Ducts.org is proud to present the I Found it at the Movies essay writing contest winner, Ronni Krasnow's "Life of a Salesman." We received quite a few entries and choosing a winner was difficult, but in the end we felt her piece best captured the essence of ducts.org: a personal story told simply. We would like to offer our sincerest congratulations and thanks to Ronni for sending us her inspiring essay.
I hardly ever cry at movies. During Beaches and Ghost , I listened to the weeping and noses being blown and wondered how people could fall for such drivel. Even classic tearjerkers like Terms of Endearment and Casablanca haven't forced me to pull out my Kleenex. But last year it finally happened: I lost it at the movies. And I didn't just cry over the closing credits. I cried for two solid hours. It was the kind of release that leaves you with a pounding headache; where all you can do afterwards is crawl into bed and collapse. So, it was a good thing I wasn't at the local multiplex, but safely ensconced in my own apartment, watching William H. Macy in Door to Door on TNT.
The film that finally pushed all my buttons was --gasp-- a TV movie, Hollywood's poor relation. If only every Hollywood creation that strove for truth could be as real as Door to Door , the true story of Bill Porter, who, despite having Cerebral Palsy, walked the streets of Portland, Oregon for over four decades as a salesman for the Watkins soap company. Since I also have C.P., I knew that tuning in could be dangerous for me, but I had seen my share of "affliction of the week" movies and emerged relatively unscathed. I figured Porter's story was different enough from my own. His disability is, for the most part, more severe than mine, affecting his speech and hands as well as his legs. Plus, he's a lot older than I am, and I know little about soap other than using it to wash up. So, I figured I'd be safe. I was wrong.
Virtually each scene opened up wounds I had thought long healed, or worse, wounds I didn't even know I had. Over the opening credits, a young Bill Porter, anxious to follow in his father's salesman footsteps, is preparing excitedly for an interview at Watkins, but he's rejected outright. The top brass just don't think he can handle the job. It's too physical, and, after all, he's a "cripple," they say. I wept then at the memory of my wretched seventh grade art teacher, who announced to a full classroom that I'd "never have a job" because I "expected people to do everything for me." I wept because even though she turned out to be wrong, and I am gainfully employed, she planted a seed of doubt that remains lodged in some deep corner of my soul. It sprouts whenever I try to reach higher or farther.
After Porter persists and convinces the company to give him a chance, his mother, and staunchest supporter, played by Helen Mirren, treats him to a congratulatory dinner. Unfortunately, the celebration is marred by ruffians at the next table, snickering at his slurred speech and calling him "retarded." With admirable nonchalance, his mother "accidentally" bathes them all in ketchup. "I'm sorry," she quips. "I must be retarded." I wept then for the countless times my own mother has defended me in a similar fashion, and for all those days she sat in the back of my first grade class, because no school official would accept the "responsibility" or "burden" of caring for me. Later in the film, when Porter's mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer's and her condition begins to deteriorate, she apologizes for being a "burden" to her son. His simple, understated reply: "Now we're even." I wept then for every day of my thirty- five years that I've been the burden. Later, he agonizes over not being able to care for her at home, and I wept for the guilt and inadequacy that are probably an inevitable part of my own future. Knowing that when the time comes, I, too, will not be able to fully return the favor.
In one of the houses on Porter's beat, there's a woman with a newborn infant. She invites him in and he goes directly into his hard sell. But in the middle of a pitch that he's made hundreds of times, his voice waivers and, obviously shaken, he's forced to excuse himself. The client, cradling her baby, doesn't understand. But I do. I wept then because I know full well how the fear of being alone, of never having your own family, can overwhelm you at the most inopportune moment.
I also understand why Porter refuses help at almost every turn. He'd rather walk miles in a blinding rainstorm than accept a ride. It's a question of dignity. He'd rather carry his own briefcase, because people need to know that he can. Every day, in my work as a librarian, when I emerge from behind the desk to offer assistance, there's always at least one person who is surprised to see the cane and says. "Oh, I'm sorry, never mind." "That's okay, it's my job, " I say, as I lead them to the shelves. What I don't say is, that it's a matter of dignity.
Eventually, Porter becomes such a fixture on the streets of Portland, and in the company, that he is named Salesman of the Year several times over. It was then that I wept for the quiet grace of a man who just keeps going. He takes so much pride in what he has accomplished, and has little of the bitterness or anger that plagues me. He doesn't waste time thinking about the things he can't do or can't have. Instead, he just accepts the hand he was dealt and makes the most of it.
As the end credits roll, I rinse my tear-stained cheeks, climb into bed and say a fervent prayer that someday I will be able to do the same.