Vacuum cleaner salesman can plug in and turn on the magic at any house. Life on commission, door-to-door

May 14, 1994|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Sun Staff Writer

The vacuum cleaner business must be booming in Essex, because Big Mike McCarthy is getting the same answer at almost every house.

"Just bought a new one last week," a smiling woman says through a screen door.

Big Mike fended off the rejection politely and gave it one more shot, handing the woman a tiny plastic bag of wood chips.

"If you just walk around and agree with everyone, you'll never get in," he said over his shoulder.

"This is a free gift from me," he said in a fast mumble. "Just scatter them on the rug and vacuum them up. Makes the room smell nice. Let me show you."

She laughed, took the chips and closed the door. Big Mike's first trick of the day didn't work, but he had more "sales enhancers" in the pockets of his light blue slacks.

He shrugged and hiked his 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound body, varicose veins, and 16-pound Electrolux 3500 deluxe vacuum cleaner up the street, muttering, "She might even be telling the truth."

Michael Timothy McCarthy, whose grandparents were from County Cork in Ireland, is part of a tough and dwindling breed of men and women who sell door to door, accepting constant assaults on their self-esteem as part of the job.

Door-to-door salesmen have long been a staple of American society. Alfred Fuller, perhaps the most famous of them all, began selling brushes, brooms and mops that way in 1906.

"He may not have been the first, but he was the first to make it work in a big way," said spokeswoman Becky Weller from Fuller Brush headquarters in Great Bend, Kan.

The Fuller Brush man is no longer a familiar figure at the door. Telemarketing, home parties and other methods have slowly replaced the old routine.

After 25 years in the business, Big Mike, now 50, knows how to fight rejection.

On this hot afternoon, he psyched himself up as he walked a quiet urban street.

"I know there's a sale here," he said, peering around intently. "I can feel it."

He had cased the neighborhood just off Mace Avenue in his rusty 1986 Ford van -- which showed all of its 325,000 miles -- before settling on a street with a lot of cars parked along the curb. "People are home," he said, and indeed they were, mostly working class, retired people living in modest brick and aluminum-iding-covered homes.

He approached a woman holding a squirming child by the hand as she left her mother's house. Big Mike stepped forward with a friendly wave and his best Irish smile.

"She's got her hands full, but you never know," he said.

The woman lived nearby and agreed to let him shampoo her rug that night.

"You can't prejudge," he said. "I sold a vacuum to an elderly woman one day who pulled $800 in cash out of her mattress.

"Rejection beats some salesmen down, but you just laugh and move on."

When Big Mike isn't out selling, he lives with his wife and two children in a quiet, single-family development in Cockeysville.

He's a Baltimore native, the son of a John Hancock insurance salesman. He spent nine years starting in his late teens as a brother with the Oblates of St. Francis DeSales in Philadelphia before he started with Electrolux.

"My mother -- who's 86 -- told me I should learn to sell because you can always go out and do it anywhere, any time, and you're never out of a job," he said.

None of this was on his mind as he headed toward the next house. Big Mike works a street the way a farmer plows a field; straight on, unwavering, convinced that hard work will yield some shimmering green.

"I can't fool around," he said. "A cruise to Mexico is on the line."

April and October are the spring and fall cleaning months, when vacuum cleaner companies step up their promotions and offer bonus incentives to their salesmen.

Big Mike needed 50 sales. He had 37 with only five days to go, a nasty challenge even for someone with his experience.

"You tend to focus on the trips, and forget how much money you're making," he said.

The money can be considerable. Good salesmen are happy to show you their pay stubs to prove it.

Big Mike's best year was in 1982, when he grossed $81,000. Last year he made about $60,000, but admits he has slowed down now that he's older and has money put aside for his two children's education. His oldest child, Jennifer, will graduate from Indiana University of Pennsylvania this month.

"We worked the streets together during her summer vacations," he said.

The top seller last year at the Electrolux branch on Rossville Boulevard where Big Mike works out of was Al Lewis, who grossed $79,000. Many of Mr. Lewis' sales came through telemarketing, but he still does some door-to-door. As do the other expenses, telemarketing costs come out of the salesman's pocket, which is one reason why Big Mike doesn't do it.

"Telemarketing is for the '90s," Al Lewis says, "and I don't go home with tired feet."

Big Mike had tired feet and wasn't earning a nickel on this cloudless, 92-degree day. A man working in his yard didn't want to be bothered, but took Big Mike's card.

Big Mike went to the next house, knocked and stepped back.

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