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The Chicago Bulls
Fitzy and I first met on the campus of a catholic high school in the suburbs of Boston. Our first meeting might have been in the locker room at captain’s practice for hockey. This would have been 1998. Our friendship was a late bloomer with deep roots. This story takes place six years later.
By then, Fitz and I were thick as thieves. We were either with each other or spoke on the phone daily. When we weren’t together, we used those Nextel chirpy cell phones that were hot with construction workers and Fitz’s beautifully weird buddies from Norwood. The Norwood gang were early adopters of this “push to talk” mobile phone. I begged my folks for one.
We’d often start our chats with a “come hither” dog whistle. You’d press and hold the little rubber button in on the side and speak (or whistle) into your phone and a few seconds later, the sound would come blasting out of the other person’s phone. Like long distance walkie talkies. Fitz chirped me one day and we get to talking. He tells me about some “business” meeting that he’s been going to and asks me if I want to join. I don’t remember him having to work hard to convince me.
The meeting was taking place the next evening, a Tuesday at 5pm in Everett. It was mid summer and I was landscaping five days per week. My plan was, I’d finish work, return my truck to the yard, then run inside for a shower before heading to the meeting. I showered and dressed in my 1998 standard khaki pants with a tucked in light blue Van Heusen. Probably some bad shoes from Aldo at the South Shore Plaza to round it out.
On the drive back to the yard I can’t remember what I was thinking about. I must have been overcome with curiosity. What had gotten Fitz so excited that he’d finish working construction for the day and want to drive to Everett for a two hour meeting? I had to see for myself.
I sat in rush hour traffic for a while. I’m not sure that I’d ever set foot in Everett before, for good reason. I found the address and parked next to Fitz’s two door Ford. We got out and chatted for a minute or two. We slipped in a side entrance and walked up a poorly lit stairwell until we reached the door marked “Primerica”. I’d soon find out that Fitz had recruited me to attend a Primerica Opportunity Meeting.
We entered the second floor office suite and I looked around. I noticed that we were the youngest people by a decade or two. I noticed that we were some of the only white people there. There were about 15-18 people standing in a line waiting to use smelly markers to write their names on “hello my name is” stickers before slapping it on their chest. I got in line and mumbled a few hellos and when it was my turn, wrote my name in fat blue letters and slapped it on my Van Huesen.
We followed the group around one of those four foot partial walls that people put up in second rate office suites. I know they’re put up to create some separation between spaces but they look shitty 100% of the time. On the other side of the wall, there were chairs set up. Six rows of six with a space up the middle for a center aisle. The chairs had gold metal frames and brown vinyl cushions with cracks that showed yellow foam filling. The stock late 90s group seating chair.
People grabbed hot, bad coffee and took their seats. There was a projection screen setup and I was looking around in awe. What the fuck was going on here? I was in a beige, second floor walk up in Everett after a hard day of weed whacking and lugging barrels of yard refuse. It felt like an alternate universe.
Just as the last butts settled into chairs, the lights dimmed way down and there was electric anticipation in the air. Most people were smiling and gently elbowing each other in the ribs like “here we goooo”.
I could hear faint but escalating music coming from a black, rectangular Sony boombox that had been setup in the back. I couldn’t identify it at first, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the iconic 1990s Chicago Bulls entrance music. If you’re not familiar, It’s this crescendo-ing electronic pump up music where the PA announcer rattles off the legendary players of the 96 Bulls. You can pause this story and find it on YouTube it if you want. It’s worth it.
As the music was building, I heard the door open and close and then saw a small latino man tip-toe around the dividing wall and start stalking his way up the center aisle like a professional wrestler making his way to the ring. He got to the front of the room and yelled at us to stand up and before I know it, someone starts that clapping thing where you start slow and increase the pace until everyone is in a frenzy and you can’t help but hoot and holler and whistle. I got carried away. I was doing it right along with these strangers. Juan snapped off a few high fives to the folks in the front row as the lights came up and the music faded out. He started talking. There were slides. It was very early days for powerpoint so I remember a lot of low budget flashy transitions between slides.
The pitch was world class. Juan told stories of families who had gone through tremendous hardship and illness and setbacks. He talked about how he had helped these people, had gotten them back on their feet, and about how blessed he was to do this work (God's work) and as he rounded the corner for home and started wrapping up the presentation, he had tears leaking down his cheek and I remember him shouting and pointing at us, “Don’t tell me that we’re not changing lives!” Don’t tell me that we’re not helping our brothers and sisters!” I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about but the room ripped into a standing ovation and people were hugging and high five-ing and hopping up and down. Frothing. (Fitz and I were hugging and high five-ing strangers.) What a performance.
After the presentation, we broke off into small groups to mingle and chat. Fitz introduced me to some of the parishioners. Juan made his rounds like he was running for president of the USA. Shaking hands, hugging and kissing people. He finally gets to us and he grabs Fitz for a hug and then shakes my hand. He ushered us into his office for a private chat.
Ray popped up and started whiteboarding some kind of money making opportunity (standard pyramind scheme math). I don’t think he ever came out and said that we were being recruited to sell term life insurance to unsuspecting victims, but that’s what we were talking about. He finished the whiteboarding session with some outlandish equation that amounted to making 250k per year with my name at the top of a pyramid. After the emotional presentation and this private meeting, Juan had me ready to sign my life away and leave college.
I went home that night and told my mom and dad all about it and about how I needed to seriously consider this opportunity full time, right away. I still had a year or two left of my college career. My parents were dumbfounded. Imagine your overgrown toddler coming home talking about going to work for a con artist in Everett while you are working yourselves to death to help pay for his education. I’m surprised I wasn’t struck with a weapon.
What I was proposing to my folks and to myself was like dropping out of Harvard to host tupperware parties full time. Fitz and I kept going back to Everett. I don’t know how many meetings we went to but we recruited some of our buddies. A few of our closest pals got to see Juan perfect the Chicago Bulls act and get the tears going every time.
Owen was one of those people. Owen comes from a wealthy construction family on the south shore. After the waterworks and the office white boarding session we moved into the larger room with the others. I should mention that Juan had Owen ready to leave school and sell insurance to his parents and their rich friends.
We started making the rounds, introducing Owen to some of our Everett friends.
First there’s Chad, whose calling card was to walk around and shake hands with everyone while apologizing repeatedly for his cold hands. He let us know that the cold hands came from the air conditioning in his car blowing on them during the drive over. It was mid summer and having cold hands 40 minutes after getting out of the car seemed odd. It felt like he was flexing on us with the ice cold AC in his Rav 4. I heard him repeat this routine with two other small groups.
Next we met an older woman, Anne, who was at her first meeting. She must have been mid 60s. She was 4’11 high and 4”11 wide. She was a lovable little sphere dressed in slacks, a sweater, and a brown jacket. Her hair was thinning up top and she looked a little sweaty.
Anne methodically traveled around our little circle and hugged all of us. Fitz got a squeeze and then I got a squeeze. Somehow, when it was his turn, the hug caught Owen completely by surprise. He was flustered and on his heels. Owen returned the hug but the wires crossed in his brain causing him to lean over and kiss the top of her head.
I thank god everyday that Fitz and I were both watching this and caught every second of it. Owen locked eyes with us and panicked. He silently mouthed, “Holy Fuck, I just kissed her,” which sent Fitz and I into convulsions as we tried to smother an outburst.
I don’t remember how the Primerica thing ended but I’m really glad it did. I think after the third time telling my folks about it and asking if I could call their friends to have Juan come over for dinner and pitch them, my dad just said “are you fucking nuts?”
I like to think that we were some of the first people to fall for the multi level marketing pitch that has been perfected over the years by makeup companies, nutritional supplement companies, and candle companies.