Life of a salesman: Selling success, when the American dream is downsized
October 15, 2012
He had always managed to find optimism in even the worst circumstances, and here was another chance: a heat advisory, 98 degrees and rising at 11 a.m., the hottest day of the year yet.
“Thank you,” said Frank Firetti, 54, as he walked out of his Manassas office into a blast of humidity in early June. “Thank you,” he said again. “What a perfect day to sell a pool.”
He opened the trunk of his 2004 Toyota compact and changed into his selling outfit of slacks, a yellow polo and a silver wristwatch. He rubbed lotion on his face and sifted through six pairs of shoes before grabbing his dockside loafers. His goal was to arrive at a customer’s house looking “out of the catalogue,” he said — no traces of mud on his feet, no worry lines carved into his forehead, no indication whatsoever that sales at Blue Haven Pools had been plummeting for five years running and that a staff of 24 full-timers had dwindled to six.
His job was to stand with customers in their back yards, suntanned and smiling, and look beyond the problems of the past several years to see the opportunities in every suburban cul-de-sac. How about a pool and a sauna next to the patio? Or a custom waterfall near the property line?
“The possibilities here are as big as you can dream them,” he liked to tell customers, gesturing at their yards.
In a country built on optimism, Frank Firetti was the most optimistic character of all: the American salesman — if not the architect of the American dream then at least its most time-honored promoter. He believed that you could envision something and then own it, that what you had now was never as good as what you would have next. Since the country was founded, it had climbed ever upward on the spirit of people like him, on their vision, on their willpower, on their capitalism. But now, when he traveled from house to house to sell his monuments to American success, he sensed that spirit waning .
Most people believed the country was headed in the wrong direction. Fewer trusted banks, employers or government. Two presidential campaigns were bombarding his swing state of Virginia with messages about a beleaguered middle class and an endangered American dream.
He had been taught that success in the United States was as simple as choosing it, and that one man’s hard work and ambition mattered more than elections in Washington or whims on Wall Street. His grandfather had taken a boat from Italy to Ellis Island and become a brick mason who helped build a state capitol. His father had started five businesses, each bigger than the last, until the profits paid for 10 acres in Virginia and a stable for a racehorse. He had nieces who graduated from college, a brother who lived in a mansion and a Filipina wife who was in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.
The promise of America was embedded in the Firetti family story.
But lately Frank had begun to see fissures in that story, signs of the anxiety and doubt that had reconfigured so much of the country. The economic morass of the past five years had downsized his business, diminished his retirement savings and devalued his house. Now the effects were threatening to become psychological, nibbling closer and closer at the corners of his self-worth and his optimism.
As the summer of 2012 began, he and his family had much more at stake than swimming-pool sales or even the survival of their business. In question now was the conviction at the heart of an American family — that the future was theirs to control.
His brother had begun saying the world felt like a “tinderbox, ready to explode.” His father, the co-owner of their Blue Haven Pools franchise, was speaking of this election in the most critical terms, telling Frank that “the country as we know it is as good as gone without a change.” His 19-year-old son had begun building up his savings account, living in Frank’s basement and studying economics at the nearby community college, in part because he hoped there would still be a business for him to inherit.
Frank, meanwhile, continued to believe the answer to his future was always waiting on the next sales call, inside the door of the next house. Always the next house.
“Just got to close this one,” he said now, driving his car toward the first sales call of the day, a noon appointment in Arlington County. “Close one and we’ll be doing okay.”…