Everything I ever needed to know about dating, I learned selling comedy tickets on the streets of New York City. Convincing a grouchy New Yorker to give you cash money for magic beans is a brutal way to make a living, much less a buck. But it was while pounding the proverbial pavement like a shabby salesman on the verge of death that I learned that one cannot fail forever. The big story of success, in sales or in love, is actually many smaller stories of failures.
If you live in New York, or have ever visited, you’ve probably been approached by someone asking you if you like comedy or complimenting your hair. These people are young and peppy, like religious zealots. On the ladder of social invisibility, these street peddlers are a rung above hobo and a rung below street musician. They often don’t take no for an answer and will follow you for a few feet, insisting that you do like comedy or that your hair really is fabulous, no seriously. Tourists are usually pretty easy because they’re friendly, but they’re also budget-minded and on tight schedules, so there is rarely any profit in their chattiness.
You should know that these carny folk are not scammers. What they sell is legit, more or less. Comedy clubs and hair salons can never fill enough seats. They’re always in the market for more business. So there are promotional companies that sell discounts to these establishments. The catch is the purchaser of the comedy ticket, for instance, has to call the club in advance to secure a seat, which means you’re sometimes given odd hours and comedians who are still asking why the whole airplane isn’t made out of the black box. The promotion company prints their own tickets and hires a small army of eager young scamps to offer the general public these coupons. The discount is usually sizeable, but even with the markup, it’s usually less than what you’d pay at the box office or just showing up at the salon.
My first few months in Gotham City were typical. I lived in a “hotel” that only took cash. Ketchup was my primary vegetable. The labyrinthine subways gave me hives. I was a Dickensian street waif with barely a farthing or a tuppence to my name. A know-nothing yokel with a bindle full of cliché dreams fresh off a cheap flight from Texas. A dumb kid who had no idea how the world really works. I was broke and desperate and I had a degree in writing plays, which barely qualified me to collate marketing materials. Writing bleak, poetic dreamscapes for naked actors with puppets is not a skillset valued by temp agencies. But I was qualified to beg people for money.
I answered an ad for a job that required no experience, which meant I was almost over-qualified. When I called the company, I heard the first friendly voice I had heard in weeks. The “interview” was in a loft, conducted by someone young and happy. I remember being mightily impressed by the interviewer’s fashion style and up until that point in my life I had never even considered fashion style. He was impossibly hip, with his charcoal grey turtleneck and his leather pants. I accepted the job, which was 100 percent commission. The next morning, I was trained and immediately thrown out into the street with a team of naïve losers. I was a capitalist stormtrooper.
Here’s what I learned, and it applies to dating. Love is an opportunity. Cold selling anything means you have to have an appetite for rejection. A hunger to fail. A salesman gets rejected 80 percent of the time, but he makes his living from the 20 percent of the time he succeeds.
From selling comedy tickets I learned to always make contact. Always listen, because someone who’s talking to you is someone who is interested. Don’t pursue the person or they’ll retreat. Smile.
Of course, I made exactly one sale before quitting.
The team leader, a jaunty gent a few years my senior who wore a brilliantly colored scarf straight out of the musical “Rent,” and who would tell me how he pulled down the kingly sum of 75K a year selling tickets, had a unique motivational technique. He would call one hour lunch breaks and invite anyone who had made money to eat with him. I spent one particular lunch watching him slurp down piles of Chinese food while my stomach ate itself.
Then, right after lunch, hunger commanded that I make some money. There she was, coming right at me, a beautiful young woman. We made eye contact. She stopped to talk to me. I believe she was the first woman in New York to give me the time of day. Most could smell the poor on me. I performed according to the textbook. I made my pitch. I put the tickets in her hand. We bantered. She was studying dance at Julliard and laughed at my jokes. Then … I lied. Here was the most important lesson: the wages of douche is self-loathing.
I told her I was a comedian and my mother was coming in from out of town to see me perform for the first time. But in order to perform, I had to sell a certain amount of tickets. It gets worse. She really wanted to help me, but didn’t have cash. So I volunteered to walk her to an ATM machine. Before she pulled out 20 bucks, I suggested that she buy extra tickets and resell them to her friends at her own markup. Buy three tickets for 60 dollars, then sell her friends the extra tickets for $25. It would still be cheaper than if they bought them at the club, but she’d make a little money too. She asked if I’d be at the club. I said yes. She asked if they’d card for booze there. I said yes. I took her money and gave her a fake name. Then I quit.
Bloodier money has been made. I spent that 60 bucks on bread and PBJ and beer. I bought a tie that wasn’t stained. When you lie to get what you want, you get what you deserve. I won’t boast that she was interested in me, but what if? I remember her distinctly. She had freckles on her cheek. A tangle of licorice hair pulled up into a ponytail. Her smile was the promise of summer on a cold winter day. She might have been a friend. Someone who could have told me not to stare up at the buildings so much or that all yellow trains don’t all go to the same places. She could have been a warm human connection worth so much more than 60 measly dollars.
Rejection hurts. It feels like dreaming you’re an eagle and waking up a penguin. But it’s not a stop, it’s a step. So remember to make eye contact. Smile. Say hello. Listen. If love stops for you, never lie to its face.
Read more of John DeVore’s preening narcissism on Twitter.