Selling Life Insurance

Well, not selling the stuff, but trying. A failed career. It was awful. My only success was attained through an act of total dishonesty.

I lost my job on April 19, 1982. It was, of course, traumatic, even though I’d hated the job and the awful human being for whom I worked. Everyone who worked for Herb had been carried out in the proverbial body bag: if not before me, then not long afterwards. There was always some reason he could concoct: incompetence, dishonesty, etc. One guy had his calls to his consulting clients cut off. It was not a happy place.

And when my time came, I was told it was not “worth the struggle.” I was not worth the struggle even though I’d proved my worth. The fact was the company was going broke because it lost a major client. I got a shitty severance package and was told with huge magnanimity that I could use the office copier to run off resumes. At the same time I was badmouthed to prospective new employers. It was no-win.

Of course I cracked up. I needed my mother to pay our rent, and had then listen to her complaints that nobody needed a three-bedroom house for us and our two kids, even one that was falling down around us. Each month I got whining and swearing that I was trying to impoverish and kill her. Each month I needed my wife to push me toward the phone to make a call that never became less awful no matter how I approached it. My health became precarious. My wife’s became almost as bad. My kids were at the receiving end of emotional, though never physical, abuse. I was a wreck.

Finally I decided to try to sell. I’d been in advertising and figured I could bullshit my way into someone’s home. So I took the tests to join the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. I cleared all the hurdles–even assembling the names of people who didn’t want to talk to me as prospects. I burned a few bridges in the spring and summer of 1982, even among neighbors and friends who wound up being not so neighborly or friendly when they figured out (in about 30 seconds) the nature of my errand.

But I compiled the list that would get me to the company phones. Which meant two weeks in MetLife’s training program on 23rd Street in Manhattan. Hell, they would even put us up in apartments that were part of Stuyvesant Town around 20th Street and First Avenue. That in itself was bizarre. Stuyvesant Town belonged to MetLife before they sold the development to Helmsley-Spear. It was bizarre because it modeled exactly its “sister” development in the Bronx, Parkchester. And Parkchester is where I’d grown up. So being in a place like “home” was both familiar and unnerving.

I met my roommate the first night after I got my keys: a much younger guy who was a stoner who sold extermination services. It took me a week before I smoked pot with him, but because I was, by the following Sunday night, totally depressed, I succumbed and hated it. I’d outgrown drugs if not liquor. The trainees had a couple of nice parties among ourselves, and of course I hit on one of the other trainees, an attractive girl with short black hair named Donna (I still remember her last name but I will not use it). I of course felt terribly guilty. I should have bought myself a Purity Ring to go along with my wedding band. I could have sold them both when the time finally came in 1997.

I got back from my weekend at home on Sunday evening and when my roomie showed up, he was furious. He’d gone to the Giants game at the Meadowlands, figuring he’d get laid in his friend’s trailer at the tailgate party. And he didn’t. So he sat down and began rolling joints of sensamilla. I hadn’t smoked grass since 1970. But I didn’t give a shit. So when he lit up I automatically held out my hand and he passed over the stick. After a couple of tokes and I couldn’t see straight. I got up and room swayed. Or was it me? Gee…it’s like relearning to swim or ride a bicycle…you never quite forget.

The roomie passed out on the couch and I put on the TV. Yes, the apartment came with a color TV too. What came on was Midnight Blue with a close-up of one guy sucking off another. I wanted to throw up. I figured reality was bad enough and went to bed.

Then I was shipped back to Jersey, to the field office in Clifton. In the meantime, my wife had become violently ill with anĀ  intestinal bug or obstruction, and had to go into the hospital. So I had to ferry the kids to preschool and day care, then go out on my sales calls or rounds, come back for the kids, then collapse in a chair with a glass of cheap Scotch in my hand. I was assigned to Paul, my sales manager, who wore tacky chocolate brown suits but could sell anything to anyone. Some guys were just born for it. I was not.

My first clue that something was way wrong with my latest vocational choice came when I asked my rabbi if he had any referrals. He seemed reluctant, but then gave me the name of a classmate from Jewish Theological Seminary. Even if I remembered his name I would not use it. The rabbi alluded vaguely to health issues. I called up the rabbi in Scotch Plains and asked if we could meet. He seemed only too happy. Happy? For an insurance call? Oh boy….

When I got there, he and his rebbitizen were gracious and charming. They made coffee and broke out the Entenmann’s. And then I met their son. He was the reason for the insurance call. He was born with spina bifida. Not too many years before he would have died. Instead, he hobble-walked with canes. He was not much more than a baby, two or maybe three. My heart fell out of my body. I wanted to cry but I was there to sell.

In training school they’d stressed to us how important it was to sell whole life insurance because that would bring in the highest commission and make MetLife the biggest bucks. Snoopy was moving up from Pedigree to Cesar. I would see something like 55% of the policy’s cash value as my cut. But while I didn’t know what the rabbi earned from his congregation, I could not do this to him. Rule One was that one Jew does not screw another. So we sat at his kitchen table drinking coffee and eating the Entenmann’s. And I told them the truth.

“They want me to sell you whole life. Nice for them, nice for me, but for what you need, the premium would be unaffordable. I want to sell you term life instead. You’re pretty young, so you can get $100,000 in term, one policy for each of you, with the other as beneficiary, for about $33 a month each. If God forbid something happens to either of you, the survivor is going to need money, and a lot of it, because of your son. Can we do this?”

A man who can memorize pages of Talmud, a man with a wife who had a degree in Hebrew education, could understand what I was saying, so they assented. We began filling out the applications, and they both passed me checks for the initial premium.

I left, feeling really good and proud of myself. I’d done a mitzvah. I’d put money in my own pocket without having to fuck anyone over. And then I got back to the office to have the policies and checks recorded. And the General Manager ripped me a new asshole. Why? Because I was supposed to sell them whole life, not term. When my “pool” broke at the end of training, it would sound like an afterbirth hitting the floor.


From then on I was out strictly for myself. I failed more than I succeeded. I tried to work off baby lists and, in one case, tried to insure a newborn in his own name with his father as beneficiary. Sure, the kid would grow up having insurance worth a small fortune for pennies on the dollar, but I felt like a ghoul betting the kid would live to grow up.

I tried to write a policy on a 69-year-old man for $100,000. He was in good health but he and his wife also had enough sense to see what I was up to. No sale, no deal.

And then my job got waved in my face. Sell or die. So I became ruthless. I got an appointment, again off a baby list, with a couple all the way up Route 23 in Hamburg, New Jersey. It was over an hour each way. When I got there, sure enough, there was the couple and a cute baby. And the father was a total schmuck who was too vain and thick to see what I was doing.

He had term insurance from Johns Hopkins. I persuaded him to lapse his Hopkins policy in favor of my whole life policy. Not because he needed it but because I needed it. I was already chasing computer jobs, a new field back in 1983, but I wanted to leave on my terms, not MetLife’s. I almost made it.

The fool signed my application and handed me a check. It was for whole life. I thanked him and I left.

And all I felt was a kind of existential nausee. I wanted to take a shower. I’d fucked this guy out of a useful policy by sweet-talking him. I used all the tools they taught me, all the crap at my disposal, and it had worked. What a guy.

I got to the office the next morning, really proud of myself, and booked the application and check. I got back-slapped. Whoopee.

And a week later the General Manager fired me. I was too far behind to make the cut. Whew. Yes, whew.

Two weeks later I got a job with Victor Technologies in Jersey, writing software manuals.

I ran into my sales manager in A&P one evening a few weeks later. He said “You wanna know what happened to the app you wrote on that guy in Hamburg?”


“He got turned down flat. He lied to you. He had a string of drunk driving convictions as long as your arm.”

I almost fell down laughing. Guilt? Oh, not so much I couldn’t handle it. But some minor degree of sorrow for this moron who hung his family out to dry because he listened to me, using my golden tongue to sell him something he did not need.

I’ve never forgotten it, thank God. I hope I never have to do something that underhanded again.

Footnotes: My ex-boss Herb had a heart attack about 18 months later. Another of his former victims said “Heart? How could anyone tell without an electron microscope?” And his partner, about as nasty and physical a drunk as I’ve ever met, made a pile of money in some ventures or the other, became a multimillionaire, but one night shot his wife while she was sleeping, then turned the gun on himself. Allegedly he was afraid of going broke. I’ve been broke for years, and I don’t even notice it all it all that much anymore.


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