The Summer I Almost Sold Cutco Knives

The Summer I Almost Sold Cutco Knives (But Instead Ended Up Waitressing and Chauffeuring Rich Kids to Sailing Lessons)

Photo credit: Indi Samarajiva, CC BY 2.0.

The summer after my first year away at college I returned home bored and listless and just too cool for everything about my hometown. I wanted to spend my summer in my parents’ basement, chatting on AIM with my friends, running up my cellphone bill texting the boys I was flirting with in the days before unlimited texting plans, and basically waiting for summer to be over.

My parents wanted me to get a job.

My career path was more or less already decided at this time: the only jobs I had worked were at libraries and bookstores. I had a lot of experience shelving books and helping people find that one book, you know, they thought the cover was green? (It was Lord of the Flies.)

It is green, kind of.

But I didn’t feel like working at the local bookstore or library again. I was a sheltered middle-class Midwesterner without any sort of bullshit-o-meter, and I had no business trolling Craigslist for jobs, but that’s what I did—and that’s how I ended up “interviewing” to sell Cutco knives.

I had somehow never heard of Cutco, pyramid schemes, or the “you can cut a shoe with this knife!” trope. I went to my group job interview in a nondescript suburban building with glass block windows, and did everything right. I watched the promotional video and ate it up, not even pausing to be suspicious when I learned that I would have to buy the knives I was supposed to sell.

During the more intimate one-on-three interview portion, I was cheery and enthusiastic about the product and my sales ability. I had sold so many Readers Advantage cards at Barnes and Noble — how could hawking knives be any different than convincing people to pay money for a discount card I knew they would never use? I felt smug, proud that I was doing better than the other two people in the room with me, and relieved when they called me back into the office to offer me the job. As if it were possible to not get the job.

My friends reacted to the news of my new job differently than I expected. They weren’t happy for me: they were full of warnings. One friend in particular was adamant that she was not going to let me sell knives. I didn’t see the big deal, but was still grateful when she sweet-talked her mother into giving me, a person with zero waitressing experience and obviously very little common sense, a waitressing job. When another friend with an excess of jobs handed over a cushy babysitting position, my desire to be a door-to-door knife salesman began to wane. It was partly the jobs that fell into my lap (hot job search tip: try telling everyone you know that you’re thinking of selling knives! sit back and wait to be showered with employment opportunities) and partly the horrified responses I was getting from everyone in my life.

The waitressing job was at a popular Irish pub in a nearby town that had opened a new outdoor patio area — the patio area had a separate menu (no shepherd’s pie), separate rules (no glass; no free refills on soda), and a separate waitstaff (mostly college-age girls who were friends with the manager’s daughter, like me). Inside, it was dark and smoky and the waitresses were tiny middle-aged women with raspy smokers’ voices, career waitresses who were quick on their feet and unforgiving if you got in their way. The cooks in the kitchen were loud and no-nonsense, many of them immigrants. Inside was a well-oiled machine and an unfamiliar world, and going in to pick up my entrées from the kitchen was terrifying. It was a world away from the easy-going bookstores and libraries I was used to, filled with elderly browsers.

Outside on the patio it rained a lot, and we spent a lot of time gossiping and eating the free chips and salsa under the awning and wondering if we should just close for the night. What I should have been doing was studying The Bartender’s Bible, so I would stop having those all-too-frequent awkward moments in which I had to ask the customers to describe how to make the drink they had just ordered (and then put the wrong type and amount of liquor in it). I was a terrible waitress. Between my skills and the rain, I made almost nothing.

Never ask what’s in a gin and tonic again!

Eventually we were given a shift manager: one of the aforementioned terrifying cooks from inside who had broken his arm and was unable to cook. He had a sour disposition and loathed being outside with us, and we still tried to make him our pet. He was a very conservative eastern-European immigrant with a lot of opinions about sports cars (very worthwhile), men with long hair (unacceptable), and a woman’s role (at home). His girlfriend made more money than he did, and because of that he didn’t want to marry her.

As the summer wore on and we began to understand more about one another, he became less of a pet and more of a human being. He was a dedicated worker, accepting this “rehab” assignment on the patio while his arm mended, and he stood up for us against unruly customers. He was stuck with us as much as we were stuck with him, but long hours waiting out the rain by sharing personal stories and having heartfelt debates made us all better and wiser. Besides, we were in it together.

It was the same with everyone inside the restaurant. We all panicked together when a food critic was coming; we all heaved together when someone smeared the restroom with poop. As many have suggested before me, waiting tables is a humbling and challenging thing that everyone should experience, in the hopes that seeing the inner-workings of the service industry will make you less likely to scream at a waitress about the color of the greens in your salad or tell her she can’t get her tip until she sits on your lap. I’d never been treated that way before — just like I’d never hung out around middle-aged women who drank and smoked heavily, or eastern-European immigrants with high-earning girlfriends. They showed me that being quick, loud, no-nonsense, and unforgiving if someone gets in your way is how you get things done and make money. They all knew Cutco knives was a scam.

The “great idea” isn’t babysitting; it’s entrepreneurship. Big difference.

On the other side of the spectrum—and on the other end of the county—was my other job, way up north in a tony suburb named to emulate some sort of landscape feature that doesn’t actually exist in this part of the country. (It wasn’t a stony brook, but it could have been.)

I can’t decide if I should have been called a babysitter, a nanny, or a chauffeur to the three pre-teens I was employed to supervise. My job mostly consisted of arriving mid-morning, driving each of the three kids — two boys, one girl — to their various classically upper-class activities (tennis, country club pool, horseback riding, or sailing), then making them lunch and watching TV with them until their mom got home from work. They were perfectly capable of doing the latter two things themselves, but I guess because I was already there and they were already paying me, why not insist that I assemble the sandwiches? If this had been 2016, I’m pretty sure the parents would just install Uber on the kids’ smartphones and call it a day.

Despite the relative ease of making sure some kids get to tennis lessons, I was terrible at this job as well. I would routinely show up several minutes late, often unshowered and with greasy hair. The mother had to speak to me more than once about appropriate clothing — apparently my commitment to funky thrift store duds did not pass muster at the country club. My car was a Volvo as old as I was and was prone to overheating, and I repeatedly got lost on the way to sailing lessons because the alien nautical terms used to navigate the yacht club confused me. I took a wrong turn once and almost drove the kids to Canada.

The mother was small, taut, and blonde, and wore tasteful gold-tone jewelry and crisp white blazers. In a weird twist, the father, an always-absent figure whom I never met, was one of the top level executives at the company where my dad worked. My dad knew who he was, but the reverse was not true. The family had a housekeeper and a groundskeeper. I was just as unfamiliar with career rich people as I was with career waitresses, and I bungled a lot of the interactions. The daughter made jewelry that was sold in local shops. I, too, made jewelry—out of trash that I found and that I had secret aspirations of selling. “So, how did you get your stuff in stores?” I asked casually, trying to get career advice from an 11-year-old. She made me earrings as a goodbye present at the end of the summer and I was so embarrassed that I didn’t have pierced ears that I shoved the earrings in my bag and pulled my hair down so it fell over my ears, hoping she would just forget that she had given them to me. I was not asked back the following summer.

It’s just as well that I wasn’t asked back, because I didn’t come home that next summer. I stayed at school and worked another low-paying job for which I was completely unqualified. Old enough not to fall for pyramid schemes, young enough to want something “different,” and coddled enough by my middle-class upbringing that I didn’t have to fully support myself financially, I naturally applied to be an in-home health care aide. That was another experience — like waitressing, learning to love my surly and conservative shift manager, and accepting that sometimes you just have to dress the part to fit in at the country club—that helped open my horizons and introduce me to different ways of life, and I’m only now realizing how lucky I was to get all of those different opportunities even when I didn’t deserve them.

I’m also lucky to have friends that wouldn’t let me sell Cutco knives.

This article is part of our ‘Summer Series’ collection. Read more stories here.

Anne Petrimoulx is an Archivist and Historian, still sticking to the career path she chose at age 16.

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