Written By Matthew Tolbert
Published in Inkwell Magazine 2012
After nine months of uncontrolled freedom, wild parties, college girls, under-aged drinking, more college girls, and a little studying on the beach, I mistakenly moved back home for summer break. I had just finished my freshman year at the University of California, Santa Barbara and had savored the parent-free environment of living in a dorm six hours away from my family. With the freedom to control my time and choices, studying became an option and air-hockey mandatory. That all changed the summer I moved back home. Those three months were the most difficult time for me and my parents. It was also, as they say, the best of times.
For the most part, it was good to be home again with my loving mother, Gemini father, and my younger sister, who envied my college life. I was especially looking forward to seeing old high school friends and sharing this untamed freedom I discovered in college. All of that changed the first night at the family dinner table.
“You have to get a job, you know,” my dad delivered the suggestion that rang of a demand. Later in life, he confessed to me that that summer was uncomfortable for him as well. He wasn’t sure how to handle his long-haired, side-burned son that said “cool” every other sentence, a word he hated till his last day.
“Hey Dad, I was thinking since I worked so hard studying and everything, that, that I’d take the summer off and recharge my batteries for my sophomore year. That cool?” Now that I’m a parent myself, I see how ridiculous that idea was. It didn’t work for my children either. My statement of laziness quickly fueled the angry fire that was always burning inside my father. My second mistake was ending my sentence with the word, “cool.”
Dad leaned towards me, finger pointing towards my face, “Listen young man, as long as you live under this roof, you will do as I say. I will not have you sit around the house while the rest of us work and take care of you!” Clearly, this was not a good start to the summer of no responsibility.
“Okay, okay. I’ll get a job. Sorry,” I immediately apologized knowing the power of his temper. I truly believed at the time that my working was a mistake and would affect my grades next quarter. I was always the easiest person for me to convince.
As usual, Mom came to my rescue, “Maybe you could work at that tropical fish store again. You enjoyed that.” I lovingly smiled at her and got the message, even from my own lenient mother: get a job.
Ever have songs that instantly pop into your head when someone says a sentence that matches the song’s lyrics? The oldie, “Get a Job” haunted me the next morning and echoed even louder when there were no openings at Rene’s Tropical Fish.
Rene heard the pet store at Sunvalley Mall was hiring. I thought a pet store was one step above serving french fries. My friends all had good jobs: Big Bob was working for an electronics company, Scott was a security guard, and D-Bone was a caddie. A pet store sounded like something a high school student would do not a college man.
The family morning ritual of reading the San Francisco Chronicle in silence while drinking coffee was interrupted by my dad asking if I had found a job yet. I knew he was serious when he actually put the paper down waiting for my answer.
“I have an interview today at the pet store in the mall,” I raised the comics section, trying to hide what my mom called “my lying smile.” Mercifully, the silence of the ritual was returned.
Sunvalley Pets was one of a successful chain of pet stores where most of their profits came from selling registered puppies from $200 to $500 each. The manager, Bernie wore dated glasses, was balding, dumpy, waddled, and was probably beat up by bullies as a kid. I liked Bernie instantly. Despite my hippie looks and my lack of enthusiasm, he unfortunately hired me to work in their tropical fish department since I had experience.
On my first day of my new job, my mom proudly made me lunch and my dad victoriously smiled and waved from the door. It was Saturday and he didn’t have to work.
Though I liked tropical fish and knew ich from dropsy, it was obvious that the real money was selling puppies. These salespeople dressed in white smocks, (I never knew why Bernie made them do that), were paid on commission and could make as much as $300 a week. Much more than my $3 an hour netting fish.
Rick was the top salesperson. He looked like he was from the 50’s: greased back hair, smoking like it was important, clean shaven, and regularly wearing white t-shirts and blue jeans. He had an edge to him that made me think he never outgrew being a bully. I was always nice to Rick.
Tom was his follower and a fellow smock-wearer. Tom had quit his mechanic job to make more money selling dogs. I think he was doing both jobs since his hands were often dirty with oil. Tom did anything Rick said and would follow him around - well, like a puppy. Though he was unattractive, gangly, and obviously poorly educated, it never stopped him from flirting with the women customers.
As the store closed at the end of my first day, Rick and Tom introduced themselves. They informed me of the “new employee ritual” I would need to pass if I was to continue working there. I happily agreed hoping it would include beer. Each one grabbed one of my hands and took turns hitting my upper arms. How worse could this stupid pet store job get? I painfully passed, but it confirmed for me that this summer job was a bad idea.
That night I went home with large bruises on my arms. Dad saw me walk in and told me how proud he was of me. I nodded and as I walked by, he patted my arm. Still to this day, I will not forget the surprised look on his face as I screamed.
The next day I met the other two puppy salespeople. Joe looked like the stereotype Italian pizza man with the big black mustache and dark hair combed back. He was incredibly strong and was a bouncer at night. The one thing that made Joe stand out even more was his height; he was only 5 feet tall. Joe was a lot of fun, had a crazy sense of humor, a twinkle in his eye when he smiled, and always had women customers attracted to him. Joe was the creator of the infamous puppy salesperson line.
The puppies were in cages behind a large glass panel for all the customers to see. Joe would grab a puppy, bring it out into the store, and with sad puppy-like eyes, he’d say in a childlike voice to the crowd, “Who wants to hold a puppy?” It always worked. Someone would always want to hold one. And when they would cuddle one, Joe knew he had a sale. Once someone holds a puppy, they can’t put it down.
The fourth salesperson was Dave. Dave was a family man that couldn’t keep a job. You know the kind, nice guy, friendly but no common sense at all. Dave dressed sharp, wore the latest big glasses, and always a smile, especially for the ladies. His family would stop by the store occasionally to see him. On those times when they came to see Dave and he wasn’t even on the schedule to work that day, Rick would tell his wife that Dave was on a lunch break. We all knew Dave’s “customer service” when beyond the store.
My third day I asked Bernie if I could become a puppy salesperson. He smiled politely, he had been expecting my request, “Maybe later, Matt. I need you to help us increase sales in the fish department.”
I decided to go to the one in control, Rick. While he was smoking in the backroom, even though employees were not allowed to, I asked for his help, hoping it would not involve selling my soul. “Sure, but then you have to do something for me, kid” Rick smiled, drawing a long drag on his cigarette.
I covered my upper arms and kept an eye on his hands, “What is it?”
“I’ll let you know when I need you,” Rick winked and walked away, grazing my shoulder as he went by me.
Later in the week, Rick slid up to me. He delighted in being mysterious. With a large grin and an arm around my shoulder, he leaned in and whispered, “A chow chow’s tongue is black.” And then he slipped away, softly laughing.
At closing time, Bernie waddled up to me, proudly smiling, “So Rick tells me you know a lot about dogs.”
“Okay, quickly, tell me what makes a chow chow different than other breed?”
I tried not to laugh. I looked around and saw Rick peaking out from the backroom, with his lit cigarette and a big “gotcha” grin.
“That’s easy,” I was cocky, “They have black tongues.”
“Good one, Matt. You do know your dogs. Let’s talk tomorrow.”
Much to the surprise of my parents, that night I was studying dog books like cramming for a final.
The next day I walked into Bernie’s office and said, “Good morning Bernie, hey, did you know the Basenji is the only dog that can’t bark?”
“Good one, Matt but I thought about it and really need your help with the fish. How about if I make you tropical fish manger?”
All I could say was, “German shepherds are the smartest breed.”
I went back to the dark fish room and watched the dog salespeople. Then I got an idea. I quickly picked up an aquarium and walked over to the puppy section. I turned to the crowd and said, “Who wants to hold an aquarium?” The crowd laughed. Rick laughed and shook his head in disbelief.
Bernie looked out of his office and smiled, “Good one, Matt. Okay, you win. Go buy a smock and come back tomorrow as our new puppy salesman.”
The $40 for the smock was worth the look on my dad’s face the next morning as I went to work dressed as a doctor.
Rick was my trainer and taught me more about sales than any motivational speaker I have seen since. He was a very good salesperson and knew both sides of selling: the pushy used car side and the relationship building, caring side. He shared with me about bringing the puppies to the people, how going to them was more important than them coming to me. I had to practice the puppy line to where it sounded cute but not canned. Rick stressed how important it was for me to develop a bond between the customer and the puppy. The rest would follow. “Sell from your heart,” he would remind me.
Rick showed me how to use the “puppy room” where the customers could play with the dogs. The enclosed room was filled with puppy toys and was designed specifically as a place for forming a deeper connection.
And then there was the guarantee. If they didn’t want to keep the puppy, they could return it within 10 days of the purchase and get a full refund. No one ever returned a puppy in the history of the chain. “Also kid,” Rick said, “if there is anything wrong with the mutt, we guarantee the dog for 3 months.”
“Or 30,000 miles whatever comes first,” I laughed. Rick didn’t. He had heard that line too many times.
The most important thing Rick stressed was never let the customer leave to think about it. Once they are gone, so is the sale. Even though they would promise to come back, they rarely did. Rick spent a lot of time with me and revealed his passion for his job that I never knew before. He had a gift to charm and he knew it. Rick took his job very serious.
Joe on the other hand told me to relax and have fun. They were both right.
I will never forget my first puppy, a welsh corgi. A mother of three asked me if she could see the black and white dog. As the kids took turns holding the happy puppy, I was telling them what I knew about corgis and our impressive three month guarantee.
She quickly looked up and said, “Or 50,000 miles whatever comes first.” She and her kids laughed. I laughed, probably overly much, like I had never heard it. I looked around and there was Rick and Dave nodding and grinning. I was officially a puppy salesperson.
On my first week, we got a chow puppy in, a breed that had a soft spot in my heart. So I grabbed the soft, fuzzy pet and walked out, “Who wants to hold a puppy?” I said using my best puppy dog look.
“Oh, I do. He’s so cute!” a large middle aged woman quickly walked towards me.
As I watched her cuddle the dog, thinking I had a sale here, Joe pulled me aside and whispered, “Uhm, Matt, didn’t you check the list?”
“List? Rick didn’t tell me about a list.”
“The sick doggie list. That chow has diarrhea.”
I quickly ran towards the woman, any puppy-dog look was instantly replaced with panic. Just before I got to her, she held the chow out at arms length and said, “Let me look at you.”
That’s when the chow lost control of his bowels and a stream of brown fluid shot downwards, luckily missing everyone.
Joe came running up proclaiming, “You squeezed him too hard. Now you have to buy him. He’s broken.”
And she did.
One time I brought a cocker spaniel out and asked the infamous question. An older lady smiled as I came towards her. “Oh, I can’t,” she glanced away.
I placed the puppy in her arms, “Sure you can. Hugs are free.”
“I owned a cocker years ago,” she pets the puppy’s head.
“Would you like to take him into the puppy room and let him run around?” I was going for the close.
“Oh, I can’t” She looked at me, then the puppy. She shook her head and handed the puppy back. She started to leave but stopped, and angrily came back to me, “You are worse that a drug pusher, you’re…you’re a puppy pusher.” And with that, she walked away and we would forever be known as “puppy pushers.”
It was turning into a great summer. I was very successful as a puppy pusher and I enjoyed hanging out with the rest of them, especially knowing they were around ten years older than me. During slow periods, we would do impressions of the dogs. I could master the kennel-cough that the dogs can get from living in kennels too long. Joe perfected the whining sound they made and started using it to encourage people to hold the puppy. Dave never sold much but he didn’t care. While he concentrated on the women, Tom used his “good old boy” image in selling working dogs to men. We learned to sell with our strengths and work around our weaknesses. While some people avoided me with my long hair, others liked my humor when I pointed out how the aphgan hound and I looked the same.
Once, I had this couple that was interested in an Airedale Terrier. We were even in the puppy room but the couple could not agree on purchasing the puppy.
“I want a dog that barks. I have not heard him bark,” the wife crossed her arms and turned to her husband.
“Aw honey, all dogs bark. Here watch,” the husband picked up the front paws of the Airedale and leaned down. He looked the puppy straight in the eyes then threw back his head and barked. The puppy panted away in silence. The man tried this a couple more times. The dog would not bark.
As they continued the discussion that was becoming heated, I had the puppy on my lap, petting him. When they were not looking, I leaned down, hid my face behind the Airedale, and barked.
The man jumped up, “There he barked! I told you! We’ll buy him!”
Maybe I did sell my soul that summer but no one ever returned a puppy that I sold them.
However, one time was close. I sold a Doberman Pinscher to a woman that could only put a deposit down to save the puppy till the next day.
But that day, her husband showed up instead.
He was not happy that she had bought this dog. He didn’t smile, didn’t want to hold the dog, and was obviously annoyed. He glared at me as he wrote the check, “Did you sell my wife this dog?”
“Oh yes. She really likes her too. Did you know Dobermans are…?”
“I’m going to train this dog to come back and kill you,” he said gently and walked off, dragging the puppy on his new leash and collar.
Bernie overheard this whole thing and came up to me. Patted me on the back and said, “Good job, Matt.” He always thought the best sale was to someone who had no intention of buying a puppy in the first place.
He gave me a bonus once when a lady walked away with her Chihuahua puppy, all the necessary supplies, even a book on them. She finished paying, turned to Bernie and said, “All I wanted was canary food.”
A man came in the shop looking for Dave. I got him from the backroom. Dave walked up to him thinking it was a prospective customer that came back. “Hi, I’m Dave, how can I…”
The guy hit him across the face, sending him falling back into the hamster supplies. “Stay away from my wife.” The man walked away without saying more. Dave got up, smiled at me and Bernie then left. That was the last time I saw Dave.
Cindy was our new salesperson. Rick was upset since we never had a woman salesperson before. Cindy wanted the job because she loved animals and deeply cared for the puppies. Cindy just graduated from college and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. Cindy had that dumpy, farm girl-look that prevented the other salespeople from hitting on her. Sometimes she would take a puppy home to give it exercise outside of their cages, which was against the rules. Luckily, no one knew that when closing up the shop with all the glass doors closed, I would let some of the puppies run free in the store.
Cindy was the caring “oh I know what you mean” type salesperson. She did well. I admired her personal moral code of not selling puppies to people she felt would not be good owners.
A professional wrestler walked in at closing time. “The Lumberjack” was 6 foot, 6 inches tall, broad shouldered, broad everything. He had an Abe Lincoln beard and shaved head. He was a villain or “heel” as they are called in the wrestling business. Being a wrestling fan at the time, I walked up to him right away, not showing any fear.
The Lumberjack was a quiet type, said little, never mentioned his profession, but he knew exactly what he wanted- a huskie. It fit. Luckily we had one. I brought it out, making sure not to use the infamous line on a 300 pound wrestler. He coldly studied the puppy. I started telling him about our guarantee, that he had his shots, and he interrupted me and said, “I’ll take him.”
I boldly took a chance, “Cool but I’ll sell this puppy to you only under one condition,” Hey, I was 19. He looked at me with a villainous look, saying nothing. “Only if you give me your autograph.”
He got his dog; I got my autograph and teasing from my fellow puppy-pushers.
The call had come. Rick wanted his favor returned.
I was working and Rick was late for his shift. He was always late but this was late even for him. He called me and needed a ride right away. I tried explaining I was working and probably couldn’t leave. He reminded me with cold anger that a deal was a deal. I told him I’d be right there, realizing that getting fired was better than getting beat up. I went to Bernie and told him I was going to get Rick.
“But I need you here. You’re the only salesman on duty.”
“Bernie, I’m sorry. I owe Rick and if you could cover for me, I’ll owe you.”
Bernie studied me for a second, “So you know about your job?”
Bernie put his hand on my shoulder, “Rick told me if I made you a salesperson, he would personally guarantee you would do well. He’s the reason you were promoted.”
“But I thought it was because of my studying…the aquarium…”
“Go get Rick. He may look tough but he’s a really nice guy. I’ll cover for you.”
“Cool. Thanks Bernie,” I took my smock off and raced to my old Buick, praying it would start.
I arrived at Rick’s apartment from directions Bernie gave me. After knocking a couple of times, he opened the door, still in a robe. His apartment was dark, with all the drapes drawn. Now I was really scared.
“Hey kid, come on in,” he stepped aside and motioned slightly to enter.
“It’s okay Rick, I’ll just wait out here.”
He looked at me, locking his eyes on mine. I walked in and saw a woman sitting in a chair alone in the middle of his family room. She was attractive but in a cheap way with her two-toned hair, tight clothes, and heavy make up.
“Oh hi, I’m Matt,” offering my hand.
She smiled and before she could say anything, Rick slapped my back, “Ever seen a prostitute before, kid? Wanda, Matt. Matt, Wanda. Wanda here needs a ride home then come back and take me to the shop.”
She continued to smile but did not leave the chair.
“Uhm,” I started looking around the room, trying to figure out what was going on. Empty tequila bottles, cigarette butts, and Rick’s clothes were scattered about the room.
Rick noticed and laughed. “We’ve been partying all night. Met at Bergin’s, worked out a deal, brought her home, but left my car lights on. That’s where you come in.”
“Okay, shall we go?” I said a little too loud.
As I was driving Wanda, my mind kept thinking of all these questions I wanted to ask her. Then I started worrying that someone might see us. Oh my God, what if my dad saw me. Wanda gently put her hand on my knee and laughed, “It’s okay.” Wanda didn’t say much but when she talked, I listened. I ended up rambling on to try and cover my uneasiness. I found out she was raised in Berkeley and use to be a beautician. She also confessed that she was younger than she looked, closer to my age.
I dropped her off at a supermarket, close to where she told me she lived. I didn’t know what to say. “Be careful,” was all I said. My mom would be proud. She laughed and told me not to grow up too fast.
Rick laughed at me the whole way to the store. “Kid, you know something. I can pick up any woman I want at a bar. No sweat. But it got old. No challenge anymore. But there’s something about hiring the best and then trying to be their best. I’ve dated a number of ‘tutes…for free. I like getting them hooked on me. It’s all a game, kid, it’s all a game. Just like selling stupid mutts.”
“I don’t get it. You could sell anything. You know how to do it. Why this job?”
He took a long drag on his cigarette, watching the passing cars, “Cause it’s easy, cause Bernie lets me get away with everything, and besides, I like the smock.”
I laughed, knowing that was not true. Rick could have been a CEO of a company but he never had the sight to see beyond the world he was raised in. His dad worked at a gas station, mom cleaned houses, and no one in the family continued their education beyond high school.
“We are where we are suppose to be, kid,” that was the most philosophical Rick had ever been to me.
The night shift was usually fun with people off work being more open to buying a puppy. Not this night. I walked into the back room and saw Cindy holding an Old English sheepdog. She was crying. I saw that the puppy’s eyes were sunken deep in the socket. The puppy was dying. I didn’t want to give up. I suggested we call Bernie or Rick, run to an animal hospital, or even drive to the emergency room of a hospital.
“It’s too late,” and with that the poor puppy died in her arms. We both cried.
Joe told her to go home, take the night off. She wrapped the puppy up in a towel, nodded, and left.
She called Bernie the next day and explained that she could not do this job any more. Bernie got her an interview with his brother-in-law as a receptionist at his law firm.
Towards the end of the summer, Joe quit. He was going to open a bar with a friend.
On Joe’s last day as a puppy pusher, Bernie was home with his family and Rick and I were working that night shift with Joe. Rick suddenly announced it was slow, grabbed Joe, and they left, promising to return. I was left alone with a store full of customers.
Two hours later, they returned drunk. Breaking the store and mall rules, they also came back with two six-packs of Mickey Big Mouths. It was an easy sell to get me to drink with them.
Joe staggered up to a couple, “Just buy a damn puppy.” And turned to me laughing, “I have always wanted to say that!”
Then he yelled at the crowd, “And I hope I never hear that damn 40,000 mile crappy comeback as long as I live.”
Rick got an idea, which was never good when he had been drinking. He wrestled Joe in the middle of the store, banging against shelves and tipping over display cases. He finally forced Joe into the back and stuffed him in one of the large cages. I had no idea Rick was strong enough to take on a bouncer. Luckily, Joe thought this was funny.
Rick then walked out to the now diminishing crowd and asked, “Who wants to hold a puppy salesman?”
Two women who thought this whole thing was funny, both yelled, “I do! I do!” Rick brought Joe out as the little bouncer pretended to be a puppy. The women hugged him and all laughed.
It was finally closing time. All five of us were drunk, including the two women. The security guard, stationed outside the store for the last hour, was closely watching us. The four of them were leaving and I told Joe to stay in touch. As they left, Rick convinced the guard to keep quite and gave him our leftover beer.
All good things must come to an end, or a sobering reality. Bernie put Rick and I on probation and I needed to start getting ready to return to college. Fall quarter was starting.
My last day Rick showed up with both sides of his cheeks severely burned. He wouldn’t tell me how it happened. In fact, Rick never told me about what he did outside the store. Every time I asked, he always reminded me it was privileged information. Bernie gave me an extra “college bonus” and told me I was welcomed back anytime. He told me he had an aunt in Santa Barbara if I ever need anything. Tom patted my back painfully hard and whispered that he bought me a six pack of Mickey’s Big Mouths and hid it under my car in the garage. I thanked him and wanted to tell him to start washing his hands better and get rid of the grease and oil stains, but I decided it wouldn’t matter anyway.
As I closed up my register, Rick walked over to me and hit me in the arm really hard.
“Hey!” I yelled.
“Another ritual for puppy pushers leaving,” he laughed.
“I’m going to miss you,” I said. He had looked after me and in his own particular way, was my friend. “Let’s stay in touch.”
Rick shook his head, “It won’t happen. Let’s not even pretend or try. Listen kid, you ever want to see me, I’ll be here.” Then, smiling that grin, he laughed, “Probably the rest of my life.”
“Rick, you should come down to Santa Barbara and party with me,” it sounded stupid right after I said it.
He paused, gently touched his burned cheeks, and turned just before he walked off, “Someone dared me to chug a flaming drink last night. I never turn down a dare. Get good grades, kid.” He winked and left. He was right too. We didn’t stay in touch.
I got to my old Buick and found the beer, luckily before the security guard did. As I was about to drive away, I suddenly started crying. It was a summer where I learned more about selling and business than four years of college ever taught me. It was a time when I met people that will always be a part of me and events that changed my life. It was just a summer job at a pet store that also ended up helping me in my adult career as a national salesperson and a sales manager.
Just don’t tell my dad.