“Do you know how many stories are in these old barns?”
I shake my head no.
“Well, the frost comes into the barn, and everything that happens that winter freezes along the inside walls.”
He pauses. Lost momentarily in the high timber of an imagined barn. He eventually continues…
“You can be there in the spring when it thaws, and you can hear and sense what’s happened in that barn all winter long. So there are stories there.”
The traveling salesman
A traveling salesman, miles from home and jittery from driving the Iowa gravel roads, pulls up the lane to a farmhouse. The big trees cast a wide shade that wraps around the front porch, beckoning after the heat of the day. To the side of the porch is a low-slung Adirondack chair directly in the shade. The busy farm wife stops her chores to offer a piece of pie. Unfortunately, the farmer is still off working in the barns. But go ahead. Take a rest. Pull up your feet. Dig into that pie.
Sorry, Tim Florer, our traveling salesman, did not take the invited rest. Don’t get me wrong, Florer will not pass up the pie. He appreciates good food. But sit around while the farmer is working? Please.
“I’m an old farm kid. I love rural people. I would drive out to Greenfield, Guthrie Center, Lamoni, Adair, and if the farmer was out there feeding the cattle or the hogs, I’d slip my rubber boots on and go out and help. Why? Cause you gotta.”
A life insurance salesman by trade, the patter rolls off Florer’s tongue as a warm embrace. You are the center of his universe, and he’s going to tell you stories and give you information and make you laugh, if by nothing else than his own beefy guffaws. He’ll listen well and then respond with vowels buttery to city ears.
“Aaaa’m here for you,” he says.
Of course he is.
“The kitchen table. That’s where 99 percent of the life insurance business is done. At the kitchen table.”
His big arms balance on the table. His large frame blocks any other view. You can sit back and relax. He’s going to take care of you and the conversation. Both.
“When I sell life insurance, I ask them to give me their dreams, give me their goals. And I try to take care of them. It’s not real fancy. It’s about honesty and integrity. It’s simple.”
Of course, it’s not simple. But Tim Florer is a born salesman. Perhaps serendipitously so, but a born salesman he is.
“I was 20 years old when I was working at a bank and got a letter in the mail saying you were recommended by someone saying that you would be good at life insurance sales. So I went and took the aptitude test. Passed it, and I went into the training program. Three weeks into the training, I asked the trainer who it was that recommended me. He starts laughing. He says, ‘We go back and find old marriage licenses from the past year, and everybody gets the damn letter.’ ”
His large laugh erupts causing all around him to laugh.
“I’ve been doing this for 42 years. I’ll do this until they put me in a hole. I mean, retirement? What is that?”
Our salesman was traveling the back roads of Iowa selling insurance as he is supposed to do. He noticed, however, that the farmhouses and barns were vanishing before his eyes. He started looking more closely. With a camera.
“Atlantic, Iowa. I’m on the way to an appointment. Gravel road. I hear a voice, ‘Turn right.’ I’m the only person in the car. But I’ve learned enough over these years, you hear something, you do it. I turn right. Go up a hill. To my left is this stunning old windmill. A fence post with the wire wrapped around it. It became the covers of one of my books.”
A lot of photographs are taken by Tim Florer. Many back roads are traveled. He soon compiles several photography books. All beautiful. All published in large formats. All in black and white. A passion is born. Capturing moments in time.
Of course, photography is just the beginning. Florer starts writing fiction and poetry that echo his life philosophy. In fact, his most recent book, “Full Circle,” will be available at a book signing on Sept. 24 at St. Mark Center, 1105 Grand Ave., West Des Moines, 6:30-8:30 p.m. He promises — in his best salesman voice — a unique experience.
“When you come to one of my book signings, they’re like something you’ve never been to before. I greet you at the door. You go over and get wine and a full spread from Gateway. In the back, I’ve got two cellists. People come, eat, buy a book, and they stay. No texting! Simple communication. It’s wonderful.”
Our traveling salesman developed a certain view of life: “Appreciate those slivers of time that we all have, let them soak into your soul so that you can recall them later as a comfort to yourself. It’s those precious moments.”
Tim Florer has taken it as his mission to pass on unexpected kindnesses as a way of focusing our attention, of “soaking our soul” in the moment, and of giving back. So, every week, Florer anonymously buys lunch for some table at Trellis Cafe in the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. He hopes to bring a little joy to some customers. And maybe they’ll pass it on. That’s his hope. He buys the meal, and the server leaves a poem on yellow paper. Simple enough.
Although, trust me, if you’re at Trellis, you won’t see Florer. Only the poem delivered to some table. And perhaps a smile of joy, or maybe a few tears, from those receiving the gift. A moment, for sure.
And, of course, this creates another story that waits to be told at another time with a different cast of characters. Barn stories work that way. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.