There has always been one source of funds that I’ve relied upon since I was 16, for which I have developed a deeply useless knowledge of and an apathetic appreciation for; and that would be fireworks.
I’ve spent four Junes working 12+ hour days at the Fireworks Outlet in Baldwin, Wisconsin, making some quick cash and raking in that overtime so that cabin-goers and rednecks alike can indulge in one of their most explosive pastimes. This year, it was time to step up my fireworks game. Instead of being a sales girl at the outlandishly decorated warehouse shop, I decided to go into business for myself and run my own franchised fireworks tent in Northern Wisconsin.
Living and working out of a tent, I traded in comfort and coveted overtime hours for a hefty commission check, and although it was extremely difficult, frustrating, alarming, and tiring at times, I would totally do it again in a heartbeat.
Karl and I arrived in Rice Lake, WI, on June 15 to the skeleton of a tent to await our first shipment of product and get our operation up and running. When I say tent, I mean like small transportable building structure. The kind that people have weddings in. It was huge, which provided ample room for us to stock literally every item we were sent (which we later we found out we weren’t necessarily meant to do). We arranged our "control center” with three tables in a U shape, and set up our small kitchen and entertainment center, consisting of a mini fridge, microwave, coffee maker, George Foreman grill, and several coolers of food and water, as well as an old TV and DVD player. We watched all 8 Harry Potter movies in the first three days.
The money came slowly. Our first day’s sales totaled $3.67, and calculating the daily commission we were making was almost worthless. For the first week our daily sales were somewhat disheartening, and at 15% commission came to around $15 per day, each. Somehow, though, our tent was in the lead compared to the other franchises around Wisconsin!
All was fine and dandy, daily sales were rising, and life was great. And then as in any story, disaster struck.
We had finally had our first good sales day. It was a Saturday night, and with an eminent storm rolling in, our customer levels were dropping quickly and we began to brace for the rain.
Basically, we were caught in the eye of a massive thunderstorm, hit a huge gust of wind, and one of our main tent poles broke like a twig under the forces of nature. Karl had posted himself up on a table to brace for it—he could already feel that the skeleton of our structure was quivering under the weight of the wind. Suddenly I heard a loud SNAP, and Karl was knocked to the ground under a pile of fireworks and wet tarp. I ran to him immediately but he was okay.
At this point we knew that saving most of our inventory was hopeless, so we dashed for our valuables in the command center (which in hindsight was dumb, we should have just gotten the heck outta there) and made a break for the car. Once we were secure but before we caught our breath, we called our boss to tell him what happened.
“y’hello, this is Mike.”
“Mike, the tent is down.”
“Now just hold on a.. say that again?”
“The tent is down. Our tent is down. There is a huge storm, and the wind… and the tent is down.”
Mike told me to take some deep breaths, basically calm the *F* down, and explain in a level head exactly what happened.
This is what happened.
Mike drove the four hours up from his home in southern Wisconsin in the middle of the night to survey the damage, while in the meantime we freaked out, laughed, danced in the rain, admired the sunset, freaked out some more, cried, and met a couple of storm chasers (that is a real job title) who had been up from Illinois to photograph this gnarly storm. They took some pictures of our damaged goods and took a few lightly-ruined but unsellable goods home.
In the end, we lost about one third of our supply, which was knocked over when the beam broke and the tables were tipped over. We also damaged a crazy amount of empty cardboard, which we had unknowingly been storing improperly.
The entire next day (somehow it only took a day) was spent cleaning the cardboard up, drying it out, stuffing garbage bags full of wet fireworks that will mysteriously end up in a giant pit in Mike’s back yard, all while waiting for the tent company to tear down our wrecked monstrosity and replace it with a new and equally intimidating tent.
Within a day Mike had shipped us all-new product to replace what was damaged, and the colossal disaster that was the Bargain Bill’s parking lot during our reconstruction drew an extremely large crowd of customers to our tent in the following days. It was a serious headache, but I think the storm did more good than harm in the end.
The Storm was not the only drawback of the tent. We also received a very frequent visitor—a homeless man named Dennis who became buddy-buddy with Karl and didn’t seem to catch my drift that I’m not interested in having him around anymore.
Okay, he’s not totally homeless. He lived out of his car, much like we were at the time. But at least he could drive his car somewhere else, whereas we were pretty tied to this giant tent of explosives we were to mind for a month.
It all started the day after the storm when he brought us a ham. Not just some ham, but like, a whole ham. It really was a lovely gesture. But soon his visits became more and more frequent, and we started to realize that this guy literally doesn’t have anything else to do but drive around and visit us.
Soon, whenever we had a lull in customers, I could expect to see Dennis walk through the tent flaps and plop down behind our control center, a beer in hand for Karl which he had grabbed from his “basement,” which actually meant the trunk of his car.
It got to the point where I didn’t feel comfortable in my own temporary home, and he never seemed to get the picture that we were busy and would try to initiate conversation when we had a full stream of customers that needed our attention. I began keeping our money locked in my car, and whenever Dennis showed up for his daily two-hour lunch chat with Karl, I took that as my cue to go and pick up lunch for Karl and I myself and made sure to take my sweet time.
Don’t get me wrong. He was a nice dude, and he was nothing but helpful if not a little (a lot) strange. But when you live outside, in the tent that you are running a store out of 24/7, it became a problem of overstaying his welcome.
Aside from those two annoyances, running the tent was by far the most fun I had ever had in my years as a fireworks sales girl. Our tent location did the best it had ever done in sales, and Karl and I each walked home with some very nice commission checks that would fund all of our costs for moving to China (and how ironic that we were literally selling Chinese products?).
We watched dozens of movies, listened to Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book” album hundreds of times, ate a lot of gas station food and sampled all the local drive-thru cuisine, and showered at the local Snap Fitness. We met all kinds of interesting people from northern Wisconsin, and left the tent without a doubt having had one of the most fun months of our lives.
If you ever have the opportunity to do some kind of crazy job with the best people, definitely take it. Living in a parking lot with your best friend among a tonne of explosives beats working an office job any day.