by Larry P. Johnson
(Excerpted from his book "Inside My World.")
Finding a job when you're a blind teenager or young adult was a major problem back in the 1940s and still is today.
Sighted kids could get jobs as soda jerks, newspaper delivery boys, gas station attendants, dishwashers or busboys in restaurants, stockers, car hops, babysitters -- scores of jobs -- and didn't even have to be 16. My brother Jimmy worked selling popcorn at the neighborhood girls' softball park when he was 15. My sisters Eileen and Dorothy began babysitting when they were 12 and were making ice cream sodas and milk shakes at the corner drugstore by age 15.
But, because I was blind, those opportunities were not available to me. I did make a few dollars playing my accordion for neighbors, but that felt more like begging for money than earning it.
My first real job was the summer I worked at the Chicago Lighthouse on the assembly line, at 50 cents an hour. We had to be there on time, punch a time clock, take our rest breaks and lunch when the buzzer sounded and keep up our production. It wasn't a job I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but it taught me about work ethic and it put some money in my pocket. One of the items that we made was for the airlines. We made sturdy, plastic-lined bags passed out by flight attendants to passengers with queasy stomachs. We playfully referred to them as "whoopy" bags.
I learned how to make hand-made leather belts. I bought the kits from a wholesale store downtown, and I sold them to anyone and everyone I knew. I liked doing that because I was fast, I could set my own hours and I was a pretty good salesman. My profit on each belt was nearly 100 percent, not a bad return.
The absolute worst job I ever had was as a door-to-door magazine salesman. Paul, Dennis and I were looking for a summer job we could do that would earn us some quick cash. Paul read an ad in the neighborhood newspaper offering "a great chance for bright, intelligent young college students to earn good money."
So, the three of us went to apply. The fast-talking company recruiter told us we could easily make $20 to $30 a day knocking on doors and giving a foolproof sales pitch to the lady of the house to subscribe to one or more magazines which the company sold. We were skeptical, but it was worth a try, and the company rep didn't seem to care that the three of us were visually impaired.
Along with four other fresh recruits, we were driven to an upscale residential neighborhood on the far north side of Chicago. Getting out of the station wagon, we were rehearsed on what we should say and how to overcome possible objections. We practiced our parts several times until the team leader was satisfied. Then, he gave each of us an order book, a few sample magazines and turned us loose.
I found my way to the door of the first house and rang the bell. After a wait, a guy with a gruff voice answered. "Wadaya want?" I started to recite my message. "Not interested!" Slam.
Second house. A sweet old lady told me in broken English she didn't do much reading. At the third house, I was greeted by the barking of a mean-sounding dog. Fourth house, no answer to my incessant ringing. Fifth house, "We already have too many magazines." Sixth house, "I never buy from door-to-door salesmen." Seventh house, "I work nights, and you woke me up." And so it went for the next two hours. Not a single sale.
It was now noon and the temperature was close to 100. Turning the corner, I came across Dennis and Paul. "How you guys doing?” I asked.
"Nothing," they replied. "Not a single sale." Grunts of discouragement and disappointment.
"Hey look," Paul said. "There's a Walgreens drugstore across the street. Wadaya say we go have an ice-cold Coke?"
"A great idea," Dennis and I agreed.
Once inside the cool, air-conditioned comfort of Walgreens, there was little motivation to go back out to face the July heat. "So, any of you guys wanna knock on some more doors?" I asked.
"Not me," said Paul.
"No thanks," echoed Dennis.
"Then what'll we do with these order books and magazines?" I questioned.
"Let's just give 'em back."
"Who's gonna do it?"
"Since Paul got us into it, I think he should do it." Dennis said. Paul agreed, and that was the end of our short careers as door-to-door salesmen.