The Lessons I Learned On a Steamy Summer Day When There Was Nothing Else to Do

It was a sticky-hot Alabama afternoon. I was nine years old and there was nothing to do. Mama and Daddy couldn’t take me swimming because they had to work. My friends weren’t home. I didn’t even have Grandmama because Aunt Pauline had taken her to get a permanent wave. 

I tried roller-skating, but I’d lost my skate key, so the skates kept pulling apart and making me fall down.

Then the skates would fly around and hit my ankle. I limped down Petain Street, stopped by the barber shop for a piece of bubble gum, and went to Smith’s store, where I watched the butcher cut meat for a while. Then I headed home, sulking. 

An old lady had just moved into the lopsided shotgun house that perched, unsteadily, over the ditch. When I passed, she waved at me and called out hello.

There was nothing else to do, so I went up, sat on her rickety front steps. She said her name was Dottie Stone. I asked where she was from, though I didn’t expect her to be all that entertaining. What a surprise I got! 

She told me she had come from Chicago. Wow! I’d never met anybody from Chicago before. The way she described it, I could hear the wind whistling through the tall buildings and the horns blowing, and I could see the lake she said was as big as an ocean.  

I stayed there listening to her stories all afternoon, occasionally peppering them with exclamations of, “Wow!” “Really?” and, “You’re kidding!” (I almost said that when she told me she had been pretty when she was a girl, but I didn’t.)  

Nobody I knew had ever done the things she had. She told me there were dance places in Chicago, and she had gone dancing in them, and men paid to dance with her. I said, “Really?” and she said, “Yes.” And went on to more stories. 

She told me her friend had a tattoo and dared her to get one – and she did it! Daddy had a tattoo, but it was different back then. No lady I’d ever met had a tattoo. I said, “You’re kidding!” No, she wasn’t. She took off her shoe and showed it to me – a butterfly right on the top of her foot. “Wow!” Then she told me how they did it – with needles.  “Really?” and I knew I’d never get one. 

In what seemed to be no time at all, it was suppertime. I was pretty much a blabber-mouth back then, but that day, all I said were those three words- really, wow, and you’re kidding. I figured they must be magic words, because whenever I said one, she’d tell me another story and get more animated with each one. That lady really liked to tell her stories. 

Once school started back in the fall, I learned that there are lots of people in the world who are just as full of stories as Mrs. Stone, and just as eager to tell them when they’re urged on by the magic words. 

We had a school fundraiser, selling boxes of birthday and all-occasion cards. I spent afternoons knocking on our neighbors’ doors, and I learned nobody wanted all-occasion cards, but a lot of people wanted to tell stories. When I just talked about the cards and held them up, people might be polite enough to glance at them, tell me they were nice, then not buy them.  

But when I asked a question about their lives, I’d end up sitting, for maybe an hour, on a porch swing or a chair with crocheted doilies on the arms while they looked through the cards, oohed and ahhed at pictures of flower baskets, or puppies, or Christmas trees in snow, and told me their stories.

At the end, almost all of them bought a box, even two, and I heard some great stories! “Wow!” I listened and they bought my cards. 

I learned the secret to selling cards – start with a question to get them started, then the magic words would keep them going. 

My friend Elizabeth told me I was doing it all wrong. She was in my class and was selling cards too. I told her about listening to the stories, and she said I was wasting time. I was supposed to stand at the door, show the cards, get the two dollars for a box, and go to more houses. But I didn’t care what she thought. Maybe sitting and listening to people tell stories wasn’t her kind of selling, but I liked going in their houses, and I liked listening to the stories. 

So what if I didn’t sell right? So what if she said I wasted time, I thought, wasting time on people with stories to tell me was good. 

Not everybody I visited bought, but all my cards got sold and I had to get more boxes! Elizabeth didn’t have to get more boxes. 

The moral is: If you want people to buy your all-occasion cards, let them know you’re interested in them. And if the other guy is interesting, you’re having more fun. 

April 29, 2019