact right thing. This was one of those moments for me. With Gary staring me down after having insulted my flowers, I looked him straight in the eyes and dished the burn of all burns: “even if I wanted to buy something from you, I wouldn’t" I told him, "because YOU are
NOT a very nice person.”
He’s probably still stinging from that blow.
I tried to dismiss Gary, telling him I wanted to get back to my yard work, to which he responded “thank God” in a way that was definitely meant as an insult. I told him to leave but Gary said he could go stand on the sidewalk for as long as he wanted and there was nothing I could do about it because this was a free country.
Once again, this wasn’t my first rodeo. I had on many occasions had this exact fight with my friend Jared Dimick. I mean, we were 7, but the rules were the same.
Gary had me there. This was a free country. I obviously couldn’t argue against the Constitution, so I didn’t even try.
Gary went and stood on the sidewalk while I ripped dead flowers out of my flowerbed. He was quiet for a minute—just watching me, and I thought maybe we would spend the rest of our lives like this, but then he started shouting. He started shouting things at me like, “nice job Martha Stewart.”
I tried to ignore him for a while because sticks and stones etc., but it became increasingly difficult and eventually I waddled my little testosterone-fueled body to the sidewalk’s edge and told him if he didn’t leave I would call the police and have him removed.
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me up to that moment that Gary was the type of person who would probably call my bluff on this, but it just didn’t. And so I was surprised when the very next thing Gary said to me was “go ahead. I dare you.” “I BET YOU DO.” I told him, as I pulled my phone out of my pocket and held it up, so he would know I meant business.
Then he laughed and said “I bet you don’t have the balls to call 911.”
Side note: I’m not sure that it takes any amount of bravery to call the police. I’m actually pretty sure it at least sometimes requires something of a lack of bravery to call the police.
In any event, once he said it, what choice did I have?
I suppose I could have faked a 911 call. I think I could have pulled that off. But it didn’t occur to me at the time that this was an option.
And so I pressed the 9 and then the 1 and then the next 1, each action done dramatically in a fruitless attempt to scare him. “It’s ringing,” I informed him, in case he didn’t know how phone calls worked.
Suddenly a woman answered with four words that have plagued me each of the alarming amount of times I’ve called 911 in my life: “911, what’s your emergency?”
“What’s your emergency.”
Images of families on rooftops in flooded neighborhoods and houses on fire flashed before my eyes as I stared directly at a slightly rude door-to-door salesman who was standing on my sidewalk dishing out admittedly clever zingers about my gardening abilities.
But it was too late. I couldn’t just hang up on 911. I think that’s illegal. My friend Mandy Williams and I called 911 17 times when we were 7 and hung up each time. I know we called 17 times because that’s what my dad said when he found us and told us the police were coming to arrest us unless we each ate a whole tomato from the backyard in front of him without spitting any of it up. The point is, the police have very weird rules and punishments and I don’t know if that’s changed since the 80s.
Neverthenotwithstanding, I did feel like I needed to clarify with the 911 operator so no one could later accuse me of lying, so I very weakly started my speech off with “well, I don’t know if this is actually an emergency, but it’s still important.”
Gary watched me, now appearing somewhat impressed with my follow through.
“There’s a door-to-door salesman who is harassing me.”
“What kind of harassment?” She asked.
This was one of those moments where my brain just completely froze. I was no longer thinking. I was no longer communicating like a normal person. That’s the only way I can explain why I next blurted out, “just with his mean language and persistence. It’s not sexual or anything.”
Gary raised his eyebrows when I said it, caught a little off guard that I would have felt the need to go there at all.
The 911 operator asked me to give a physical description of Gary, which I started by saying: “Well first of all, he’s a man. A stern-looking man.”
“Height?” she asked me.
“He appears to be 6 feet,” I informed her, to which Gary objected by shouting that he was 6’2.
I yelled back to Gary, “You are not six foot two, I don’t know if you heard that but he’s not six foot two.”
I proceeded to give a description of Gary as Gary stood in front of me and critiqued my description in real time.
Eventually the 911 operator summarized the call for me. “So, there is a stern-looking man, 6 feet, standing on your sidewalk and making fun of your dead flowers. And at some point he was trying to sell you something?”
It suddenly sounded a lot more silly now that it was all being said back to me, as I stood on my front lawn, but before I could even respond, up walked a second man with a clipboard.
Gary greeted him—poisoned him, really—before I could jump in. Gary, suddenly using an eternally polite voice I had not yet heard from him turned to the new salesman and said, “I wouldn’t stop here. This man calls the police just because someone is trying to make a living.”
I know, looking back, that I was being crazy. But Gary’s characterization wasn’t exactly accurate either, and so, with the 911 operator still on the phone, waiting for me to respond and explain whether her summary was accurate, I yelled to the new salesman to defend myself, “I’ll only call the police on you if you’re a jerk!” which for the record, is also not accurate. I don’t generally call the police on people just because they’re jerks.
The new salesman held his hands up in the “I don’t want any trouble” formation, and cautiously walked by while telling both me and Gary to have a nice day.
I finished my 911 call and hung up, telling Gary that the police were rushing to the scene and would be there any minute.
Two things then happened. First, Gary realized that he did not want to be around when the police showed up, so he told me he was leaving, but not because I scared him. Just because he had winners to go talk to so he wasn’t going to keep wasting his time with losers.
And the second thing that happened was that I also realized I did not want to be around when the police showed up.
I wondered whether I was supposed to call 911 again to tell them that my non-emergency was no longer even a non-emergency now that my probably 6-foot non-sexual harasser had peacefully retreated from the sidewalk to knock on my neighbor’s door. But before I could make up my mind, I saw a police car turn the corner and drive down my street.
So I did the grownup thing: I went inside and hid.
I hid from the police.
Like a badass.
A minute later my doorbell rang. For a moment I thought I should just go face the consequences of my overreaction so this public servant could go help a family on a rooftop in a flooded neighborhood or respond to house on fire. But then it seemed easier to just wait a minute for him to give up and leave.
I was already wondering if they had a file on me somewhere since only the month before this I had called 911 because a man dressed as a wizard was marching down my street screaming three words I cannot repeat here because my mother. Hint, though—he wanted to do something very inappropriate with the police.
I called 911 on the wizard, but as soon as I started explaining the reason I called the whole thing felt more like I was tattling on someone for gossiping. “There’s a wizard outside and you won’t believe what he’s saying about you guys.”
The doorbell rang a second time. Then a third. Then a tenth. I started to wonder if this police officer was related to Gary. What happened to giving up? Does no one give up anymore?
Eventually I decided it was ridiculous that I was hiding in my own home. In my own American home. So I went out the side door and approached the front, acting like I had come from the backyard and was surprised to see a police officer on my front porch, here in my good Christian neighborhood.
The officer told me he was responding to a call about a “disturbance,” which somehow sounded simultaneously understated and exaggerated.
I dismissed the cop, half thanking him. Half apologizing. Half defending my choice. He told me to call any time, but he rolled his eyes a little when he said it so I’m not sure it was sincere.
He walked off and climbed into his car as I stood on my front lawn, red-faced and hoping my neighbors hadn’t been looking out the window.
The cop drove away. Gary was out of sight.
I was left alone again—just me, some dead flowers, and my American home.
~It Just Gets Stranger