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This Sucks!

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Doors of Perception: Kirby "cleaning system" salesperson Yvette Grubbs offers to demonstrate her machine's remarkable powers--and hopefully make a sale--to lucky individuals who let her into their homes.

To door-to-door salespeople like Yvette Grubbs, there are no problems in life, only challenges

By Kelly Luker

It was a deal too good to pass up. When that voice on the other end of the phone offered to shampoo my carpets for free, I glanced over at the living room, momentarily repelled by the growing dinginess of the once sky-blue rugs. No catch, they swore. They picked me--of all the citizens in the county--to witness the powers of this miraculous cleaning machine. Who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth?

A week later Yvette Grubbs and Sam Gardner ring the doorbell, hauling a Kirby Generation IV and 82 years of tradition behind them. In this age of impersonal mega-malls, business Web sites and the QVC instant-charge, instant-gratification shopping channel, it's somehow comforting to know that door-to-door salespeople still exist. Along with the Fuller Brush Man, the Avon Lady and the students who pitched those endless volumes of encyclopedias, the humble vacuum-cleaner salesperson has been the punchline of too many jokes to count. And, the undisputed king of the door-to-door dust suckers is Kirby, a company whose little machine has helped pave the way through college for thousands of young adults, as well as offering the equivalent of Marine Corps basic training for many a successful salesperson.

Although knocking on suburban doors was never an easy sell, it's amazing that this method of product-pushing could exist into the '90s, when no one in her right mind would invite a stranger into her living room. According to Yvette, though, it has not only survived, but prospered. Although many appointments are made through cold-calling from the office, just as many potential customers are found through canvassing, a bone-wearying, spirit-crushing exercise called "knocking yourself in" that will take Yvette and Sam throughout neighborhoods from 10am until after dark.

"It's really hard to get in," Yvette admits. She tries to pick middle-class neighborhoods. "Not upper class--they won't let us in," she says. And, after one guy tried to drag her inside the house, she no longer canvasses alone, especially after dark. The salespeople have learned not to canvass in suits because they "get mistaken for Jehovah's Witnesses," Yvette explains.

Mysterious Properties

To call what Yvette Grubbs and Sam Gardner want to demonstrate for me a vacuum cleaner would be like referring to a Ferrari Testarossa as just another set of wheels. As department stores began stocking dozens of models, Kirby had to decide whether to change its method of distribution (the power machines are only sold door-to-door) or change its product. What evolved was the Bo Jackson of dirt doctors, a sleek, muscular multifaceted machine. Vacuuming is only what this monster does in its spare time. According to Yvette, it also will suck spider webs out of rafters, dust from curtains and even fleas off my German shepherd. And, with the right attachments, it's also a furniture sander and a back massager.

Yvette warms me up with a few details about the company as she pulls out the brochures, flip cards and various Kirby paraphernalia. This 19-year-old looks more like someone who should be modeling skin-care products than schlepping around appliances. She has been doing this for two months, she informs me, so she is now showing Sam--who is new to the game--the ropes.

As she pulls out one of the many attachments, Yvette asks whether I knew that Kirby is the only vacuum cleaner to belong to the American Lung Association. Although I consider myself well-read, I was embarrassed to admit that I did not.

What I am about to encounter is what the Kirby sales trainers refer to as the "see and hear phenomenon"--the visuals that will earn their machine a parking spot in my closet and them a fairly hefty fee. Of course, it's much too early to ask just what that fee might be.

For her first visual, Yvette takes a large round swatch and, after vigorously rubbing it, adheres it to her chest. "Each filter is statically enhanced," she explains, allowing how these mysterious properties somehow attract those errant dirt particles. While standing there with a filter stuck to her upper torso, she asks to take a gander at my present vacuum cleaner. She tries, but can't hide the look of revulsion that momentarily crosses her face when she lays eyes on the trusty old Panasonic.

Apparently, my vacuum is the technological equivalent of applying leeches to wounds. Encased beneath the plastic are beater bars meant to shake loose the dirt, but which, according to Yvette, actually pound it in deeper and destroy the carpet fibers. In effect, I'm killing my rug in order to save it.

"Those beater bars really disturb me," says Yvette, biting her lower lip. The Kirby, on the other hand, relies on a "gentle agitator and air flow" to accomplish the task, and Ms. Grubbs is ready to show me how that works. She pulls out a box of Arm and Hammer and flings baking soda over a spot of carpet. "I will now vacuum this 52 times with your machine, then 52 times with mine," she announces. Before I can finish pondering how the exact number of 52 was reached, she is done and there is no competition. The saleswoman opens up her machine's filter bag and dumps out handfuls of filth that my machine had missed.

Guilt Spiral Staircase

Now it is my turn to stare accusingly at the Panasonic, wondering how I had managed to overlook its shiftless ways all this time. Yvette senses that I'm ready to drop into a shame spiral about my shoddy appliance and moves in for the kill. "And, just how often do you vacuum?" she asks understandingly. Well, it would be a hell of a lot more often if I had that baby, doncha know. Yvette knows. In two months, she's learned her craft well.

Although she wants to stick to her script, I'm curious. Why this? She's too young to be cynical, too sweet to bat away nosy questions. It seems she met Mr. Right when he was out on business to her hometown in Texas. He came back to Santa Cruz and she followed. She's been working steady since she was 16, so this is just another job, another challenge. Not everyone approves of Mr. Right, an older man, but Yvette is determined to make this--and her life--work.

Yvette admits it's hard work, but she has role models that show her it's all worth it. Like her boss, Steve Schroepfer, who pulled down a six-figure income last year. Then there's his boss in San Jose, Mr. Cooper, who has made a million bucks pushing this lowly household appliance. And when it gets too hard, "I just pray," Yvette admits.

Now we move to the more daunting task of stain removal. Not to worry, Yvette assures me, switching to her machine's shampoo mode. This vacuum cleaner-cum-carpet scrubber can remove any organic stain. We stare at the faded remnants from my dog's upset stomach. "Is vomit organic?" Yvette wonders. We both scratch our heads. But she is on more solid ground when we study the faint markings of a no-no long since left by my cat.

"Pet stains," as she delicately terms them, "are acid-based, which can pose a challenge." As anyone who knows a salesperson has learned, there are no problems in life, only challenges. And Yvette's final challenge is turning that now-naked lust in my eyes for her Kirby into a sale.

And, she's gonna offer me a sweet deal. Normally this dirt-busting behemoth would set me back about the cost of two Mediterranean ocean cruises, but if I throw in that loathsome Panasonic, she'll knock $200 off. And, as anyone who knows a salesperson also knows, that's not money I'm spending, that's an investment I'm making. Walking Yvette Grubbs, Sam Gardner and what could have been my Kirby to the door, I explain that the Luker clan does not invest four-digit sums when it comes to carpet maintenance. However, we will enjoy our now vomit- and pee-free carpet, thanks to their demonstration.

Although she drove off with my coveted Kirby, Yvette also left with a little bit of my respect. Maybe it was because she was busting hump and grabbing life while so many of us chose to be victims of it. Maybe it was because this young woman prayed, rather than swore, when times were tough. Or, maybe it was because she was carrying on a tradition that the evils of society should have long since wiped out.

Wherever Yvette is today, I wish her well. Even though it sucks, I hope that Kirby someday brings her a million bucks.

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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