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This Has Nothing to Do With Baseball: My Brief Career in Telemarketing

A shameful secret revealed.

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I am deeply ashamed to admit that I when I was in college briefly held a telemarketing job. I hasten to add that it was for a non-profit conservation group, so it wasn't totally evil, just mostly evil. I took it under pressure from my parents to, you know, pay for my own comic books. I hated the job. I dislike telemarketers as much as any feeling human being can and I was sick at being one of them. Sure, it paid well, but I hated knowing I was going to go sit at a phone-bank and interrupt people's dinners, derail their sex lives, and set off their call waiting just as the argument was nearing a tender resolution. By the end of a shift I would be so wracked with tension from being hung up on, cursed off, and condemned to Hell that when I got home and my father would ask, "How was work?" I'd shout, "SHUT UP AND LEAVE ME ALONE," and stomp up the stairs to my room. It was all his fault, anyway. I'd have been perfectly happy to sponge until... Well, to be fair, I'd just have been perfectly happy to sponge. I think it's fair to feel a little anger over that.

I worked at night starting about 5:30 so we could catch people just after they came home from work and before they went back out again. We would go until around 8:30. It paid $15 or $20 an hour, which was decent money for a college student working a brain-dead job -- to make the same amount in a less onerous role I'd have had to work twice the hours, and probably in a retail job where a fellow with a very shy and reclusive personality would still have to talk to strangers, only in person. I'd have a dinner break around seven. Every night I would walk down the block to the same sad pizza place and have the angriest slice of pizza and chase it with a glass of sullen and resentful Coke, which compared to regular Coke has twice as many calories and tastes half as good.

What made the job more arduous than it had to be was the script we had to follow. Even if you had gotten the poor fool who had answered the phone to agree to make a donation, you weren't supposed to be grateful, say "Thank you," and get the hell out of the way, you were supposed to leverage them for even more money. If they gave $25, you were supposed to ask for $50. If they gave $50, you asked for $100, and so on. I don't remember if there was a ceiling or if some sadist just intended us to keep going indefinitely. "I appreciate your $500,000,000 ma'am, but can you give $1,000,000,000? You can? Okay, well, then how about $2,000,000,000?" They insisted you do this, which for me meant that I always lost the fish even after hooking him, having inevitably pushed him past the point of outrage. "You know what? Screw you, pal. You don't get anything." There was a recession on; you'd think they would have understood that.

Since retaining the job meant meeting a nightly quota for donations, losing one of the rare suckers who was actually willing to donate (having been an even bigger sucker beforehand and filled out a response card indicating he was willing to be harassed) was disastrous. "No, no, wait! I didn't mean it! I personally am thrilled that you were willing to make a $25 donation! Sir? Madam? Anyone?" Cue dial tone, fade to black. That went as a mark against your record, and after a few such strikes you were out.

That distinction between "sir" and "madam" was key, but I couldn't make it work for me. Most of the others making calls were young women. They were vastly more successful at it than I was, and at the risk of sounding like I'm inventing a misogynistic reason for my own failings, sex had a great deal to do with it. You could see the respondent's name and gender on the contact card you were given; if the name wasn't a giveaway, it was usually prefaced with a Mr., Mrs., or Ms. I noticed my female colleagues made a point of grabbing as many "Mr." cards as they could. When calling them, they would affect a purr that I imagine wouldn't have been out of place on a phone-sex line. A half-dozen women simultaneously doing Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy birthday, Mr. President" and asking for your money seems too clichéd to work, but it did work, over and over again.

My female-impersonator skills having never been tried, I countered as best I could, trying to keep all the "Ms." cards to myself, making the perhaps slightly sexist assumption that anyone unattached enough to identify as single but also old enough to still call herself "Ms." circa 1991 was probably lonely enough to be receptive to a gentleman caller, no matter what the reason. As such, I affected a basso profundo game-show-announcer voice and made every call that way. "HELLO! MAY I SPEAK TO MS. DONNA ARPEGGIO, PLEASE? YES, I AM A TELEMARKETER, BUT I HAVE HAIR ON MY CHEST LIKE A MASTADON!"

I'm sad to say that this tactic worked often. Unfortunately, it had one flaw that led to its quick abandonment: Not every woman who had indicated "Ms." was actually single. There were quite a few stealth wives in there. Even that would have been okay but for the fact that the husband sometimes picked up the phone.

Phone dialing. Click.

Male voice: Hello?

Me: UM (Not expecting this, so already thrown off my game), IS MS. PENNTUCKY AT HOME?

Male voice: Who's asking?

Me: (Praying this is her father and not her husband) WHY, I AM MERELY A FRIENDLY TELELMARKETER!

Male voice: Why the hell are you calling?

Me (helplessly lapsing into real voice): She filled out a form that --

Male voice: She knows better than to fill out any damned forms! (Turning away from phone) Doreen! Damn it, Doreen!

Doreen (rushing in from another room): What?

Male voice: It's another one of your boyfriends on the phone! Here!

Doreen: Hello?

Me: Uh, hi, um, Ms. Penntucky. My name is Steve and I'm with --

Sound of furniture being smashed in the background.

Doreen: Do you have any idea what you've done?

Me: I'm beginning to have some idea, but you see, I have this quota to meet, or they'll --

Doreen: He's crazy! Just completely paranoid! (Turning away from phone) Harold, stop! You'll gouge the Chippendale!

Me: I'm really sorry to have gotten in the middle of this, it's just that your name was on this card.

Doreen: I know. It's not your fault. He's just insecure.

There is a pause as both she and I listen to the sound of glass breaking.

Doreen (whispering): Meet me behind the Krauzer's in an hour.

Click. The line goes dead.

My one scheme having proved to be too dangerous to use, I soon failed to meet my quota of donations and was let go. About a month after I was fired, the pizza shop where I took my dinners burned to the ground. Somehow, it felt like justice.