Mara A. Cohen. Pentimento. Summer 2015. Original URL: http://www.pentimentomag.org/fuller-brush-boy
Danny knelt in front of his Fuller Brush sample case as the lady of the house looked on. My brother’s balance was lousy to begin with, and the heavy back brace he wore for scoliosis made it worse. With one hand propped on the lady’s coffee table for support, Danny cantilevered over his case. Like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, my brother looked as if he might topple over at any moment, but the lady resisted any impulse she might have had to offer him assistance. Danny was in control.
He undid the latches of the case with an authoritative snap-snap. It was an impressive sound, one that telegraphed Quality. Integrity. The Dependability of the Fuller Brush brand. I sat up a little straighter at the sound of those latches, proud to be in this lady’s living room, proud to assist my big brother as his “Free Gift Girl,” proud just to be Danny's little sister. Snap-snap!
In an earnest tone, Danny explained the virtues of Fuller Brush’s foaming carpet cleanser. Lifting the lid of his sample case, he removed an aerosol bottle from a specially-sized compartment. My brother gave the bottle a vigorous shake, his whole torso bobbing in sympathetic resonance. Always make sure the white arrow is pointed away from your eyes, Danny warned somberly. He paused to let the significance of this precaution sink in, then aimed the nozzle of the bottle toward the lady’s carpet, wall-to-wall light beige shag. I didn’t see any stain.
In 1976, Danny was 11-years old and the youngest “Fuller Brush Man” since the company’s founding. While some of his more industrious peers were rising before dawn to deliver newspapers or mowing neighbors' lawns for pocket money, Danny was pulling in $25-to-$30 a week in commissions (the equivalent of $100-$125 today) putting in a mere couple hours a week after school when the weather was mild.
A grade school kid with a life-threatening neurological disorder, building a growing enterprise in door-to-door sales? It was an audacious notion, and like most audacious notions involving my brother, had our parents’ fingerprints all over it. Mom and Dad never wanted Danny to be considered “less than” because of his disabilities. Our mother in particular was constantly on the lookout for things that were “so spectacular” as to put Danny up at the front of the class.” Or, in this case, out on the front porch.
It made sense, though. Courteous, trustworthy and likeable, Danny was an ideal representative for the Fuller Brush Company. The company’s regional distributor had immediately recognized my brother’s virtues upon visiting our home for an interview. The representative was sufficiently impressed that he bestowed upon Danny the official Fuller Brush instructional brochure, a catalogue, order forms and a 45 RPM record on which a helpful male voice provided selling tips. Best of all, the rep assigned Danny a plumb sales territory in Denver’s safe and affluent South Hampton neighborhood.
Most of the area’s occupants were empty-nesters who’d lived in their sprawling homes for decades. Many of them had memberships at the nearby golf course. Some had monogrammed mats at their front doors, elaborate door-chimes and intercom systems for visitors to announce themselves. Every one of them had tile that needed scrubbing, odors that needed eliminating, entry rugs that needed sweeping.
Our routine went like this: After school, Danny and I would walk home from the bus stop, have a snack, maybe watch a little television, then hop into Mom's car. She’d drive us over to South Hampton and park at the end of one of the streets where she could keep an eye on us from a discrete distance. Usually it was a lady who’d answer the door. She’d see us kids and look around past us. When she spotted our car parked down the street, Mom would stick her arm out the window, give a little wave and flash a thumbs-up sign. Once invited into someone’s home, Mommy would glance at her watch, figuring she had about 20-minutes to read the editorials in the Christian Science Monitor and the cover story in Newsweek before she had to worry and come after us.
I made sure I got a cut of my brother’s earnings. After all, Mom wasn’t raising any fools. Yet the real reward for me went beyond money. I relished my role as Danny’s helper -- me and my big brother, the Donny and Marie of door-to-door sales.
My chief role in the operation was passing out the free gifts. These were small, inexpensive items I carried around in a clear plastic totebag with white handles that snapped together. Not as fancy as Danny’s case, to be sure, but having my own bag made me feel important, and I looked forward to distributing its contents, like trick-or-treating in reverse. Oh sure, the items were intended to be free gifts for people who actually placed orders, but as far as I was concerned, just answering the door was good enough to merit a reward.
Items I deemed most desirable, like a nail brush or mirror, I placed near the top of the bag. Inevitably, the customer would rummage around, bypassing the good stuff for something utterly mundane, a vegetable scrubber, say. Or a spatula. Sometimes even a fly swatter! It was completely beyond me why a person would go for the fly swatter when a rolled-up magazine did the same exact thing.
In time, Danny built up a loyal base of repeat customers. They would call our home when they wanted a refill their favorite item, but face-to-face sales were the mainstay of Danny’s operation. In an era before Amazon and Costco, my brother’s customers were happy to see him when he made his rounds, suddenly remembering the little item they’d forgotten to buy at Walgreens. And when Danny came calling with Fuller Brush’s latest catalogue, his sample case always contained some useful product they hadn’t tried. It was of course apparent to Danny’s customers that he had a disability and that I, as his assistant, was too-young to trust with totaling up their bill. But make no mistake -- Danny’s customers were engaged in commerce, not charity.
I reached down to where I'd rested my plastic tote bag, repositioning it three inches to the right in the hopes of subtly drawing the lady’s attention. If she bought something, I decided, I’d let her pick two free gifts.
Danny pressed down on the dispenser of the foaming cleanser, and a white puff instantly appeared on the carpet -- poof! One-two-three-four-five. . . Seated on the lady’s tufted sateen sofa, the lady and I held our breath. A small curly-haired dog emerged from under the sofa in order to investigate before the lady shooed him away. I silently prayed the foam wouldn’t leave a stain. The lady silently prayed the foam wouldn’t leave a stain. The dog silently sniffed Danny’s leg. It must have tickled though because my brother squirmed and pushed the dog away before continuing to count.
When he reached twenty, Danny produced one of our mother’s white dishrags from a compartment in his sample case and started dabbing at the foamy pile. It felt like I was witnessing some kind of miracle. The carpet was clean, albeit a little damp.
The lady excused herself, and when she returned from the kitchen, she was carrying a checkbook and box of Milkbone dog biscuits. She suggested I offer a few to her dog, who nibbled them from my open palm while the lady filled out an order form.
When the dog had enjoyed his treats, he disappeared under the sofa while the lady ordered the carpet cleaner, sweeper, Mountain Fresh Pine air freshener, bath oil and hand cream. Meanwhile, I rooted around in my sack of free gifts. I took pains to bury the vegetable brush toward the bottom and to lay an emory board and a travel toothbrush tantalizingly at the top of the bag. Sometimes you have to be proactive or people might overlook a truly exceptional gift.