Danny Lee: He Who Has Nothing Gave Me The Greatest Gift Of All. Perspective.

I won’t lie.  The last few weeks for me have been a difficult mixture of frustration and just deep sadness.  I get in these funks after long (involuntary) periods without seeing my daughters.  It’s almost like withdrawals.  The longer I go…the more numb I get.  Checking my emotions at the door in ANY facet of life becomes something of a chore.  No doubt it affects my friendships…my work…moving on with my life.

I have been on a dry streak at work.  And when you’re in sales and you aren’t selling…it’s painful.  I feel like I am letting my family…my team…the boss that gave me a shot…myself…down with every customer I can’t seem to close or get into the dealership…like it’s a personal reflection on me. 
The last few days I’ve had to pull up the bootstraps and make a decision…and it wasn’t “is this something I WANT to do?”…it was “Is this something I CAN do?”.  I can.  I know that.  The negativity snowballs.  Your body language, cadence and approach with a customer completely changes the more you strike out.  Before you know it, you’re at the plate swinging at pitches and you’ve forgotten to even bring your bat. 

Apparently my frustration and disappointment has been evident in that almost every veteran has taken a moment to pull me aside and give me advice…words of encouragement…some guidance.  I KNOW I can rock this.  I know this is something I can do and be amazing at.  I just can’t figure out how.  Over the next few weeks I will.  And I will step up.  My sales manager told me today that if I fail, it is on his conscience.  We will share that burden.  But I won’t fail.  I’ve never failed.  There is a slight tweak that needs to be made and I will figure it out. 

There was a point, when I graduated college, when my career was at a turning point.  I’d been offered jobs, but due to some rather ridiculous circumstances and personal health reasons I was limited to working in Knoxville.  I’d landed a gig as a board op for a syndicated show.  While I appreciated the opportunity, I had narrowly missed a full time on air possibility in that market due to a format change.  It wasn’t that I felt the board op gig beneath me…at all…it was I felt everyone ELSE expected more.  I was just glad to have a job.  The show was intolerable to listen to, though my coworkers were wonderful.  I enjoyed going to work.  Station management changed as did the format and our roles shifted.  I found myself with another opportunity before me.  This one, however, was out of my control.  My success rested less on MY performance and more on another’s.  The station, format and show were all monumental failures.  I was the first casualty and to tell the honest truth, getting fired from that job was a Blessing.  I hated going in to work every day.  It was a verbally abusive and intolerable situation.  No hard feelings, mind you.  It was a learning experience and it led me to the next step.  Through that experience, I’d garnered some rather bad habits.  The format was different than any other I’d ever worked…more laid back…less natural…more forced…pretentious almost.  I was fired on a Friday morning.  I went home, called every Program Director in the market and left messages that I was available…not that they’d know who I was.  The PD of the number one station in the market called me that afternoon, told me I had a job at his station and to show up Monday morning and we’d work out details.  Only one catch.  That station was in the same building as the one I’d just been fired from…different company…same building.  It wasn’t awkward.  I’d been walked off the plank of The Titanic only to be rescued by the U.S.S. Constitution.  I held my head high and felt good that my career was back on track.  It was part-time, but I was still managing to be on the air at one of the top stations in America.  The only problem?  I sucked.  Bad.  The aforementioned bad habits and style left me an embarrassment on the monolith station.  The weakest link.  The legendary and now Hall-Of-Famer PD took me under his wing and worked with me no less than 3 times per week, compensated me more than fairly as a part-timer knowing I had a family to feed and made me feel like a part of the team.  At least 3 times per week I was meeting with him and going over audio and taking notes and advice…coaching.  I was open to learning and wanted to be better.  Most Programmers aircheck their FULL TIME talent once per week if that nowadays.  To get that much attention from a man who undoubtedly had a lot on his plate was an honour.  The day I told him I was offered a full time position in another market, it broke my heart to tell him.  He, however, smiled proudly and patted me on the back.  He even asked if I would give him 3 weeks instead of 2 week’s notice.  My point is…sometimes, we just need a little extra attention…and given that, we can achieve great things. 

I may need 3 “aircheck sessions” per week to be great at car sales…but even at 36 years old and a ticking timer going, I am ready and willing to do whatever it takes to win.  My PD believed enough in me to put in the time.  My managers at the dealership believe in me that much as well.  I won’t squander that. 

One of our strongest salesmen is coming off the floor to move up in the company.  More are out sick and on vacation.  I HAVE to figure it out because I want to be better at this than I was in radio. 
I worked a deal with another salesman…got on the board.  11 day streak snapped.  Spent a lot of time with another customer that just wasn’t going to turn into a sale from the start.  After that fell through…about 7pm…I began reflecting.  I wasn’t obsessing…which, for the last few weeks, was new.  I’d come off a customer with bad credit or someone who I just couldn’t click with or whatever and it would just eat at me.  It was reminiscent of stumbling through a break.  In the days before we could voicetrack and perfect the product before it went on the air, we would have an idea…a bit…and we would crack the mic and somewhere along the way it would just take a left turn…we’d find ourselves rambling and couldn’t get out of the break.  We’d fire the next element, turn the mic off and just facepalm.  The great ones, if they had those moments at all, would let it roll off their backs and move on to the next break and nail it.  The rest of us let it gnaw at us and the next break would suffer because our confidence would be rocked.  Confidence.

All through my career I’ve tried to keep my ego in check.  Turns out…that’s what I need to succeed here.  Not arrogance…but enough confidence to know that I am good at this and even if I strike out, so did Yogi Berra, Hank Aaron, Cal Ripken and so many legends. 

Michael Jordan’s legendary quote echoes through my mind:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

I went to the bathroom recently and looked at myself in the mirror…something I don’t do much of anymore because it only reminds me how old I am getting.  I said aloud, “Josh.  It’s ok to fall sometimes.  If you don’t fall you can’t look up to see where you need to be.”

My Faith has never wavered.  But this situation with my children has left me emotionally drained. 

Reflecting on that last customer of the day Saturday I stood outside.  It was darkening and about 7pm.  Lot traffic was dead.  I accepted that barring a miracle, that was going to be my final shot at a deal for the day.  Fine, I thought.  Tomorrow is another day.  Still, I reflected.  Where did I go wrong?  Making the appointment with them just to make the appointment.  You don’t discard anyone.  You never know who can buy and who can’t.  However, we were on a 13 year old truck and he told me his credit was nil.

One of my coworkers came outside.  He is a wirey young man.  A vulgar and obnoxious individual, yet endearing.  I hate using those words to describe him because he is a treasure.  His mere presence there is brightening, but he is the 13 year old boy among us.  The 13 year old boy that can sell the hell out of some cars.  The kid is a gifted BS artist and mixes enough product knowledge with BS that he manages the one tactic I have worked to master my entire life:  Dazzle them with bullshit. 

He sees my posture…my slumped shoulders and pensive look.

“You need a smoke, JB?”  He says walking toward his truck.

“I need something…” I mumble. 

I spared my lungs the violation, but accompanied him to his truck. 

Now…this young man and I have rather superficial interactions at work at best.  I’m relatively new and we get along.  As a matter of fact, we have a great deal of fun together at times.  He’s one of my favourite people there for one reason or another, yet peeling back the ridiculousness of our respective personalities to bare the flesh of our true personas is something we haven’t done a lot of. 

I stood on one side of the bed of his truck.  He stood at the tailgate. 

I sighed.

“I want to be good at this, dude.”

“You will be JB.”, the boy reassured me. 

“I want to do this.  But I want to be be GOOD at it.”

The walls were down.  He intimated that in his first 4 months he didn’t make a lick.  But his 5th month, he brought home a huge commission check and he assured me that THAT was all I needed.  When I saw that money COULD be made, I’d get it…and while I might have a few slow months here and there…overall, I’d change my life financially. 

We were having a rather enjoyable discussion and I was excited about the opportunity to get some useful knowledge from one of the highest grossing salesmen on the floor. 

That’s when Danny Lee crossed the lot. 

Our Sales Manager had just paged for all salesmen that weren’t with a customer to get on the phones and start working appointments for Sunday.  I felt that finishing this conversation would be a much better use of the next few minutes.  God, however, laughed at my plans as usual.

“Ya’ll better get going or ya’ll are gonna be standing around Sunday with nothing to do!”, Danny Lee shouted as he walked by, taking a shortcut through our lot.  I Knew him immediately.  I was still slightly irritated at the interruption, knowing the young man and I would likely never finish our discussion.  By the end of the night, our discussion would seem insignificant.

Danny Lee looked like your typical urchin.  He was unshaven, wearing a tattered T-Shirt, dirty jeans and carried a satchel of sorts.  It was blue with handles.  Danny Lee appeared to be in his mid-to-late 50’s…5’9″ish…rode hard…put up wet.  I Saw him immediately.  Still, Kevin saw a “Bogue”.  It’s a term used for people who can’t buy.  They are the easiest to work and usually a waste of time.  You can’t judge a book by its cover, so you work everyone equally. 

“Look atcha!”, Kevin said.  “You got you a big ol’ bag o’ money there ready to buy you a car!  You can tell that things filled with cash because it’s saggin’ in the middle.”

I cocked my head at the young man.

“I got more dollar bills in this bag than you know…from all the dropped change and cigarette butts ya’ll will be throwin’ around tomorrow!”

I understood completely. 

The boy didn’t.  He made another remark about selling a car.

Danny Lee began to make a comment about not buying a car when I mosied over to their side of the truck.  I placed a finger up in a motion of asking him for a moment and said “Excuse me, sir…if you don’t mind.”  He halted his comment.  I looked at the boy and said “Son, I believe you’re missing the point of this altogether.  You’re not hearing what he’s saying.”

The boy made another throwaway comment.

I regarded Danny Lee, “If you don’t mind, sir?”.  Danny shrugged.  “You see, son…you aren’t hearing what he’s saying.  He finds value in the things we discard.  The pennies we throw on the lot (an old car salesman’s superstition of ‘Feed The Lot And The Lot Will Feed You’)…the cigarettes we toss about…”

Danny Lee interjected, almost excitedly that I’d caught on.  “Ya’ll have NO idea how much tobacco is left in those things…”

I continued, “This man lives off the land.  Survives on our waste.  Our gluttony.”

The boy made another comment.

Danny Lee informed us that he served two tours in Desert Storm.  I thanked him for his service.  The boy presented his hand for shaking and rattled off his standard, almost ingenuine statement of gratitude, though I have zero doubt it comes from his heart, “Thank you sir for your service for our country.”  Danny Lee shook his hand.  The epiphany hit me.  I extended my hand toward Danny and looked at the boy.  Danny took my hand and I looked at him and said, “No.  Thank you for your service for ALL countries.  For whatever these wars are about to US, here….there are people in those countries…all over the world…that have better lives because of what you’ve done.”

Danny Lee looked up to me, almost amazed that someone understood. 

The boy made a statement in agreement and then Danny Lee informed us that he was a hitchhiker. 

“Can I show you something?” Danny Lee asked.  He reached in his pocket and removed a wallet.  He began searching. 

“Whew!  I’m glad that was a wallet.  I was worried you were pulling out a gun.”, the boy said smartly.  I just glared at him.  Danny produced his license.  It was a North Carolina ID. 

“Where ya headed?”, the boy asked nonchalantly.

“You know that gas station over by Cracker Barrel?”, Danny Lee said.

“Yes.”, I replied flatly. 

“NO.” his tone changed.  “There’s this gas station.  Then a Waffle House.  An abandoned gas station next to it and the Cracker Barrel next to it.”

Our eyes were locked. 

“I am aware.  Yes….it’s where My Mother…”, I started, then realized that would only derail the interaction. 

“I just wanted to make sure you REALLY knew where I was talking about and wasn’t just sayin ‘OK'”, Danny Lee said…almost annoyed.

I could tell he’d been discounted one too many times. 

“No, sir.  I wouldn’t disregard you that way.  I know precisely where you’re talking about.”, I said.  When My Mother kidnapped me when I was 10 years old, we stopped at an abandoned gas station in almost that exact location.  The building no longer stands.  More buildings have been built there.  But in that pitstop on the way out of town, My Brother and I were peeing around back when he told me we weren’t going to Mom’s for a weekend visit, but to Live.  That is where I ran the first time.  I didn’t get far.  I knew that location well.  That memory hits me every time I take a test drive past it. 

“Well, that’s where I’m heading.  I figure that’s as good of a place as any to sleep tonight.”, Danny Lee said without shame.

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that.”, the boy said.

My gaze darted in his direction and I was astonished by the remark.

“Sorry?” I stated more than asked.  “Danny?  Can I ask you a question?”

“Anything, sir.”, he said matter-of-factly.

“What do you worry about?  I mean…other than basic survival.  Food…Shelter…what is it you stress over?”, I asked almost confrontationally…making a point to myself.

Danny Lee looked as if he was pondering how to answer.  The boy made a comment about not having a lot to worry about.  I ignored him.

“Well, sir.  Not a lot I don’t guess.  I mean…when I’ll eat…where I’ll sleep…the basic stuff like you said.  Just more than that…just worry…” Danny Lee replied thoughtfully. 

I looked at the boy and pointed at Danny Lee.  “You see, bud…this guy’s got it figured out.  He’s simplified.  Lives off the land.  A Traveller.”

“I’m just walking…”, Danny Lee continued.

One of the managers came outside and called to the boy to come inside for something.  He left. 

Danny Lee and I turned to each other.  They paged my name over the intercom to come to the sales tower.

“Danny.  Do you have family?”, I asked…almost afraid of his answer.

“Family?   Yeah…I mean…kinda…my mom and dad got divorced a few years ago…so it’s been kinda…”, I cut him off.

“Do you have kids?”

“No, sir.  I never had children.”

I nodded.  At this point it was less conversation and more interrogation.

“And why do you walk?”

He explained to me PTSD, the things he saw and how coming back and reassimilating proved difficult.  Much of our conversation I will regard as private and likely never share publicly with another soul.  However, we connected on a very deep and intimate level very quickly.

“What about you.  Do you have a family…..?”  He glanced at my name badge. “….Joshua?”. 

“Joseph, actually.  A difference character completely.”  We both chuckled getting the inside joke that only one of US could comprehend. 

The chuckle subsided.  He saw The Sadness.  “I did.  Once.  I have children.”

“You don’t get to see them do you?”, he stated more than asked as he peered into my bared soul.

“Danny?  Are you a weird person?”

“NO, NO, NO, sir.  NO, SIR.  I don’t do ANY kind of drugs at all.  Nothing like that.  People think just because….”

I cut him off.

“Not at all where I was thinking.  I’m asking you…are you…weird.  I’m asking, Danny…if I hugged you would you punch me?”

Danny Lee cocked his head…shocked almost either that the assetation or the notion that someone would want to touch him, I couldn’t and still can’t determine.

“No, sir.  Not at all.”

He opened his arms.  I opened mine.  We embraced in what was the strongest and most heartfelt hug I have felt from a human being NOT My Mother since My Father died 5 years ago.  To be honest, it lasted a bit longer than most men would have been comfortable with. 

When Danny Lee released me, my eyes were misty.  Tears flowed from his. 

“Brother…I needed that more than anything.”, he sobbed.

“I did too, my friend.  I did too.”

They paged my name over the intercom to come to the sales tower. 

“They’re calling your number…”, Danny Lee reminded.

“Yeah…that’s about the only time it gets called.”, I said with sarcasm.  “Danny.  I don’t know where you stand with your maker, but I’ve been at odds with mine the last few days.  I needed you to walk across this lot tonight.”

“Josh, I believe I needed to walk across this lot tonight.  Do you have a card?”, Danny Lee asked.

I reached in my pocket and fumbled.  I felt the keys to the 2008 Jeep Liberty, the lock to the building all of my possessions are housed in and the house in which I sleep.  I felt the plastic of the debit card that holds the very little money I have, the slippery paper of a lottery ticket I’d wasted money on days before but never checked, the cardstock of my business card and then the parchment of the cash I carried.  I realized I had two $50 bills in my pocket.  He had none.  I pulled out a business card and handed it to him.  They paged my name over the intercom to come to the sales tower for the third time. 

“I want to call you, Josh.  Let you know how things are going.”, Danny Lee said.

“I expect you to.  We met for a reason.  I’d like to know how things turn out for you”, I said.

 Then I pulled out one of the $50 bills and held it in front of him. 

“Listen, Danny.  I am going to be honest.  I’m not doing well here.  For whatever reason, I can’t get my head in the game.  I didn’t sell enough cars last month and the few I did sell I lost money on.  But I’m not going to be able to pay my bills regardless…so I’d like you to take this if you would.  I don’t have it to lose, but you may need it just a little more than I do.”

His eyes welled up.  He asked for another hug.  We embraced again. 

They paged my name over the intercom to come to the sales tower for the fourth and final time. 

“You’d better go.”, Danny said with a reluctant smile.

“Yeah.  I gotta get in there.” 

“Thank you.  You’re magnificent.”

Now.  Let me be clear.  I promised myself that the last part about the $50 was something I wouldn’t tell anyone shy of my closest inner circle because it’s not anyone’s business and I don’t want to diminish it by anyone taking it as chest thumping.  When you do something nice for someone, you don’t talk about it.  But my purpose for mentioning it has become vital to the story.  I can’t get to the next part without explaining HOW he managed to afford it.  So take it for what it is…simple exposition.

Danny Lee and I parted ways.  I walked toward the front entrance, he walked on the other side of the cars.  We were shouting back and forth accolades and appreciation for having met.  I understand that to the two coworkers I passed during that exchange it seemed ridiculous and out of context.  I walked inside having said farewell and wiped my eyes. 

At the sales tower they asked about an appointment I had for the next day.  I wrote it on the glass with a paint marker.  The two coworkers came back in and one of them started bowing to me, “JB, you’re the man!  You’re amazing!”, as he snickered. 

“Really?”  I said offendedly.

“I’m sorry, JB…but that old man was saying some crazy shit after you walked in.”

All of the salesmen that were working except one were standing around the tower and the manager’s desks. 

“Gentlemen, do you realize who I just met out there?”, I stated with enough authority to garner everyone’s attention. 

I then recounted the entire exchange, calling out the boy’s blatant disregard for the man’s plight.  The young man was present and took responsibility, stating that he wished he’d have given the man some money or something.  As I told the story, I got asked “Did you give him any money” and I was offended, because it’s just not something you should ask or even dignify with an answer.  “You know what I DID give him?  I gave him a hug.  And that was probably more valuable than anything.”

One of the younger salesmen…and a guy I like, too…made a vulgar comment about a lewd sexual act.  I just looked at him, astounded at the inapporpriateness of the comment in context and said “Really? I mean…REALLY?”.  The Sales Manager redirected the discussion quickly, sensing a confrontation commencing. 

“It makes us feel really guilty is what it does.  We think WE have problems.”, he said. 

I shook my head.  I was vulnerable. 

“Guys…I don’t think anyone here has any doubts I’ve been struggling.  But meeting that man…talking with him.  Do you know that I am Adam Wilson away from being him?  I came back to Tennessee with VERY little.  The only thing that separates us are a few little opportunities.  We have no idea how lucky we are…and how close to that we ALL are sometimes.”

Another lewd and inappropriate comment comes out of the other young man’s mouth.  It is at that point I am frustrated.  A young man, who is blessed with success.  Not old enough to drink, but owns a home, a vehicle, land and has done very well, but not known loss, heartbreak or devastation.  Maybe he has.  I shouldn’t judge.  But his statements told me otherwise.  He is a good person.  I know that.  The whole discussion was awkward and uncomfortable for everyone.  He was making an attempt to do as I do in so many occasions…cut the tension with humour.  It fell flat.  I stormed off and shot out of the showroom.  The boy who met Danny Lee with me followed me out the door.

“Cut him some slack, JB.  He’s just being an asshole…”, the young man said.

“No. He’s the problem!” 

“Yeah…that’s the problem with this country….”, he started…like I was making a political statement.

“NO.  He is what’s wrong with humanity.  I know he didn’t mean it.  I know he has a good heart.  I don’t mean it personally on him.  But the flippant attitude toward people like that in need is what our problem is.”  We walked around the front of the building.  I continued the conversation we were having before Danny Lee interrupted.  “I’m used to being good…sometimes GREAT at what I do.  Being mediocre…is…hard.”

“It’s tough, dude.  You just have to keep your head up.”, the young man reassured.  A couple of the other guys approached.  I recounted stories of job offers I’d received over the years in big markets, but turned down for one reason or another…making the point that I was good enough to move up, but held myself back because I was content where I was.  I explained how my career ended the way it did and that I didn’t gauge my success based on where I’d been, but where I COULD have been had I just said “Yes”, but still my failures on whatever level that left me out in the cold when jobs opened where I wanted to be and my ultimate decision to leave the business to get back to a place geographically.  That WHAT I did mattered less than WHERE I did it.  But through all of that…success and failures…I was closer to Danny Lee than I was comfortable admitting.  And it scared me. 

I have no choice but to succeed at this.  They nodded.  I believe they understood.  The same was true for them.  While they might be in better financial positions than I am at this point…they understood how quickly things can turn around. 

I took a lap around the building…thinking about the whole encounter.  I ended up in the breakroom, with customers in my office working a deal with my deskmate, I couldn’t access my computer or information to make any calls, so I retreated to the breakroom and gathered myself.  I made myself a BBQ sandwich.  The veteran who is moving up in the company came in and told me to just let the other guy’s comments roll off my back…don’t let it get to me.  I told him matter of factly I needed this to work.  He saw the opening.  In closing that morning’s sales meeting, he gave a monologue about how you can’t be successful in this business if you can’t check your emotions at the door.  I knew then it was directed at me.  We discussed it at length.  He shared his own struggles over the years with the same thing.  We also discussed how he would personally take me and show me things that would work…role play…because he feels I can be the next 20 car salesman. 

I do too.  And I’m open to learning how. 

Almost at the same moment, though, we both looked down at the conference table.  On it were buns, catering tins of BBQ pork, pasta salad, banana pudding, Baked beans.  They always cater our lunch on Saturdays so we’re not leaving the lot for lunch breaks because it’s so busy. 

We shared the same thought. 

On my way out the door, I’d packed a few sandwiches, beans and some meat and buns and was heading out the door. 

I found Danny Lee walking on the road. 

I motioned for him to get in the Jeep.  He told me, and this is where the money is relevant, that he’d opted to use what I’d given him to get a cheap motel room for the night.  It was chilly and he said a bed, hot shower and a shave would be amazing.  I told him about the food.  Together, we walked up to his room and I left it, and him. 

As I walked away, he shouted down the corridor that he would be calling me to keep me updated.  I told him, he should.  I told him I write sometimes.  Not enough.  But I blog…and I would be blogging about this experience.

“I’ve got a story, Brother!”

“I think we BOTH need one to be told, my friend!”

Danny Lee. 

It would be easy for me to make a political statement out of this.  It would be easy to take the experience in a lot of directions.  However, it’s as simple as this:

I have been utterly discouraged in every facet of life lately.  Beaten down.  Kicking my can all over the place.  Downtrodden and just ungrateful for The Blessings I have.  True…this situation with my daughters is reaching a ridiculous point.  I worry that if I find a way to stop the pain on any level for any amount of time that I’ll get used to not hurting and it will affect my Fight.  But meeting Danny Lee…knowing him now…I understand what I am fighting for…and what I am fighting to keep from happening.

It’s funny how God works.  I’ve been so used to being the one thrust into people’s lives to Fix them…I didn’t realize all I needed was a Homeless Veteran to come along to Fix ME. 

Danny Lee. 

The following day he would borrow someone’s cell phone, call me up and thank me again for showing him the respect and giving him a place to sleep for the night.  He checked out early, not realizing it was Central time and not Eastern, but he appreciated someone treating him like a human being.

And I appreciate him as well.  

I told My Mother the story.  She remarked how proud she was of how I helped him.

How *I* helped HIM?  HE helped ME far more.

Sometimes, God gives you gifts of material nature.  Other times God gives you Perspective.  Perspective is far more valuable and lasts much longer.

Whether I sell 1 car this week or 10 cars this week, I am working toward an eventual goal.  It won’t happen overnight.  But I am going to be one of the shining stars there.  When I am…Danny Lee will have played his part.