December 11, 2019

The Salesman

A few months ago, I asked my father, now happily retired, what profession he would choose if he were starting over again.

"Oh, I’d do the same thing," Dad said. "I’d be a salesman."

"A salesman?"

"Yes. I’m good at it."

It’s Father’s Day, and I am so glad that Dad is around to read this: Dad, I had you wrong.

Do we ever really know our parents? Even if we’re giving their lives close scrutiny, can we understand the choices they made? Maybe no better than our children understand us.

I was certain my father regretted the limitations of his options that landed him selling industrial supplies, before starting his own small business catering to the booming Long Island aviation industry.

Where did I get that idea? He made more than a decent living, bought a home, and had the satisfaction of leaving a business someone wanted to buy.

Yet, he did give a certain impression. Some of it was his own griping each evening at dinner, sharing with my mother about the late-paying clients and the late-arriving employees. Right up to the day they sold the business, he had a word to sum up his rounds of calls and billing: "aggravation."

From a child’s view, adult life seemed so hard. I could measure his fatigue by the metal click of the key in the door each night, announcing he had come home. I heard the pounding of his shoes, ka-clump, ka-clump, ka-clump. He climbed 12 stairs, each footfall heavier than the next. Had he worked in a mine, he’d have been as weary.

I waited for his ascent in the living room, sitting on the couch in front of the green, wooden fish tank my father had designed and constructed with saw and paint. The fish tank revealed everything in Dad that selling did not: patience, tenderness and love. He never got angry when the fish died, or when the filter clogged, even if it was because I overfed them. He let me open the top of the tank, scoop out the latest victim. Then I opened the plastic bag and sent the new, fresh mollies, guppies and angel fish to swim free.

This was the world my father should be in, I thought. My mother liked working in insurance. But my father was an artist; he should be making fish tanks for a waiting world.

Little did I know that Dad had his own ideas about what life could offer. He had long ago made his peace with "aggravation" and the cost of making the most of one’s opportunities. And he, to my amazement, didn’t seem to mind.

I am at that age now — daughter left home, parents retired — where the last word has been said. Whatever attitudes toward work a parent can give a child, it’s well been expressed. I ask myself now, what will she make of my advice?

Stick around and see, is the best answer that life provides.

Parents have only so much influence. The world takes care of the rest.

One night in 1966, my family gathered in the playroom to watch Arthur Miller’s "Death of a Salesman" on television. We sat on the couch, silently. For more than two hours, we did not move. I thought I saw my life go by.

In my memory, it was as historic event as the assassination of JFK. Lee J. Cobb played the tragic Willie Loman, being laid off after 34 years in sales. Mildred Dunnock played his wife, Linda. Biff and Happy might have been played by my brother, Alan, and me. We were so caught up in the struggle of the Lomans it was as if all of America was watching us.

That was when it came together, my father’s profession and my American legacy.

In some Jewish homes, "Salesman" is more than a Broadway classic — it is a family saga, played out in our dining rooms and in our hearts. The play captured the economic euphoria of the postwar expansion and the anxiety that growth was somehow based on sand. I read somewhere that during the postwar decades, ‘salesman’ was America’s No. 1 non-agricultural and non-industrial job description. Here was Miller telling America, attention must be paid.

A playwright oversold the salesman’s tragedy. It’s taken me years to get the point. There is book-smart, and there is street-smart, my dad tried to teach me. One tells a story. The other lives a life.