ONCE IN A WHILE, THEY STILL SHOW UP AT YOUR front door-not Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses, whom some Christians enjoy debating, but magazine sellers, usually young men and women from urban areas far away from the city in which you live.
You probably want to just say no, because you could subscribe to the magazines at half the cost by internet or phone call. You probably think the appeal is a scam or that the sellers are being ripped off by their handlers, and often that's probably true. But don't automatically slam the door, especially if you're a sinner like me who gets impatient with those who interrupt my writing time.
Earlier this year Klinton Fletcher of inner-city Louisville, age 22, came to my door at about 2 p.m. and stood there in his white shirt and tie, eager to please. He should have brought out the compassion in me but instead my journalistic persona kicked in. Suspicious that his company was exploiting him, I asked lots of questions about the economics: Klinton said he gets 35 percent of the subscription price, plus 100 "points" per subscription that he needs to accumulate within four months in order to get to 20,000 points and a promotion from "salesman trainee" to full-time regular.
This all sounds a little fishy. Klinton has to pay for his hotel and food from his earnings, so he hadn't made much money during his first six weeks of work. After a while he said that he hadn't made any sales at the 40-50 houses whose doors he had already knocked on that day. And when I talked the next day with Beatrice Heathman, his supervisor, she said that 75 percent of her sales trainees don't make it.
But wait. Klinton, after we talked for a half hour, said that before he joined the sales world he had been selling drugs on the streets of Louisville-"just weed, no white stuff," he hastened to add. He could describe in detail his career as "a knucklehead" in school and the drive-by shooting deaths of two friends and a cousin. He also described the discipline of his new life, including sales meetings at 7:30 a.m., and his ambition to build up his success in sales, start his own business, and eventually own a barbershop.
Was the "up from the ghetto" talk also part of the scam? Maybe, but probably not: Mrs. Heathman's description of how she teaches her trainees to be on time for meetings, to keep their shirts tucked in and their pants from sagging to their thighs, has the ring of truth. Klinton and Mrs. Heathman both talked about rules that are enforced: No drinking or drugs, midnight curfew. She said she started out selling door-to-door 16 years ago and now owns New Generations, one of 45 small businesses under the umbrella of American Community Services, which says it makes sure that the magazines Klinton sells become magazines delivered.
Call me a sucker, but I subscribed at inflated prices to U.S. News & World Report (time to check out the competition) and to ESPN Magazine, which my youngest son really likes. And yet, maybe this was my moment that day of thinking biblically: Should our ideal be always to buy at the lowest price? Klinton could be an excellent faker, or he could be someone who wants to believe fervently in the American dream of rising from the bottom-and he can do that, if he works hard and doesn't have the door slammed in his face by every person.
The practice of gleaning is one biblical way to offer hope to the poor. Landowners were not to harvest crops at the far corners of their fields or fruit from high-up branches. The poor could eat and collect food to sell if they were willing to walk far and climb high-so shouldn't someone willing to climb my steep driveway get a break as well? And if Beatrice Heathman can succeed with a fourth of her down-and-out charges-a better record than the typical government program-she deserves to make a profit. My sense is that their stories are true (and I am receiving the magazines now).
At the end, after I already had given him a check for the magazines, I asked Klinton more about what motivated him, and he talked about the aunt who taught him about Jesus while his mom was in jail for six years: "She said I shouldn't waste my life. She said God has a purpose for me.... This is my calling right now, to make something of myself."