Sunday, March 25, 2012
A Smile and A Shoeshine
“Be liked,” Willy Loman tells his sons in Death of A Salesman, “and you will never want.”
I’ve read Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning many times in my life, studied it in college, watched several TV productions, and even listened to a LP version of the story.
But I never saw the show performed live until Saturday, when I went to see Phillip Seymour Hoffman take on the role of the doomed salesman, and it hit me harder than I was expecting.
The play can seem both dated and topical, a time capsule from a distant age, but also a harsh reflection of today’s corporate battlefield, where the obsession with profits can obliterate years of hard work and dedication, all in the name of the so-called “free markets.”
My father was a salesman who worked for Tobin’s First Prize Meats, an Albany-based wholesaler, for over 20 years and many scenes in the play were painfully familiar.
And if I see some of my father in Willy Loman, I also see a lot of myself in Biff, the son who never becomes a man. I wasn't the high school hero like Biff, but as an adult I stumbled around for years trying to find a career and I know I caused my parents a lot of worry and heartache.
My father loved selling, something that seems so alien to me, even though as a reporter I employ some of the same techniques when I try to land an interview or nail down a story.
Brooklyn was my dad’s territory and he knew every street, avenue and boulevard and the best way to get to them. When I was a kid I used to ride with him as he traveled through some of the borough’s roughest neighborhoods to see his butchers.
I got accustomed to the smell of sawdust and the blast of freezing air whenever someone opened one of those the great refrigerator doors.
'Sell the Sizzle"
My father used to have these sayings about his profession, like “sell the sizzle, not the steak.” And he’d always tell us “if you sell yourself cheap, people will buy you cheap.”
He had his bad days, of course. One time, someone at the head office had screwed up an order to one of my dad’s accounts. When my father walked into that butcher’s store, the owner mercilessly berated him in front of all the customers.
“And I had to stand there and take it,” he told me.
But that’s the life of a salesman, who, the play tells us, “is way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and shoeshine.”
Tobin First Prize Meats was eventually sold and, in a sadly typical story, a bunch of bottom feeders came in and ran the business right into the ground. My father lost his job and came frighteningly close to losing his pension.
My mother said my father never got over losing the Tobin job. It had great benefits and a sense of loyalty that seemed to run in both directions. It just didn’t run forever.
While Willy Loman stresses the importance of being liked, how being well liked is key to be successful, his neighbor, Charley, asks “does J.P. Morgan care if anyone likes him or not?”
Just change the name to one of these capitalist commandos that we have running around today and the question still stands.
Who really cares want anyone thinks of you in this era of mergers, acquisitions, and outsourcing? Willy’s wealthy brother, Ben, speaks for both time periods when he tells Biff “never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You’ll never get out of the jungle that way.”
As Willy’s plans fall apart and the bills pile up, he becomes convinced that he’s worth more to his family dead than alive and that, too, had an eerie resonance with me.
My mother once told me that she was worried about my father as he struggled to find another job. He had parked his car some place to rest one afternoon, but had left the engine running.
He woke up before something terrible happened and I think he just got careless, but my mother started crying as she told me this story, clearly frightened by my father's behavior.
God knows I butted heads with my father a lot over the years, but after seeing this show, I feel like I know a little bit more about him. Like Willy, my father has his fears and dreams. I just wish I could have gotten to know him better while he was still alive.
At the end of the play, Biff says his father had all the wrong dreams, but Charley points out that a salesman has got to dream.
It comes with the territory.