Escargot A Go-Go

Gene Weaver always had a big idea. Selling snail dreams was to have been his last hurrah.

They say Gene Weaver could sell you the hair on your head. He says he's already done that. He's sold Taiwanese wigs, peddled cashew trees in Belize, even pushed cactuses in the Mexican desert.

He was in his early fifties when he began working on his latest big idea. That's when he devised "The ABC's of Success." Wealth and happiness can be all yours, he wrote, if you only apply "the simple ABC formula:

Get A big idea.
Get the Blueprints, the know-how behind it.
Get Ceaseless, continuous determination."
And where did that get Gene Weaver? Back in the Harris County Jail.

Through the Plexiglas partition now, he was smiling that winning smile, the one that says the dealing has begun.

"My lawyer didn't want me to talk to you," he said. "But I told him, 'How can it hurt if I tell the truth? They think I'm Attila the Hun out there.' "

So he made a pitch for innocence. It was done in 15-minute intervals -- a visit here, a phone call there, the guard calling the time. It was a brilliant pitch, all in all. Weaver said he's no con man. He said he's an incompetent man.

Do you buy that?

"He may not be the most intelligent guy," says his lawyer, Winston Cochran, "but I think he sincerely believed with a break, he could make it big."

With snails?
"It would have tickled him pink."
The ad began appearing in the Business Opportunities section of the classifieds about three years ago.

"How to Get Rich Slowly," it read. "You can build a small fortune farming snails."

The snail in question was the Helix aspersa, a brown mollusk with yellow stripes about the size of a small plum. There are those who like to dine on Helix aspersa -- sauteed, usually, in butter and garlic -- but Gene Weaver's snail farmers, by and large, were not among them. They were the sort of people who sent emus and ostriches to graze beside the Texas Longhorn. They were folks who could see gold in a creature of most any variety and limitless wealth in any pair. They lived in a world in which one and one could make four, and 16, and, pretty soon, maybe a millionaire.

"Hell, if they're crazy enough to eat them," says Earl Clinkinbeard of Snyder, "I'll raise just about anything."

In this case, the head of the Harris County District Attorney's consumer fraud division eventually inserted himself between those who hope to get rich placing ads in the Business Opportunities section and those who expect to get rich responding. With the Weaver snail trial looming, Russel Turbeville would not discuss the finer points of the case. But he thought it would be interesting to see Weaver presented as a fool, since by the nature of the crime, the man was smarter than his victims. It's an old drama that was done pretty well, Turbeville thought, in The Magnificent Seven.

A band of outlaws plunders an unarmed village until, one bright afternoon, one brave man steps in front of the galloping horses. Stop, Yul Brynner says. Innocent people deserve better. But Eli Wallach is stunned. The outlaw leader spits the words of his immortal line: "If God did not want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep."

And that's when the war started between the good guys and the bad guys.

"To succeed you have to fail," Gene Weaver says. "Edison tried 10,000 times before he turned on that light. Was Edison a failure?"

He is six feet, four inches and 230 pounds. His eyelids sag over his eyes in a hound-dog way that belies his energy. He was always chipper. When he called, he would announce himself as "Pee-Wee Herman," and when he wrote, he would punctuate his letters with smiley faces. Through the Plexiglas, Weaver was always smiling.

"This was going to be my last hurrah," he says. He was going to ride snails into the sunset. Like the worms he sold before them, like everything else, snails were "a now product," said Weaver. And he was that kind of salesman -- avant-garde. The deals of his lifetime were always the result of research, he said, of looking around and making an assessment of the world and trying to find a place to fit in. He never quite found his niche, but it wasn't from lack of effort. Weaver always had a big idea.

"It was never a driving ambition to have a lot of money," he explains. "It was like I could see things before they were coming, brand-new deals no one had ever done -- trends."

His life began, as far as he's concerned, with a Sno-Cone stand his freshman year at Amarillo Junior College. It was the late 1950s, and $175 was a sizable sum, but he took out the loan, bought the stand and paid the debt after three months of working like a demon selling Sno-Cones.

School lost its appeal sometime after that. No one needed to teach Weaver how to make money; he believed he knew. Sales became a religion of sorts. He read the success stories, read all the motivational books. He came to believe, as he said, that "nothing happens until you sell something." From the way he tells it at the age of 55, he's never held a salaried job. What he earned was always what he sold.

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