Steve Theme, 11/4/2013
Current Occupation: Director of Sales & Marketing
Former Occupation: carpet cleaner, king crab fisherman, optical networking marketeer, busker, PR flack, bartender, book publicist, technical writer, ad man, journalist, coffin salesman
Contact Information: After a life in the Pacific Northwest, Steve likes to think his blood is half rain. Living in Portland, OR, has convinced him it is the best city on the planet for writers, and even nonwriters. (Blah, blah blah, New York. Get over yourself.) He is currently shopping around his book-length manuscript, Asphalt Asylum, A 6,000 Mile Portrait of Amercia. This story relives one of his hitchhiking treks that became an unintentional, yet unavoidable, spiritual journey. Sample chapters are posted at stevetheme.com.
You Don’t Have a Problem Do You?
“You don’t have a problem do you, being around dead bodies?”
Good question. We sat at a hemlock table in a funeral home, surrounded by examples of headstones, silver pendants pressed with fingerprints, concrete vaults, urns of marble and granite, and all kinds of memorial stationary options. I was interviewing to be a Family Sales Counselor, one who sells funeral services, either in advance of death, or after; mostly after.
Funereal arts were not something I’d given much thought to, let alone contemplated as a career. After 25 years working in high-tech, maybe the length of my resume sapped the energy of anyone reading it. So after three years unemployed, selling our house, stretches of underemployments, two kids in college, and another on their heels, my standards for accepting a job consisted of a place where the paychecks wouldn’t bounce.
While staring through a gap in the velvet drapes, into a ghost of February fog, I thought about her question of working around corpses. As a commercial fisherman our crew once transported a man who had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. We laid him on our galley table; didn’t want to put him on the floor and maybe step on him; didn’t want to leave him on deck to just roll around; so the table seemed the right place. With his lips bright red, an effect from the poisoning, he looked like a Pollock. We off loaded him that afternoon to a processor ship with big freezers. Eating dinner at the table felt creepy, but after a long day hunger crushed hesitancy.
“No. No problem.”
“Some people have a problem with that, but we get satisfaction from helping people.”
Helping them what? Work through the five, six, seven? stages of grief?—I’m just some guy in a chair—leave that psychotherapy to professionals. In my previous jobs if I wrote a lousy advertisement it didn’t scar anyone’s soul. Didn’t leave them with an eternal longing. No one cried inconsolably. What if I say the wrong things and send them spiraling into a suicidal depression?
“I like helping people.”
“That’s good, but to do well you need to be a self starter. The pay is commission only, so it’s all based on your sales volume. But for those who really work it, the sky’s the limit.” Her eyes widened. “I have some reps who do very well.”
I’d never taken a job that paid only on commission. Never wanted to. My wife and I had agreed twenty years before that working sales seemed vaguely unclean.
“I’m a go getter, always have been.”
Willy Loman. He’d scared the shit out of me for decades, since the first time I read Death of a Salesman. Middle-aged; never measured up; injured his family; and, finally, believing he’s incapable of success, placed himself into emotional isolation, punctuated by only self loathing.
“You seem personable. When you look me in the eyes you inspire confidence.”
It’s a good thing I inspired confidence, because I didn’t bring squat for qualifications. She contacted me the same day I submitted my resume. That seemed desperate. “Thank you.” I motioned to the displays around us. “I think my more mature bearing will help me be effective selling these.”
“I believe you’re right.” She sat drawing a doodle. “Unfortunately today is slow. But we have three in the cooler, two services tomorrow, and one of our customers is very near.”
I could picture the grey skin, sunken cheeks. Not like dead people on a TV, no matter how much makeup is applied, those people are still alive. When watching my father in-law die, as the heart monitor flat lined, I could see the color drain from him. Once we pulled the plug, my mother in-law rested her head on his chest and wept.
“That’s good to have some backlog.”
“There’s a lot to learn. Most people don’t know of all the details and laws related to funeral financing, interments, chain of custody. All that kind of stuff.”
For many, avoiding “all that kind of stuff” is an avocation: hair dye; plastic surgery; clicking an online birth year that’s five below the truth; routine procedures, it was only a pulmonary embolism.
“Don’t worry, I’ve already started learning about the industry.”
She eyed me. “You’ve got the job.”
“That’s great to hear.” Like so many times in life, I had absolutely no fucking idea what I was getting into.