Death & the Salesman

Jarrow sat listening to NPR on the verge of tears. I didn’t care. I had a job to do.

It was a beautiful fall day in Duluth, Minnesota. Two hours earlier I ran along the shoreline of Lake Superior. The cool breeze and the warm sun felt good on my skin. I was glad to be alive as I bounded up the stairs to my regular hotel room. I called it the Willy Lowman Suite at the Lake View Inn.

Dripping with sweat I slammed through the door, grabbed the towel I’d set on a chair, flipped on the radio and headed to the bathroom for a shower. I was just about to turn the water on as sounds of mayhem came peeling through the report on “Morning Edition.” Something horrible had happened.

“It just came from out of nowhere,” a woman sobbed as a siren screamed past her, fading into the distance somewhere, but where? The reporter was in the middle of some kind of catastrophe. But even he didn’t seem to know what was happening. The radio images in my mind, usually so clear refused to coalesce and I just couldn’t lock onto a solid picture of what was going on. So I did something I never do. I turned on the TV.

At that very moment, as the tube snapped to life, an airliner slammed into one of the iconic Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. The second was already burning. The day was September 11, 2001, the day my life changed forever.

I turned off the TV and turned up the volume on the radio. Sketchy reports were coming in, but I knew what had happened. We were under attack, but not by a world power. They’d tried this before and this time they’d succeeded. Terrorists took down the World Trade Center. And America would be duped into going to war.  Shaking my head to clear it, as if to fling the thoughts free from my mind I called my wife.

“Did you hear what just happened?” “No,” she said. I told her. “Are you coming home?”  she asked. “Just as soon as I finish here, I’ll be on my way. Now get to work,” I said. “It’ll be a busy day. You’ve got a job to do”

My wife Shamane is a reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio, the NPR affiliate in Madison, the state capital. Her day would be spent trying to make sense of that morning’s events for a frightened populous desperate for news and information. That day she had a job to do. And so did I.

I checked out of the hotel, packed my car and drove three miles into town. I had an appointment and I was right on time. Strolling casually into the building I set a heavy black bag on floor by the counter. Jarrow sat listening to NPR on the verge of tears. I didn’t care. I had a job to do. So I pretended as if nothing had happened.

“Hey Jarrow,” I said smiling. “Had a great run this morning. How about you?” “Yeah,” he said dully, his eyes hooded, his gaze fixed. “I ran trails up by the campus. Did you hear this?” he said pointing to his radio. “Uh-huh, on the way in. I’m not sure I really know what’s going on though,” I lied. “You got those inventory reports for me?”

Austin Jarrow is a premier running shoe store. Jarrow, no last name, just Jarrow is the co-owner with his partner Bill Austin. I’d known them for years. As he shuffled from behind the counter I bent down and reached into the black bag at my feet. I came up holding a slick new trail running shoe, a man’s size 9, left, a salesman’s sample.

In 2001 I was the Midwest regional sales representative for a major running shoe company. I managed a six-state territory driving more than 35,000 miles each year calling on specialty running stores like Austin Jarrow. On September 11th I had a job to do and I did it well. Years of practice at intense negotiation taught me valuable skills of control, the ability to stay calm, to keep my head while the guy across the table is loosing his.  Despite the circumstances of the day I used my powers of persuasion and put my skills, my training to work. I had a job to do.

I created in my mind the image of a clear mountain lake. Without a ripple of movement from even the slightest breeze that lake and my mind where absolutely still. I knew that in Jarrow’s agitated state he could sense my calm and unconsciously he would try to reflect it. He relaxed as he gave me his full attention. So we got down to business.

Over the next hour I lead Jarrow through the sales process. With the radio still playing in the background I maintained an air of stoic yet jovial professionalism. We even laughed a little, as we filled out a sales order for several size runs of product worth about $8,000. Not bad.

As he signed the ordered I packed up my samples and zipped the big black bag. With a smile, a thank you and a handshake I was out the door. I did my job. But sitting there in my car it all fell apart. That clear mountain lake in my mind started roiling like an ocean in a hurricane and the image of stillness and calm began to swirl forming a Tsunami that came crashing over me. With both hands and my forehead on the steering wheel I started to sob.

“What the hell have I become?”

I had a job to do and I did it well. In the days that followed, as ground zero smoldered and the Pentagon burned, the President reassured the nation that all was well. “We will come together,” the president said to a joint session of Congress nine days later, “to take active steps that strengthen America’s economy, and put our people back to work.”

I had a job to do, but suddenly I didn’t want to do it any more. On this critical day when tasked to fulfill my chosen profession I used my skills and powers of persuasion to manipulate, to control for my own self interests. I was horrified to realize that when the world so dramatically changed and so many people had died, all I could do was to sell shoes. At that moment sitting there I knew I was done. As I sat there the salesman in me died.

On the long drive back to Madison I gave a lot of thought to what I was going to do instead. National Public Radio was a constant companion as I made my way home through dozens of shocked communities along the Mississippi River and into Wisconsin. I thought about my wife and how her work in public broadcasting gave her the ability to inform and persuade for the benefit of others, to offer clarity in the shadows of darkness. It was on that drive that I decided to become something different, to use my powers for good. I decided to become a NPR reporter.

That was nine years ago. Today I’m a freelance journalist. It took almost two years to dissolve my sales business and during that time I learned a new set of reporting skills, new powers of persuasion. I did a stint as the associate producer of a live Public Radio entertainment variety show called Higher Ground with Jonathan Overby. I worked two years as full-time business reporter for the Madison daily newspaper the Wisconsin State Journal.

Now I write as a stringer for magazines, newspapers, blogs and web sites. I write a monthly corporate philanthropy column called “Good Works” for the online publication The Capital Region Business Journal. I’m a regular contributor to the blog of the adventure travel magazine Wend. In addition to being a photographer, videographer and a sound editor I am also a master of social media, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc. I am currently working part-time as the social media specialist for the Environmental News Trust video series called “Assignment Earth.”

In recent years and months I have produced audio stories for Wisconsin Pulbic Radio as well as Public Radio International Programs like To The Best of Our Knowledge and The Tavis Smiley Show. I’ve also filed for the American Public Media program Marketplace. And working on my own, I regularly produce an audio podcast called The Joy Trip Project.

Using my powers of persuasion I’ve been able to acquire sponsors to financially support my work to be distributed over the Internet. Here I tell stories about people who work to make the world a better place through outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living. I have a job to do and I do it well.

Special thanks to my sponsors  Patagonia, Osprey, Clik Elite and Mountain Hardwear whose generous support is making this latest series of stories possible.

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Author:James

I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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