Young critic loses the sale, wins an admirer

Friday, September 15, 2006

What do you do when you get home from work to unwind?

My wife arranges fresh flowers. Or writes cheerful cards to folks who can use a bit of cheering up.

I play the piano.

I'm not very good. My eight years of 50-cent-a-week lessons from Mrs. Handford gave me a love of music, but a musical gift is a musical gift, and I don't have it.

Thank goodness my patient wife has grown accustomed, over the past 40-plus years, to my mangled playing. She never complains. She does, from time to time, quietly close the door to the room she's in.

So my playing is for my own amusement without benefit of a critical audience.

Until Wednesday night.

I was playing a Scott Joplin rag called "Cascades" and had come to one of my abrupt stops to figure out the fingering of a particularly syncopated passage with a bunch of extra sharps and flats -- plus my right and left hands were expected to do entirely different things at the same time. Gosh, that Scott Joplin really knows how to hit my Achilles' heel.

The doorbell rang.

It was the front door. I don't know about your house, but no one uses our front door. We believe, but we might not be able to prove, that we were given a key to the front door when we bought the house. Evangelists and politicians are about the only ones who ever come to the front door. They both promise a better future, but who knows?

When I opened the door, there was a boy I'll call Young Lad who had the exact number of freckles spread across his nose to qualify him as an all-American boy.

Young Lad said he was raising money for a good cause at the middle school. Middle school? Young Lad looked to be a third-grader, tops. Then I remembered he looked about the same age as a specialist my doctor sent me to last year.

In a well-rehearsed 30-second presentation, Young Lad made his pitch, inquiring in the gentlest possible way, as he flipped through a colorful catalog, if I might be interested in Christmas wrapping paper.

Young Lad, of course, had no way of knowing that I am not a fan of school-age salesmen. When my sons were that age they had the good fortune of having an Uncle Johnny. Whenever they came home from school or Scouts with a box of stuff that had to be sold, we would make the three-hour-plus drive to Uncle Johnny's house, where he would ask, "How much stuff you got left?" and then fork over hard cash for whatever was in the box.

No, Young Lad was standing at my front door without an inkling of my miserly attitude or my predisposition against door-to-door salesman.

When I told Young Lad I didn't want to buy what he was selling, he didn't flinch. He thanked me and started to turn to go down the front steps, but he hesitated.

"Was that you playing the piano a minute ago?" he asked brightly.

Why, yes, it was.

"You're really good."

Timing. It's all in the timing.

Young Lad had not learned the devious art of buttering up his customer first. Instead, even though he had lost a sale, he took the time to say something nice. Really nice. He had no idea how nice.

Come back, Young Lad, in a few years when you are running for governor or president. I want to vote for you. I want to give you a campaign contribution.

I'll even go door to door handing out campaign literature with a picture of your face, your smile, your freckles.

And I'll tell everyone, when you are a bigwig officeholder, "He's a great guy. I've known him a long time. He likes my piano playing."

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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