I bought a suit from the Salvation Army one day: a black pinstriped blazer, dark, baggy pants, a chequered blue tie and a white shirt with vertical black stripes. Were it not for my grubby skate shoes, I would've cut a figure both impressive and insipid, Patrick Bateman without the blood lust.
The next day I snagged a job. It was easy. I just answered an ad in the paper, went to an interview and was called back for training the following Monday.
About 15 of us showed up for a mid-morn session in a seminar room on the 12th floor of the main office of a licensed natural gas retailer. I was in training to become a field agent, one of those seeping boils who sidle unseen through commercial doorways only to explode into a scripted pitch imploring overwhelmed business owners to freeze their natural gas rates now - there's no time to wait. Just sign here.
Our leader strode in, her high heels punching squares into the carpet, a navy blue suit complementing her skin, which had been charred brown in a tanning bed and then moisturized to keep it from peeling off her eye sockets. She launched into the corporation's proud history, its ever-expanding client base and unparalleled customer relations.
Pacing back and forth, chomping her gum with a mechanized jaw, she lectured us about energy infrastructure: the difference between suppliers and distributors, compressors and pipelines, fixed rates and the spot market.
A successful agent is one with goals. A successful agent turns wants into needs. Wanting a fully loaded 2004 BMW won't sign a deal. Neither will wanting a fall wardrobe, a 1,500-square-foot apartment at Bloor and Avenue Road or two weeks in Cancún. These things need to be needed.
And focus is paramount. The last 20 minutes of every day need to be spent envisioning your goals: large, luminous and just an inch out of reach. Pitches have to be memorized and personalized. Tonality must be authoritative, so never up-speak at the end of the sentence. Voice factors make up 38 per cent of a message.
Body language is key. First a gentle tap on the elbow, then point to your badge, lock eyes, stand beside the client and point at your open binder.
The leader fired three of the 15 after lunch. They couldn't remember the difference between suppliers and distributors. They weren't focusing. They would bog us down in a quagmire of uncertainty. We would never get to Cancún.
The next day we met at the main office. Veteran agents were rehearsing their presentations, voices absurdly emphatic, gestures wild and domineering, a hyperbolic orgy. Our leader burst through the door, howling and pumping her fist. "I love my fucking job," she screamed. "Whooooooo!"
All the new agents were made to stand on their chairs and shriek with rapacious glee, goals dancing through their heads like sugar plums. The leader made one man stay on his feet. His ecstasy was unconvincing. She barged up to him, this slight, middle-aged immigrant, and demanded he screech. All he could muster was a mouse's sigh. She fired him. The meek shall inherit nothing.
I was a failure in the field. But the trainer sent out with me wasn't much better. "I need to speak with the person who looks after the utility bills," he commanded one homeowner. "Don't worry. I'm not a Jehovah's Witness."
I blew a deal in front of him, and he said my goals weren't motivating me enough. I stammered. He pulled a laminated sheet out of his binder and shook out a bunch of pictures cut from magazines. A mansion in Miami. A 100-foot boat. A couch. A computer. He was focused. I was not.
Everybody's numbers were low that day, and the leader was furious the next morning.
"What's the key to happiness?" she yelled. "How do you live a happy life? Constant, never-ending improvement. When you know what you want in the morning and you're fucking passionate." She yanked up her pant leg, revealing a designer boot. "I wanted some chocolate-brown boots. Why? Cuz my Guccis fell out of my car."
She told us about her $6,000 fall wardrobe shopping spree, just one of her many goals.
"You have a weekend off coming up. What do you want to do? How do you want to treat yourself, make yourself happy?" A young woman needed a $5,000 couch, creamy white and L-shaped.
"Great! Imagine having sex with your boyfriend on that couch and go sign some deals."
Another needed a weekend at a spa. And another a glass table on a Persian rug. Then someone said she needed to pay off her mother's mortgage.
"Does that excite you? Are you gonna sign deals with that goal?"
"It's not all that exciting."
"Then get another goal."
It was my turn. I picked my brain. What did I want to do that weekend? Go for a run, hang out with my girlfriend, sip some beers and read a book.
"I guess I'd like some new shoes."
But mine were comfy.
My crew manager asked me to recite my script in the van on the way downtown. I read the first paragraph as if it were my own eulogy.
"You're not showing enough enthusiasm. Do you not want this job?"
"Less and less with every word, actually."
"Fine. But I can't have you bringing down the van." I got out with a woman at Dundas and Spadina. She was 20 grand in debt. She said she got out because she didn't recognize herself anymore.