Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Candidates Meet-and-Greet

Perched on the Hill

Since the location was only mile or so away, I decided to walk to it.  I felt as ready for whatever this was going to be as could anyone who hadn’t ever attended a candidates meet-and-greet event.  I had studied the issues, knew the gentleman who was hosting it, and knew something of the other candidates who would be there.  I could foresee only one problem – I don’t do “cold calls.”

If you don’t know what a “cold call” is, let me explain to you the way I view one.  You walk up to someone you’ve never met, or even seen before, introduce yourself, tell them what you are doing (or selling), talk to them with the intention of winning their support (or getting them to buy whatever it is you are selling), and, finally, make the sale.  You are selling yourself, always, as a salesperson or a candidate.  Only one problem with that, I don’t really like sales.  More than that, I have this unreasoning fear of “cold calling.”  I don’t know where it comes from, but I’ve had it for a very long time.

My first memory of being terrified of talking to someone is in the neighborhood where I lived in Chicago when I was very young.  There had been an incident in the front yard of the apartment building where we lived.  I had my bicycle turned upside down and was turning the pedals with my hand to see how fast I could get the back wheel spinning.  The little girl from next door was watching me do this and, for some reason, got curious and reached out a finger to touch the moving bicycle chain.  Apparently, she lost the tip of that finger.  I didn’t see it.  All I remember is the crying and the commotion.  I guess I am to some extent responsible for that little girl getting hurt, perhaps entirely responsible.  Just by being where I was, doing what I was doing, and not warning her to keep her finger out of a moving machine made it my fault that she got injured.  Or so it seems.  It was never really explained to me.  All I know is that I was warned not talk to the people next door because they were suing my parents for the girl’s medical bills.  I didn’t really know what any of that meant; except that there was now a place that I had to avoid so that I didn’t inadvertently cause any more damage.  As I recall, the next door neighbor’s kids were the only friends I had on the block.  Now I had none.  I was afraid to ride past their house on my bike.  Ahhh, those happy childhood memories.

After that, I really had no interest in meeting new people or making new friends.  A few years, and three changes in location later (we moved first to Morton Grove and then to Peoria and then to East Peoria), my parents decided that I needed to go to summer camp.  I don’t recall them asking me if I wanted to go.  I certainly don’t recall dreaming fondly of heading off to somewhere out of state to spend a couple of weeks with strangers.  I’m sure it would never have occurred to me.  I was given no choice in the matter.  Part of the summer camp deal was that I could earn some of the money it cost to go there by selling cookies door-to-door.  Did I mention that my father was a salesman?

My father was/is a salesman.  From the day I was born until the day he retired, my father sold things.  Up until about 1975, he sold industrial fluorescent lighting fixtures – lots of them.  He worked for a company based in St. Louis as a route salesman.  That meant that he would travel all over southern Illinois calling on customers, finding new customers and making deals on lighting fixtures.  He was very good at it, apparently.  He loved cold calls.  He loved meeting strangers.  Strangers were potential customers to him.  He stopped selling lighting fixtures in about 1975, after moving to Denver, Colorado to sell them for a company located there.  The market for that sort of product had changed.  He moved up to the mountains of Colorado and started selling cars.  That was only a passing fancy, though, to pay his bills.  Where he was headed next was real estate.  He got a real estate license and then a real estate broker’s license and from then on until he retired, he sold real estate.  I had moved away from home by then so I wasn’t a witness to very much of the real estate sales period of his life, though I did visit him at a number of the places where he sold everything from raw land to time-shares.  Salesmanship ought to be in my blood.  It is not.

Resuming our tale of my door-to-door cookie sales experience, my parents informed me that I would need to sell these cookies to earn my way to camp.  Earning, I believe, means receiving something you desire in exchange for effort.  I had no desire to go to camp and so I had no reason to expend any effort selling cookies.  And I certainly had no interest in knocking on some stranger’s door, introducing myself, etc., etc.  I was terrified.  There was a standard spiel that I was supposed to memorize and recite as I met each new potential customer.  It went something like this: “Hi, my name is Brett Fernau and I am earning my way to camp by selling these delicious Chocolate Drop Cookies.”  There was probably more to the sales pitch, but that is all I remember.  I’d usually get that much of it spoken before I got the usual “No thanks” followed by the occupant of the house closing the door.  My parents took me out selling cookies whenever we had a mutually free moment.  I knocked on a lot of doors, I received a lot of rejections and I didn’t sell too many cookies.  You’d think that I’d have gotten over my fear of cold calls by just getting out there and making some.  I did not.  Each new closed door, behind which lived someone who I had never met, held just as much terror for me as the last one I had reluctantly approached.  It never got better.  My parents made me go to camp, too.  Selling cookies was neither fun, nor successful.  Camp was horrible for the most part.

I was going to say that I’ve never been comfortable meeting new people, but that isn’t quite true.  What I’m uncomfortable with is selling something to a stranger.  An oddly specific fear, I suppose, with no psychobabble buzzword to label it.  It’s a fear akin to stage fright and, thus, is a fear of ridicule and rejection.  I don’t mind meeting new people at a party, though I don’t seek them out.  I can have long conversations with someone I just met about subjects of mutual interest and thoroughly enjoy myself.  I can walk the streets of downtown Los Angeles at night taking photographs and not feel that I am in very much danger.  But, put me in a position where I have to sell something, especially myself, and I just want to be somewhere else, anywhere else, but preferably a place where salesmanship is not required.  This is unreasonable, of course.  I know that.  I ought to be able to overcome it easily.  I haven’t yet.  And now I had a meet-and-greet to attend.

I had promised to see this candidacy through to the end.  The meet-and-greet was part of that effort, so I walked up to the house, knocked on the door and was met by the host.  I help him set up chairs and carried a tray or two of snacks for the neighbors we anticipated would be attending.  Some of the other candidates arrived.  Since I had already met them, I could talk to them.  And then the neighbors began to arrive.  The more experienced of the candidates set the standard.  They greeted people, shook hands, talked about the issues, asked the neighbors about their concerns; they had all the right moves and knew their lines well.  I sat down at a table and watched them all interact.  I could not generate any interest in selling myself to these people.  It was cookie selling all over again.  I didn’t really want to be on the Neighborhood Council and so I didn’t care if these people voted for me or not.  No, that wasn’t it.  I just couldn’t beat my fear of meeting new people.  Finally, I stood up and walked over to where one of the other candidates was speaking to a group of neighbors.  I listened to him tell them about his views of the issues and respond to their questions and concerns.  He was kind enough to include me in the conversation and I did manage to express some of my opinions.  It wasn’t much, but it was better than sitting alone at the table.  I survived the candidate meet-and-greet.  I don’t suppose I gained any supporters, but at least I was there.  I did what I said I would do, even if I didn’t do it very well.

The candidacy process was almost over.  There was one more forum to attend.

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