You’re sitting there in a tiny cubicle in a moldy beige room with acoustical tile and you are separated from a bear sized homeless man with a loud booming voice by what is basically urinal divider. You have a headset on, an old one with one foam earphone and a curly wire going into a battered phone. You are listening to a cavernous hiss. And then it beeps and your back tenses and it’s showtime.
“…. Hello? HELLO!!???!!!”
The person on the other end of the line has been listening to silence and clicks for five seconds. They are tipped off to what you are. Because the autodialer waits for what it thinks is a human voice to connect you. The person is already pissed off. You have a dumb terminal in front of you. It’s the 21st century but you have a monitor with green block letters on black from the 70’s with what is putatively the person’s name and address, but a lot of times it’s empty or some guy who was about to get fired had put in “Harry Stiffey, 69 Cumshot Drive.”
“HELLO??!???” WHO IS THIS??!!??”
“Good evening sir, is this Mr. Sti– uh, are you the head of the household?”
“WHAT ARE YOU SELLING?”
“I’m not, I’m not selling anything sir, this is Cornelius calling on behalf of the Firefighter Charitable Organization, we’re asking for your support in helping the Fi-”
“PUT ME ON YOUR ‘DO NOT CALL’ LIST AND NEVER EVER CONTACT ME AGAIN” (slam.)
And then the hiss again. Select “DNC” on your dumb terminal. “Do Not Call.” As mandated by law we will mail a mimeograph of our “Do Not Call” Policy to what we think is his address and take him out of the system. Wait for the next beep. If you get five human beings in a row you’re doing all right. The dialer waits until it thinks it hears a person but a lot of the time it’ll give you that three tone disconnect sound ten times in a row. DOO DOO DEEEEHHHH and you have your headset turned all the way up because the fucking old ladies all gargle softly around fifty years worth of Pall Malls and they’re impossible to hear except at top volume. This means the “we’re sorry, the number you’re calling has been disconnected” sound is like sticking your head in one of those horns that a lighthouse blows in the fog. Mark that one as a “Telco.”
Or you get fifteen minutes of no English. We would call through San Francisco and some number exchanges are nothing but Chinese fresh off the boat, or Chinese who’d been here for years but never got off the boat in their minds, or Chinese who probably spoke English like they were hosting Masterpiece Theatre but had a handy excuse not to talk to us. “WEI? BING WA?” “Do you speak English, ma’am? Are you the head of household? “BING WA YA?”
But these things were still better than getting an actual English speaking human being who was head of household. Because they all hate you. Every single person you talk to hates you and thinks you’re a piece of shit and wishes you were dead and even when they’re polite you can feel it. “HELLO???!!!?? HELLO??!!?? “Good evening, this is Cornelius calling on behalf of the Firefighter Charitable Organization, may I speak with the head of household?”
“Do you know you called me DURING DINNER?”
Then don’t answer the phone, you fucking chump. Let the machine get it and savor your fish sticks in peace. “I’m awfully sorry to disturb you sir, but I’ll only need a minute of your time. Would it be better to call back another night?”
“Well, I don’t know. Let me ask you something– WHAT PER CENT OF MY DONATION GOES TO THE ACTUAL CHARITY??”
Stossel had fucked us, right before I got hired. Blown the lid off the whole operation. We called for police and firefighter charities, which sell boiler rooms the right to raise funds in their name. Basically the cops in your town get ten or fifteen grand to help schools or disabled kids or whatever and the company that I worked for gets eighty grand for the people who own it to buy small airplanes and strippers for wives. The cops know it works like this. But it’s still more money than they’d get sitting in front of Safeway selling cupcakes. And it’s good PR for everyone in town to get a call telling them your friendly police force is dedicated to keeping troubled teens active playing tennis in the Police Athletic League or whateverthefuck. The company puts on a variety show, or a rodeo, or a charity basketball game or something and what you’re selling is a pack of five tickets to this event for 35 bucks. You can go yourself, but, as the script says, most people opt to donate the tickets so local disadvantaged youth can attend. Lots of the word “youth” getting thrown around, so much that it becomes hard to say. Most people donate the tickets and keep the sticker they think will keep them from getting pulled over.
“Well, sir, after the costs of talent for the show, lighting, renting the venue, postage, phone bills, and paying the fine people such as myself who are out here every day making these calls, there’s a profit of about fifteen per cent left over that goes to the charity. We-”
“I THOUGHT AS MUCH. This is a SCAM. I would like to be put on your Do Not Call list, and have a copy of your Do Not Call policy sent to me–”
“Of course, sir, if you’ll let me confirm your address…”
“WHY ON EARTH WOULD I GIVE YOU MY ADDRESS?”
Stossel had fucked us, and congress had fucked us, because like the day before I started telemarketing they passed a law mandating a Do Not Call registry. You have the legal right to be removed from a telemarketer’s call list and to have proof of this mailed to you. And good old John “The Stache” Stossel had hammered this fact into the minds of every schlub in America in a series of hard hitting investigative pieces that also highlighted what a huge scam every single telemarketing charity is. We were already hated, so much so that a legislative body in America was moved to pass a law making life easier on individual human beings rather than businesses. Perhaps the only time this has ever happened. We were already somewhere between the Gestapo and NAMBLA in the national esteem and suddenly this Do Not Call law gave everyone magic words to name the demon and Make It Stop. The Do Not Call request was always colored with triumph, delivered like they’d finally tracked down the murderer of their kids and were finishing him off with a shovel to the head.
Select “DNC.” Wait for the beep.
Meanwhile all around you loud booming voices are making sales pitches. People who telemarket are not normal people. The guy next to me is homeless, by choice; he lives at a campsite by the train tracks. He spends his check on bourbon and then once a week goes over the hill to San Jose to buy hookers. He has been in San Quentin, in Santa Rita; he once saw a man get his innards cut out and his gut filled with toilet paper and his still warm corpse tossed off a high catwalk to create the effect of streamers. He tells me that a Mexican ain’t nothin but a high yella nigger with an accent, that you can cry all you want in jail but don’t take nothing from nobody, that the Woods shot caller in Rita ain’t too hard. But he has been doing this so long that he sounds like the Frontline narrator or Walter Cronkite. He has the booming gravelly baritone and perfect Ivy League diction you want the president to have. When he tells you the black streetwalkers are down to fifty bucks for an around the world you can almost hear an orchestra behind him. Later he’ll get arrested for shooting a man in the face with a pellet gun in a bar fight. He will be looking at life in prison due to his record, and his own mother will fly out from Georgia to testify against him. He is actually a sweet man and does not deserve this.
Down the row is a man who tells you he is an ordained Eastern Orthodox priest, who won’t shut the fuck up about what Alcoholics Anonymous has done for him. Like everyone whom Alcoholics Anonymous has done so much for he is thin skinned and the smallest slight sends him into slavering rage. He is of Serbian extraction, and will go into a long loud litany of every grievance against the Serbs, if anything even remotely germane to Serbia is mentioned during smoke break. The Muslims cut off our skins and used them as drums! He says. Later when Wikipedia is invented I learn that he was talking about the Field of Blackbirds, which happened in 1389. The Croats were Nazis! We learned to avoid discussing Serbia but you’d be amazed at the Kevin Bacon game of things that can be connected to Serbia. He was an aspiring standup comedian.
Behind him is a jockey-sized man with cystic acne in a purple velvet waistcoat. He moves like a muppet and his sales calls are long rambling off-script improvisations. You talk to him a couple times and he reveals that he was kidnapped by the CIA as a baby, spent his childhood in a prison camp where they injected him directly in the spine every day with LSD. He says it gave him spinal meningitis. At some point two angels disguised as men came to him and told him he was the orphan prince of a galaxy called Lucifer 666 million light years away. He’d spent some time there vanquishing various evils on behalf of his subjects before returning to help the people of Earth. He felt he wouldn’t last long because the government was on to him. I visited his trailer once, was stunned to see that he had a beautiful nineteen year old wife. All you have to do is believe in yourself.
Everyone was fucked up, everyone had a drug problem or was in recovery or had a record too long and crazy for them to ever have hope of getting another job. So they had to come in night after night and listen to old people sneer that you’d called them during dinner, rack up three bucks a sale.
I got good at it. My voice got deeper. I started booming from the diaphragm, laughing off their perturbed “hello… hello’s” and connecting with them. Flirt with the old women. Joke with the men. You get on a roll and you get so much confidence going that the person who faithfully watches John Stossel and is ready to give you an earful of Do Not Call just gets hypnotized. You can’t fake this. You can go in with the same meter and the same pitch and the same words but there is something they can smell on you if you’re not confident, if you’re afraid. If you need the three bucks they’ll snarl at you and slam the phone down. But you get hypnotized yourself, when you get good. You are genuinely connecting with people and gliding seamlessly into the best way you can help is with our ten-pack for three hundred fifty dollars and your voice is saying I am so good at this I don’t need you to buy this, I don’t want you to, I am walking out of here into a gold Rolls Royce bought three dollars at a time and it’s just you and me talking on a lark here; it’s no big deal. If you need something, people will never give it to you. If you are weak, people will never want to help you. People are animals, they are evil, every single thing you ever learned about compassion is a lie and when the end of this filthy soulless sewer of a world comes I will stand outside and dance in the hellfire, the small part of me that was still human was thinking. I am a lying sack of shit selling you a scam but because I sound like I don’t want your money you will give it to me. When you are on that roll you could sell stickers that say “Fuck You Cop Pull Me Over” to the Chief of Police. The substance has nothing to do with it. It’s in your voice.
I became their top salesman. I beat homeless Cronkite and Alcoholic priest and a bunch of other guys who’d been in boiler rooms all their adult lives, always for companies with three letter names: BTS productions, CBL productions. Selling the chance to send five retarded kids to the Vaudeville Variety Follies in Oregon and Texas and Arizona. I locked on to something and walked in knowing I would kill and so I did. A woman gave a thousand dollars because she was mad at her husband and I was a man to talk to. A man started out screaming at me out for screwing real charities out of money and when I gave him the voice he calmed down and bought. The old codgers showed me respect. I started to think of myself as a salesman. I can close anything, anyone, I thought. Then some girl would ask “what do you do” in a bar and I would cringe. This was before I knew how to lie to girls. “I’m a telemarketer,” I would say. “Oh fuck, I hate you guys.”
No matter how good you are most of them hate you. Once in a while one of them will get through to whatever tender spot you have left. There are still two people, twelve years later, whose names, numbers and addresses I could recite for you. I’ve taken care to remember because I still might want to kill them some day. Do you know what a waste of a human life you are, one of them told me. At the time I didn’t, although I’ve since been briefed. No matter how good you are, and even if you act like a human being to them, every night there are enough of them being cruel to make you cry. I could stay on the phone with you and make you kill yourself, you think. Or at least tell you to go fuck yourself, but, the boss was very clear. They can say these things. You can’t. That’s what a job is. They can say you’re a waste of human life and you can’t say fuck off.
If you have a soul, there is a vessel inside of you that gets filled up with all the hate you take in. About a year in it hit the meniscus for me and I had to quit. I got a job selling ads for a newspaper. The same shit, really, but I was dialing the phone with my fingers rather than a machine and could tell girls I worked for something they’d heard of.
But I remember the lessons that job taught me. Because there are only two jobs in the world: “making shit,” and “selling shit.” Every white collar job I’ve had since is “selling shit.” Picking up the phone and asking people for money. Whether they give it to you depends on what’s in your voice. What’s in your voice depends on whether the last guy gave you money.
The world only rewards hustlers and liars. People will be cruel to the weak whenever they get a chance. Then they will roll over mesmerized for anyone who doesn’t appear to give a fuck. They’ll trip over themselves to give you anything as long as you don’t need it. As long as they’re not helping you. The job taught me that we are essentially evil. That every nice thing you’ve ever thought about humankind is a flaming crock of shit. That if a righteous God existed we would have been destroyed long ago.
There were, however, free doughnuts on Saturdays.