Every so often I feel compelled to enumerate the reasons why I’m going to hell. Chief among them is the rather tawdry period of my professional life sandwiched between paperboy and newspaperman…
My name is Daedalus Howell and I was a teenage telemarketer.
It began innocently enough, as these things do, hawking subscriptions to the same hometown paper that I had hand delivered on the fabled Cherry Street Route in Petaluma (those familiar with the topography of my hometown know this route was tantamount to scaling Everest). As with most telemarketing gigs, the hours were in the evening and the wage was minimum plus commission. Always an easy conversationalist, I found cold-calling numbers from the phonebook awakened something of a social-Svengali in me. The telephone became an instrument of voyeurism, a tool for intruding into the sonic landscapes of others’ lives and making a gambit of gab. I came to love the kill and soon joined my voice to the chorus of telemarketers who would sooner sing happy birthday to the Anti-Christ than let a lead go uncalled.
My voice had cracked the summer prior, which caught the ear of a drama instructor who summered in my neighborhood when not at Yale. Apparently my wavering baritone, punctured by the squeaks and squawks of pubescence like a saxophone with a dry reed, aggravated the prof such that he conspired to fix it with some vocal exercises. This is how I entered high school with the elocution of an FM radio DJ. This is also how I was able to bamboozle the public while pitching “Keys to the City” coupon packages for another telemarketing outfit by telling my marks that they were “live on the air.” It’s hard to say “no” when you think that half the town is tuned in and your contribution will help support local children’s programs. Of course, said programs consisted of keeping me and my cohorts in coffee and cigarettes while cutting class at the Hagstrom’s donut shop. Needless to say, I eventually came to work one day to find the doors locked and a loop of phone wire hanging from the doorknob like a noose. The operation had turned in their keys and presumably flown by night.
To further guarantee the eternal damnation of my soul, a couple years later, I was dialing up appointments for an alarm company. The gig was simple: I’d read the “police calls” in the local paper, locate the address of a burglary and then use a reverse directory to call everyone on the block and invite them into having our “home-safety surveyor” over for a free consultation. Then we’d send in the “closer.” I’ve no idea what form of psychological terror the closer used on our marks, but my one-percent commission of his sales was sufficient to pay my rent and keep the ramen coming for the better part of my 19th year.
In college, before I learned to freelance, I paid my bar tab as a telemarketing manager at a San Francisco-based performing arts organization. After the admin staff had clocked out for the evening, my cronies and I would assume their desks and phone lines, and in a manner worthy of David Mamet, transform the flagship theater company into a smoke-filled boiler room. Our boss referred to the evening staff as “dinner coolers” due to our knack for calling just as our marks picked up their forks. This is the ginger-hued 40-something who once confided to me that successfully closing a cold call was a high akin to “to putting a spike in my vein.” In some dim way, I understood what he meant.
Of course, a sizable chunk of our spoils went to “lights and tights” for the theater, but the rest went to our company and commissions. Mind you, this occurred during the prehistory of the 90s, before the dotcom boom and bust, back when spam was still canned meat and cold-calling for ticket sales, remarkably, was cheaper than direct-mail campaigns. As manager, my responsibilities included making the coffee and firing those whose consciences got to them. Crises of conscience were to happen on the other side of the line, the boss would remind. Crises of identity are another matter entirely, which is why I was particularly disturbed when the woman’s voice on the other end knew my name before I knew hers…More on this later.