Over the Hill

When I was a professional liar

Mencken died in 1956, but his statement agrees nicely with an article I read Tuesday in The Tribune. Its headline said, “We all lie, but political leaders do it more.”

That article was by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press. He pointed out that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump often refers to his leading rival as “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz.

As Tuesday’s headline said, “We all lie.” And that’s the truth. But lies are often just politeness. Somebody says “Hi, how are you?” I answer, “Fine,” even though I’ve got my share of aches, pains and worries. But telling the truth could abort a possibly enjoyable conversation.

And some lies aren’t merely polite. They can be downright benevolent, as when answering a nervous, “How do I look?”

But many lies are meant to exploit us or cheat us. Let me tell you about my days as a professional liar. When I was about 19, I answered a help-wanted ad and became a door-to-door magazine salesman.

The magazines we sold were well-known, respected and popular. But our sales pitch wasn’t based on their quality and reputation. No, I was taught to offer people two absolutely free two-year subscriptions to any of the 15 first-class, monthly magazines on our list.

I handed the list to the prospect and asked, “Which two are your favorites?” After they picked two, I pointed to the message printed at the bottom of the list. It said, “Through the courtesy of:” and named a very popular weekly magazine.

I would then say, “You will also receive (the very popular weekly magazine) every week for two years. All we ask is that you pay the weekly 20-cent service to the boy who delivers it.” Then I would hold out a pen and the order form to be signed, and emphatically say, “That’s fair enough, isn’t it?”

But the pitch was a lie. What I was actually asking them to sign was a contract to buy three, two-year magazine subscriptions. None were free. They’d be buying two-year subscriptions at $5 apiece for each of the two monthly magazines they’d chosen. They’d also be buying one, two-year subscription to (the very popular weekly magazine) at $10. It was meant to confuse. Those were the going 1949 prices.

Their total cost, at 20 cents per week for two years, was $20.80. But there was no delivery boy, the magazines were mailed and the money was collected by an adult, often an off-duty fireman. “For the customers’ convenience,” he collected one dollar per month for 20 months. I collected the 80 cents when I made the sale. I got to keep it. I also got $2 or $3 per sale at the end of the week.

I was a highly mediocre salesman. I’m much too cowardly to be a good liar. So I didn’t make much money, but I learned forever to be skeptical of all pitches, especially sales pitches and political pitches.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.