To Have or Have Not

It’s Friday night, and I’m sitting in the corner booth down at Deaf Lennie’s, sipping warm suds and wondering why I keep coming to this joint. The place isn’t exactly welcoming – it’s the kind of dive where you want to wipe your feet before leaving, where the floor plan is more like an obstacle course, and where you’re lucky if you get your drink by closing time.

It’s the sweet end of a week that sucked like a vacuum cleaner on steroids for the regulars, and that includes Lennie. Across the room, the head of peroxide curls at the bar belongs to Candy, one time cheerleader, one time nightclub singer, big time loser. She’s picking her teeth with a match, but she gives a nod to the guy sitting a few stools away. “Good week?” she asks, just like always. “Sure,” he lies, just like always.

To the regulars, the guy is the Tin Man. He’s in aluminum siding, works the road six days out of seven for a lousy five percent commission. Makes a hundred cold calls a week for a measly two sales –not bad for direct sales, but still a rotten percentage – and he’s not getting rich anytime soon.

I raise one of my eyebrows. It’s gotta be tough hawking your wares to skirts and suits you’re pushing yourself on. But he does what he can, and it’s good to see him showing some teeth. “What are you drinking?” I ask. “Scotch and soda.”

“Hey, Lennie,” I call to the burly guy behind the bar. “Another Scotch and soda for the Tin Man. On me.”

But Lennie doesn’t hear. He’s watching the big game on a TV set with a picture that looks like one of those glass balls you shake to make it snow. I walk down, lean across the bar and poke him in the back. He turns round like I just caught him in the act, then grunts. “A Scotch and soda for Tin Man.”

Lennie proceeds to wipe out a glass using a cloth Socrates might have used for a sweatband. I give his drink-mixing technique the once-over. I watch the contents slop onto the counter as Lennie slides the drink down the bar. I’m wondering if this place is always so deserted. “So, Lennie, how many customers do you get in a day?”

Lennie looks at me like I might have said something. “What?”

“I said, how many …” But I clap my mouth shut when I see Candy reach across the bar and slip her fingers into Lennie’s breast pocket. I’m figuring it’s some kind of weird come on by the way Lennie perks up, but then she fans her eyelashes in my direction and gives me the low down in a sultry voice that would melt butter a mile away. “The guy never turns on his hearing aid,” she tells me. “I sat here once and watched a group of Japanese tourists wait to be served. In the end, they just split. Lennie never even knew they were here.”

On the TV a guy is making for home in the snow, but as he skids into the plate, the snow turns into an electrical storm, then the whole screen goes black. “Guess it’s time to get a new one,” I say, but Lennie just shakes his head. “Can’t,” he mutters. “Gotta make the rent and then see to the plumbing in the john. Maybe I should just chuck it in.”

Tin Man moves a stool closer, warmed by his amber concoction, ready to start commiserating about the dark underbelly of doing business. He winks at Candy. “Yeah, Lennie, don’t it just suck.” It’s a statement, not a question.

Now that Lennie’s juice is turned up, he’s considering how much it actually sucks. “I don’t get it Lennie,” I say. “You just don’t get the bodies?”

Candy laughs. If sleepy cats laughed, they’d sound like Candy. “Oh, lots of people stick their nose round the door.” She flashes me a ten-carat smile and shows off her manicure. “But they don’t stick around long. Do they, Lennie?”

“A hundred people a day,” Lennie shakes his head like one of those wobbling dogs people put in the back window of their cars. “And I’m lookin’ at two paying customers. Maybe three on a rainy day.”

Tin Man gives a gravelly chuckle and raises his glass. “Here’s to two percent!”

* * *

I drained the last of my brew, threw my trench coat over my shoulder and settled my hat over most of my eyes, then bid Lennie and the gang a farewell, just like always.

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. So I had time to think on the walk home.

You gotta figure Tin Man’s got it hard –direct marketing is dog eat dog. You reach thousands and sell to tens. They didn’t ask you to solicit them, so of course your percentages are small.

But Lennie? Why in the world wouldn’t Lennie consider improving that pitiful two percent? Folks walk into his bar because they’re looking for the bar experience, and every sale that walks in off the street is Lennie’s to lose. Lennie’s customers made the choice to come in; all he’s got to do is keep them there.

Think of your Web site as Deaf Lennie’s. But don’t, for heaven’s sake, think of yourself as Deaf Lennie. Figure out what your visitors want - they’re telling you with every click – then build a bar that persuades them to stick around, buy a drink or two and then come back tomorrow night.

Oh, yeah. And eat your heart out, Mickey Spillane!

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