By the 1970’s, most folks mailed their insurance premiums to an agent, or directly to a home office. The practice of having the agent go by the insured’s home or place of business on a monthly or weekly basis still existed, but it was getting rare.
Along about then, my new bride thought it best I find something to do. I needed to be kept out of mischief, and what with groceries costing about fifteen or twenty dollars a week, an income would be a handy thing to have. So, I took a job. A respectable insurance company had need of an agent, and I had need of wages. I met with their manager, and we found our common needs not only to be coincidental, but compatible. It turned out to be educational for both me, and the company: I learned a whole bunch of new words, and they learned that I was an idiot.
With that development, I was assigned a district where idiots were commonplace, and would have people to chat with on a daily basis that would not talk so far over my head. It worked out nicely. This charity, topped with the circumstance of a stipend, guided me into a blissful state frequently associated with ignorance. But the system worked, as I stayed out of jail, and my wife had a little bit of money to help with the bills. Occasionally, we’d have two dollars left over, and could go see a movie.
Among other duties, the company expected me to generate new business for them. One of the main things they wanted me to sell was life insurance. Additionally, they particularly wanted me to sell it to people who weren’t likely to die any time soon, but the expiration date on a human being is not always that easy to pick out. But I did learn that if someone ran into your office clamoring to buy life insurance, you should check their pulse, and look for open wounds. It was also frugal to look over their shoulder to see if someone was running up from behind with a gun.
Otherwise, I found that if you asked a person if they wanted to buy the stuff, the natural and almost universal response was for them to say: “No.” The aversion to it is strange, for there are very few situations where a beneficiary is disappointed to get the money, and in fact, most of them wish it were more. I’ve seem more harm come to families due to the lack of it rather than the other way around. But just the same, I found out quickly that was not an impulse item in my store.
Agents share stories. One of my favorites was about dealing with a reluctant prospect who said:
“No, I ain’t wantin’ to buy no life insurance. What I want is something that will pay off the house in case I die.”
Besides the obvious perception of what the product does, the thing I find to be a regular occurrence is the expression: “…in case I die,” as if the prospects of that happening would be remote. Although history shows it tends to happen to everybody sooner or later, folks don’t want to talk about the possibility of it happening to them.
Each week I had to make a deposit of monies submitted as premium for new business as well as those collected on old accounts. Most of the established customers paid by check through the mail, but there were still a few that expected me to come by their house and pick it up. To them, it was, and had always been the way to do business, and I’m sure some of them thought it was in The Bible.
One old retired gentleman lived in a mill house that he was proud to have been able to purchase during the years he worked for the mill. You could see the mill from his front porch, and he spent a lot of time just looking at it. As if it were some kind of duty, he would take his morning coffee out to the porch , and take note of other folks as they walked to work. He would nod and wave at some, as if from his throne he could send out blessings to those who might deserve it, and withhold them from those who don’t.
He made eye contact with all who passed by, on foot or in a car, and made sure they all knew he was not joining them in their drudgery, because he was retired. He would read the daily paper from his point of observation, and be on hand to make sure those going home from work could see that he didn’t have to do that anymore.
Given any opportunity to do so, he would tell anybody and everybody that his house was paid for, and he had a pension to boot. He took pride in the fact that he had never been fishing; never gone swimming, and had never ridden a bicycle in his life. Further, he considered people who did those things to be foolish. I didn’t bother to ask him how he felt about golf, sky diving, or singing in a rock ‘n roll band.
Each week, he put his insurance money in an envelope, and placed it inside a jar resting on the ledge of a column that held up his front porch. Then, he would sit in a rocking chair on the porch, and wait for me to come by, or at least he always made it a point to tell me that was why he was out there.
Early in my association with him, he also told me what a good agent my predecessor was. Seems the other agent always came exactly on the due date, and always at the same time of day. “You could set your clock by him,” he said. It was as important to him as what time church services are supposed to start, or a scheduled doctor’s appointment. Few people have ever been so foolish as to set their clock, or even their calendar by me, and my client made sure I was aware of it.
“Think I ain’t got nothing to do but sit on this porch and wait for you to decide to show up?”
That was the routine. My part was to look at my watch, and act surprised to see how late it was. Then I was expected to ask about his wife, children, and grandchildren, and of course always tell him I liked his shirt. He would then tell me which member of his family had bought it for him, and whatever occasion had made gifts appropriate, but at no time was I to want to talk about my family, or my shirt. Although I always wore a clean dress shirt, for me to mention it would have sounded uppity.
I would open the envelope, remove the money, and put the envelope back in the jar. He’d used the same jar and the same envelope for years. I think that old envelope was about as important to him as the insurance itself. But the routine was far from over. He always watched me as I wrote down the amount in the official book, and he always looked to make sure I’d done it correctly. I always asked him if he wanted a receipt, to which he always said:
“Nope. It’s in the book. They go by what’s in the book. Y’all get paid to keep up with it. If they want me to keep up with a bushel basketful of notepaper, they’ll have to pay me the same thing they pay you. I don’t want no fool job, and don’t need no fool job. Done had one.”
The wrinkles on his forehead deepened. He pointed towards the mill, and in a lower tone of voice, continued:
“They worked me like a rented mule. Reckon they thought I’d quit, but I didn’t. I showed ’em. I showed ’em all, and got my retirement fair and square. So don’t hand me no piece of paper for me to have to manage and keep up with. Where in the world would I put it? That envelope over yonder would be so full of receipts by now that it would bust slap open. If you have to write one, just hang on to it for me.”
He had an attitude. He also had a pet rooster. Whenever I stopped in front of his house, the rooster would always run out to the gate to greet me. I would open the gate and go inside the fence. Each time, the rooster would follow me suspiciously as if he’d never seen me before, and that I might be up to something that a chicken would need to worry about.
It was a big white rooster with a bright red comb, and an expression on it’s face that suggested he thought he was more intelligent than the rest of us. Maybe he was, as he still had all his feathers. Sometimes, while I counted the money, that fine piece of poultry would stand on one leg with his head cocked sideways, and watch me to make sure I didn’t miscount, or drop any of it.
Each time, I would say my goodbyes, accept admonitions about my misunderstanding the respectability of being on time, and walk back towards the gate. The rooster always followed me. When I put out my hand to open the gate, the rooster would make his move. He would fly up, and attack the back of my head making the most awful racket. Neighbors down the street couldn’t tell whether it was me, or the chicken that was squawking the loudest.
The first time it happened, I thought the end of time had come. Hen’s teeth are said to be rare, but I’m pretty sure this old bird had cuspids, bicuspids, and incisors. Though it happened every time, it is not the sort of thing you get used to. That ritual, along with the financial disaster resulting from my remarkable sales abilities, had a lot to do with my decision to get out of the insurance business.
The old man was stern, and for the longest time I thought he didn’t like me. One day I was counting the money, and found the total to be a nickel short. There had never been any deviation before, not so much as a penny. I noticed something in the bottom of the envelope. It was a tooth. A small tooth, like you’d find in the mouth of a small child. There was no place in my book for dental records, so I asked:
“Is this a baby’s tooth?”
I could see he was holding back a smile. I’d never seen him smile before, much less be in need of holding one back. He stroked his chin, and said:
“Granchilluns stayed here last night. Little Missy popped a tusk eating corn on the cob. Her mama weren’t here to deal with it, so the tooth fairy had to borrow a nickel. Take it and put it under your pillow. A man with such a fine shirt as you got on might have even better luck. Tooth fairy in your neighborhood might be passing out dimes, or maybe even quarters.”
The look on my face must have provided him with some entertainment, because he began to laugh so much I thought he would hemorrhage, and choke to death. Wiping his mouth with a handkerchief that appeared to have been in service a long time, he reached into the pocket of his overalls, pulled out a nickel, and handed it to me.
“Gimme that tooth, boy!” he said, still chuckling.
As I started to make my way back to my car, the old man got up, and called out sharply to the chicken:
“C’mere Eddie! Let me hold you a minute. You gonna keep on ’til you mess up that man’s pretty shirt, and I’ll have to sell you to pay for it!”
That was the first time I knew the rooster had a name, and to this day, I’ve never known another one named “Eddie.” I didn’t bother to point out that the shirt I was wearing might take a bit more than one scrawny old rooster to replace, as I didn’t want to insult him, or the rooster. He held the chicken in his arms like it was a puppy, and for the first time, I made it outside the gate without getting flogged.
Since I never saw the rooster outside the fence, I have my doubts about him ever crossing the road. I’ve heard people ask why the chicken crossed the road, but they must’ve been talking about some other chicken. But if you see one doing it, and he answers to the name of “Eddie”, don’t turn your back on him.
Driving back to my office, I thought about being a child, and how much the tooth fairy idea helped get over the trauma of losing a chomper. I particularly remembered getting a nickel once, and told the boy next door about my new found wealth. He showed no signs of being impressed, and said the tooth fairy always left him a quarter.
I pondered the prospects of this, and came to the conclusion that the market value of a tooth varied from house to house. The next day at school, some casual conversations with other entrepreneurs in the ivory trade confirmed it. Some got dimes, some quarters, and one girl said she got a silver dollar. I studied that girl for a while, and noted no particular manner of conduct that would make her a better person than some of the other children who got nickels and dimes. As a matter of fact, I was surprised she got more than a penny.
This kind of studying lead to the inevitable question of the wisdom of Santa Claus, and the hierarchy set for what a child might have coming to it for being good. Over time, it seemed to me that it had a lot to do with where your house is located, and what your father might do for a living. I began to wonder if Heaven would be so segregated. I remember thinking that if it is, I probably wouldn’t want to go.
I worked up the courage to ask my Dad to explain why a boy at school, who I knew to be not one whit better than me when it came to being good, and on some occasions had been downright mean, would get such elaborate gifts and toys each year at Christmas. It didn’t take daddy long to answer, so I figured he must have run into a similar situation in his own childhood, and had the luxury of plenty of time to think about it. He smiled, picked me up, and sat me in his lap, saying:
“Son, did you enjoy Christmas this year? Did you have fun, and feel appreciated? How did you feel when your mama opened the box with that necklace we got her?”
I was beginning to feel guilty for asking the question, and felt like it sounded awfully selfish of me. I answered him with something like:
“Christmas was great. We always have a good time. I’m not complaining, I was just wondering how it works. I felt good when Mama opened the necklace. You let me help pick it out, and she looked so happy. I just wish we could’a gotten her that other one with the big red ruby in it.”
Dad’s smile was still there, but more subtle now as he said:
“Me, too. If I could, I’d buy her the moon. But the truth is, the one we got her is the nicest one she’s ever had. So, I think she was pretty happy about it. Now son, we always have fruit around the house, don’t we? Apples, oranges, tangerines, and bananas are pretty much available if you want one. There’s a bowl over there with Brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds, and pecans in it right now. When your mama was a little girl, an orange, a tangerine, and maybe a bag of nuts not like the kind that grow around here, would be quite a treat, and to get such as that at Christmas, or at anytime would make her happy. But things are different for us now. I’d imagine if all you got for Christmas was an orange and a couple of walnuts, you might be disappointed, wouldn’t you?”
I nodded in agreement, but felt guilty that I had become such a depraved and greedy person so as to expect to be treated better than my own mama was treated as a child. Dad continued:
“Christmas is supposed to be a happy time, and the whole business of Santa Claus has to do with making children happy, isn’t it?”
Again, I agreed, and he finished up with:
“Some boys and girls live in situations where some other things are as common to them as apples and oranges are for you. So it may not always seem fair, but don’t you agree that they deserve to be made happy, too? And to make them happy, just like with you, sometimes a surprise of something out of the ordinary is just what it takes.”
I studied on that, and studied on how I might make some progress with this tooth fairy business. Since I knew I couldn’t change my circumstance, I decided to take my next tooth over to the boy next door. I explained what I had in mind, and we worked out an agreement to split the profits.
Evidently, there is a rule that the tooth has to be under the pillow of the person who lost it, and not to be passed around for just anybody to use. Somehow, the tooth fairy caught us at our scam, and the rest of our teeth were removed from the commodities market by the Securities Exchange Commission of Elves, Pixies, and Fairies. Since then, I’ve never been able to make any profitable investments regarding my teeth, and my own children have had to live with the shame of it all.
As my sons grew up, they had to deal with a miserly tooth fairy, and struggled to come to terms with the prospects of a tangerine being considered a bonus once in a while. Perhaps at times, they may have seen it attributable to my ineptitude rather than the wisdom of elves and fairies. But even so, we always managed to have some magic in our good times together, and seeing their smiles was always on the top of my wish list. Right now, I’m looking at a photograph of them on my desk, and they are smiling. I look at it a lot. If they ever know the half of how it makes me feel, they’ll think I must be the wealthiest man in the world.