No Experience Necessary!

My life with the Ludingtons was a lazy person’s dream, only that I wasn’t lazy and I became increasingly uncomfortable with being a guest and not contributing to the house expenses. I needed a job!

The entire family, even Nicky and Max, who were teenagers, and by definition opposed to everything, were nice to me. The extended family too, Cassandra’s parents, her brothers and families, their friends, they all were concerned about my health and all the traumas I had gone through.  They were  more aware than I was of the potential long-term consequences. To me,  used to run on with the Mocca Cake on a New Year’s Eve to avoid a beating by my  drunk,  the traumas of the last months were just a continuation of the life I already knew.   My decision to defect, the process I went through in Germany, trying to get Cristian out of Romania, were what I had to do to achieve my goal to live in freedom. It wasn’t hard, or easy, or different. It just was!   Concerned, my friends insisted I might not even feel it, or be aware of the toll the last few months took on me.

One day, about two weeks after my arrival,  Cassandra came home with a kitten she bought in front of the local grocery store for a dollar.  It was a black and white kitten and its front paws had six, not five toes, which made her even more special. I had my own pet, I was happy! We called her “Six Toes” and indeed she was good company and she slept in my bed. When she matured and was allowed in the woods, she only came back to sleep with me at night once in a while. After a while, I noticed the cat was getting fat, but I blamed it on  the good food, and may be she hunted mice!  One night, I walked up in the middle of the night and heard faint sounds coming from the direction of my feet and as I was becoming more aware, I felt wetness  in my bed.

Did the cat pee my bed?  I thought. Was she sick? I  turned on the light: At the end of the bed I saw four miniscule creatures crowling around, as my cat tried to clean them and keep them together.

I was told a cat only delivered around people she really trusted. She trusted me!  I felt responsible for the entire cat’s family. How could I disappoint them?  That’s how to my daily activity of searching for a job, I added that of trying to find homes for the kittens.

The kittens were a good diversion because my search for a job wasn’t going as well as I expected.

I read the “Help Wanted” section in the “Philadelphia Inquirer” every morning.

Nobody was rushing me to find a job, but I pushed myself. In Romania there were no idle citizens, we had to do something, to work, to be active.  Otherwise we had no value. The concept of “relax”, “take it easy,” “you deserve a break,” were foreign to me and the “doing” was as much a part of my conditioning from Romania, as it was the idea that someone would help me without expecting anything in return.  There was no free lunch, I was told over and over for almost thirty years. My present experience contradicted  my very foundation, everything I thought was unquestionable.

After a few weeks I noticed that all employers desired “experience” in the field. I also noticed there was no need for Romanian translations.  There were only two professions which did not require experience:

The first was “Escort Services.”  I called one and they asked how old I was? The man who answered the phone told me I had a sexy voice. My accent was… attractive, I could make lots of money with it, but he needed to see me, to determine if I were better on the phone or in person….  He offered me a face-to-face interview somewhere in  North Philadelphia.

Over dinner, I told my friends the good news,  but they weren’t as enthusiastic and suggested I cancel my appointment and look for another “type” of work. I asked why, but their answers were evasive, it was hard to explain but I will “get it” eventually and be thankful I didn’t go. I definitely deserved better, they assured me.

One morning, my dream advertisement was placed under “Insurance Agents Needed, No Experience Necessary!” The name of the company was Phoenix! It was of good omen, I thought, like in the famous Greek legend of Phoenix the bird which came alive from its own ashes. Just like me in a way, starting a new life, coming alive from the ashes of communism!

I called “Phoenix Insurance Company” and the receptionist told me they had an information workshop  the next day to detail this great opportunity for the right person.

I was definitely interested.  She didn’t ask me how old I was, how I looked and didn’t refer to my sexy accent.  This seemed a real opportunity and I didn’t ask my friends for advise, I told them I am going. I was desperate for a job.

I took the train from Paoli to downtown Philadelphia, walked into a white marble building on Chestnut Street and pressed the elevator button for level 8.

I stepped out of the elevator and saw several signs directing me to the workshop room.  The room was almost empty but on the walls, everywhere, there were banners and slogans about Winning! Determination! Success, which could be anyone’s if they wanted it!

Little by little other people arrived, about eighteen in total, mostly men.

We studied one another… was this my competition?

A young, confident man, who introduced himself as the “Branch Manager” told us he will tell us “the secrets” of becoming rich. Did we know that only 3% of the peple in the U.S. made over $100,000.00 a year and 80% of them were in sales?  The logical conclusion was that to be rich one had to sell something, why not insurance!  Everyone needed insurance, so it was an easy sale.  True, most people didn’t think they needed life insurance.  It was psychological, they hated speaking about death. Especially their own death. However, the families of these people, our future clients, their partners, the beneficiaries, the people who wanted the “benefits” would help us.  It was in their interest for the provider to be insured, so God forbid he died, the wife could continue to play tennis and take her trips to Europe, and the kids continue in private schools. The insurance proceeds would help them, the beneficiaries, continue to live the same life style as before the provider died!  The beneficiaries were our friends and supporters!

The speaker kept throwing  words at us, and some made no sense to me, while everyone else nodded, signaling understanding: “Beneficiaries, death benefit, final expenses…tax benefits, tax deductions.  It seemed the word “benefit” was used the most often and I thought it would be in my “benefit” to understand the meaning of “benefit.” If nothing else, I thought, the lesson of the workshop was the importance for everyone of the word benefit.  Both agents and future clients wanted something in “their benefit”.  It wasn’t clear if the benefits of the clients were the same as those of the agents… a concept that I needed to explore, I thought.

“Okay, now we’ll take a fifteen-minute break and you guys think about this great opportunity and if you decide you want to be rich, we’ll meet here in 15-minutes and those interested could take the “Aptitude Test.”  The test it’s two hours. It will take about two weeks to get your results back. Not everyone could be a good sales person.  It takes three qualities: A pleasant personality, knowledge of the product and no fear of rejection! That’s all. See you in fifteen minutes.”

He disappeared behind a door and little by little most of the participants left.  Not me. I really wanted to be rich and it seemed so easy.  Of the eighteen people, only six took the test.

The secretary placed a sealed envelope in front of me and a sharpened pencil. She explained the rules and I opened the envelope.  There were 300 questions: Was I budgeting? How much did I spend on utilities? Rent? How many times did I eat out? Did I have friends? Is my “dream” to write a book about life insurance…

I never paid rent in the U.S. I didn’t understand about the budgeting thing or utilities what could they be? Oh, yes, I did want to write a book. Okay, it was fine to be about life insurance but first I needed to understand what was “life insurance”.  I marked the answers to the questions I didn’t understand randomly, the ones I understood using my common sense.  I was done the test in an hour.  The Manager was impressed. He winked at me and smiled and whispered: “See you later.”

After about two weeks the secretary called to give me the “good news”: I passed the Aptitude Test and was qualified for the second interview of a total of three.

On the second interview, he gave me a booklet and told me I had half an hour to read it and make a presentation on what I’ve read.  He was going to be my audience. The presentation went okay, because he asked me additional questions. Like, why did I choose their company. Now, that was a question I could answer in detail. I told him all about the Greek legend, and how I compared myself to the Phoenix bird and like Phoenix I was coming back to life from the ashes. A new country, a new chance. I concluded that for me, the name Phoenix was meaningful!  The Manager, whose name was John, listened respectfully to the end.  To listen was another quality mentioned in his introductory workshop.  He was definitely a good listener, no wonder he was successful.  Half through my story about the Phoenix bird and the ashes I had a gut-feeling he didn’t care, but when I said the company was meaningful to me and I felt I belonged, he smiled and agreed: “Definitely, you belong with us!”

He offered me a 3rd interview, the most important of them all. If I passed, I’d be offered a job as a trainee. Little money, but they will pay for my training and license exams to become licensed in Pennsylvania.

He handed me a script and said:

“Read the script and when you are comfortable, call this extension and convince the person who answered to buy your product.  That’s all you have to do.”

That was a very strange test, I thought, but diligently  I read the text.  I was supposed to sell advertising in a magazine, not even insurance!

After about ten minutes, I dialed  the extension and someone answered. I told him who I was and what I wanted and he hang up on me!

How rude, who the Hell was this guy! He made me call and sell and now hang up on me! The nerve! Oh well, little did he know!

I called back immediately, and he picked up:

“Hello again,” I said in a sweet voice, ” I was just explaining why I called you when we were disconnected! Something must be wrong with the phones,” I continued the explanation.

He giggled, and told me to wait, he’d be with me in a minute. He came in the room and gave me a big hug:

“Congratulations!  Welcome to our family! You are hired! I never heard before the “we were disconnected trick.” That was good! You have great potential.”

The following week I started a two-month intensive training and passed my licensing tests. Soon, I was assigned an office together with other two guys who also passed the tests and were hired.  We were explained, it was all statistics.  We had to make about 100 cold calls, meaning to strangers, in order to get 3-4 appointments. Out of the 3-4 appointments, if we were good we’d get one sale!  Suddenly it didn’t seem as easy as explained in the introductory seminar.

Every day, we were given a list of a hundred names and phone numbers and I didn’t stop until the last number was called.  Some people spoke with me, some hang up on me, even when I’d call back pretending we were disconnected.  Overall, I was doing well if I spoke with someone, but most times I had to leave messages and no one called me back!

“I don’t get it, when you leave messages… you say “I am Rodica, from Phoenix Insurance,” said one of the guys in my office.” And then you say something really strange, “Phoenix, as in the Phoenix bird?”  Who is this bird? I never heard of it before!”

I explained patiently about the Greek legend and the Phoenix bird which raised from the ashes…I was trying to have people relate to something everyone knew.”

My colleague was deep in thought and at last he spoke:

“Yeah, You know what? Next time you leave a message say: Phoenix, as in Phoenix Arizona. That, I guarantee, everyone will understand!”

I was hurt, I didn’t believe him, but since the bird wasn’t geting me any appointments I tried the Arizona option.

Magically, people began to call back and soon I started to go on appointments, calling on small businesses on the Main Line.

More training! I was given a thick booklet with a lot of pictures. “Visuals are very important” I was told.

Once I got an appointment I’d go in with the “visuals” and flip the pages which explained the “benefits” of our insurance products.

During our training, we were told to watch for the clients’ body language. How they moved was more important than their words! If they crossed their arms, it was a bad sign, they weren’t “open” to our suggestions. If they leaned back, further from us, was not good either.  What was a good sign was when they leaned forward, towards us. That meant they were interested, listening, ready to buy understanding the “benefits”.

Soon I noticed a pattern: My potential clients had their arms crossed, leaned away from me, but when I was coming to the point in my presentation which asked:

“Do you really like to give half of what you make to Uncle Sam?” without exception, all of them, leaned forward and assured me that no, no they definitely didn’t want to give money to Uncle Sam! Could I show them ways to avoid giving 50% of their hard worked money to Uncle Sam?

My role at that point was to take the “case” back to my supervisor and he “closed” the deal.

I repeated the “Uncle Sam” question and each time I did it, I thought it rather strange everyone had an Uncle named Sam! Why not John or Jim? Did they run out of names in America?  Definitely, “my gut” told me, there was more to “Uncle Sam” and I needed to find out what made him so special that everyone didn’t want to give him money!

One day, after bringing in a lot of “Uncle Sam” business I dared ask my boss:

“Who is Uncle Sam? How come everyone had an Uncle Sam and no one wanted to give him money?! And wasn’t this a free country why did everyone have to support him?”

“You must be kidding me? You didn’t know Uncle Sam is our tax system? The more money you make, the more you have to give to “Uncle Sam” in taxes to the government! Do you get it now?”

No, I wasn’t “getting it at all! It seemed absurd!”

“He took out of his pocket a dollar:

“Do you see this dollar? If you make over $200,000 a year, half of it goes to taxes, to “Uncle Sam”, so you’re left with a half of what you made, unless you’re smart and know what to deduct! He teared the dollar in two. Handed me a half and threw the other half in the trash can:

“Got it now?”

Yes, it clicked… I got it!  But another word replaced the Uncle Sam dilema. The new word was ” deductions”.

Definitely, I should ask him about deductions, but… tomorrow!


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