Spring was still months away, and standing just inside the entrance of the “Twenty-fifth Annual Cycle World International Motorcycle Show,” at the Minneapolis Convention Center, two blond girls were handing out plastic bags. They looked old enough to get their first tattoos, but demure enough to keep tugging at the creeping hemlines of their neon-green mini dresses. With their skinny legs clad in nude panty-hose and knee-high platform boots, they looked like they were playing dress up. My friends and I took our bags, hoping to fill them with freebies.
Inside, the hall was a circus of brand names— Yamaha, Suzuki, Ducati, Moto Primo, Vanson, BMW, Buell, and, of course, the elephant in the tent, Harley-Davidson. Most of the salespeople stood back and let the booths and the bikes do the talking, while the hungrier ones lurked around the perimeter like hyenas. The more aggressive or desperate vendors darted into the slow-moving herd, hoping to hook a few weak-willed stragglers.
“Say, I noticed you have some sunglasses there, if you have just a minute—” Like a perfume salesgirl, one predator popped up in front of me armed with a spray bottle, but I ducked and dodged. Safely out of range, my friend confided that her husband got roped in earlier. “And you know what?” she whispered. “He said his glasses were the cleanest they’ve ever been.”
After an hour, my swag bag was still empty. No one else seemed to be scoring anything, either.
At the very back of the hall a small crowd had gathered. Despite the lousy location, spectators were standing three-deep around a booth and pushing in to get a better look. Above them, on a platform, stood a man with his shirtsleeves rolled up, his face red and moist from the lights flooding his stage. He spoke into the round foam ball of his headset and somehow managed to make eye contact with everyone and no one all at once.
“Folks, you’ve probably seen something like this on TV, but I can guarantee,” he said, punctuating his words with finger jabs, “You have never seen the Super Shammy.”
He grabbed a large bottle filled with some kind of cola and poured it all over a square carpet sample. As he talked, he held a fan of yellow swatches and dealt them out to the crowd. “As you can see, folks, the Super Shammy isn’t just absorbent, it’s super absorbent,” said Super Shammy Man as he pressed a piece of the magical material onto the carpet. He soaked up all the liquid, then lifted the dry carpet up high for all to see. He proceeded to mop up all the excess soda on the table, too. Then he squeezed the Super Shammy, with its bulging payload, over a rubber dish pan filled with murky grey water. The stream seemed endless. There was the roar of the stunt bike demonstration going on nearby, but Super Shammy Man’s crowd was completely silent. They heard only the sound of that nasty, unwanted liquid trickling into the plastic tub.
“Folks, the Super Shammy isn’t just for sunglasses, spills, and shiny shoes. The Super Shammy is great for”—he whirled around and caught me taking his picture instead of listening to his pitch—“cameras like yours, honey.” He moved on. “What about the bathroom, the kid’s room, the boat, the RV, the soccer game?” He didn’t even bother to mention motorcycles, but his audience was spellbound nonetheless.
We moved on without buying anything, but the huckster’s fading monologue lingered. When was the last time a salesman trudged the rural roads of this country, serenading the Lady of The House with his shtick? When was the last time the Lady of The House was even home and willing to open her door to strange men?
The next day I wanted to ask Super Shammy Man about his job and his life, but none of the event coordinators had any information. They knew him only as the exhibitor in booth 147. His accent—Canadian, I think—suggested that he wouldn’t be sticking around after the last day of the show. My Super Shammy samples don’t have logos or toll-free numbers. Super Shammy is on the web, but it seems they’re distributed exclusively by lone peddlers like the guy at the Cycle World show. These characters buy their stock from the Fuller Brush Company, the outfit that once upon a time jammed thousands of well-worn shoes into front doors all across the country and, according to the cartoons in old Playboys, offered occasional “private demonstrations” to some of those lonely housewives.
The four of us left the show without a motorcycle, a young spokesgirl, or even a bagful of free souvenirs. Still, I felt like the farmer’s wife left holding the bogus receipt for a family Bible and yet smiling as she watches her thief in the night heading down the trail to his next mark. Now I wish I had let Super Shammy Man wring a few bucks out of me. He and his increasingly rare brand of late-night infomercial seduction was more satisfying and a lot less humiliating than the twelve-dollar admission fee I paid for the privilege to ogle motorcycles that cost a thousand times that much and which I wouldn’t even be able to use for another three months.—Sari Gordon