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Girl Scouts Inc: America’s Madeleine

Someone's knocking on the door. Someone's ringing the bell.

Someone’s knocking on the door. Someone’s ringing the bell.

“We don’t have a demand problem.”

–Amanda Hamaker, manager of product sales for the Girl Scouts of the USA.

1.

For a long time, it was an abstraction symbolized by a blue smock. I had a picture of my daughter wearing it over her shirt and, to go with it, an expression of purpose on her face. Also, pride. Also, excitement. I wasn’t even sure which day of the week they met. I just had this picture of her in my mind:  coming through the door wearing that blue smock. Normality is such a novelty. My daughter is a Girl Scout.

“But what does she actually do at the Girl Scouts?” I asked my wife the other day. I asked distractedly, because I was on hold with a financial institution.

“She does a lot of great stuff,” said my wife, distractedly, because she was on hold with a different financial institution.  “She loves it. It costs twelve dollars a month.”

“But what do they actually do?”

I watched my wife close her eyes. You never realize how much being on hold impedes thought until you try and have a thought that is not connected to the reason you are on hold.

“They plant things,” she managed at last, after the effort to reconnect all the synapses that being on hold had disconnected. “They pick up garbage. Community service.”

I tried to picture my daughter picking up garbage in her blue smock. A feeling of skepticism rose within me, but then it was quashed  by the thought that, if nothing else, being in the Girl Scouts assures that for a period of time every week there was no chance my daughter will be in the company of anyone who was on hold.

Growing up in New York City, I never saw a Girl Scout, or a Boy Scout. We had sports camp on Saturdays (Shelly’s All Stars) and summer camp once I got to be old enough, and the playground. I would never have thought to associate financial matters with the Girl Scouts. Now I know better.

America’s  number-one-selling cookie is the Thin Mint. They outsell Oreos and are on sale for a quarter of the time.

According the an informative article in The Des Moines Register by Victor Epstein, the Girl Scouts are the number three cookie maker in the country. Annual sales have topped 900 million dollars.

I’d like to explain my role in their success.

2.

One day last month I came home to the news that my daughter had proven to be an ace Girl Scout cookie saleswoman. Or salesgirl. My wife had taken her door-to-door in the neighborhood and they had done well. But what took her into a league of her own was that one of our babysitters put the word out to her sorority sisters; they came through in a big way. They purchased 100 boxes (or — a distinction I did not focus on at the time — pledged to purchase 100 boxes).

Suddenly my daughter was on top of the board. What board? In hindsight I see this is was where something happened to me. Because there is no board. And yet, for some reason, some inner Glenngary Glenn Ross chamber of my soul, where life is an outrageously cutthroat hustle, was activated. I was told that that if she sold 250 boxes, she gets a prize. I think it was a stuffed dog. A minor detail. The predicament moved  me.

I got on the phone. The whole family was involved. I paced the kitchen making calls. It was a beautiful experience. I was calling good friends, many of whom I had not spoken to in a while. When I got an actual person, I made my pitch. There was much laughter and joy, and then I had a sale. At four dollars a box, why not?

People bought. I wrote their names down, how many boxes, what flavors. I noted that everyone seemed quite conversant with the flavors. There were some fancy new ones — something with berries, and Dulce Con Leche — which I patiently listed. No one needed much explanation. Their voices became a bit distant as they made their choices. Maybe this is what people sound like when they make decisions, I thought.  I would sign off with warm wishes and laughter and then move on to the next person listed in my phone’s contact list.

It was great! Voicemail was no problem. It meant I could make my pitch and also, by virtue of why I was calling, deliver an efficient and charming little postcard as to how I was and where things stood in my life: I was at that stage when you have a daughter in the Girl Scouts for whom you have taken up a cause.

3.

It was the pile of green rubber bands that first alerted me to the idea that the second act of the Girl Scout saga would be much different than the first.  I paused at the sight of them up on the mantle, next to the Post-it notes and a pen. Then came the boxes.  I loaded them into the car, brought them into the house. After that, my wife did all the work. The fruits of her labor were visible in what was once our living room. It  had become a kind of storeroom for cookies, all assembled into rubber-banded bundles with the address of their destinations written on a Post-it.

My wife took her around. I took her around. We did it in shifts. I had the baby boy and my daughter on one memorable morning; the boy, just shy of two, insisted on pulling the cart that was piled with the boxes, all rubber-banded. It was bright, sunny, chilly, and around 9:30AM. The very edge of impoliteness for a Saturday. But, I rationalized, girl scout cookies buyers were surely an early rising group.

Mostly I was desperate to get the boxes out of the living room. Also, though I had not pressed my wife too hard on this point, I was under the faint impression that if we did not collect on the pledges, we were on the hook. I am sure that in strictly legal terms this is not true. But why bring litigation into such a wholesome act? We would cover any difference, it was understood.

And so I sent her up to the front door of every house to ring the bell while I stood on the sidewalk with the boy in my arms. I am never very pleased to have an unanncouned caller at my front door trying to sell me things, and here I was in that role. We met our neighbors, which was nice. I witnessed the curious habbits of different people. One woman, in her bathrobe, seemed to be distressed to have been discovered in such a state of disarray on Saturday morning.

“I’ve been cleaning the house!” she yelled out to me. “I’ve been cleaning all morning! That’s why I’m still in my robe!”

I felt terrible to have elicited this explanation.

Much more pleasant were those moments when my daughter was met at the door by someone other than the person who had ordered the cookies — a husband, a daughter, a housekeeper. They would decline the offer, and the door would start to close in my daughter’s face.

I would then interject. “Excuse me!” I called from out on the sidewalk, leveraging the wholesomeness of the errand, the boy in my arms, the sunshine hitting his hair, the fact that I had kept such a distance.  I would explain that they had already committed to buy the boxes. The sale had been made. It was a kind of paying forward of guilt: you made a pledge, you have to honor it! Underneath my cheer was the fact, unstated, “Or I will have to!”

The whole enterprise merged commerce and philanthropy in an unfamiliar way. The Girl Scouts are a non-profit, but they are also a business. I felt awkward when our task was portrayed by the buyer as a charity. One older gentleman who had tried to close the door — and it was a gorgeous door, someone should do a book on the front doors of New Orleans — later explained to me, once I set the record straight that his wife had ordered the cookies, that they no longer wanted them because she was on a diet. But he wanted to give me a twenty dollar bill as a donation. I insisted he take twelve dollars in change because he had only ordered two boxes. He insisted I take the twenty. He won, but I tried. I did, however, prevail on him to take the two boxes; he said he would put them out in his office. I wonder if his wife’s diet survived their interlude in the house.

4.

"Would you like to play catch?"

“Would you like to play catch?”

We went to the sorority house to fulfill the 100-box order. It was a Sunday, just before their weekly meeting; the girls came down the street alone or in groups, everyone a bit dressed up; the house was a crisp yellow evocative of lemon icing; I stood  on the small patch of grass out front tossing a ball back and forth with the boy while my wife and daughter handled the cash and cookies.

I teach at this university — Tulane — and I had mixed feelings about selling cookies to people who could be, or had been, my students. To complicate matters, my son went over to chat with any and all ladies who paused to sit on the stone fence or check their phone. His method of introduction was to throw the ball at them. Invariably they found this charming, and threw it back. Then he would start talking to them in his language, which contains just enough words in English to demand close attention. If the listener’s attention wandered, he always had recourse to the ball.

I stood at a distance like a chaperone.

The whole scene mixed the wholesomeness of Sunday worship with the slightly naughty sociability of garden party. It felt a bit illicit. There is nothing illegal about a Thin Mint, of course, but anything sold out of the back of a car is a bit suspect. Also, I noticed, we were dealing something for which the market was avid.

They're in a Girl Scout State of Mind.

They’re in a Girl Scout State of Mind.

In the following days it dawned on us that we would have to pack, and ship, all the New York cookies, a major expense of time and money. So the next Sunday we went back to the sorority house with a different agenda. We weren’t just fulfilling the remaining orders. We were looking to  sell out our stock. Again I was on the lawn with the ball and the boy, while my wife and daughter hawked the cookies. I noticed that quite a few of the people who stopped to buy boxes were boys. Some of them bought five boxes. It was, again, a bright afternoon in early March, chilly but with a hint of New Orleans’ spring, and everyone seemed pleased by the cookies.

By then I had eaten a fair number of these cookies. The Thin Mints were very good; they were’t very sweet; you could almost fool yourself that they weren’t a cookie at all, more like a cookie-cracker hybrid. But where they so good to merit all this desire? The Des Moines Register article quotes Harry Balzer, a national food expert at the NPD Group research firm, as saying the driving force in U.S. food consumption is habit. Perhaps the cookies are valued for their ability to evoke as much as for how they taste.

By the time of my work trip to the North-East a couple of weeks later, our stock had dwindled, but there were still a few piles of boxes with green rubber bands. When I zipped up my suitcase packed with boxes, I felt like a smuggler. It didn’t help that it was still dark. I flashed to the opening scenes of Midnight Express.

And so it was that the Girl Scout cookies were again in the trunk of a car, this one a rental. They were shuttled from Boston to Maine to New Hampshire, and finally to New York. I made a few deliveries by hand. By the time I had to fly home I had one last bundle. I made the drop on the way to the airport.  It was about five in the morning. The night doorman on west 104th Street was awake. I handed him the plastic bag with the name of the recipients. For a moment I thought about announcing what they were, but I was outside the charm zone of Girl Scout cookies and, as I said, it was five in the morning.

I went back to the waiting car, and flew back to a Girl Scout cookie free home. A few days later I was happy to discover a box of Thin Mints in the freezer.

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