I wanted to make a few bucks after finishing high school. I had dabbled in the more conventional rites of a student seeking extra cash: bussing, waitering, dog-walking; historical evidence provides that I am a very poor dog-walker. I found a job at an unremarkable French bistro on the Upper West Side. At that moment, I may have been the most incompetent waiter in New York City. I’m not inclined towards manual labor. My eight-hour shift seemed to span centuries. I dragged my feet lethargically, lazily, hardly staying awake, bogged down by boredom, hauling gnocchi and lamb chops to diners much more eager to receive the food than I was to serve it. I knew with certainty why my career as a waiter would be short-lived: I didn’t care. Within days, I was fired. I was discarded into the dustbin of failed restaurant staff.
I sat in Central Park one afternoon, in the shade of an overgrown oak, seeking my purpose in life. A friend from high school had entered a rather obscure line of work: selling kitchen knives. I wasn’t particularly confident in my ability to sell things but I decided to give it a try. I sat down for a conversation with the sales manager, a rat-a-tat talking, quintessential hustler. Each time he said something, my head spun, caught in a storm of sloganeering and circumvention with 100 mph winds. He was Huey Long on cocaine. Confusion and charisma were his currency. Each sentence somehow supported his underlying thesis: the supremacy of this certain brand of kitchen knives and the holy war being waged to sell them.
Most of those embroiled in this craft had no real choice. They had grown up in a variety of humble circumstances, and something entrepreneurial held the potential for more money than running around a restaurant. I witnessed here–really for the first time–the quiet dignity of working people trying to get ahead.
The majority of those who attempt to sell things–no less, a product as discretionary as kitchen knives–end in failure. They may do a bit of business with family and friends, and then, their pool of prospects goes dry, and they throw up their hands before settling for an hourly wage. I wasn’t particularly well-connected or social at the time. I took pride in being humorous in a Larry David, quintessentially New York Jew type of way–I am a proud curmudgeon–but I didn’t have that intangible flair that drew people in, that ability to know everyone, to mingle with the executives in the corner office and those on the factory floor.
I thought, who might want to help me. I sent a few uncomfortable emails and made a couple of uncomfortable phone calls. An old boss cordially stated that he was “all set in the kitchen.” I texted a distant acquaintance–a nice guy I met at a rather debaucherous 10th grade party–and asked if his mother would be willing to hear me out. She scheduled a “demo,” the industry phraseology for a sales call. I sat in her living room, so nervous as to be sweating profusely, extolling the benefits of this brand of knives; she probably thought I was on drugs (even though, I wasn’t). But, you know, the product was actually a good one. And when she said she’d buy a couple of items, my head spun. I was overcome with euphoria, as though this moment would be a seminal event in my life and from this point forward my trajectory would be forever upwards.
At times I felt out of place at a private school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My parents are no desolates but they’re normal people and I had attended on a partial scholarship. While I didn’t share the experience of blue-collar workers, I found limited common ground with the sons and daughters of oligarchs. These were heady days before the financial crisis. Wall Street wealth flowed from the southern extremity of Manhattan through Park Avenue like blood pumping from the heart. Some classmates would head to chic restaurants after the school day ended, but it didn’t register with me as a 16-year-old why I needed a $30 salad on a Tuesday afternoon. That being said, I realized the financial potential in my high school’s parent directory. One could find in those pages the contact information of hedge fund billionaires, a cell phone number belonging to Susan Sarandon, and a means to reach the family who sat atop a fortune made in the margarine business. I flipped to a random page, picked a woman whose name I liked, and made as raw a cold call as had ever been made.
I was nervous, and tripped over my words. The woman hung up on me, but I was proud of myself for having the courage to try. I closed this directory of names and numbers–essentially a private school yellow pages–and knew that, here, persistence was everything, presentation was everything, and this could be a bible for a salesperson. Obviously, using the directory for commercial purposes is prohibited. But I’ve never been one to assent to every rule and regulation from the powers that be. And besides, my parents would frequently get advertising material from real estate brokers clearly pillaging the same directory.
I flipped to a random page in the directory and called someone whose Park Avenue address suggested enormous wealth. Her name was Jackie, and in my experience, those named Jackie are rather fun and easy-going. Her husband had a Bear Sterns email address, then a bare-knuckles investment bank. Miraculously, she invited me over. I donned a pinstriped suit I had bought for $25 at a thrift shop. I walked through the ornate lobby and passed the white-gloved doormen. There was even an elevator guy–but why, I wondered? I still don’t understand why a guy in a tuxedo needs to press buttons on another’s behalf. I unpacked an armada of knives, and informed Jackie of the transformational benefits that my ice cream scoop had imparted on my other customers. She stopped me within two minutes; “I don’t need so much demo,” she said. “Let me just buy the fucking knives, I don’t have patience for this shit.” She was kind of funny, full of attitude, with a thick New York accent. I have an affinity for New Yorkers who evoke a bygone era. I see myself in them. She bought $1,000 worth of knives–something called the Homemaker Set. That knife block, the size of Pennsylvania, there’s something about it; it fulfills some sort of aspiration at the intersection of suburban sprawl and the American dream. She probably wanted to help me because I was a young guy trying to help myself. She gave me a list of 20 or so friends of hers I could call. The floodgates opened.
All of these women were the wives of investment bankers and other titans of finance–or investment bankers themselves. I contacted Nina, who, in a gentle British accent, invited me to her full-floor duplex apartment early on a Saturday morning. She opened the door in a robe, alongside her male partner, a Frenchman based in Saudi Arabia, smoking a cigar. Nina and I sat around her marbled kitchen island, she said she was in a rush because she scheduled lunch with Barack Obama. Nina commented that she appreciated my persistence, bought the same block of knives as did her friend, and passed me on to a friend of hers in the industry.
Nina’s friend was, to my surprise, overwhelmingly receptive, and happy to hear from me. I suppose I nurtured this pessimism or lack of confidence and was surprised when people were happy to hear my voice. I wondered, do they realize I’m trying to sell knives? Nina’s friend invited me to her office during lunch. I stepped into her conference room, sat around a table outfitted with teleconference technology circa 2007, and began to delineate this line of cutlery as though I came bearing the fountain of youth. These two women, both hedge fund managers, ate their sandwiches and hardly paid attention. But they both bought the very esteemed Homemaker Set, totaling $2,000. My commission was 50%, and so this was the first time in my life I had made $1,000 in one day. I left the office and saw stars, as though I had chugged an elixir of joy. I was somewhere on the Upper East Side, so disoriented as to not know exactly where. I sat on a stoop, head spinning, trying to grasp what had just happened, basking in my own success, bathing in dollars bills, or at least, hanging on to the illusion that I was.
And so it began, a marathon of a hustle, embattled and successful at the same time. There was a cycle: success, misjudgment, catastrophe, comeback. I frequently found myself in some serious shit but took pride in recovering better than anyone else. Like Bill Clinton after each of his innumerable scandals. He never gave up and I took pride in following that same baseline rule. I returned to my high school directory, to which, indirectly, I owed everything. Feeling reborn, I called the city’s elite and the mega-wealthy. While there’s nothing wrong with making money, I resented some of their children for being so entitled and arrogant. If I ever have kids, they will be going to public school–and if they want to be thrust into the socioeconomic elite, they’ll have to work to get there. It seems, in my humble estimation, to be a student at private school is to bathe in self-indulgence, to be entitled to unearned luxury. There is no reason to coddle, or impart on young people that they are entitled to success as a matter of genetic good fortune–it does a disservice to them and to society. I remembered one of my classmates who channeled more accurately than anyone the image of a flippant, spoiled, youthful George W. Bush–there are those who publish books in college, whereas this scion of wealth, maybe, read one. To be fair, he was always friendly to me, and for all his haughtiness, he had a way with people. I just recall he came to school in pajamas, wasn’t intellectually muscular (to be charitable), but went to an Ivy League school. I took issue with a system that enabled those with money to succeed by no merit of their own. The United States is more corrupt than most people wish to realize. The parents of well-connected students bulldoze their children’s paths to Harvard and Upenn while more intelligent students from modest backgrounds fight for scraps. It’s wrong–it shouldn’t be allowed. In any event, I called this kid’s mother, who said she’s in India and quickly hung up. At that point, I was used to it. I had been steeled by endless hours of cold calling.
I wondered if I should contact celebrity parents. Why not, I thought? Did their money and fame make them untouchable? Are those with less money the sons and daughters of a lesser God? I might have been a bit arrogant at the time but I’ve learned that I am not above or beneath anyone else. Just remember: the fortunate and unfortunate, their places would be swapped, but for fate.
I moved onto someone else, a real estate magnate whose name loudly emblazoned the top of an office building in Midtown. He happened to be the Chairman of the MTA at the time. His daughter–whom I had never spoken with–was a couple of grades older than me. Her mother picked up the phone and was so warm and polite, I thought she didn’t comprehend I was trying to sell knives. She invited me to her apartment the next day: an opulent three-story penthouse teeming with butlers and housekeepers. I felt out of place, with long hair and a cheap suit. But she purchased more knives than any reasonable person could use in their lifetime. I’m still grateful to her.
At that point I had a sprawling book of business. Through a referral, I connected with an Indian woman visiting New York. My knives were more functional than aesthetically gaudy and I had doubts she’d like them. We met in the lobby of the Mandarin-Oriental Hotel at Columbus Circle, where she was staying. And so we sat around a tiny circular table in the lobby lounge of this high-society hotel, examining butcher knives and enormous cleavers while sipping Darjeeling tea, surrounded by aristocrats. I would venture to guess that this was a first at the Mandarin-Oriental Hotel. I’m shocked the staff didn’t intervene. The woman ordered a platoon of knives, gave me $2,500 in cash, and told me to ship the order to Mumbai. Walking out of that fancy hotel with $2500 in cash was perhaps the biggest rush of adrenaline I had experienced as of yet.
On New Year’s Eve of that same year, she called me at 10 PM. She placed an order for $5,000 worth of silverware (forks, spoons, steak knives). This woman was purely transactional. There was no emotional component to her purpose. She had no interest in helping me. She actually needed an immediate shipment of 100 forks and 100 spoons, I suppose, to start the new year in the right way.
I adopted some peculiar antics. More to reflexively entertain than to aid in the spawning of cash. I once met an actor named Robert DioGuardi. I thought his name was easy on the ears. I got into the habit of answering my phone as my own receptionist named Robert DioGuardi. I would answer in a deep voice, introduce myself as Robert DioGuardi, wait 15 seconds, then hand the phone to myself.
At the time, I was ruffled, and untamed, and even more unfiltered than I am now. I’d say things and ask questions that polite American society would consider unrefined. I’m somewhat of a kibitzer–a man of the people, a spinner of tales. I once asked a customer one too many questions about her pending divorce and, appalled, she canceled her order. At 19, I just didn’t know any better, and to this day, I’m a bit more casual and freewheeling relative to the standard. But, this is really me, and I am really here.
The spring of 2018 was a blur. I was working early mornings and late nights, traveling around the Northeast selling my wares to anyone willing to listen. I made frequent trips to Philadelphia, Boston, and Long Island, servicing the mini-mansions in Hewlett Harbor and the larger ones in the Hamptons. Somehow, during this Spring Campaign, though the economy was collapsing, I shipped out more cutlery than anyone before. I hit my stride. Each week, the company sent out a newsletter listing sales leaders. I was consistently at the top. I set the record for most weeks at $2000 in sales, and set an all-time record for most sales in the spring season. I began getting phone calls from burgeoning knife salespeople around the country, asking for advice, seeking tips, wanting to speak with me and even more, listen to me. This was a first, where people were nervous to speak with me, as though they were taking a leap of faith reaching out to some sort of demigod of knives, hoping against hope that I’d give them a minute of my time. People called me tripping over their words like I did the very first time I made a cold call to a random parent.
I attended a company conference in St. Louis in that spring of 2008. I walked into the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in this forsaken midwestern city and was practically mobbed by adoring fans–young men and women in awe of my purportedly glorious achievements. People asked for photos and posted them on Facebook. Someone asked me to sign their arm. A girl asked for my email address and wrote a motivational monologue entitled, “if Danny can do it, so can I!” I felt like Jon Bon Jovi in the late 80s, with the hair and all. It felt good. I gave a short speech at the conference–perhaps in front of a thousand people–speaking about consistency and hard work. People seemed to want to be me. I found it to be surreal because, you know, I’m not sure I want to be me.
I took some pride in how I went about accumulating greatness–at least, greatness as defined on the relative scale of cutlery sales in this particular corporation, as insignificant in the scope of the world as that may be. I didn’t cut my hair, I stubbornly held onto my eccentricities. I refused to be a sham, or to conform to a prepackaged idea of what a human being should be. I’m scarcely capable of entering the rat race and doing like the rest. Although maybe I would have made more money had I been more conventional.
2008 bore on and it felt as though New York City was succumbing to the Financial Crisis. Fifth Avenue was empty, Madison Avenue was desolate. People tightened their belts, sales were scarce. I reverted back to my high school directory. When I was down, that book brought me up and gave me hope. I called someone I vaguely knew. Her husband had invented the Internet, or something like that. I had been calling her on and off for over a year. I suppose, like many Americans, she didn’t feel comfortable saying no, or telling me to fuck off. She was indirect with me, saying she was busy, or to call back in a month. Bear in mind, if you tell me to call back, I’m going to call back. I didn’t interpret ambiguity as a rejection; a rejection is an intervening no. She had a thick Long Island accent suggesting she came of age in working-class circumstances in the 1950s. She sounded like Joan Rivers. I felt as though, New York is my element, I am of this place. And I could win her over if I kept trying. Eventually, she said to me, expletives and all: Daniel, you’re a pain in the ass, I don’t want any fucking knives, I want you to leave me the hell alone–but I appreciate you’re hard work so I’ve left a gift with my doorman. And so I thanked her profusely, expecting a $25 Starbucks gift card. To my pleasant surprise, the doorman handed me an envelope with $2,000 in cash.
What’s anecdotal is that I had spoken with her husband some months prior to that. He hung up on me, rather boorishly. So, I then called his wife on her cell phone so that he couldn’t intercept the call. This experience laid bare a lesson that was formative for me: if one person says no, just ask someone else. Especially true when navigating marital dynamics; as a general proposition, wives were my friends whereas husbands were not. Someone would tell me they’re not interested. Occasionally, I’d call back a couple of months later, trying anew, as though we had never spoken.
There were setbacks. I had long ignored e-mails and voice messages from staff members at my high school telling me to stop commercializing the parent directory. A high-ranking staff member had emailed me asking me to “cease and desist.” I did, for a day. I just don’t take direction all that well. Eventually, the headmaster of the school sent an email to the entire parent body, from Kindergarten all the way up to 12th grade–thousands of people. He instructed parents not to do business with me. My phone rang and rang with angry parents canceling appointments. Although, I recall, after a wife canceled an appointment, her husband–furtively sympathetic to my cause–called back rescheduling on the condition I wouldn’t tell his wife. Even so, I was devastated, carrying a pit in my stomach for several days. And technically speaking, I was banned from my high school. I had a funny feeling that some old teachers of mine found the whole ordeal to be rather funny. I actually found it rather funny. Sometimes, setbacks become good stories. There was something farcical about it. In 12th grade, I took a couple of handfuls of free cookies from the cafeteria, packaged them, and sold them on eBay for $13. The profit, of course, was insignificant. But the thrill of closing a deal, that was electric.
I rarely went to the office or spoke with my boss. I don’t like to be managed. But, amidst this scandal, I called him. He told me that he had fielded tens of complaints regarding the student-parent directory, but he never mentioned it to me because I was “his top gun.” He, like me, found humor in absurd situations, and so we got along. The central theme of my career here was loss and recovery, in a repetitive pattern.
I was looking for new ways to generate leads. I realized that retail bankers were hustlers eager to close deals. So I made a habit of walking into banks, offering to open an account if the banker bought knives. I was kicked out of Chase Bank on Wall Street. But other banks were more receptive. At one point, I had around ten bank accounts with $200 each: Santander, M & T, HSBC.
I remembered that a friend of mine had attended another private high school on the Upper West Side. I made a proposal to him: I could use his student directory to generate leads and give him a 25% commission on my profit. The one caveat was that, for this arrangement to work, I’d have to pretend to be him. Kind of like a spy assuming a fake identity. Mind you, this guy was of Irish lineage, had an Italian last name, and bright red hair.
We met on the corner of 89th and Central Park West. Like a drug deal, he handed me this worn, ruffled parent directory. And so, I eagerly hit the phones, double-fisting my Blackberry and this holy book, calling people having had assumed my friend’s identity. I began each phone call: “Hi, this is David Gentile.” And so commenced a dizzying racket built on hubris and chutzpah. Most of these parents were affluent, and felt some motivation to help a tenacious young man with the vigor to make cold calls. What began as a funny antic quickly spiraled out of control. I was running around the city pretending to be David Gentile. I had to change my voicemail and make a new email address. I earned somewhere on the order of $15,000 selling cutlery posing as this red-headed Irishman. I was afraid and wanted to stop but I couldn’t; like a junkie addicted to cocaine, I couldn’t stop selling knives. I had this erroneous notion that my identity as a human being was defined by the amount of money I made. This, to be sure, is a common affliction in America–the merger of economic and human value–and I was caught up in it. Perhaps I was part of a rat race that I had sought to avoid.
Eventually, the only parents left to call were those whose children had been in the same grade as David Gentile. The risk was, they knew what he looked like, and assuming that David hadn’t undergone radical plastic surgery, they would deduce I wasn’t him. So far, people didn’t seem to notice, or maybe they noticed but didn’t care. But, I hadn’t yet encountered, face to face, one of David’s own peers. I tried to schedule these demos at times his classmates were most likely not to be home.
In the Fall of 2008, around Thanksgiving, I sat around a kitchen table with a very pleasant woman whose son I knew was close friends with David. Her son, Sasha, actually knew me too. To my horror, Sasha walked through the front door as I sat with his mother, pretending to be someone I’m not, a bounty of kitchen knives strewn around the table. She turned to him, “Honey! Do you remember David, from high school?” I was sure that he would blow my cover. I looked out the window, recalled the apartment was on the 2nd floor, and considered jumping out. Or, I could have abandoned the knives and made a run for it out the front door. I thought, this mambo-jambo was going to end, right here, and right now. Sasha looked at me, confused, and turned to his mother. He said, “yeah, I remember David,” and retreated to his room. I still don’t know why he didn’t reveal to his mother that I wasn’t his friend David. Perhaps he was high; his eyes had been reddish and he appeared kind of loopy. I couldn’t believe the degree of good fortune bestowed on me, on that crisp autumn day. I didn’t deserve it. I sat on the precipice of disaster and somehow reached the other side. I had this pattern of pushing the envelope, stepping into trouble, and miraculously, by the grace of some higher power, getting out of it.
Eventually, the charade was over. A parent looked at the school yearbook, and noticed that, funny enough, David had a very thin build, freckles, and red hair. I wasn’t David. She reported me to the high school. The headmaster called, accused me of running a scam, and summoned me to his office. Obviously, I wasn’t so dumb as to oblige. I wondered how Bill Clinton–whom I had admired since 1992–would extricate himself. I watched his four-hour testimony addressing the Lewinsky scandal, deriving inspiration. I called the headmaster and said, “you have a bad case on the law, and a lousy case on the facts.” Further, I told him, this wasn’t a scam because the products were real, the knives were delivered as promised and at the prices quoted. I just sold them pretending to be someone else. So I said to him, one’s assessment depends on thier interpretation of a scam. And I stated, truthfully, “I’m not doing business with anyone at the Dwight School.” Notice, the present tense, making the statement technically true–exactly what Bill Clinton did. I was inspired by the former president’s ability to lawyer answers and parse words.
The school kept calling me. I remembered an attorney I had once met at a networking event. He had bought one single fork from me, I guess, just to be nice. He looked like a lawyer: he had the green lamp, the plush red chair, the suspenders. The headmaster kept calling me, demanding I come to his office. I told him I can’t answer any questions but he could call my attorney. Eventually, the headmaster and his staff grew tired of chasing me and dropped it. Somehow, I had gotten out of this mess–although there was no victory in survival here; there was, plainly, survival. I felt like, I had been impeached in the House of Representatives and acquitted in the Senate. I remained a knife saleperson, albeit, a tarnished one.
An email was sent out to all the parents of this high school. Mind you, this is the second school from which I was blacklisted. The parents who had purchased knives were encouraged to return them. Only one of them did. Around the same time, a customer of mine left a voicemail for me complaining that his wife had tried to stab him with one of the knives. I can’t control what one does with the product after its purchased.
As it happens, using these kitchen knives for unsavory ends was rather commonplace. Someone who worked at my office–the assistant manager, actually–is now serving a life sentence for stabbing someone. He put forth an image of a zen-centric yoga-inclined hippie working towards spiritual nirvana. Though he was odd and seemed to always be in a drug-induced calm. I can’t say I was shocked when I saw him on TV, in handcuffs.
I started to think about the broader tableaux of my existence. Having seen all that I’ve seen, and heard all that I’ve heard, I came to an inevitable inflection point. I sat down with this lawyer I had regarded as “my attorney.” He waxed poetic about his carefree days in the thick of counterculture and free love, late-night parties and Woodstock. He said to me, “you should be having more fun.” He was right. His comments changed the course of my life. It’s cliche but true: money, hustling, business, those things are good. To make money in America is often regarded as doing the work of God. And that’s not so bad: Silicon Valley is in California–and not Paris or Moscow–for a reason. But to hustle at the exclusion of intangible pleasures is to travel down a dark road. From that point forward, I knew I had to put down my knives. I knew I had to seek good memories, good laughs, real bonds, something spiritually substantive. A life built on a foundation of cash is but a deck of cards. Capitalism consumed me. From that point forward I became more cognizant of the fleeting nature of time.
Relative to most of my peers, I was financially mega-secure. I recall checking my bank balance around my senior year of college, realizing I had accumulated $200,000, and leaning back in self-satisfaction, thinking that I was kind of well-off, at least, by my standards.
But I wondered if my purpose in selling knives was, at this point, to fulfill an aspiration, or to fill a void.
Observe the average middle-aged man in New York. He is consumed by career, boasts of being busy, basks in long hours as a point of pride. Most people, it seems, don’t have any real friends. They might have Instagram followers, they may sit down for coffee with a colleague or old classmate twice a year. But those aren’t friends. There’s a tendency in America to meet someone in a cab, chat for two minutes, and refer to that acquaintance as a friend. In my view, doing so is to make something of nothing, to compensate for a lack of depth.
What I wanted at that time was to luxuriate in celebrations and travels, late-night conversations about something other than cutlery, funny memories forged with others. I wanted to love and be loved. And so I stopped pushing knives. I had grown out of it. I retreated to a kibbutz about an hour north of Tel Aviv, to be part of something communal, where camaraderie was held in more esteem than brokerage accounts. I sought a subculture less preoccupied with who is up and who is down, who is in and who is out. In the morning, I would work in the fields–picking avocados or weeds, the work of the season–or in the communal kitchen stirring vats of soup. I wasn’t too good at that but I was serviceable at carrying meat from trucks into a frozen freezer. There’s something satisfyingly barbaric about slabs of meat. In the afternoon, I would still dabble in my trade, now resorting to selling my company’s products from the other side of the world–on eBay. As defined by CUTCO Cutlery, this was a cardinal sin. I was, after all, undercutting the market. I had knives shipping to all corners of the United States, Hawaii, Alaska, even Montana. Where the hell is Montana?
After making about $10,000 in online auctions, the company planted a mole on eBay to reveal the rogue salesperson and I fell into their trap. They fired me, and my illustrious, embattled, chaotic career as a knife salesperson had definitively concluded. It was a shame that my tenure had ended abruptly; I was one of the top 200 salespeople in corporate history. But I recall looking out onto the Mediterranean Sea, feeling feathery, as though a burden was lifted. I had derived a sense of identity in being a knife guy; I dreamed of knives as others count sheep. Inertia and habit were too powerful for me to move on, at least not on my own free will. Someone needed to compel me to stop. And so from that point forward I would have no choice but to open a new chapter. I didn’t know where I was going, but I could ride off on my proverbial white stallion, knowing that what awaited me was, hopefully, something a little bigger, a little better, something not involving the sale of kitchen cutlery. I knew that I had to change, that from winter I had to find a spring.
At a holiday party not long ago, a CUTCO knife laid beside a few slices of cake scattered around a table. The shape of the handle, the distinctive, rather unattractive resin, the way the ceiling lights reflected off the blade, it took me across a decade to a different life, a different time. I didn’t mind using the knife but I was nauseated at the prospect of selling it.