"Get the knives..."

Many years ago a good friend and I shared an apartment. It was the typical bachelor's dump: ratty furniture, upturned barrels for end tables and perpetual piles of unlaundered clothes. One day (we both worked nights) a guy calls up and offers to sell us a new vacuum cleaner. I can hear my friend, Jason, explaining to him that neither one of us was likely to buy anything.

But the salesman persists and says that he will give us a new set of high quality steak knives just for listening to his presentation. Jason says, "Let me get this straight. I am telling you right now that there is no chance--no chance at all--that we are going to buy your vacuum cleaner, and you still want to come out here and show it to me?" The salesman says that's right. We get the steak knives even if we don't purchase a thing. "Okay," says Jason. "Come on out."

About an hour later a guy pulls up in our drive in a Cadillac Coup DeVille. He's a big man in a loose cut suit. He's wearing knock-off Italian loafers and an over sized gold ring. There's a skinny kid with him, too, who looks to be all Adam's apple and larceny. The two of them come to the door and knock (the kid carrying the vacuum cleaner). I answer and half-expect them to turn around and leave as soon as they see the inside of the dump we were renting, but the big man seems undeterred. He thrusts out his meaty hand and introduces himself and his associate.

For the next forty minutes the guy displays his vacuum cleaner to us, and I have to confess it was an amazing machine. It sucked a large throw pillow into the size of a softball, it washed tile floors, and it came with a lifetime replacement guarantee: no questions asked. But it was also about $1,200 and neither my buddy nor I had anything close to that to our names, which I should have thought was obvious to anyone looking around the room. Even so, the big man was really giving it his best effort, while the kid, who was apparently in training, just watched.

Finally, the big man starts his close. "Well, gentleman, you'll have to agree that this is the last vacuum cleaner you'll ever own or ever need." He even starts to talk about a payment schedule. But Jason just snorts and says, "I told you before you ever drove out here we weren't going to buy anything." The big man isn't fazed by this at all. He asks Jason and I to stand up. He switches on the machine and vacuums the couch cushions where we were just sitting. Then he pulls a white silk handkerchief from his pocket, reverses the flow of the vacuum cleaner, and blows a fine powder of black crud onto the handkerchief. "You see," the big man says holding forward the dirt for our inspection. "That is what you were just sitting on." But Jason takes the handkerchief, dumps the dirt back on the couch, and sits down. The big man doesn't even blink. He just glances to the kid and says, "Get the steak knives."

In the next few weeks I have to sell to my colleagues a proposal to rework the university's general education core requirements. I've been working on the proposal all morning, and I find myself suddenly thinking that the big man probably had a better shot at making a sale that day.

(For the record, too, they were really lousy steak knives.)

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