“But I hit hard at the battle that’s confronting me...
Knock down all the roadblocks a-stumbling me.“
"Long Promised Road,“ as performed by The Beach Boys
Imagine selling home maintenance and cleaning products door-to-door in a downtrodden neighborhood in the heart of a 1950’s Wisconsin winter. Then think about covering that same sales route while battling speech and motor skill problems associated with cerebral palsy. That’s what Bill Porter did.
Porter’s is a true story, captured in a wonderful film called “Door to Door.” Released in 2002, it stars William H. Macy as Porter and Kyra Sedgwick as his college-age assistant.
Unemployed and living at home, Bill answers an ad for a sales job with the Watkins Company. Bill’s mom, played by Helen Mirren, drives him to the interview. No way you can walk a sales route with your affliction, the manager says. Outside, he sees his Mom standing by their car, waiting for him. He can’t stand the failure. He returns to the manager’s office, bursts in unannounced, and says, “Give me your worst route. What have you got to lose?“ And so he gets his chance.
Bill encounters every conceivable scenario knocking on doors and selling the Watkins line: dogs that race through his legs when the occupant cracks the door; angry, judgmental homeowners. His first sale is a wonderful moment. A lonely woman (played by Kathy Baker) invites Bill into her home, listens to his sales pitch, and orders two products. Then she hands Bill a drink full of vodka.
Bill takes his mother to dinner to celebrate. A teenager at the next table entertains his companions by mocking Bill’s speech patterns. Bill’s Mom squirts ketchup all over the teen’s shirt and casually returns to her conversation with her salesman son. I love this movie.
Eventually Bill’s customers come to regard him as part of the familiar fabric of the neighborhood. When a couple is having a spat, Bill offers sage, comforting advice to a jilted lover. He even manages to bring together a widow and widower who live next door to one another and whose families have been feuding for years. Bill is ultimately named Salesman of the Year at a Watkins banquet and in his acceptance speech, says “I love being a salesman.”
All is not copacetic, however. Bill’s Mom develops severe dementia and he struggles to provide care for her while working his sales route. Ultimately, the Watkins Company phases out door-to-door sales in favor of phone canvassing, the equivalent of modern brick and mortars giving way to online sales.
Through it all, Bill’s humanity and incredible persistence are on display. Who hasn’t had a door slammed in their face? What business owner or entrepreneur hasn’t faced disappointment? If achieving success were easy, anyone could accomplish it, right? Instead, it is the reward for those, like Bill, who refuse to be denied.
Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC®, AIF®, author of the syndicated economic column “Arbor Outlook,” is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850.608.6121 –ww.arborwealth.net).