"NYLON JUMBO LAUNDRY BAGS! MACHINE WASHABLE! WATER RESISTANT!" Uttered at the top of my vocal volume range, these words were my money mantra for seven years as I worked the sidewalks of New York City as an unlicensed, self-employed street peddler. You could say I was into MLM Sales. (Maximum Lung Marketing!)
I bought the laundry bags below wholesale, straight from a factory in North Carolina, and made a great profit selling them just below retail. I loved the quick cash and the gutsy, streetwise calluses that formed on my psyche. I was part of the color and pulse of New York, a place where adrenaline, art and survival all blended together in a tapestry of shadows and light.
My style for hawking the bags became something of a creative, comic performance. "How did you get into this?" people asked me as I handed them their purchase. "How do I get out of this?" became the question I asked daily as the call of a career in music and the healing arts grew louder and my patience for eluding the police grew dim.
Did I say police? Yes, I confess! This crazy job of mine was not exactly legal. ‘Slightly illegal' was my juicy rationalization. About once a week I unwittingly donated a sack of laundry bags to the city of New York, via the police. Did breaking the law nag on my conscience? Not. Well, at least not my conscious conscience. I was a rebel without a pause, enjoying the game of cops and robbers, and moving too fast to question my ethics or my sanity. Besides, I was also using the job to practice my mindfulness meditation skills.
My technique was called Zen And The Art Of Spotting The Police Before They See You. This spiritual discipline on finding inner strength in the inner city found me routinely in the Yoga posture of being on my toes, my head stretching from left to right, being very here and now, moment to moment.
The police sometimes dressed in civilian clothes, sandwiching themselves amongst the human sardines that crowded the city sidewalks on any given day. I developed a sixth sense, an organically grown synthesis of intuition and paranoia. I could spot the police, pack up my bags, and slip into the crowd at a speed that Houdini would have admired. But even with my escape skills honed to a science, I did get caught on occasion.
While the temptation was to perceive those times as a bummer, I took it upon myself to make light of those moments when the police were writing me tickets and confiscating my bags. Feather dusting the situation with levity, I refused to buy into the consciousness of loss and gloom.
One day an absurd idea crossed my mind. I have learned to spring into action when a creative prompting knocks on my door. Before hesitation festered into analysis and paralysis, I took out my pen and wrote:
To Whom It May Publicly Concern:
This note is written permission for my son, Scott, to sell laundry bags on the streets of the city without a license. I know it is against the law, but my son is such a good boy in almost every other aspect of his life. I think he is entitled to some leeway here. This note officially absolves him from the law. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but a mother's written permission sure is!
Hugs and kisses,
I put the note in my pocket and waited, almost eagerly, for the next time I was caught in the act, bags in hand. Sure enough, my sales were interrupted the next day by two of New York's Finest. "Hold it!" I confidently barked. "I've got a pardon!" I handed one of the officers my note. He read it out loud in official police business monotone. Neither of them had any change of expression, and for a moment I feared the worst. Trying to humor a New York City police officer, committed to the confines of seriousness, can have disastrous results. Finally, the pregnant moment gave birth to a response: "Take a walk! This one is on Mom!" I skipped away a free man, thankful for the juices of creativity that turned a potentially negative situation into a close encounter of the hilarious kind.
The next day I was selling bags in my usual location when a police car came out of nowhere, flashing lights and blasting sirens, and parked halfway on the sidewalk, a breath away from my frozen body. The two officers from yesterday were right in my face before I even realized that they were after me. But instead of my bags, it seemed I was in possession of a rare and precious piece of literature that they wanted for their files. "We want the note!" one of them said, as if expecting me to challenge their authority. I handed him the scribbled piece of evidence. "We told everybody in the precinct about it, but they don't believe us. We're going to laminate it and post it on the bulletin board!" I relaxed, realizing that the sirens and the flashing lights were part of a joke they were playing to get back at me.
So there we were, three human beings, sharing a most unusual moment, temporarily suspending the crime and punishment game and connecting at a level that the popular script did not call for. Perhaps most moments of human connection unfold when we are willing to abandon the popular script and improvise our own.
Sometimes my improvised sales tactics included saying things like "The Strongest Laundry Bag You Can Buy Without A Prescription!" Other times I got even sillier: "You've Read The Book. You've Seen The Movie! NOW BUY THE BAG!!" Some people enjoyed a good laugh as they passed. Others would quicken their pace and be careful not to make eye contact and possibly catch whatever I seemed to have! Joy can be dangerously contagious, easily spread by inner child-to-child contact, often rendering its victims quite vulnerable to spontaneous emissions of playful life energy.
When my laundry bags or my humor were not well received I got to work through some of my rejection issues. I used my sidewalk adventures as therapeutic stepping stones, time and space to experiment with my self-expression and to develop some confidence, as well as cockiness! I look back on those days with affection, amused and grateful that I actually did it, and even more grateful that I don't do it anymore!
Six months after selling my last laundry bag and moving to California, I went back to New York to visit friends and family. I couldn't resist paying a visit to Court Street, in Brooklyn Heights, where most of my bags were sold. I strolled into the Kosher Pizzeria that had become my hang-out over the years. (I used to store my bags in their basement and hide from the police in their bathroom when I needed swift santuary.)The employees gave me a warm greeting. One of the waiters excitedly handed me a copy of the last week's Brooklyn Heights Gazette. On the back page was a comic strip with yours truly in it. An artist had captured me in caricature, selling my wares on Court Street. The caption read, "Whatever happened to the laundry bag man?" I had left my mark on the streets of the city I grew up in! That felt good.
A few years later I was back in Brooklyn again, giving a concert. A woman in the audience was looking at me quite strangely all throughout the performance. She appeared dazed, confused and disoriented. At the concert's close she approached me cautiously. "I know you from somewhere," she said painfully, as she attempted to make a difficult withdrawal from her memory bank.
I looked into her eyes and instantly knew. "NYLON JUMBO LAUNDRY BAGS!" I said loudly with a huge smile spread across my face. Her eyes registered both shock and the relief of recognition. "Oh, my God!" she exclaimed. "You are the laundry bag man!" She had cracked the case, but there were more pieces of the puzzle to put together. "I passed you on Court Street for years, feeling so sorry for you. What happened to you?" She had many more questions, wanting to know the details of how I had gotten off the streets and created such a rewarding career doing what I love. It was obvious that her belief system did not have much room for the possibility of people transforming their lives for the better, yet there I was, guitar in hand, proof before her eyes. She was stunned! I walked her to her car, telling her more of my story- voice lessons, recording my music, making my ‘no more bags' commitment, moving to California, taking the leap, trusting the universe. Her reactions gave me a richer appreciation for my bags to riches journey. What a story to tell around the campfire!
Sometimes remembering those days feels like a past life regression. Did I really spend seven years in this life as a street peddler, running from the police like a criminal? Yes, I did, and with no apologies. I made friends with the homeless, and sang improvised rap songs to the passing high school students (who thought I was weird, but cool). I made warm, human, and creative contact with each of my customers, sending them off with some positives vibes along with their purchase.
So what started as a laundry bag sales job evolved into a laundry bag performance ministry, which transitioned into what I do now. It strikes me sometimes that although I have changed products, I have not really changed jobs. My job has always been about extending love and sharing joy, and that is always the business at hand, whether it is gift wrapped in sales, laughter, singing, or NYLON JUMBO LAUNDRY BAGS!
Scott Kalechstein, the author of this article, is a modern day troubadour and inspirational speaker. He makes his home in Marin County, CA and travels through the United States, Canada and Europe giving concerts, talks and workshops, as well as presenting at conferences. Visit http://www.scottsongs.com to read more about his workshops, to hear his talks or to sample songs from his nine CD's. Send him an email at email@example.com to receive articles like this one on a semi-occassional basis.