Rohm & Haas assigned me my first territory at the end of 1985, which was to be based in Los Angeles and included the northern half of LA, plus Denver, Albuquerque and El Paso. Because I like to be efficient and also because we had so little money, Scott and I used my one week, company paid, house-hunting trip as our honeymoon.

Driving around the area in early January with my new sales manager, looking at apartments, I noticed reflectors running down the center of the highway. “What a bad idea! The snowplows will scrape those right off!” When I saw school buses painted white on the top for heat management, I wondered if they were trying to replicate snow. When I saw a place with a really steep driveway, I balked: “But we’ll never get up it in the winter.”

“Jill, this is winter,” Dennis said. “Welcome to LA.”

I truly had had no idea. I thought everyone had four-foot-high snow banks at the end of their driveway during winter months. Now I understood why my college boyfriend Tim had been so hot to move to California. Somehow he knew.

Driving around these cities to call on plastics distributors and end users with problems, I would pull out a paper map and figure it out. The LA map back then, called a Thomas Guide, was a one-inch-thick book. I had a lot to learn but out of sheer necessity, I was coming up to speed quickly. Years later, I would recognize an odd trait of mine, which I wasn’t fully aware of at the time. I didn’t trust the map.

It’s not that I didn’t think it would work, but rather that I didn’t think the same directions would work every time. Strangely, I didn’t believe you could expect an off-ramp to always be in the same place every time you returned to a city. Once I considered this, walking myself through the reality that these things were made of concrete and therefore not likely to move, I inquired within more deeply about where this bizarre notion had come from. In short, it stemmed from my childhood where the landscape was perpetually shifting. One day dad was sober and kind, the next a threatening mess. In my world, the road, if there was one, continually changed.

In addition to learning to drive in a big city, I had to learn how to fly. Regular air travel quickly becomes routine, but it was a tall task to figure out all the moving parts, all on my own. I took up the habit of reading USAToday on the plane, eventually paying for a home-delivered subscription that lasted 18 years. I finally had to give it up a few years ago while living in DC, when the carrier couldn’t for the life of them, find my front door with a paper. ‘But I haven’t done anything else so consistently since 1998!’ I lamented.

On the first of many early morning flights to Denver, I asked for coffee with sweetener from the flight attendant, called a stewardess in those days. Wow. It was delicious and it perked me right up. How had I possibly made it through college without discovering this?

Towards the end of my six-month training in Philadelphia, my managers assigned me a project so they could assess my readiness for heading out into the field. It turns out, not every young woman they’d hired had panned out. My task: Study the market for tanning beds, which require the use of a special acrylic sheet that transmits UV light, then write up a paper on my findings and present them in front of a half-dozen upper-level managers. Apparently I did OK.

My research would take me off to visit various people involved with tanning beds. I wasted a fair bit of time bumping around, trying to get my bearings and calling on places that offered no helpful information. One dead end was a company I’d come across located in, of all places, Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Hey, I’m no dummy. I bought a plane ticket home so I could visit these folks. When I arrived at Scott’s parent’s house after the sales call, there was a message waiting for me to phone the office. No one at Rohm & Haas knew where I was and hadn’t heard from me in days. They were in a bit of a panic, but it had never occurred to me to check-in. I thought I was out there all on my own.

Just one year later, I would be transferred to a new eight-state territory based in Chicago. How exciting! But I went alone, with Scott staying back in LA. Being apart for one year had taken its toll. So had my escalating drinking. The slide began in earnest when I was living alone in Philadelphia. Up until then, back in college, I drank like an alcoholic—in other words, I drank to get drunk—just like everyone else.

But now, things had gotten worse. I had started drinking alone. True, I also drank a lot with my new friends. We all did. But there were nights when I was drunk-dialing Scott and sobbing about how lonely I was. It wasn’t easy. To make matters worse, I had found the technical aspect of my new job to be nearly nonexistent. During training, when they touched on the chemical structure of Kydex sheet, explaining that this was what made it so chemically resistant, my ears perked up. “Tell me more about that!” I said.

“Sorry,” the person training me said, “I can’t. That’s confidential.”

The bulk of my job involved entertaining plastics distributors: Chat about business for a bit, then take them out for drinks and a nice dinner, show them a good time. At a trade show in Iowa, I took a group of men to a strip club, and then picked up the tab. Nearly all of my customers were men, and I was young and reasonably attractive. At least I liked to think so, dressed as I was from my extensive wardrobe of good looking suits bought at Ross Dress for Less, most sporting exceedingly large shoulder pads.

Sales meetings were also a good time. Held in nice locations, like Disneyland, they were a chance for me to get to know my sales colleagues, all of them men except for me. We had two women in management, heading up customer service and customer complaints, and they were great. The men were great too, but they were, in fact, all men.

One sales meeting coincided with some or other exciting NFL football game, and the entire group was geared up to watch it in a hotel suite after dinner. I had watched a lot of football by then, and while I’m generally a fan of the game, I’m by no means a serious spectator. The men were. A pool was created, with everyone tossing in a few dollars. The deal was, you placed your guess, but to win you couldn’t go over on the score.

I arrived late to the game, shaving off the time available for talking about a sport I knew little about. (We pom-pom girls watched every game, but we didn’t analyze them.) Stepping into the room, I was immediately asked if I wanted to join the pool. “Sure, I’m in!” I always tried to be a team player. What I had missed, which of course I didn’t realize, was all the talk about how this would be a high-scoring game. I just wanted to come up with a score that was possible in football. Like 7 (touchdown) + 3 (field goal) = 10. So that was my bet, something like 10 to 7.

To everyone’s surprise, it was a low scoring game. And since the winner couldn’t go over, I won! The next morning, they begrudgingly gave me $120 at breakfast—I also hadn’t stayed for the end of the game—and used that money to buy myself a stylish pair of grey winter boots I’d been eyeing but didn’t think I could afford.

At another sales meeting, and for the life of me I can’t remember how we got to this—hint: alcohol was involved—at the end of the evening, I wound up pitted against the boss of our whole group, John, in a career-defying ping pong match. John was a competitive person and I generally am not. But somehow I had managed to admit that I was not skilled at playing ping pong. Or maybe I said I was really good at it. Regardless, there was a ping pong table in the hotel, and the gauntlet had been thrown down. We were all to break after dinner and then meet up a short while later to cheer on John vs. Jill.

To up the stakes—and put John at a disadvantage—the managers involved convinced me to go to my room and change into a tennis outfit I’d brought along, complete with a very cute—read: very short—tennis skirt. I also wore nylons underneath, á la that hot look I’d rocked as a pom-pom girl. Like I said, alcohol was involved. I’d had the good sense to slow down a bit so I could make a decent showing at the event. I mean, these were, in fact, all of my colleagues and managers who were watching.

While not a jock, I do have some athletic talent, so it turned out I wasn’t half-bad at ping pong. A short way into this circus, John realized that in fact, he might lose. To a girl! He started digging deep, so I dug deeper. Halfway through, one of my managers, Don, leaned over to me (now sweating) and whispered into my ear, “You know you have lose this game, right?” It was a close finish, but in the end, John walked away with the crown. And I kept my job.

Walker: A Spiritual Memoir by Jill Loree

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