by Carly Fisher
From the catwalk of the La Quinta Inn, I watched the sun rise in Oklahoma. Streams of light illuminated the semi-trucks sluggishly pushing across the expressway, the broken halogen lights fading into the empty parking lot of the Waffle House next door, and sleepy employees trading shifts at Wal-Mart. This was my kingdom. And on this day, I was going to convince people to purchase a grill.
At this point, I was about a week into a short contract gig demonstrating CharBroil infrared grills at different Home Depots across the country. Gigs like these were appealing to recent graduates without job prospects in 2008. You know, the people standing at malls or music festivals desperately handing out free samples of questionable flavored water, t-shirts, and other products you’ll never use. Since I had nothing lined up except a handful of unpaid internships, I decided to give into a paycheck and a false sense of adventure in order to market things to people.
Leveraging my experience as a small-time food columnist at my college paper, I convinced them I was the right woman for the job. In actuality, I was hired immediately because I didn’t have a criminal record and was financially desperate enough. I guess it makes sense that the bar would be pretty low for a job that requires you to abandon your home and everyone you know for an extended period of time to market products to people with a complete stranger.
The woman who hired me, Britney, found me at the airport in Newark, New Jersey. Britney looked as though she was in her mid-twenties, short and stocky with mousy brown hair, chipmunk cheeked and toothy smiled, and the type of gait that suggested she probably played soccer in high school and was raised by 14 older brothers.
“Have you driven a U-Haul before?” she asked, her eyes locked on her Blackberry as she fielded emails.
“No… is it difficult?” I asked.
It immediately dawned on me that I had no idea where I was going, what I was doing, and about a dozen other unanswered questions. Theoretically, I had a 50-50 chance of making some money or ending up as a tragic story on Unsolved Mysteries.
“Ah, once you get started, it’s pretty easy. You’re going to love doing this! It’s so much fun!”
She picked up a rental car and drove about 30 minutes out to a remote location somewhere in suburban Jersey. There, we met a forgettable-looking middle-aged man who was a representative for CharBroil, and a 6’10” former minor league basketball player, who would be my driving companion for the following two weeks.
“Wow, you’re tall!” I said, the unnecessary observation one impulsively makes when a person towers nearly three feet above you. I learned within the first ten minutes of the trip that any reference to his height was considered offensive and I was never to bring it up again.
In retrospect, it seems weird to have spent morning, noon, and night with another person for two full weeks, even meeting their family, and not remember their name. Usually people romanticize these slice-of-life experiences. But I don’t. So, let’s just call him Dwayne. Here are some things I remember about Dwayne:
- He was about 30 years old, deeming him officially useless in professional sports. Before taking random marketing jobs, he played minor league basketball overseas in Dubai.
- He was very passionate about being marginalized as a tall person, but not too concerned about the wellbeing of others.
- Applebee’s was his favorite restaurant. He was partial to the alfredo pasta, but don’t get him started on the 50 cents upcharge for additional sauce. “That’s highway robbery,” he said.
- Aside from basketball, he had no other definable hobbies or interests, and always had a pained look of inadequacy whenever he discussed it.
Britney gave us two packets with our route printed out, a credit card, a laptop, and some talking points about the grill. The U-Haul seemed unnecessarily large for transporting one grill, but then again, options are pretty limited for two people moving a 500 pound object. We moved from one non-descript lot to another at our hotel where the CharBroil guy demonstrated how to use it. After maybe an hour going over everything, I never saw either of them again.
Dwayne immediately set the record straight.
“Listen, I’m going to drive, you’re going to give me directions,” he said, adding that I was to give the marketing speech while he cooked the sausages. “You’re bubbly, and I’m not good at remembering things,” he said backhandedly.
Though I was good enough to speak to consumers about grills, he decided that speaking to the managers at Home Depot was a job better left to the boys. This was one of the first times I experienced blatant dismissal day after day as men pointed out repeatedly that I am a woman.
All things considered, I shouldn’t have been so nervous on our first day. But I take pride in my work, so I set out with the intention of doing my best. A lone Dunkin Donuts Styrofoam cup wandered across the mostly empty parking lot as we sipped on our complimentary hotel coffees and waited for the Home Depot to open in Newark. The manager greeted Dwayne enthusiastically with an outstretched hand.
“Nice to meet you, sir!” he said to Dwayne. I extended my arm and introduced myself. He looked tepidly at my hand. “Sorry, I don’t shake ladies’ hands. It’s a respect thing,” he said, “because you’re a lady.” Dwayne shrugged.
The day went off without a hitch. Most people feigned interest, asking the same handful of questions and lingering around for the free sausages. Soon, I began rattling off the same answers with increasing confidence.
“Do you know the difference been convection and infrared heat?” I’d ask. Most people did not.
At that point, neither did I. Nevertheless, I treated each person like I was letting them in on a secret—which could be theirs for only $599. “A relative bargain,” I added, “for a true grillmaster.”
The fascinating part was everyone ate it up. People stopping in to buy hardware or garden shears would put serious weight into impulsively throwing down a half-grand based on the gospel of a 23-year-old paid brand ambassador and a sample of sausage. The Home Depot even sold a few of them that day. Honestly, the grill itself could have been total bullshit, but I began to believe in my own power and product.
“You can really taste the difference,” I’d say as I handed over toothpick-skewered samples of sausages. And they would agree. “Mmm. Ah, yes.”
Back on the road, Dwayne and I didn’t talk much during the long stretches of driving. Because he hated when I played podcasts and also could not fit comfortably within the U-Haul, he insisted that he drive most of the time. As a result, I was forced to hear the song “Low” by Flo Rida (“Shorty had them Apple Bottom jeans / Boots with the fur…”) on heavy rotation about every 30 minutes for two straight weeks. Occasionally, he’d tap the steering wheel and sing along, as I started to come quietly unhinged. Naturally, we didn’t have much in common.
From Newark, we traveled to Philadelphia, then onwards to Oklahoma City and wrapping up in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I thought it would be a good idea to start collecting commemorative shot glasses in each state. This proved problematic in New Jersey, however, where Newark only has New York City shot glasses and Camden only has Philadelphia shot glasses. Also, from a pragmatic stance, it was sort of futile since I never take shots.
In each city, we were given the liberty of choosing our own hotels within a very small budget. Growing up, my mom and I took very few vacations. But she would always go the extra step to make sure we were decently lodged at a Holiday Inn, at the very least. So I guess you could say that I’m kind of a diva.
“I will not sleep in anything less than a Comfort Inn or La Quinta Inn,” I said firmly.
I quickly learned that hotel brands are really not indicative of quality. We decided to splurge on an overpriced Comfort Inn in Newark—the cheapest in the New York metro area—and a dated Hampton Inn in Philadelphia. The continental breakfast at the Hampton Inn felt especially luxurious because they used real eggbeaters and the coffee wasn’t watered down.
Along the way, we agreed to stop in Memphis so he could visit his family. Having never been to Memphis, I was excited. Unfortunately, he booked somewhere between Memphis Airport and Graceland, and because our only mode of transit was the U-Haul, I was essentially trapped from going off on my own to anything I could find to do. I decided to take him up on an offer to hang out with his family.
His cousin picked us up in a low budget sports car, taking us on a tour through the outskirts of Memphis. Aside from Graceland, the only other point of interest was the Statue of Liberation Through Christ, a 72-foot-tall Statue of Liberty replica holding a gigantic wooden cross and a sign that says, “America Return To Christ.” It was just the type of excessive God-fearing Christian nonsense I needed to remind me of my own sanity, so I snapped a picture to mock it later.
We pulled into a downtrodden condo complex and got out of the car. Dwayne introduced me to his aunt, and then immediately peaced out so that he could play basketball with his cousin. I wasn’t invited.
His aunt must have been at least 70 years old and, judging by the peeling yellow wallpaper and dulling photographs, the apartment looked about the same age. She pulled up a TV tray to her brown lazy boy and offered me a paper plate filled with collard greens, macaroni, and some dried out deep-fried pork. We sat down and watched a Bill Cosby standup special from the ‘70s.
“I have to run some errands,” she said matter-of-factly. Dwayne still hadn’t returned, so I decided to get into a car with a woman I had only met an hour before to go to the Dollar Tree and Big Lots. She stocked up on paper plates and generic Hawaiian Punch, while I browsed through for a Memphis shot glass to add to my collection. I found one that was shaped like a handgun and said, “Take your best shot in Memphis!”—a poignant reminder that I was still supposed to be on the open road and finally seeing America.
Eventually, Dwayne returned and his cousin offered to give us a ride back to the hotel. As I was about to step out, Dwayne insisted that I stay in the car and his cousin would be happy to give me a tour of Memphis.
“No, no. That’s okay, I should probably get to bed,” I said.
“You’re not driving tomorrow. What are you worried about?” he said.
“I don’t want to be a bother…”
“It’s no bother. You’ll be back in fifteen minutes. Stop being weird and go have fun.”
My fear of being impolite and insulting the family member of the person I had to spend another week on the road with made me decide to go ahead against my gut. My body was drenched in cold sweat as we drove past shitty halogen-lit liquor stores, downtrodden motels, and dark empty lots lined with barbed wire.
“You’re a cute girl. I’m sure you get hit on all the time,” he said with a sly smile, sending instant chills down my spine. I laughed nervously as I imagined all the ways I was going to die. Does Memphis have swamps? How many bodies have been thrown into the Mississippi? This guy could theoretically dispose of my body in one and no one will find me ever, I thought. I embody the trope of stupid girls who get killed in Lifetime movies.
Fortunately, he looped around and I returned safely to the shithole hotel near the airport. Another hateful day awaited us.
I feel as though it’s unfair of me to completely paint a picture of Dwayne as a total piece of shit. There were times he would indulge my need to make something bigger of this trip by allowing us to stop off at roadside attractions. It was a rare experience to see America’s changing terrain from the East Coast to the Heartland, and he could at least give me that.
He became my official photographer so I could send updates to loved ones of all my wacky adventures, like visiting a winery in the Ozarks or stopping off at a gas station that had a buffalo farm on Route 66. He even snapped a couple cool shots of me during the rare times he let me drive the U-Haul or pretend to work the grill. In Fayetteville, he was with me when I had my first shake at Sonic Drive-In. I got terrible diarrhea, but so did he. And that was something I couldn’t have done without him.
By the time we made it to the La Quinta Inn in Oklahoma, my heart felt heavy and I was ready to go home. I was comfortable being away from home, but not like this. A week felt like months. One thing about traveling through middle America is that almost every city looks alike. The terrain changes, but aside from a few regional spots, the chains are mostly identical. Dwayne and I usually saved money on lunch by eating some of the sausages. Oftentimes, it was better than any of the local dining options.
The room was disgusting. At best, I’d walk out with lice; at worst, I might get sold into human trafficking. Neither would have surprised me.
The sky was gray and the air was freezing. I never knew Oklahoma got so cold. It started to sleet, so we moved the grill indoors for the demonstration. We weren’t allowed to use the grill indoors, meaning Dwayne had to chime in with the elevator speech, too. He had a lot more confidence than usual after hearing my elevator speech about as often as I had heard that Flo Rida song.
A woman with graying hair who looked to be in her early 50s timidly approached the grill. Dwayne decided to take the reins and dazzle this woman with a newfound education in infrared heat.
“Wow, this sounds so great. I bet my husband would really love it,” she said. “But all these buttons just look so complicated to me!”
“Not at all!” Dwayne said. “I mean, look at Carly here. She’s a woman, and it’s so easy that even she can use this grill.”
Thrown for a loop, I managed to sputter out something politely. “Don’t worry about the buttons, they’re labeled so that anyone can use it.” Dwayne was dead to me. Shockingly, I managed to not murder him, though it was highly tempting.
We finished up and ditched the grill in Fayetteville. I fake smiled as I hugged Dwayne goodbye, wishing him luck on what would likely be an undoubtedly miserable future ahead of him.
And for the final icing on the cake: the intern responsible for booking my flight back home to Chicago selected, I presume, the cheapest flight, and I was routed on a fitting twelve-hour journey home from Fayetteville to Dallas to Pittsburgh to Chicago.
A few months later, I received a call from a colleague of Britney’s. “Hey Carly, got a gig coming up to promote Blackberry phones for Valentine’s Day. Interested?”
Carly Fisher is an editor and writer in New York. She likes tacos and hates manchildren. She tweets extremely socially influential content at @carlyafisher.