Friends or Multi-Level Marketing: Choose One

“He is truly a visionary, my Mr. David. Oh my God, you need to talk to him. Promise me you’ll give him just one hour–just one hour will change your life! And it is NOT multi-level marketing!”

multi level marketing

The official slogan of the MLM association

I nodded and smiled. I don’t like to displease people, usually. Especially when they are people with fascinating stories and a sense of panache, and Betty definitely has both. It’s very hard to find panache in the desert. “Ok,” I relented. “I’ll listen for one hour. But I am telling you that I won’t be doing multi-level marketing.”

“It’s NOT multi-level marketing!”

This is probably multi-level marketing, I thought to myself.

The marks were all there. This grand older lady whom I had admired for her grace, pluck, and former opulence had told me that this company offered everything under the sun, with solutions for weight loss, memory impairment, mildew stains, furniture scratches, scaly bathtub build-up, and so on. They had all the secrets to human happiness. And it was like one big family! Everyone supported each other in a community of household product sales.

And her adviser–this man–Mr. David  (not his real name) was a true up-by-the-bootstraps philosopher-king if one ever was. She made him sound like the bastard son of Nikola Tesla and Ayn Rand.

I was gettting an odd feeling about it as the appointment for the call approached. My relationship with this lady had always been casual and drinking-buddy like. We had war stories to share. Most of hers involved being the disgraced widow of a billionaire–a guy who owned a chain of supermarkets and could afford to anchor his yacht in Cannes. She had stories of partying with Adnan Kashoggi and other people not really sufficiently dignified by money. She had lost all of that when her husband died 20 years before, and she had been ejected into the desert, penniless and alone. At first she made a living off of breeding little dogs, then selling antiques. Lately she had gotten into this company, the one which was NOT multi-level marketing: the one represented by that visiting god, Mr. David. I got the feeling that she had fallen victim to a hopped-up, high-demographic version of the bane of cubemates and co-workers everywhere: Multi-level marking.

So I humored her by taking the call. I really shouldn’t have.

The appointed time came. The conference started. Horns announced the arrival of Mr. David (not really, but I’m sure SHE heard the horns). Pleasantries were exchanged.

I started off, trying my best to head off any ill-will. “I understand that Betty is very interested in your company. I have a job. I don’t see the need for any other income at this point. I also won’t participate in multi-level marketing. Just so you know. . . “

Almost in a chorus they responded: “This is NOT multi-level marketing!”

And with that we were off. A run down of their products which were best in the industry and had innovations that had somehow escaped all the leading brands. Check! These were products I bought all the time at the store but could save money on by buying through this company. Check!  Potential income unlimited. Check! An appeal to making money while doing nothing, just through my friends. Check! Don’t I want to pay off my house/provide for my family/retire early/get a boat/buy hookers? Well of course. . .

“I’m not interested,” I said, probably a bit too flatly.

“But. . . but . . . ” Mr. David was a taken aback.

“I don’t do multi-level marketing.”

“This isn’t  . . . “

“Does your company work on the principle of developing downstreams? Is Betty in your downstream, David?”

“Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean . . . “

“That’s the definition of multi-level marketing. That’s exactly what it means.”

“But. . . but. . . the money. . . “

“I have enough.”

“How much do you make?”

“Enough. I don’t need any more.”

So after about 10 more minutes of groveling and near-shaming, Mr. David finally succumbed. He was no fool, that Mr. David.

“Well, see: you are different than most of our customers. You are strong-minded. Think of what you could do with those skills when used on people who don’t have those qualities–ones who don’t suspect a thing. You could really turn this into a great . . . “

“Good bye. It’s time for lunch.” I hung up.

And since then, Betty goes out of her way to confront me and to call me a “jerk” whenever she sees me. I comfort myself with the consolation of philosophy.

Because see–you can have friends, or you can do multi-level marketing.

photo credit: spike55151 via photopin cc

Poem: The Swimming Pool

The Swimming Pool

The vastness of oceans lay outside the
Bedroom. Each morning it called me to praise.
After we’d share in our long, breathy howl
Naked I’d stumble two steps out the door
And fall into the lavish blue waters
Of another’s mistake.

Floating silent in the deep my ears would
Ping with suspicious creaking, soft whispers
From another time, before code enforcement.
I’d feel the sun rising to the sound of
Concrete undermined.

Dog In Pool


Sex Sells, Soup Doesn’t

In the wild and woolly early days of e-commerce, there were winners and there were losers. And then there were some would-be winners who managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This is the tragic story of one of them.


This is based on a true story. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent, as such.

Jeanette grew up in an affluent North Scottsdale home.  She attended a girls-only Catholic high school and had her share of adventures among the wilder types. Hers was the sort of family where dad made enough money from his endodontics practice to keep an attorney on retainer to defend against regular assault complaints from female patients who awoke from anesthesia only to notice their frocks slightly out of alignment. Even after that, he still had enough left over to buy his three emotionally-neglected children everything they didn’t need but that former-hippie-turned-dressage-coach mom demanded for them. This was Scottsdale, Arizona in the late-1980′s.

Jeanette enrolled at the U of A in Tucson and majored in trying to find a husband. One night at Wildcat House she chanced to run into Alain, a Dutch/French hybrid. It was love — or something — at first sight. Alain had come from similarly tragic roots as a libertine offspring of jet-setters. In other words: In the Summer, there had been meat helmets (to paraphrase Dr. Evil). It’s indeed very possible Alain’s father had been a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner with low-grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery. But whatever it was about him and his faintly condescending Euro-sneer and bad jeans, it spelled instant attraction. They had found each other.

Not Alain, but could be.

Not Alain, but could be.

Alain was in the US on a student visa, but he had big plans for his life in the New World. His plans involved the new-fangled World Wide Web: That new thing that promised to give people a real reason to use the computers that had been gathering dust in their dens.


Alain had registered a web domain back when almost no one knew what a web domain was. Specifically, he had registered the domain (actually it was something else. Let’s just say it was a seminal . . . yeah . . . seminal . . . hehehehe. . . web domain back in the day).

The man owned It was the early 1990′s. He had a plan.


So Jeanette graduated from school, they got married, and after only a few years the young couple had a pretty good thing going on: Plenty of money from the sales of lotions and lubes and interesting condoms and vibrators and various plastic do-hickies and VHS tapes available on their site. Alain was the webmaster and sole proprietor, and with only two or three employees processing orders and doing shipping he managed to make a tidy profit on several million dollars a year in sales. The profit margins were terrific. He and Jeanette lived in McCormick Ranch near the golf course. They both drove Mercedes. Soon enough, they had kid, then another. Life was good. And it had all happened so quickly! America!


But see, in North Scottsdale it’s not enough to just have big money. You can’t just leave it at that. The idea is this: You make your big money flipping houses or through some auto-glass insurance scam or by marketing crap on late-night TV or selling cockrings and dildos on the Internet, and then you make your move up to some level of respectability. You must do something to wash yourself of the sins that greased your way into that 5-bedroom McMansion in the first place.

The Kennedys made their money running rum during prohibition, but they weren’t content to stay known as rum-runners. They moved into respectable society by getting killed in interesting ways. Or however it was they did it. I forget. I guess they were lawyers.

Anyway, it was inevitable and somewhat understandable that Jeanette would grow uncomfortable explaining the family business (or not) to others in the Montessori Mommies group. There was already something about Alain that the other moms tended not to trust, and he really didn’t fit in with their husbands. To compensate, she sought the halo of respectability. She wanted a family business she could be proud of — there in her social milieu of petty arbitrageurs, trophy wives and trust-fund ne’er-do-wells in North Scottsdale.

But how?

The answer: Soup.


Yes! Fresh soup made locally and transported in refrigerated trucks to local grocery stores! Delicious! Alain could leverage his old-world awareness of fine cuisine. And, whether bouillabaisse or ben-wa balls, marketing was marketing, non? It would be difficult, but worthwhile. They would be the soup family! Yes. Who doesn’t love soup? Jeanette could bring samples of wholesome soup made with exotic, expensive ingredients to the mommies’ group. How grand!

The trouble is that everything that makes online sex-toy sales a great business is missing from the fresh soup business. It’s almost a counter-example. As a business, soup sucks.

  • Soup is perishable.
  • Soup manufacturing requires ingredients to be kept on-hand.
  • Soup manufacturing carries with it product liability that can’t be passed off to a supplier.
  • Soup makers are exposed to government regulations. You and your staff need food-handler cards and such. The health department inspects your place.
  • Soup is marketed through grocery stores that often expect to be PAID by providers to even feature their items for sale. Such is the competitiveness among purveyors and the limits of available shelf space. The margins are negligible.
  • Soup is a consumer product that isn’t purchased discreetly and at a premium to avoid shame. You basically have to kiss consumer’s butt to buy soup. And they will still hate you if it doesn’t quite meet their expectations in any way. Or if they are just kinda bored of your soup.

In less than two years they were dead broke.

The Benzes were both repo’d. The house was gone. They were both out of work. Isolated to a small apartment, they realized they didn’t have much of a marriage. Abuse set in. I heard he threw the first blows, but it’s more than likely that was after she stood near Alain one night, perhaps while bouncing a child on her hip, looking at him, and wondering what the hell went wrong: “Why didn’t the soup work out, Alain? I believed in you, Alain. Now we’re living in an apartment, Alain. Alain? Alain?” Add a bottle of cheap wine, bitterness over the shattered remnants of a coddled playboy youth, and suddenly someone is getting the crap slapped out of them in the living room while the kids watch and cry.

She took the kids and they split up. They both ran off, separately, to California. That’s where people go to find themselves when Scottsdale doesn’t work out. I’ve bought furniture and art and stuff from people fleeing Scottsdale for California after things went tango-uniform in their pursuit of the American Dream. In those cases I don’t know if they are making a flight to quality based on hope, or if it’s a final capitulation: A swan-dive to the lowest levels of the absolute hell of self-absorption. Alain had an MBA from a fancy grad school. After months of searching, he was offered a manager’s role at an Arby’s in San Jose. He declined. I hear he eventually tried out the venture-capitalist thing up in the Bay Area. I hope it worked out for everyone. I haven’t heard from him in about 15 years.

But before he moved off I saw him one last time. It was a somber parting. He seemed humbled. He talked about wanting to start over. He talked about his kids, whom it seemed he genuinely loved.

Alain left me with one irrefutable truth about life. This maxim I still carry with me in my consciousness, and that tends to inform the way I look at life, the Internet, and everything:

“Sex sells, soup doesn’t” he said, wistfully.

Then he got in his Mitsubishi sedan loaded with everything he still owned and took off, westward on I-10.

campbells-soup-beachWords ©2013 Bill LaBrie

Half-a-Man in Half-a-House

“This place is just like me in some ways,” I told the lady. “It’s pretty impressive when you first walk inside, but it gets more and more chaotic and unfinished the further you get into it.”

half shot

She laughed. She already knew what I meant.

The house was an unassuming tract home on an unassuming street in an unassuming Phoenix suburb. The soon-to-be former owners were in the construction trade. They had used their access to “discount” building materials and their skills to gradually turn that simple ’70s FHA ranch house into something resembling a mansion — at least in various spots.

As I entered through the tiled courtyard I first noticed the finely textured walls in muted earthtone faux-finish. The master suite had a giant glass-enclosed shower and separate tub. All corners and coves of the walls in the front of the house had been radiused out, giving the impression of mass and quality. There was recessed lighting. There was crown moulding, expensive ceiling fans, and a Sub-Zero refrigerator that was worth more than my car.

But . . .

There was no flooring. Paint stains accented the bare, unfinished concrete. There was no landscape in the backyard. There was no hardware in the second bath. Half of the kitchen was powered from an extension cord taped to the concrete–one that tended to trip me when I cooked.

Everything about the place spoke of great plans made to take on the world, only to at some point turn into one giant “fuck it”. And that almost literally described the situation that allowed me to live there. The departing residents had borrowed heavily against the home. When the construction and renovation business hit the skids in 2009, they tried putting the place on the market for what it was owed on it, which was about twice the cost of any house around it.

So they rented a seagoing freight container, parked it in the driveway, and were gradually filling it with their belongings for shipment to their new digs Costa Rica. They would let the house go into foreclosure. They were saying “fuck it” in a very big way.

But then so had I. Or rather, I was being called to do so.

Separation orders for my divorce had come through that summer. Custody would be shared, but the orders effectively meant I had to move back to Arizona from Colorado. The great Rocky Mountain experiment had ended, with indeterminate results. I found a place in Phoenix I could rent from month-to-month for very little while I was sorting out what to do next. It was the half-a-house.

And so sometime in August of 2010 I found myself sitting on a thrift-store sofa in the middle of that family’s best-laid-plans-gone-awry and started thinking of how that house was my life writ large. It was half-a-house, with some showy elements meant to impress the owners and the occasional visitor, while other parts were left dangerous or barely habitable. It was over-improved. And in the backyard where they had started to dig a basement, it was literally undermined.

Panic overcame me. A deep, dark depression set in. For days at a time — when I didn’t have to look after my son –I couldn’t get out of bed. I would break down when trying to decide whether or not to buy towels. I would walk to my car and back into the house several times intending to go somewhere before deciding just to lie down and cry instead. It wasn’t just living in the house that did it: It was the cumulative effects of years of denial, anger, fear, stress, and agony, most of which centered on my responsibilities around being a parent, and the debt I felt I owed my son. He was an innocent bystander I had brought into this trainwreck of a life, and trainwreck of a relationship.

A month later my son–who was not quite 4 at the time–sat down on that thrift-store sofa. He patted the cushion next to him. He was inviting me to sit down for a talk. It was so cute. I thought he wanted to talk about fun stuff we’d be doing, or what he wanted for his birthday. Even in my depths he could still make me smile. I was ready for a childish little chat.


As he looked at me, a serious expression came over his features. He patted me on the knee and waved his finger. In as deep a tone of seriousness that a small 3-year-old could muster, he said “Sad papa. No sad papa. Only happy papa. Only happy papa!”

Then he nodded and smiled reassuringly.

And at that, the circle was complete. I found I needed to release almost everything. I had to say goodbye to the foundations of my previous values. I had to say goodbye to everything I was trying and failing to keep together at my 70-hour a week job. I had to forget to my notions of normality, my resistance to indulging my own sense of wonder, my resistance to my joy in freedom. I had to let it all go.

I had to finally say “fuck it” so I could move on. The half-a-house had inspired the half-a-man to let go so he could become whole. I had to let go of the half I was still holding on to. My son had helped by essentially telling me “If you keep this up you’re going to fuck me up for the rest of my life. So stop.”

My kid saved my life that day.

By late October we moved out. I found a two-bedroom condo in the middle of town. It’s unassuming as well, but comfortable and complete. It’s not trying to be anything it isn’t. It never did.

Zero Dark Thirty 2: The Return of Osama Bin Laden

We have problems in the United States today, and not many solutions:


Illegal immigrants are rushing the gate, people are demanding legalized pot, the economy enters its fifth year of recovery that means nothing for you, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. It’s been revealed that we are under surveillance and horny computer dorks are looking at our children’s selfies. The VA is letting our veterans die. And people are finding severed heads on the lawns in Long Island.

The natives are restless. We need our bogeyman back–someone to unite us in opposition.


bin laden alive

Crack-a-lack, Bin Laden’s Back!

And Disney needs to maintain profitability. Franchises are where it’s at, Jack. You can’t just make one movie any more.

It opens with a black screen. Deep bass notes, the sound of an anvil. War drums. Far-off sounds of muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. As the screen gradually illuminates we realize we’re underwater. Suddenly the camera breaches the surface of the ocean. It’s revealed as point-of-view. We hear a gasping and a cough. There’s a fishing trawler nearby. There are excited shouts. A rescue float falls nearby.

A date appears on the screen: March, 2014

On the boat, there is much scooping and bowing among the agitated, faithful Muslims in the crew as the man is pulled aboard. He’s escorted to a stateroom. Allāhu Akbar!  This is all happening in first-person POV. Someone hands him a satellite phone then leaves the room. He dials.

“Nawaz. . . yeah, I’m back. Yeah, yeah . . . I don’t have time to talk. I need another airliner. Yes. A 777 should do nicely. Where am I? WHERE AM I? Where do you think I am? I’m right where the great Satan American infidel left me as Seal Team Six buried me at sea! And now the free people of AMERICA shall pay! I’m in the middle of the Indian Ocean!!!! I NEED ANOTHER AIRLINER!!!

Coming This Fall:

Zero Dark Thirty II: The Return of Osama Bin Laden

photo credit: 2winTradez via photopin cc

Poem: The Practice Round

“The Practice Round”

A slice of perfection–it seemed–we had found.
Dining and tippling through packs of Dunhills,
The desert gourmet and her dessert display:
A careless, lost one to carry the weight.

Working our way down the list of cafés,
Planning our next little getaway. From what?
The harrowing stress of a 401K.
The empty, loud strife of sterility.

We lived like Jack Kennedy was still on TV,
But without expectations of gallantry.
Telling ourselves we were all that we needed–
That and prime rib and six figures a year.

Seemed like a good idea

Writing Seminar From a Six-Year-Old

I’m not too embarrassed to admit that I’ve learned some things from little kids–things I should have known long before I did.

kid cleaning fish

A nine-year-old taught me out to clean a fish when I was about 31. An eight-year-old taught me a better way to memorize poetry when I was in my early 20′s. A ten-year-old girl taught me how to find available disk space under DOS 6.2 (this was a while ago).

And more recently, a six-year old showed me something critically important about writing fiction.

I delight in sharing things I remember from my youth with my son. One of them is the TV show Emergency!, which is now streamable on Netflix. When I was his age I never missed an episode when my family could get to a TV set. There was so much excitement and adventure and camaraderie among the cast. It still holds up as a good show, though of course today it would be politically corrected with a “diverse” cast. It would probably also be made edgier in some way–perhaps with calls involving cell phones stuck up someone’s bum. (Hey! It happens!)

It was easy to predict that he’d find the adventures of paramedics Roy DeSoto and Johnny Gage interesting. What I didn’t predict is that as soon as the playback started, my son would be in front of the TV, evaluating the different characters and deciding which he wanted to “be.”

After a few seconds, he said “I want to be this guy!” With that, he chose Johnny Gage and settled in to watch the story unfold, and that’s where he’s been for months.

So there it was, laid out before me: Just as Vonnegut in his 8 Basics for Creative Writing said that writers needed to give the reader one character to root for, so my son showed that he needed to root for a character before he even started watching the show. It was a pre-requisite to viewing. And all without even having read Kurt Vonnegut at all (though as a young hipster that’s probably not far away).

As a writer you need to ask yourself which character your reader is likely going to want to be, then let the reader be that character, just as my six-year-old chose to see the world of Emergency! through the eyes of Fireman Johnny Gage. If you don’t have a character that’s worthy of such an embrace, you’re likely going to find it harder to engage the reader.

photo credit: knitting iris via photopin cc

Our World is Seven Years Old

Our current world came into being on June 29th, 2007.

This kid thinks that can't play movies and serve as a drone beacon, it's not a phone.

This kid knows that if it can’t play movies and serve as a drone beacon, it’s not a phone.

I missed its birthday this year. Damn! I should have put a reminder on my phone.

When the iPhone was released, I and many others were tempted to see it as another me-too step by Apple. Apple didn’t have the first personal computers, they didn’t have the first mp3 players, and they didn’t have the first smartphone. The doubters (as I was at the time) always rushed to point that out.  It seemed to have always escaped them (and me, at the time) that Apple had consistently produced the first successful versions of those things–the versions that actually changed the world.

But this isn’t about Apple fandom. Most smartphones run Android, anyway. In 1999, the typical computer user was on a Dell desktop. In 2014, the typical computer user is on an Android smartphone.

And the typical user carries it around constantly and views his or her entire world through it.

So I date the current world to 2007, because the release of the iPhone was the tipping point. It brought the new world to life.

Almost everything is different now: Culture, commerce, law enforcement, manners, politics, family life, what we consider “valuable” and “close” to us. Everything changed that day in 2007.

At that point, the combination of mobile networks, social media, display technology and battery capacity came together. It just so happened Apple was there, with a stylish device and plenty of safe, cheap, and easily-installed apps. By the end of the decade most people were expected to be online constantly, transmitting and responding as through they were devices themselves–or rather, as one with the devices they held.

In only a few years, we went from seeing a cell phone as a handy device that was entirely separate from ourselves, to seeing a smart phone as a constant companion we live through: A periscope prodding up from the bunker.

And now it’s up for grabs as to who is serving whom. 

Our world today would be unrecognizable without hand-held GPS, rich-text communication, photos, videos, and constant and instant connection to every source of information around the world in the hands of almost everyone.

My God! It’s barely been seven years. . .

Consider this:

In 2007, most people’s cell phones looked like this:


In 2014, most people’s lives look like this:


And I think you can see what I’m getting at.

Happy belated birthday, World.

photo credit: Paul Mayne via photopin cc

If Everyone Only Just . . .

If everyone only just did X, then everything would be fine, right?

ken and barbie

Good Consumers

Somehow I sense that that no matter what one suggests as a value of X, things would end badly.

That’s the nature of idealism. Wishing that the great mass of humanity would do X is to express an ideal. Supposedly, that’s something they aren’t doing now, but ideally should.

There is no great drive to get people to eat, nor poo, nor breathe, nor reproduce. Those aren’t ideals–they’re actuals. We seem to do those pretty well–no encouragement needed.

But how do we know what an ideal world where everyone did X would look like? Would we have a place in it?

Think of this: If everyone suddenly decided to think just a little bit about their real needs before making a purchasing decision, what would the consequences be?

Our current culture is based on people not thinking. We need more of whatever. We don’t even know why, but we obviously need more of it. When you turn 18 you need your own car, living quarters, blender, whatever. Of course you do. And as you grow up you need better examples of each of those. Of course you do. So you work and you go get it.

We have a whole cultural, financial system based on that supposition–not on any rational thought applied to our appetites for crap.

So what happens if a great mass of people start thinking to themselves “Hey, uhh. . . . wait. . . I don’t think I need this. I don’t think I care about it that much. I think I’m ok with this junior-model blender without the ‘pulverize’ option. I think I’m going to read instead of working the extra hours needed to pay for a new blender.”

That’s kinda what’s happening now as consumerist values in the US start to wane. Signs are all around us that we are drowning in stuff, it’s not really worth paying for, and it’s kinda boring. In many cases the jobs to pay for our own whatevers aren’t there anyway. The first signs are showing up in decreased interest in car purchases among Gen Y, as stated in this article:

And she adds one other thing. In earlier generations, Koch says, “the novelty of being able to own something was greater than it is now.”

But it’s not just cars. People are finding it less and less appealing to own things, no matter what they are. In some ways owning your own whatever just doesn’t make sense, or at least doesn’t inspire action the way that it used to. There’s less of a drive for your very own, or at least your own “brand new”.  You can live pretty well on the flotsam and jetsam of the waning middle class using thrift stores and Craigslist, and using ride-sharing services when needed.

Sounds rational and good, right?

Well . . . if enough start thinking that way. . . . then. . . .


photo credit: x-ray delta one via photopin cc


Dad Reaches his Bullshit Limit

My dad could be flaky, but never quite flaky enough for it to matter.



About the right era.


There’s a story about how after bankruptcy and divorce sent him fleeing New Jersey with his trophy-wife-to-be (my mom) and they had taken their production of Double-Lock Box on a tour of the midwestern dinner-theater circuit, that they ended up in St. Louis for a while.

Damn — in writing that it almost sounds like a beginning of a chapter in Genesis or something. Cool.

Anyway, my dad found it necessary (as creative people sometimes do) to get a job in the real-world. This one was at a used-car lot. It seemed it was a typical used car lot full of Machiavellian maneuvers.  In fact, it might have been known as Machiavelli Motors.

My dad was at home in such surroundings. He was world-weary by that point, having braved New York as a talent agent for fifteen years. He was what Homer said about Odysseus: A man of many ways. He knew what was up.


As the new guy, my dad (who was close to 50 at the time) was sent out to greet a black family who had come to inquire about the recent-model Cadillac with a very low price on the windshield. It was on display on a rack lifted up above the other cars. Hey! Bargain Cadillac! Come on in! It’s likely his fellow salesmen sneered and laughed as they sent this Yankee out to waste time with these people from the wrong side of St. Louis, circa 1965.

So my dad (who was actually just as racist as anyone from his generation and still called Jews “kikes” but nevertheless knew how to make a sale) went out to greet the black family. The father wanted a test drive in the beautiful Cadillac. My dad grabbed the keys and took it down off the display, likely talking a good line about how it put to shame the other Caddies he had owned (he was a Cadillac man if one ever were).

With the car barely sustaining a lumpy idle, the black family climbed inside. My dad put the car in drive, and it barely moved forward. My dad put it in “park” and popped the hood. He remembered this problem, having had to fix it a few times over the forty years he had been driving by that point. He reconnected a vacuum line or twisted the distributor or reconnected some plug wires that had “fallen off” or whatever and the Cadillac suddenly started running like a Cadillac.

They returned, the black family completed the sales paperwork, and after my dad waved at them as they drove their lovely ’62 Sedan DeVille towards home, my dad’s boss came to him and fired him on the spot.

See, he could be a flake, but not flaky enough. He wasn’t taking a stand against deceptive sales practices or racism or anything like it. Nothing like that. Car was broken: He fixed. Made a sale. Yay! Never mind that he sold the bait car, and he could have made as much or more by redirecting the black family into a Dodge Dart that needed rings or a beaten-up, overpriced Chevy. He sold the come-on vehicle by “fixing” what they knew was broken because they had broken it. Mr. New York Businessman wasn’t in on the joke. And that possibility never crossed anyone’s mind.

He showed that approach again and again in the time I knew him. It seemed he was always one profitable decision away from being the equivalent of a criminal mastermind, and as we lived in 1970 Oldsmobiles and divvied up McDonald’s cheeseburgers and went without medical or dental care, we would wonder when dad’s extreme acumen would finally kick in and we could move to a villa in St. Tropez or something

But it never did.

The next example I remember was in about 1976. My mom and dad had their combo and were trying to make a living in the nightclubs around Dallas. Dallas is a great place for tire stores and concrete work, we learned. Music? Not so much. We weren’t doing well. Any signs of hope were welcome.

So a guy in a polo shirt came to my mom and dad with a proposal. He was the pastor at some non-denominational Bible church in the suburbs. He wanted to hire my mom and dad as the house band for the church. It was a steady living, and on top of a healthy base he would give them a “cut” of the proceeds each week. The more people they brought in, the bigger the take. There would be opportunities for side-gigs and even record sales.

This was it. This was the opportunity.

All they needed to do was to sing about the Lord that neither of them particularly cared to acknowledge.  My dad (crypto anti-Semitic half-Jew that he was) kept religious people at the same distance he gave any other mentally-disturbed individuals. My dad tried to explain his faith in terms that didn’t oblige him to explain further. It really didn’t matter to the pastor. He was in the church business. He was looking for musicians who would play and sing songs about God to put asses in the seats and checks in the baskets. And he almost said so in so many words. Still, it made me recall sitting next to my dad in the few times we went to church and watching him barely mouthing the words to the hymns. He wasn’t a Lord fan.

But he could fake it for this, right? He could make this sale, right? Music is just notes. My mom could do the singing about the Lord, right? My mom had been brought up singing in a Methodist church. She hated it–reminding it as it did of her abusive mother–but the syllables were still on her tongue. She knew these people. She could do this. They could do this together.

But as I played on the floor of the living room with the pastor’s boy hearing him talk about peeing in interesting places and how horny toads gave you warts, I heard my dad’s conversation with the pastor change tone. He wasn’t submitting himself to the idea any more.

He couldn’t do it.

He had reached his bullshit limit.

We climbed back into the motorhome and trundled off to another dive where they’d earn $100 from the owner and maybe another $20 in tips playing a combination of pop and country, and hope for another gig the next night.