Getting ready to board Aloha Airlines
Tales from Hawaii: Part 1
or, How to Tell your own Family Story
by Cathy Corcoran
Way back in time, the year after I graduated from college, I took off for Hawaii with my boyfriend. He was going to graduate school at the University of Hawai, I’d take part time, and get a job.
We needed money, and Hawaii was a very expensive place to live.
I did get a job. I got five jobs over the course of that year, but the most memorable of all was my job selling vinyl siding door-to-door.
I answered an ad in the Honolulu Star Bulletin, one that said, “Make money on your own schedule. High commissions for the right person. Free training. Come in for an appointment.”
I dressed in a yellow and white floral minidress, and found the office of Hawaiian Improvement Corp in a little strip mall off Kalakaua Avenue. As soon as I walked in, I could tell I had the job.
“Great smile,” said my new boss, Kam Richards, a paunchy middle aged guy in a Hawaiian shirt, the top salesman at Hawaiian Improvement.
Kam told me I’d be working directly with him selling home improvement products to homeowners.
“What kind of home improvement products?” I asked.
“Vinyl siding,” he said. “There’s a tremendous need for it in this climate.”
The Hawaiian climate is perfect - warm, sunny and moist. Everything thrives there - plants, animals, bugs, mold, fungus and wood rot. Build a wooden house in Hawaii, and before you know it, you could wring water out of the walls.
These very words were part of the pitch I had to memorize under the tutelage of Kam Richards.
I learned about the differences between vinyl and aluminum. Aluminum gets pitted in the sea air, just as a cheap aluminum saucepan gets pitted on top of your stove. Aluminum is also a great heat conductor (which is why they make saucepans out of it in the first place.) Aluminum siding makes a house hotter in the summer and cooler in heavy rains they have in the winter in Hawaii. And if your house should happen to catch fire, the aluminum will keep things hot inside all that aluminum.
All this was fascinating stuff, but the real curriculum was a book that Kam insisted I read before we made our first pitch: How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.
Kam was embarrassed that he’d had to drop out of school and go to work in the ninth grade after his father ran off with a Samoan hula dancer. He said that How to Win Friends and Influence People helped him to become a success in the Real World.
“You’ll learn more about people and success in life from this book than anywhere else,” he promised.
I did learn a lot - as it turned out, I learned more from Kam Richardson and Dale Carnegie than I did in the nighttime sociology classes I was taking up at the University.
After my free training, we took our first trip out to Hawaii Kai, a neighborhood of low slung wooden houses that sat at the base of Diamond Head.
We circled the neighborhood in Kam’s old red Carmen Ghia, doing what he called "prospecting."
“See that yard?” he said. “Overgrown. They don’t mow the lawn. Broken shutter on that window. That’s a rental.”
“Hmm,” I said.
“There!” he said, as he pulled to a stop in front of a well kept little white ranch house on Haaa Drive.
“You’re on, kid,” he said. It was my job to walk up that well kept driveway, knock on the door and get us into the house.
Do you want to know what happened next?
Gee, I hope so. If you’ve read this far, you probably do want to know what happens next.
That’s the thing about telling a story. It’s good to build interest with events like a strange job in an exotic location like Hawaii. Throw in interesting characters like Kam Richards. Try to build compassion for an airhead 21 year-old girl who gets into a Carmen Ghia with a strange middle aged guy, and season it with obscure facts about something like aluminum and vinyl.
This is how you capture the fascinating stories in your own family.
Come back next week and I’ll tell you what happened that afternoon on Haaa Drive in Hawaii Kai.
This is called throwing a surprise into the narrative and building anticipation for what comes next. (Some might call it annoying the reader, but I don’t.)
I want you to come back next week. I want you to start thinking about your own fascinating family stories, the odd characters, the strange facts, the things that make us all want to know what comes next. I want you to write those stories down, or talk them into a camcorder. I want you to dig out those photos of you in that yellow and white minidress and show them around.
Trust me, people will want to know what happens next.
Go to it! And see you next week.
Tales from Hawaii: Part 2
or Tell Your Own Family Story
by Cathy Corcoran
So there I was, walking up the driveway of the little house on Haaa Drive.
What a crazy name that was! How the heck did you pronounce that?
I must confess I was a little nervous. I got even more nervous as I watched Kam drive off in his little red Carmen Ghia. I was on my own.
A tiny woman in a blue flowered dress answered the door. Her long dark hair fell around her shoulders, and she held a two year-old on her hip.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m doing a survey in the neighborhood," I said. We never said we were selling anything. We were doing surveys, looking for people who wanted to be on TV with their new vinyl siding.
I went on, reciting from the pitch I'd memorized with Kam.
"I’m not sure how you pronounce the name of your street.”
“Ha’a’a,” she said. It sounded like she was laughing.
“Ha’a’a,” I said, and I actually did laugh. The woman laughed too.
This was right out of Dale Carnegie. Break the ice, make a connection. Get them laughing.
“Could I ask you and your husband a few questions?” I asked. She hesitated.
“Ha’a’a,” I said again. It was impossible not to laugh.
The woman laughed along with me and opened the door wider. Her husband appeared in the hall behind her.
“Come in,” she said.
Before she could get the door closed behind me, Kam pulled up at the curb.
“My partner,” I said, as he jumped out of the Carmen Ghia with a big green suitcase full of props.
Inside the house, Kam opened our green suitcase while I talked with the Tanakas about what a pain it was to paint a wooden house every couple of years. When it was time to demonstrate wood rot, Kam handed me the piece of soggy wood. When I was ready to discuss aluminum and vinyl, Kam handed me the props with the ease of an operating room nurse assisting a surgeon.
By the time I had poured muriatic acid on the piece of aluminum and we all watched it burn through the metal, I could tell that the Tanakas were just dying to cover the outside of their little ranch house with vinyl.
“Just give me your okay. here,” Kam said, sliding the papers across the Tanaka’s coffee table.
“Don’t say anything about a signature, and never say, ‘sign here.’" Kam had tomd me. "Just ask for their okay.”
The Tanakas signed - I mean, okayed - the papers and Kam packed the wood and aluminum and vinyl back into the green suitcase.
We headed back in Kam's car with a $3000 order for vinyl siding.
When we got back to Waikiki, Kam peeled off fifteen $20 bills from a roll in his pocket. “Your commission,” he said. “Good job.”
$300 was a lot of money to me back in those days. I was going to be rich! My boyfriend and I went out to dinner that night at Mike's Beef and Grog, thanks to the Tanakas and their new vinyl siding.
But when I went to work the following day, only the secretary was in the office.
“Where’s Kam?” I asked her.
“Not here,” she said. A cigarette dangled from her lower lip. “You won’t see him for a couple of days,”
“Sit tight,” she said. “Take a few days off. Go to the beach. He’ll call you.”
I didn’t see Kam for a week. Turns out he’d gone off on a toot after our big sale.
“I’m broke,” he said when he finally called me a week later. “Gotta go back to work.”
I lasted about four months as an associate salesperson with Hawaiian Improvement Corp. Kam and I did very well together. When I could get us into a house, we closed two out of three sales. I got periodic infusions of cash, but every time we sold some siding, Kam disappeared and drank up his share of the earnings.
Unlike the high-flying sociology theory I was studying in my night classes up at the University of Hawaii, I learned some real life lessons from my time with Kam:
Warmth and moisture are ideal conditions for the growth of wood rot. Throw in a few million termites and some mold, and you can see why so many buildings in Hawaii are made of concrete instead of wood.
Prospecting is the key to sales. No sense knocking on the door of a stucco house if you’re trying to sell vinyl. Find the house that needs painting, that shows some wood rot, that’s occupied by a conscientious homeowner who wants to do the right thing.
Most people will welcome you with a smile if you send a smile out to them. Get them talking, get them laughing. The rest is easy.
Try not to work for an active alcoholic. Though Kam was a good guy at heart and lots of fun, it just got too crazy trying to figure out when I’d see him again.
Don’t ride around at night in a little red sports car with a married man. I learned this lesson the night Kam’s 25 year-old wife followed us out to Hawaii Kai and threatened to slash his tires right there on Haaa Drive. God knows what she would have done with me.
I told her that Kam was way too old for me, there was nothing going on between us but wood rot and vinyl, and I had a perfectly nice boyfriend back in Waikiki, but Leilani wasn’t buying any of that. She was out for blood.
But that’s another story.
See how one story leads to another? And another?
When you’re doing your family stories, you’ll never really be sure just what you’ll get.
Your grandmother may have an old boyfriend that no one ever talked about.
Your mother may have a secret that she’s finally ready to let out of the bag.
You can get those stories by using a few of the lessons I learned from Kam:
Prospecting is the key. Start with a family member who wants to talk. Most older people are full of great stories and the younger folks - including us! - often don’t think they have time to listen.
Warmth and kindness are the ideal conditions for good stories. Get them talking, get them laughing. The rest is easy.
Most people will welcome you with a smile if you send a smile out to them.
If you’re interviewing an active alcoholic, do it in the morning before they get into the sauce.
Oh yeah, and don’t ride around at night in a little red sports car with a married man.
Makapuu Point beach, Oahu, Hawaii
I wrote this story to promote a course I developed called, How to Tell Your Family Story.