A Business Call Becomes A Person-to-Person Exchange

Salesman - as in used-car or snake-oil - automatically arouse my suspicion. I've always tended to discount what they say. Not that I hear sales talk often. I don't buy much. But back at Christmas, in addition to the surge protectors Dad gave as gifts, he graciously offered to buy each of us four children a "productivity enhancing" piece of equipment.

It's an offer he's made several years running. Sometimes it comes with advice, which I try to follow: That's one reason my house has a low-flush toilet and my computer an external disk drive to store large chunks of data.

You have to know my father to understand how a low-flush toilet qualifies as a productivity enhancer. The productivity here is the world's. Less effluent to process means more energy and water for other uses.

No suggestions accompanied this year's offer. I finally settled on a set of additional disks for the external drive, then realized I had no way to order the things. Deluged a few years ago with computer mail-order catalogs, I stanched the flow by mailing back "NO MORE CATALOGS" messages in the companies' postage-paid envelopes until they took me off the mailing lists. I'd long since thrown the catalogs out.

Dad supplied me with the toll-free number for one company and an item number for the disks. I dialed the number and negotiated the voice mail, only to be told that all the salespersons were busy, but that my order was very important to them, so please stay on the line. It was their dime, so I did.

Recorded message after message regaled me with terrific deals on equipment that neither I nor my nine-year-old dinosaur computer can understand or use. Finally, a salesman came on the line. A young voice, courteous and businesslike.

"How may I help you?"

I gave him the item number. They had it in stock.

"Have you ordered with us before?"

"No." He wanted my name, street address (a rural postal route) and zip code. "Bakersville, North Carolina?" he asked, when the town and state appeared on his screen.

"Yes," I said. "Where are you?"

"Los Angeles."

"Is it raining?" I asked. I'd been reading about El Nio storms along California's coast.

"Not right this minute," he said. "We had a lot yesterday." Heavens, I thought. Right this minute it's 5 a.m. in L.A. I was about to apologize for calling so early - I hadn't known I was calling California - when I recollected that his office probably wasn't in his home, the way mine is.

"We've had scads of rain this winter, too," I said. "One gray day after another."

"Where exactly is Bakersville?" he inquired as he waited for the computer to process my order.

"In the mountains, western part of the state. I don't live in town, though. You'd better put 'Highway 80, the Bandanna Community,' for the delivery address."

There was a pause, as there usually is when I tell someone in New York or Chicago or L.A. the name of our wide place in the road.

"You must be ... way out there," he said.

"Not really. Only five miles from town. Of course, town's pretty small, even though it's the county seat. Four hundred people in town."

I heard an intake of breath and pictured him at his computer in a room bright with fluorescent light. I could picture what he was picturing: a place entirely different from the one I call home. Covered wagons, maybe, log cabins, wolves howling at the moon.

"Wow," he said, "it sounds wonderful."

"It is, pretty much," I said, looking out my window at the woodpecker on the suet feeder, the thick gray clouds.

"I grew up in a small town myself," he said. "It was nice. A lot fewer people than L.A. You should see this place."

"I have."

"You've been here?" He sounded surprised. "So you know what it's like."

"Yes," I said, thinking of the morning I'd ridden a train into L.A. and watched a man in bumper-to-bumper traffic brushing his teeth as he drove the freeway to work.

"You're fortunate to live in a place like that," he said.

"I know."

"Don't ever take it for granted," said this voice that had to belong to someone half my age. "If you start to, just think of L.A."

"I will."

"I've got to read this information back to you," he said, back to business. He had it all down right. "You'll have those disks tomorrow."

"Where are they coming from?"

"Tennessee."

"Right next door. It's been nice talking to you," I said, and meant it.

"Likewise," he said. "You have a good day."

"You, too," I said and hung up, feeling good. Except for one thing: I hadn't asked what small town he grew up in. That was a gaffe, like someone inquiring after the health of your parents and not asking him back. It wasn't small-town polite - and besides, I really wished I knew.

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