No. 11, Coupon Book Delivery Girl (Age 17)

Hoodwink: To deceive or trick. 

Midwesterners, bible beaters, and countless other Holy Rollers have a reputation for giving everyone—most notably solicitors and traveling salesmen—the benefit of the doubt. Trust now, ask about stopping payment on the check later. My lapsed-Catholic mother was no exception, and let anyone who wasn’t an ex-husband into our home. All they had to do was knock. Avon, Amway, Mary Kay—my mother either bought the shit or sold it. Did she need encyclopedias for her children? Why, yes she did! How about a badass vacuum for our rugs? How did they know? Got Jehovah? Well . . . they were always invited in for coffee.

I remember thumbing through piles of Watchtower magazines, wondering why my mother was interested in such an amateurish display of cartooning skills. As far as I knew, Jesus was just a creepy figurehead on Granny Idela’s walls, his holographic eyes always following me around, watching me pick my nose, knowing when I touched myself under the covers. Outside of weddings and Lisa’s and my brief tour of remedial catechism we never went to church (yet were routinely threatened with eternal damnation). When I was a pre-teen a friend’s older sister once asked me if I was a virgin. I actually thought “virgin” was some kind of religion, and so my answer was, “No, I’m Catholic.”

The phony coupon book hoax was one of many sales campaigns traveling through our area that summer of ’86. Oblivious to any imminent deception, I followed the instructions in the Estherville Daily’s (tiny) Help Wanted section and arrived unannounced at the Palazzo, the motel where I took my first job and still worked occasional shifts. The advertisement said drivers were needed to deliver coupon books. It also mentioned a flexible schedule and tips. Tips? I could hardly believe my luck. I was already working as many hours as possible at McDonald’s in Okoboji in a tardy effort to save for my freshman semester at Iowa State University. I was convinced a job with tips might put the kibosh on my financial worries.

There was definitely something seedy about running a business out of a motel room, and my skin hardened into gooseflesh when I put my hand on the doorknob. I relaxed when I smelled the familiar odors of soiled comforters and neglected carpet, when I saw two beds pushed against a wall unmade. Every head looked up when I entered. I recognized a few housewives, some retirees I’d seen guzzling coffee at the Estherville McDonald’s (free refills for old farts), and my math teacher’s daughter.

“Um, yeah. Hi. I’m here about the delivery position?” It came out as a question even though I’d rehearsed on the drive over. A woman with arms the size of pencils walked out of the bathroom and approached me.

“Hi! I’m Sherry. Did I hear you say you want to deliver?”

“Um, yeah.” I stepped backwards a foot as she leaned into my personal space. Her breath smelled like cigarettes and Crest.

“Okay. Well, as a driver you are in a contracted position so you don’t need to fill out any paperwork. You get $2 for each book you deliver plus ten cents a mile and any tips the customers give you. Does that sound acceptable?”

“I guess so.”

“Alright, just sit down here until we have a run for you.” 

She handed me a map of rural Estherville and I settled into a club chair with oily stains on the arms, careful not to let my skin touch the fabric. I listened as the telemarketers cold-called Estherville residents and sold nearly every one of them a coupon book filled with hundreds of dollars worth of reduced prices and free stuff. Callers were going through the phone book one name at a time, hunting down the penny-pinchers and promising them cheap haircuts and free ice cream cones. The coupon books were sold with unbelievable ease. A tinny voice crackling through a phone’s receiver was all consumers needed to give away their credit card numbers and first born children. Housewives and retirees were snapping up those coupon books like two-for-one boxes of Hamburger Helper.

At last it was my turn to deliver. It was not the paradise I’d expected. I got lost trying to locate the rural residences (every single one of them), and drove up and down miles of dirt road playing connect-the-cornfield at unsafe speeds as I beat on my steering wheel and cried. I quit three hours later. I wasn’t going to waste another minute breathing in dirt and allowing my Le Car to fill with a bouquet of manure each time I opened the window. How in the hell was I supposed to get any tips?

I pulled up to a tiny diner in the middle of a town I never knew existed until that moment. I hopped into a Superman-style phone booth on the side of the building and called the one room office at the Palazzo Motel.

“Listen, um. I, um, have a flat tire? So I’m, uh, not going to be able to finish.” I tried to sound flustered.

“Are you sure you have a flat tire?” was the accusatory response that came from the receiver. Perhaps I wasn’t the first flat tire that day.

“Um, yeah. I called my dad and he’s going to come and change it for me.” I could hear the skinny lady whispering to someone. “Um, yeah. So listen,” I went ahead and interrupted, “I’m not going to be able to come back in so I guess umm . . .”

I pulled the phone away from my mouth and heard her talking as I dropped the receiver into its cradle. I went into the diner, got an ice cream cone, and drove home.

Mildly embarrassed by my flat-tire tale, I never returned to get paid the promised pennies per mile. Instead I kept the coupon books I was supposed to deliver, figuring I was coming out on the good side of the deal since they cost $30 each. What the retailers, the buyers, the telemarketers and I didn’t know at the time was that soon the coupon books weren’t going to be worth the paper they were printed on.

Within a month the majority of Estherville’s shopkeepers, storeowners, and restaurateurs were forced to invalidate the coupons. It was a huge scam in which the retailers took a beating. They’d paid a huge chunk of cash to have a coupon in the books, believing a sales pitch about how it was a sure-fire way to increase business. Only the books were so popular all the hairdressers in town were giving every haircut for free, the dairies were running out of ice cream, and the fast food restaurants were running out of fries.

And I never got any tips.

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