Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part three

After dropping out of Beloit College and working for a while at the National Can Company in Loves Park, I started selling vacuum cleaners for a man named Wally Traxel.

Traxel Compact Agency sold the Compact Vacuum Cleaner made in Anaheim, Calif., by an outfit called Interstate Industries. I don’t know if they are still in business today. They also sold the first version of a smoke detector that I ever saw. The selling itself was the deal. Customers were asked to fill out cards introducing us to their friends. They would then receive a $25 reward for every one of their friends who purchased a cleaner. The price of the cleaner was $269.95, but the customers were led to believe that they would be able to purchase the machine for only $19.95, the down payment on the expensive financial contract we had them sign. Some actually did, but for the most part, people were locked in to a long stream of payments with high interest.

The first week I worked there, I made $360 in commissions. Things were looking good. Training and sales meetings were everything. I really learned a lot. They used a canned close, which Wally insisted you learn word for word. I can still remember it. “If you were to buy this in a national retail outlet, which you can’t, the normal retail value of this cleaner would be $269.95. However if I were to tell you that everything you have seen here tonight could be yours for only $19.95, tell me, George, would you give me $19.95 for everything I have shown you here tonight?”

I also learned about politics at the Traxel Compact Agency. The girls who answered the telephones and handed out the leads had their favorites. I also suspect that there was some kind of reward system of which I was not aware at the time, sort of like tipping your dealer at the casino. The leading salesmen always seemed to get all the good leads. Those of us further down the lines got the reprocessed ones. The leads where the customer had canceled the appointment the first time, or had to be talked into keeping the appointment at all. My earnings fell off. I decided to go looking for another job.

There was a position in the paper at the local Coca-Cola company, delivering Coke. I went for the interview, but it didn’t seem too promising. In the same part of the paper, there was another ad about a delivery job, this one at a little company called Rockford Nehi. This turned out to be one of the luckiest interviews of my life. This was the day I met Fred Adamany. He interviewed me in his office and started me immediately. The first driver I trained with was Terry Wang, he had the south city route, one of the largest routes in the company. The first stop we made was the O’Donnell’s Supermarket at Kishwaukee and Harrison Avenue. We unloaded hundreds of cases of RC Cola. The drivers worked on commission and made really good money for that day. I was hooked.

Well, almost hooked. That was when I met Bud Longanecker for the first time. Bud was the sales manager. He was very well known in the city; all the grocery managers liked him immensely. He was also the toughest son of a b—- I ever met. There was Bud’s way of doing it, and that was it. One of the drivers was sick, and Bud had to run the route. He took me along as a helper, but Bud’s theory was that the helper should do everything. This was how he taught you. I was just a soft college student who had never had to work very hard in my life. I simply wasn’t prepared for the stress of delivering hundreds of cases of 16 oz. (55 pounds each) cases of returnable RC Cola, and then picking up equal amounts of the empties.

On one famous occasion, I was wheeling five cases of 16 oz. through the back door of the Castree Pacemaker at the South Gate Shopping Center. I hit a corner of the butcher counter and sent the five cases flying all over the floor. Bud stood looking at me and shaking his head. I got the mop and the broom and cleaned up my mess. Then I went out to the truck and got five more cases. Upon entering the store again (because I was so tired), I hit the same place on the counter again and spilled my new five cases much in the same manner as before. That night he told Fred that I would never make it as a driver. Fred told him to give me another chance. Fred liked the fact that I would not give up.

I absolutely hated Bud. I thought he was the meanest man who had ever lived. One night while loading my truck, I called him an unprintable name to another driver. I turned around, and he was standing there. He never said anything about it to me. With time, I learned to respect him and his methods. If you survived with Bud, you could actually amount to something. The work was incredibly hard, and you might as well find it out sooner rather than later. We started our routes at 6 in the morning and in the summer it was not unusual to be loading your truck at 9 or 10 at night. I would lose 10 pounds of body fluid on a typical day in spite of drinking countless cans of RC.

More next week.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com, and featured on WNTA talk radio AM 1330. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

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