I hated the guy just like everybody else. The booming voice, the painted beard, the teeth like pristine piano keys. When he got to thundering his pitch into your living room, it could rattle you out of a doze and startle you into buying something.
Billy Mays is dead and no doubt hawking some nifty gate cleaner to St. Peter.
Me, I bought the car-detailing kit, enticed by elixirs that could make scratches disappear, restore factory luster and – come on, let’s face it – make a piece of crap 1994 Nissan Maxima look like it just rolled off the line.
But the creams did nothing except turn my fingers white. The bonus detailing cloth with space-age fibers was nothing more than a glorified chamois shirt probably ripped off the back of a homeless man. The extra bonus car vac, a $150,000 value Billy was throwing in for nothing, couldn’t lift a pine needle if you gave it a boost.
Worse, during the confusing ordering process (I may have had a cocktail that day) I was suckered into buying the extras, including a pole-like thing with a rag at the end that looked like it might be most effective for curing horses of constipation. More waxes, more space-age cloth; a bunch of crap I didn’t need, and yet I clicked those little boxes anyway.
I won’t lie to you. I’m kind of a moron.
And even worse than that, the shipping cost more than the kit itself. For what I paid, the car wax/horse probe set should have been delivered by supermodels on racing bikes, yet it took six weeks to get to me. Six weeks and more money than I could afford and all I had were white fingers and the ability to uncork a horse from 10 paces.
So I got to hating Billy, the boisterous stranger who had shaken me into uncharacteristic impulse-buying through sheer volume. I promised to run him down in the street if I ever got the opportunity, just like a million others duped into buying things they did not need. How could a dude with such a trim beard and with such boyish enthusiasm have treated me this way?
I’ve never liked salesmen. Part of it is the fact that they go to special schools where they learn to jingle change in their pockets, smile disarmingly and say things like: “Oh, I don’t know. I better talk to my manager about this” while relieving a feeble old person of a chunk of life savings. Heartless peddlers of bogus potions, bad cars and broken promises, the lot of them.
But part of it is also that salesmen have an ability I completely lack. I could not sell a root beer to a man with a live bug in his mouth, you might say. I lack the gene that provides the cunning and ego to deceive people who have never wronged me. If I had those capabilities, I might not have the crappy car to begin with, if you follow my logic here.
When I first came to Lewiston, one of my first jobs was in the illustrious field of magazine sales. I would sit in an office with a dozen other Billy Mays wannabes calling strangers around the country.
“My name is Mark and I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected to receive a deal so great, you might just wet yourself with excitement.”
I was terrible. I went into the spiel with such guilt, it sounded more like an apology. By the end of my first and only week, I was buying stuff from the strangers on the phone rather than the other way around.
“A used sofa, you say? I feel real bad about calling during the bar mitzvah. Yes, I’ll buy that sofa.”
I likewise failed at selling kitchens. I tried selling Grit once and ended up with six dogs, an old washing machine and a used set of dentures bought from people who never even looked at my stack of Grit, celebrating rural communities since 1882.
So, yeah. A lifetime of being duped by salesmen and of being entirely incapable of selling anything myself finally culminated in a deep hatred for the man with tree-sized vocal cords who started every pitch with: “Hi, BILLY MAYS HERE!” as though he was your oldest and dearest friend come to visit.
Then one night, I sat down with hand-rubbing malice to watch an interview with Mays on the “Tonight Show.” I was prepared to kick, punch and spit upon the television screen to display my loathing of the man who had talked me into that terrible car cleaning/horse unstopping kit.
Then a weird thing happened. Billy started talking about his early days as a hawker on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. It was a place where pitchmen would get into outright brawls right there among the glitter and dust; a place where you either learned to outwit and outshout your competition or you perished as food for the seagulls. Atlantic City was the equivalent of the fight club for product hawkers and Billy Mays came through scarred but with great success.
By the end of the 20-minute interview, he had done it again: sold me on a product I had set out to dislike, and this time the product was Billy Mays himself.
It pains me to say it, but in the end, I admired the dude. Billy Mays earned his success by rising from the grime and gull splatters through simple will. I respect that like mad, the way I respect cops who were once hoodlums or hot-shot journalists who cut their teeth on the lowly police beat.
In Billy Mays came another gleaming example of how you really can’t judge a man until you hear his back story. Hate him for interrupting your evening with Jon & Kate, if you have to, but give credit where credit is due.
And in honor of the Loud One taken too young, I would like to give my own sales pitch one last shot: HI, MARK LAFLAMME HERE! WHO AMONG YOU WOULD LIKE TO BUY A HORSE POLE?

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. You can e-mail him at [email protected]


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