Street Corner Perfect Pitch

March 5th, 2011 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

I had some advice for a mendicant this cold morning down by Haymarket. Yeah, I gave him some money, but it came with more valuable advice I learned many years ago from a great salesman.

To drag out the punchline, I thought back to when I first lived in Cambridge during college in the late 1960s. Street bums seemed as common as donut shops — student age, indeterminate wrinkled substance abusers and on and around. Seeing them when he visited, a very bright classmate headed to his PhD in history was up for a summer and figured he’d play. He stayed with us but refused our food. He was determined to apply his savvy to what surely was easy quasi-work.

He failed miserably.

He was clean, personable and pleasant, while still speaking up and engaging Bostonians eye-to-eye. He tried places like the Pru sidewalks, where he saw many successful buskers and beggars. He just didn’t click, got next to nothing, and ended up letting us feed him before he went back home. He eventually was a tenured professor but never a winning begger.

When he was here I watched a very successful guy downtown. The big difference between him and my friend is that one had a shtick. Even after I knew the act, I gave him money in appreciation of his performance. It was cheap entertainment, something my chum did not offer. Instead, this guy would approach someone of the sidewalk and open his right palm to show numerous coins. This, of course, defied conventional wisdom, as in pretend to be penniless and at the mercy of the passerby.

Instead, he’d get the interest of the other person by touching the coins and saying, “I’ve got $1.63. I need another $1.37 to get a sandwich right there,” and pointing to a convenience store. While I don’t believe anyone thought he would rush in for an egg salad sandwich. I certainly figured he was stocking up for some wine or such and had more than $1.63 already. But the theater…

So, this morning I had a flashback when the beggar at the Haymarket garage pulled out a plastic box of strawberries. He started strong with a routine. He was an honest man and couldn’t lie; he had just stolen the fruit. He was locked out of the shelter last night and had not eaten, but they didn’t serve decent food there anyway. He needed money for a small bag of chips (strawberries and potato chips?).

In remembrance of the much better mendicant from those years ago, I was reaching in my jeans for a bill. He didn’t stop though. He went on about how honest he was and how he was ashamed to have stolen. He quickly passed from a sympathetic character to a pathetic and dishonest one. I had to tell him  that he wasn’t believable. He doubled down about how every word was the truth, the proven (eh?) truth and on and on.

That’s when I thought of a great space salesman I had known when I was an editor out of New York for Construction Equipment magazine. He always beat the results of the other guys, which was remarkable in that his territory had fewer companies likely to advertise in our magazine and directory. Others had big factory states with Caterpillar and other huge equipment manufacturers. Larry was in Texas with petroleum companies, who advertised heavily only in consumer publications and pretty much only sold lubricants and fluids to our readers.

So I got to ask him one day. The whole staff including us writers were on a week-long junket/internal conference/bonding at the Dorals in Florida. One afternoon, Larry and I were at one of the bars and I had to find out how he skunked the other guys quarter after quarter. He laughed heartily, which was unusual for him. Despite being in BIG Texas, he was pretty soft-spoken and the shortest and slightest of the sales reps. He wasn’t much for loud laughs.

He then leaned in and looked me directly in the eyes. Larry said, “I know one thing the other guys don’t. When you’ve made your sale, shut up.”

This morning, just before I handed the strawberry fellow some money, I passed that far more valuable gift to him.

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One Response

  1. Uncle says:

    My daughter reports a brilliant piece of mendicant theatre from the San Fran Embarcadero. The performer has nothing but two tree branches. He pretends to hide behind them, and at random jumps out and shouts at passersby. Even though anyone can see him and he always has an audience, he always gets someone to jump and fork over. And then, as you say, he shuts up.

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