Down The Rabbit Hole

22 Jun

By Brian M. Howle

Upon my arrival to the campus of the University of South Carolina in the early ‘70s, I was immediately struck by the overwhelming sense of being Southern. It seemed every professor, every administrator, and every other student was from regions up North. Backwards Southern wa
ys, colloquialisms, quaint redneck customs, and of course, the accent – were all fodder for those of non-indigenous lineage to climb on the “let’s-persecute-the-stupid-rednecks” wagon at breakneck speed. And given the undeniable stupidity that is so prevalent in our citizenry, it was – at times – hard to defend our heritage.
My parents instilled some serious appreciation for the virtues of being well mannered into their three children. It’s the kind of parenting that resulted in me – at 48 – still addressing the kid behind the fast food counter as “sir” or “ma’am.” Now, that’s an awfully little thing to do for someone – just the act of being polite and respectful. But it sure makes a difference in their day – and mine. As a side benefit, most of my orders aren’t screwed up when I finally get home and open up that to-go bag.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that a majority of the country doesn’t seem to have that same appreciation for politeness and common decency. I remember being so disheartened by this, and then a growing sense of anger that I had been “hoo-dooed” by my scheming parents, simply to keep me on a short leash while in their charge. “Just be nice and treat folks the way you would like to be treated,” they said, “and they’ll do right by you, too. There’s some good to be found in most everyone.” Uh huh.

Upon entering the USC School of Journalism, I was eager to find salvation alongside my peers – to join those in search of communicating the events of the world around us, applying personal and professional ethics in every story or campaign. Accurate, factual reporting – free of biased, slanted retribution imposed simply because you disagree with the subject – was the one way I could make a positive contribution to my society.

Unfortunately for me, this was 1973. The Vietnam War, the late ‘60s activists protests, wildly changing mores and values, and a feeding-frenzy for political blood all combined to make my chosen profession fair game for suspicion of intent. The unfolding Watergate scandal had a life of its own, with special prosecutors and high-level defendants, and the press was on it like white on rice. Not to fear, brave world; for I shall carry forth the flag of decency and truth.

One day, the topic for discussion in a particular class on writing and reporting was receiving unchallenged acceptance from my classmates. The professor was relating his contention that we were obligated to cover a story with our employer’s best interests at heart, which spun my head around.

“Excuse me, sir, but what if the story dictates otherwise?” I meekly inquired.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said, waiving his hand to emphasize its irrelevance, “you should always make sure that your ass is covered when it comes down to your job.”

“But, what if you can’t do that? What if you actually care about the facts and the truth, instead of how it makes someone look or how it affects their business interests?” I voiced my difference to the professor, which invoked a Shakespearean aura to emote from him as he removed his eyeglasses. You could feel the intellectual butt-kicking I was about to receive – it was that palpable.

“Then, Mr. Howle, I strongly suggest that you find another profession.,” he began. “Your personal sense of what’s right has no place in Journalism.”

“So, truth has no place in Journalism?” I indignantly snapped.

“Not if it gets in the way of the story,” was his stoic reply.

I chewed on that one for a moment. The other students were all giving me that imploring, “dude, let it go” look. Then I let all the anger leave my mind and body, and pleasantly asked:

“So, if I accept this, do I get my armband now?” I queried.

He was truly perplexed by my question, as were my classmates. He was immersed in speculation, of that I was sure, as he leaned forward from his casual half-sitting-on-his-desk posture and asked, “What armband?”

“The one with the swastika on it,” I dryly quipped, “There’s already been one regime this century that’s adopted your position on truth. Thanks, but I’d rather not be associated with that ideology.”

I never did get an answer to my armband question, as things sorta went downhill from that point on. In a few weeks, I shuffled over to the registration office and filled out a drop form. So much for ethics in writing.

About two weeks later, a similar incident popped up in an advertising class. The venerable widget was being employed in a fictional marketing campaign, and for this scenario it was deemed to be an item for personal amusement. Nothing a family would require for existence, you understand, just another choice in the disposable income wars. We had reached a point where demographics came into play, and the focus was on a low-income, poorly educated market.

“Why are we concentrating so much of our target market on this sector?” I innocently asked.

“Because the sheer volume of potential consumers assures us of a windfall net profit,” was the instructor’s rehearsed reply.

“But, what if these people don’t need this product?” I continued to persevere. I swear, I was so naive about things.

“Ah, but that’s your job, young man,” he excitedly countered. “You must make them believe they need this product, whether they can actually afford it or not.” So much for ethics in advertising.

At this point in my formal education process, the only thing I really had a handle on was filling out drop forms.

Fast forward a few years (after I eagerly entered the labor pool of this great nation) later on. I was living in Columbia, trying to find my niche in the world of employment. Among many attempted fields of work was a gig as a door-to-door salesman. The ad read, “Photography Salesman – Sell coupon books for various sizes and amounts of color photos. $1200 per week. Set your own hours. Must have automobile.” Well, I had a car. And setting my own hours sound good – almost as good as the $1200 per week. So I interviewed for the job.

About 45 people showed up for the initial employment screening. The coupon books contained various options for having duplicates made at potentially 50% savings. Groups of wallet-sized, or 4×5, or 8×10, or 10×14, etc.; even those little postage stamp size photos. A year’s worth of photo savings, all for $250 – about $1.45 per day. I saw lots of faces staring off at the ceiling halfway through that first hour, as one by one, folks began to bail on their sales careers. By the end of that meeting, we were down to 20. A few days later, after several long sessions extolling the steps for closing a sale, it was down to three. And we three all shared the same polite, well-mannered personalities – and a humongous lack of villainous larceny in our hearts.

Our trainer – a fellow from California – took us out one by one, with me being the last to go out “in the field.” He showed us how to read the papers for wedding announcements for leads. Find the couple, weasel your way inside their home and lay it on them. He did all the talking and selling on this trip; I was just there to observe and learn. On this particular day, we had tracked down some newlyweds who resided in a rather depressing neighborhood. It was painfully apparent that these folks were very, very poor – and they were already saddled with the impending arrival of their first child.

After giving the initial pitch for the little coupon book (which, if you had the money and took a lot of pictures, actually was a pretty decent deal), the husband stopped him in mid-sentence. “Sir, I’m sorry, it’s a great deal and all … but we just can’t afford it right now.”

My mentor looked at the young man and – in a voice that was intoned to shame him in front of his young wife – asked, “You mean to tell me you can’t afford a buck and half a day, for the documentation of your family and your life? Your wife’s memories – and your child’s first photos – don’t mean that much to you?”

As the couple stared down at the floor, quietly answering the question by not answering the question with fleeting dignity, I excused us from their kitchen and pulled my trainer outside.

”What the hell are you doing?” I snarled as the door closed. “How can you belittle someone like that? Who the hell do you think you are, buddy?”

He shook his head and sorted through his briefcase, dismissing my temper as easily as he had just dismissed the young couple’s libidos. “I’m the guy who’s gonna make the full commission on this sale, cuz,” he sternly replied, “because they’re gonna have their pictures developed somewhere, regardless of how broke they are right now. I’m smart enough to know that, and you’re not. So take a hike.”

Too bad he wasn’t smart enough to stop me from hiking off with about five grand worth of coupon books in my car, all of which I gave away to folks at flea markets on weekends. So much for ethics in sales.

Alas, I landed a regular job the next week, working as a counterman for an auto parts store in downtown Columbia. I had some experience in this field while in high school, working in the parts department of the local Ford dealership, where my dad was the General Manager. I was quite happy with the job, and seemed to blend in relatively well with a staff of middle-aged, not-too-swift-of-mind-or-body guys who more or less just passed the day doing as little as possible.

One hot, sultry summer day, a steaming, squealing little MGB rolled up to the front door. A young couple opening up the hood, fanning the steam to find the problem. With five of us behind the counter – and no phone orders going on – I walked outside to survey their plight.

They had already found the culprit – a small, short hose that sat atop the engine block, routing water around a valve assembly. When I saw the hose, I smiled at the fellow. “My old roommate had one of these cars, cuz,” I told him. “Give me a few minutes and I’ll fix you right up.”

I ran back inside and began flipping through the hose catalogues, and quickly located the part number. I asked where this stock was kept, and one guy pointed up. There was a loft upstairs where lots of older or obsolete parts were stockpiled amid deep layers of dust. I trod up the stairwell and located a big spool of reinforced rubber tubing, cutting off the three or four inch length that was needed.

I ran downstairs and out the door, screwdriver and hose clamps in hand, and pushed the couple – who were on their honeymoon from Ohio on their way to Myrtle Beach – out of the way, as I performed the one mechanical repair at which I have some prowess. After adding a little water to the radiator, he cranked it up – and their smiling faces said it all. He came back inside the store with me, and settled up for a grand total of $2.68 – two clamps at 50 cents apiece, and $1.60 for the hose, plus tax. With a wave and grateful smiles, they pulled out of the parking lot and motored off for their beachside honeymoon.

I was beaming, proud of myself for saving the day for those kids. The four other guys – who hadn’t moved in an hour – just looked at me, as the creaking old door to the boss’s office swung open.

The boss, who had moved to Columbia from Pennsylvania, growled out, “Howle – inside – now!

Stunned by his reaction to my good deed, I shuffled into his office. He proceeded to explain to me that we were in the auto parts business, not the auto repair business, and that I was to absolutely refrain from repeating my little performance in the future. And he was damn serious about it, too.

“But sir,” I pleaded, “our job is to service the customer. Word of mouth is the best advertising you can have, and it’s free, and ….”

He stopped me right there. “We don’t go out of our way to help anyone,” he flatly stated. “We just sell parts. We don’t have time to do crap like that.”

I looked through the big plate glass window that faced the parts counter. The other four guys were motionless. No, I sure wouldn’t want to upset the natural order of things here. So much for ethics in retail.

Unable to compromise my principles, I clocked out and collected my last check. Dejectedly walking over to my car parked out behind the store, I reached to unlock the door, when I realized the lock had been sprung with a coat hanger – which was still hanging from the window. I peered inside – only to find my 8-track tape player and tapes had been stolen.

Now, a true cynic would have taken that as a wickedly sarcastic commentary on my life by the Creator Himself. But, not me. I looked on my good deed with the couple in the MGB as a Karma down payment; I looked on the theft of my tape deck and tapes as an opportunity to upgrade my technology for that newfangled cassette tape player. And life went on.

Nearly thirty years later, I’ve traversed paths with many people who do not share those values instilled in me by my parents; and I’ve met many wonderful folks who do. And life goes on.

And – that flap over the Confederate flag notwithstanding – I’m proud to be Southern.
The previous article was originally published in the March 14, 2002 issue of Alternatives NewsMagazine.

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Posted by on June 22, 2009 in Along The Watchtower


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