The caller sounded pleasant, assured, official, the kind of voice that can make hopes soar on a dull Friday.
"I'd like to discuss a business opportunity that you'll most certainly be interested in," said the voice.
He chitchatted pleasantly about this banality and that, so charmingly that I forgot for a minute that I didn't know the voice.
"Are you with Amway?" I asked.
He switched to the weather. Then, a few minutes later he struck again.
"I'd like to share a golden opportunity with you," he continued, smooth as Ripple wine in a paper cup.
"Amway, right?" I pressed.
"There is a way to beat the drudgery of 9 to 5, to be in control of your own destiny, to be independently wealthy, to have all of your dreams . . ."
"You might as well admit it."
. . . "come true."
Then he slid it in, almost imperceptibly, right between lovely weather and summer's almost gone. "Ever thought about Amway?"
In case you've been touring outer space for the last few years, Amway is a direct-sales operation that sells soap powder and more than 300 other household products. The distributors are independent retailers in business for themselves, making about 30 percent profit on every item sold. I like their products. The soap is great; one quarter of a cup makes rings around the collar holler for mercy and one tiny box lasts longer than ashy feet in February.
But the person who unearthed my phone number never mentioned soap. He was intent on selling me on the idea of joining Amway. If the distributor can recruit a gung-ho sales person, he will earn additional revenue when the new recruit begins selling products and sponsoring others who do likewise.
Hence the call, one of the many I've received from over-zealous Ammies. The assertive voice, like others, wanted to rap to me about the hard-work ethic and making my dreams come true. He wanted to spend an hour or two convincing me that the only limitations I have are in my mind, that I, too, can attain prosperity. He wanted to woo me with charts that had dollar signs and steep inclines.
But he didn't tell me I was gonna hafta sell soap to attain the wealth of Midas. At least, not right away.
Now I crave champagne, caviar and top-shelf living. I have no problem with free enterprise, per se. Hard work? I am a bootstraps mama. I don't fault anybody for trying to make some sort of honest money or even question their right to try and talk me into doing the same. I love rubies, pearls, emeralds and diamonds; the rap I can't hock.
I'm used to lipstick hustlers, setting their wares on the table, handing out teeny, weeny samples. Luscious Raspberry. Red Hot Mama. Torrid Coral. "Mauve Madness is you, Dearie."
The encyclopedia man's approach is basic hard sell. Do you want your child's I.Q. to disintegrate right before your very eyes? What kind of parent are you? Easy monthly payments. Here's the pen, ma'am.
But with half of Washington selling Amway, or so it seems, everyone I know has been a mark for not hard sell, but soft, circuitous recruitment.
A friend was approached recently by a fellow sorority member who asked if she could drop by and discuss something personal. My friend agreed, went out and bought wine, cheese, crackers and prepared herself to be Ann Landers. When the woman finally arrived, an hour late, she sat down on the couch, looked deeply into my buddy's eyes and said, "Let's dream together." The dream, of course, was Amway.
"Do you believe her nerve?" exclaimed my friend.
A neighbor was invited to a friend's house for dinner. When he and his wife arrived there were no smells emanating from the kitchen. Carrying the bottle of expensive wine they'd brought, they were led to the basement where they found no food, but a small crowd of puzzled-looking people watching a man in front of a blackboard. Amway. My neighbors left before the second course.
One woman told me a preacher tried to recruit her. Another said that he, by dint of hard work, have raked in big bucks. In 1980, Amway sold over a billion dollars worth of products.
"Listen, I'm not Amway material," I told my caller.
"Don't be afraid of success," he replied charmingly.
Does he define success in dollars? The average Amway distributor earns about $143 a month.
Now some big boys of Amway do a lot better. Co-founder and president Richard DeVos, former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and the gentleman who once said in a magazine interview that Chicago's South Side slums exist because that is "the way they choose to live," is reportedly worth millions. When I mentioned these things to the caller, he got a trifle ruffled and retorted indignantly. "If you're willing to work hard you can achieve your dreams."
I don't like to hang up on people. It's not my style to tell folks off. But ever since I turned cool back in 1968, the day I first wore bleached jeans, my credo has been: Do your thing and I'll do mine. Amway isn't cool.
Maybe I'll get a sign: Stay back, Amway; I'm allergic to yachts.
I don't want to be waylaid on the Metro, in church, at parties and on the street by people bent on convincing me that their way is the only way. I am not looking for an opportunity.
I have my own mountain to climb, and I don't buy soft-soap by phone.