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Friday, March 12, 2010

The Magazine Drive

Whoever said that youth is the best time of our lives obviously skipped junior high school, or middle school, or puberty school, or whatever they’re calling age 12-to-15 schools now.

During my pimple years, I wore Woody Allen glasses, braces, and orthopedic. Give me a pocket protector and dispatch me from the A/V room to set up a filmstrip, and I would have gratefully accepted the nomination to run for president of the Global Association of Geeks (GAG).

It was during junior high when I failed to develop into someone “cool” and was left standing in the tattered residue of the socially inept.

And at the same time I learned my first lesson in deceptive business practices.

In order to raise money for the school to, I guess, replace the mysteriously disappearing supply of mimeograph fluid (hence called “huffing juice”), a fund raising company was brought in at the beginning of the school year, and multiple assemblies were held. These were pep-rally-style meetings during which we were passionately encouraged to go door-to-door after school, selling magazine subscriptions. If we were successful, we would prove to competing schools that we were the best salespeople, and therefore the best junior high in the city. For all our hard work, we would be rewarded with crappy little trinkets like key chains and cheesy stuffed animals called “Dream Pets,” which rivaled today’s collectible Facebook friends and cell phone ring tones. The top sellers would actually win cool, expensive stuff, like portable 8-track tape players, the Ipods of our time.

Every morning we would bring in our hard-earned cash and checks to homeroom, where the teacher collected, counted and recorded it. Our totals were converted to Dream Pet points, which would be redeemed at the Friday assemblies. Daily totals were announced by our homeroom teacher, and those who didn’t bother to sell anything were humiliated and branded as Communists for being unmotivated, non-contributing, freeloading leeches. I believe our homeroom teachers were schooled in humiliation by being forced to watch PBS during Pledge Week.

I believe there were four assemblies during the two week magazine drive. These pep-rally-style roundups were held by sleazy, leisure-suited vermin with too much false enthusiasm. These fast-talking hyenas were slicker than used car salesmen. Today they are most likely well-paid , bottom-feeding motivational speakers (“I made millions by taking advantage of adolescents, then drank to forget, but now I’ve completed rehab, and I’m back, and this time I’m taking YOUR money.”) They would scream like Pentecostal preachers and pit individuals against each other and warn us of the looming threat of Coleman Junior High School. The Coleman kids were our arch rivals who, the hyenas threatened, were right on our tail. At the third herding, in order to spur end-of-magazine-season sales, the emcee told us that Coleman had edged ahead, and he encouraged us to work extra hard the last week so we could be the junior high sales champions. Then they paraded the big prizes up and down the aisles, like well-fed Americans tempting starving children of the Congo with gourmet food. You can smell it, but no tasting, please.

The second Friday was the day everyone eagerly awaited, mainly because it was our last day of being periodical prostitutes. On the final Friday we’d find out if our last-minute rally to ward off the Coleman threat was successful, and we’d see the top salesman crowned and given the grand prize, which was, I don’t know, maybe a new car. Actually it was probably just a portable black and white tv, but it was just as unobtainable as a new car, because no one, when it came to magazine sales, could trump Ann Schmundt.

Everyone hated Ann Schmundt. While we were out pounding the pavement, striving for just one more three-dollar subscription so we could get the coveted autograph hound Dream Pet or the plastic Road Runner that quacked when you squeezed its head, Ann Schmundt never had to set one foot outside her air conditioned pool home. Her father was a successful cardiologist and each year spent two or three C-notes on magazines, which were nothing more than a pocket-change tax write-off for him. All three years of junior high, Ann won the big prize. In our final year, sales dropped because most of us had lost interest trying to compete with Ann. If someone was on her tail at the middle of week two, Dr. Dad would simply bump up her grant. Clearly, her family was rich enough to buy her anything she wanted. Her dad had the opportunity to teach her a life lesson in hard work, or at least humility, but each year he chose to ignore that opportunity. It was selfish of her, and despicable of her rich father to allow her to claim that prize every year, and not once let the award go to someone who actually wore out shoe leather to earn it.

My school, Wilson Junior High, was an odd demographic mixture of West Tampa dirt poor and the Palma Ceia/Davis Island A-listers. Both sides of the fence unilaterally despised Ann. Years later, in an unrelated incident, I egged her car. It was a pretty blue, bought-by-Daddy, speedy little sports car. After the crime was committed, I drove close to her house and saw a police officer taking a report. Fearing that jail time was imminent, I came up with an alibi, and I waited for the men with badges to show up at my door.

So the final Friday, the Bulldog Band played, the streamers were thrown, and the motivational dweebs were in top form. They announced that yes, Wilson had beaten Coleman in sales. Yippee! We’re number one! Then they gave out the Cadillac or whatever it was to Ann Schmundt, who in addition received a smattering of applause from some teachers, but it was drowned out by the boos and hisses of the resentful. When the emcee held a microphone in her face and asked her what her sales secret was, she said, “Well, I sold a lot to my Dad.” She was lucky we didn’t rush the stage and dismember her and dine on her limbs while the band played a motivational Sousa march.

As it turned out, the Communists who refused to put their dignity on the line by begging door to door were right. When I got into high school, I made friends with a girl who had gone to Coleman. One day the subject of the magazine drive came up, and Faith and I laughed about how silly the whole thing had been.

Faith said, “Yeah, and you almost beat us every year.”

“We did beat you.” I corrected.

“No, you didn’t,” she countered.

“Yes, we did,” I insisted.

We were 17 before we realized we really had been scammed. They apparently told every school that they were number one.

By that time, Ann Schmundt seduced a friend of mine, David, and convinced him that it should just be the two of them to run away to Miami to see a Bob Dylan concert. David and I had been planning for weeks to do that, but once again, Ann held the high cards. Her sports car had air conditioning, comfort, and speed. She also had her daddy’s Shell credit card, which eliminated the need for David to sweat or pay for half of the gas for the trip. Not to mention the fact that she was female and heterosexually active. This understandably triumphed over a hot, humid six-hour drive in a noisy, black vinyl upholstered VW bug being driven by an obsessive nerdboy who had a crush on you. They ran away to attend the show, and I, the little piggy who stayed home, plotted my revenge. The best I could come up with was making her shiny new car the recipient of the coveted windshield raw omelet. I would have cooked one up for David, too, but he didn’t have a car. He always relied on the kindness of strangers for rides.

She knew I had done it; I’m sure she named me as the perp, but I was never questioned by the police. I can’t help but wonder if the investigating officer didn’t pursue the case because he had a kid our age who had gone to our school and known of Ann’s periodical infamy.

I recently was reminded of Ann and David after receiving a Facebook e-mail from Ann (which I ignored, as I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is for car egging.)

They never did apologize for leaving me for Bob Dylan, just as I never apologized for vandalizing Ann’s car, and for years I maintained that she had more than that coming to her. But we’re 35 years older and have lost all interest in Dream Pets. Because the world is less safe, magazine drives are now held on the Internet. We no longer run away from home to attend rock concerts, because we are no longer reckless and care-free. It would be the civil thing for me to apologize. It would be good for my karma and my physical well being. As we move through our fifties, our so-called mature years, we more carefully calculate our risks and take our health more seriously, so I am wondering: Would Egg Beaters mess up a car just as much as regular eggs?

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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