It was the winter of 1980, brutally cold in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and my middle school was sent out to sell magazine subscriptions to our neighborhood. Each subscription sold would earn us “points” towards fabulous prizes contained in this breathless 20-page brochure, and one of the prizes was an actual gun. There was also a working miniature John Deere tractor, the size of a dishwasher, that ran on actual gasoline. It didn’t have tines or a thrasher (and only went 5 mph), but it looked pretty awesome nonetheless.
T-minus nine years until virginity loss and counting
I knew my neighborhood and my limitations, so I went for something a little more attainable: a brand new badminton set. The picture showed a family of ten playing a fantastic game of badminton next to a picnic, and I deeply craved that amount of fun, available for only 15 paid subscriptions.
As an aside: what the hell was my school thinking, sending hordes of 7th graders out into the world to sell corporate-owned magazines? On the surface, I suppose it taught us the business acumen of the Cold Call, but the whole thing became a runaway train of subscriptions to Life, Ebony, Crochet! and Cat Fancy. There was a contest to see which students could sell the most, but the rich kids always won, because their parents could easily buy 45 subscriptions to McCall’s Quilting and use them as kindling.
My own family did the best they could, and always upped their subscription to the New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly (which contributed to my fascination with writing and with New York, apparently the only place in the world) and National Geographic (which started my lifelong and oft-mocked obsession with maps). Once my brother Steve moved out of the house, I could always count on his subscription to Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine.
my bedroom in middle school
But that wouldn’t get me close to my badminton set, so I had to go out into the hood. I was already delivering the Penny Saver to most of the blocks around me, so I knew the terrain, but the weather had turned ghastly, with four-foot ice drifts and wind chills that would freeze early settlers. Also, I despised selling things to people – I didn’t know the tricks, I felt like a sham, and I didn’t want to be responsible if people didn’t like their magazines. I felt beholden, and besides, I was ten minutes away from full-blown puberty and felt like I could explode with hard-ons and body hair at any second.
Unbelievably, I managed to get a few more subscriptions, mostly for TV Guide. Everyone bought TV Guide at the store anyway, and the thought of getting it in the mailbox a day early was a pretty good sales pitch. Before long, I had 14 subscriptions, one shy of the badminton set. The only person left in my purview (and indeed the town, which had been burned-over, Second Great Awakening-style, by hundreds of kids now growing desperate and moving far beyond their home turf) was this lady who lived on Forest Avenue who was notoriously mean and rumored to be harboring untold wealth.
So I put on my winter spacesuit, pulled my toboggan hat down to sub-zero, walked six blocks and made the infinite trek in 4pm darkness across her lawn. She answered the door, and to my surprise, let me in. It was blazing hot in there, smelled like a rainforest of ferns, and I was asked to sit.
I began my “pitch”, such as it was, but I soon realized this was not a woman who was going to read the TV Guide, nor, indeed, watch a television. I was to endure a brief scolding about the inappropriateness of the “uninvited call”. I’ll say one thing: she was mercifully curt, and before long I was back home, resigned to never have a badminton set.
One of my parents’ friends happened to be over, and after hearing about the aborted sale at the old lady’s house, she said, “well, you don’t get rich by giving all your money away.” At that very moment, I think I actually aged. I’ve heard that sentiment over and over in the last two decades, and it always makes me feel utterly apoplectic.
Was I to understand that a lifetime of not buying a $12.99 magazine subscription kept this old woman swimming in gold bullion? Even at 12, I understood this comment to be nothing more than a way people use to justify the cruel penuriousness of the fabulously wealthy. I mean, I probably wouldn’t have expressed it quite like that, but I got the concept. Everyone knew this woman inherited her money from her husband, an early stockholder of Quaker Oats.
Investing $17 million in the alpaca meat market? Selling stock to start a restaurant in Manhattan? THAT’S throwing your money away. Not buying a subscription to Dog & Kennel from a 7th grader? That’s entirely something else.
Totally depressed, I wandered up to my room, and leafed through the catalog, gazing at all the stuff I’d never get. After a while, my dad came up and said he and my mom would like one more subscription. To Saveur magazine. I jumped for joy, ran to school the next day, put in my subscriptions, and waited 14 to 16 weeks for delivery of my badminton set.
At some point in the summer, it arrived: two flimsy aluminum poles connected by a gauze of fishing line, two birdies bent irrevocably by shipping, and four racquets, one of them with the strings already unraveling. I got Sean and Michelle outside, and we played BADMINTON, god dammit.
Oh, and this week I’m putting together some pitches for Saveur magazine.