The Night Knife-Boy Came a-Callin’

When I got home on a recent evening, my wife informed me that an alumnus of the Browning School, my alma mater, had called while I was out and would be calling back shortly. I’d already made my modest contribution to Browning’s annual fund-raising campaign, so I doubted that could be the reason for the call.

Upon further inquiry, my wife remembered that the young man had said something about having just graduated from college. I guessed he wanted advice on breaking into journalism.

So I was surprised and perhaps a little disappointed when the graduate called back a few minutes later and announced the true purpose of his call. He didn’t want my advice on writing or anything else. His name was Isaac Dovere, and he wanted to sell me a set of knives.

Isaac explained that he’d just graduated from Johns Hopkins and was on his way to do graduate work at the University of Chicago in the fall. In the meantime, he’d landed a summer job selling high-end cutlery for an enterprise called the Cutco Corporation. He frankly, if gently, confessed that he didn’t know me or my work from a hole in the wall. He’d simply consulted the Browning alumni directory and discovered I lived conveniently within a few blocks of his parents’ apartment. Now he wanted to know if I’d be able to spare a few minutes to hear his pitch.

I wasn’t under any obligation to buy anything-not a single butter knife. What mattered, I gathered, was that he could show his bosses over at Cutco that he was pounding the pavement.

So I agreed to get together with Isaac to help the guy out. I might even be amenable to making a purchase, I figured. A sharp knife is one of life’s little pleasures. And believe it or not, the evening before my demonstration I met a guy at a cocktail party (don’t ask me how the subject of cutlery came up) who’d stated that he’d bought a set of Cutco knives a decade earlier under similar circumstances and hadn’t regretted his decision for one minute. That fellow even had a memory of his demonstration that involved the salesman cutting through a dime with a pair of Cutco scissors as if it were putty.

Sure enough, when Isaac appeared on my doorstep the next evening dressed in a jacket and tie, one of the first things he did (after impressing me, and several other adults and children I’d assembled for the spectacle, with the storied provenance of his merchandise) was to make mincemeat of a Roosevelt dime.

I honestly wasn’t all that impressed with the dime-defacing demonstration. Isaac said he’d undergone three days of training before Cutco let him loose on the public. And from the meticulous way he was going at the coin, approaching it from an angle, it looked to me as if an entire afternoon had been spent mastering this sleight of hand.

“It’s made of high-carbon stain-resistant steel,” the salesman announced as he bisected the hapless coin with his scissors, officially known as the Super Shears and retailing for an astonishing $73. “You can cut dimes for years.”

I took a pass, preferring my currency intact. However, the demonstration wowed our kids, who began to agitate for a pair of Super Shears with the sort of enervating intensity usually reserved for $30 flip-flops at Marcia D.D. or a Kate Spade bag.

Quashing their protest-and after some unpleasantness over who got to keep the mangled dime-we moved on. “The next thing I’ll do is show you the most expensive set of knives in the world,” Isaac said. Pregnant pause. “The knives in your drawer.”

The point was that it was more costly to keep replacing cheap knives than to make a one-time purchase that would become part of our children’s inheritance. And if we weren’t satisfied with our purchase, Isaac himself-apparently even if he’d landed a tenure-track position at the U. of Chicago’s esteemed Department of Interdisciplinary Studies by that point-would return to retrieve the knives and refund our money.

Furthermore, he went on, those dull excuses for cutting implements in our kitchen were health hazards. Isaac painted a vision of some Hieronymus Bosch–style hell happening in the drawer to the left of our dishwasher. “Wooden-handle knives suck up all sorts of blood and bacteria,” he explained. “They’ve opened knives and found maggots!”

Even I was beginning to believe that purchasing a new set of steak knives was an issue of public safety (just as soon as a Hazmat team removed my old set) when Isaac stumbled. He didn’t know it, but he’d unwittingly tread into a esoteric corner of the cutlery trade with which I was intimately familiar.

I’m talking about the field of novelty kitchen tools-devices like combination cheese-graters and corkscrews, “sporks” (pronged spoons that double as forks), adjustable melon-ballers. The reason I know about such things is that my father once had an advertising agency, and people would constantly send him samples of such “premium” items in the hope that he’d purchase thousands of them on behalf of his clients, who would then hand them out to their own customers as a gesture of good will. To this day, our kitchen drawer is crowded with contraptions that say “Your name here” on the side.

So when Isaac began singing the praises of the Cutco Spatula Spreader-dubbing it “the 60-second sandwich-maker”-I started to tune out, even though there was still an hour remaining in our demonstration. (At that point, we pleaded dinner reservations.)

How did I feel about this invasive form of networking? Cutco, Isaac boasted, doesn’t advertise on TV. Well, yeah, but that’s because they hire salespeople with prep-school pedigrees whose parents’ friends can afford $41 Spatula Spreaders. Nonetheless, I didn’t hold the evening against Isaac personally. It’s a summer job, nothing more, nothing less-a conversation-starter on one’s résumé years down the road.

Before he left, however, I agreed to purchase one Petit Carver for $63 and a paring knife for $38. The $805 set of knives he first suggested were simply out of the question, as much for moral as financial reasons. The friends I’d invited for the demo bought nothing at all, claiming they always eat out.

And when I declined his invitation to write down the names of five or 10 friends I thought would appreciate a free demonstration, Isaac, to his credit, betrayed his disappointment ever so briefly-even though I was apparently jeopardizing his chances of winning some sort of scholarship contest based on sales.

However, in an effort to keep Isaac in the running and help out a fellow Browning boy, I offered to share his phone number with anyone who’s interested. But you better act now; he leaves for graduate school in September.