Smilin' & Dialin'
By Tom Aiken
AUGUST 11, 1997: The following story is one man's true account of the time he spent as a telemarketer for law enforcement agencies. The names have been changed to protect the Chronicle. -- Editor
"Miz Smith, this here's Tom Acres callin' today on behalf of the Lone Star Rangers Association, How the gosh darn heck are yuh?"
"Whey-ull goodness. No drinking in this household! Why, Pastor Fuqua was jest sermonizing..."
"An' God bless 'em Miz Smith, God bless 'em. Now ma'am, reason bein' is them Rangers is presently engaged inna Statewide Anti-Drunk Drivin' Crusade... an' gonna need rezzidense hep this yeuh."
"May Ah ask who this is again, puh-leeze?"
"Rangers, ma'am. LSRA, Lodge Twenny-nahn. Now Miz Smith, suhpportah's goan be receivin' a bran nu Oh-fi-ci-al 1997 Gold Seal Lone Star Rangers Association Dee-Cal -- fuh thuh rear winnow a yuh veekull -- show y'all support them Rangers an this noble... worthwhile endehveh...."
The position was a fluke, the result of an orange card some kid gave me on the Drag, flaunting a $10-15 an hour job. I figured the gig might be good for at least $7, before they terminated me, of course. This, I calculated, would take about three weeks. It was October of 1995. I had absolutely nothing better to do with my time.
After a hurried interview at the offices of Southwestern Innovational Concepts I was scheduled for that afternoon's unpaid training session and hired despite my utter lack of telemarketing experience. An uneasy mix of Dale Carnegie glad-handing and candid "technical" advice ("You can do it! Stay positive! Press `F6' if they ask why it's not tax deductible"), the session was delivered with a greasiness I feared would make me ill. Finally, they turned me loose on the phones.
Our working area was essentially a barn with 50 or so telemarketing cubicles -- each equipped with a headset, keyboard, and viewing screen. A bank of computers did all the "physical" work. The office color scheme was gray and white, wall ornamentation soft-focus photography with legends extolling the virtues of persistence. They could have dismantled the entire operation in a night. One evening, they probably will.
My first few calls were dreadful. As instructed, I read the script in a normal voice -- verbatim -- stumbling over words, emphasizing atrociously, losing flow, and netting one $15 donation more out of charity to me than anything else. I began to count my tenure in terms of hours rather than days.
The mid-afternoon recess was pure relief. I needed breathing room and ducked away from the crowd only to intrude on a small group seated around a patchy shrubbery arrangement in back. It registered that this wasn't exactly a "sanctioned" smoke break.
"S'cuse me. Sorry, man."
"S'cool, dude. Wanna hit?"
I happily accepted, learning my first important telemarketing "tips" in the process:
"Man, you gotta have weed to do this shit. I mean, hustlin' little old ladies for their Social Security checks -- ya gotta be stoned, right?"
I couldn't disagree as I realized I'd seen this place before -- on television, the exposés on the six o'clock news, to be precise. It was like night falling -- this whole gig was a scam. Southwestern Innovational Concepts, my ass.
A Kamikaze Dive was in order, I concluded. My swan song would be to mock the entire system by utilizing the broadest, most ridiculous "Texan" accent I could muster. Calculating maybe five calls before sent packing, I set to work.
Twenty calls later (over the course of which I invented both "Tom Acres," and the "Anti-Drunk Driving Crusade") I was a $100 above room average. Two days later I was "bumped" a $1.50 an hour in pay. I was sold: hook, line, and sinker.
The scam apparently works like this: Police and Fire "Persons" are, traditionally, great joiners. As a result, ancillary organizations sprout from these vocations and can seemingly invent themselves with a charter and a rented room. These organizations are then solicited by companies like Southwestern, and "reimbursed" a large sum of money, up front, for "rent" of said organization's moniker, with "approved" scripts, for "fundraising" purposes for a mutually agreed-upon period of time -- with comparatively minor residuals routed towards said organizations' particular "crusade." According to Ward Tisdale, publicity spokesperson for the Texas Attorney General's office, the actual split is "something like 90/10," receivership all too obvious.
Thus armed with an endorsement of righteousness, said bright boys set up shop, hire whatever fast talkers wander in the door and begin the process of picking a state clean. Arizona is an excellent example of the process in action. Ravaged throughout the last two decades due to its huge senior citizen population, telemarketing in that state, at present, is like foraging for food on the moon.
The bright boys who run these companies are strikingly analogous to the aliens in last summer's blockbuster movie Independence Day: whipsmart, soulless automatons, insects really, bent on scrabbling every tiny bit of life out of whatever "call list" they've managed to lay their hands on -- leaving it a stripped husk in their wake.
"Now Miz Smith, give them Rangers a heppin' han' this yeuh, it's sev'nee-fahve, fif-tee-fahve, thirtah-fahve. Which one can they count on y'all fuh?"
"Lands! That's quite a bit of money, suh."
"An' a migh-tee fine cause as well, Miz Smith. Jest think, pore lil' babies kilt by ole boys cain't handle they al-co-hol. It's tragic, ma'am, tragic. An' doan take oh-fense at my askin' fuh them top spots neether, Miz Smith. 'Cuz yuh know, if Ah never did ask fuh 'um, Ah never would get 'em.
"Now howabout Ah take off ten, make it jest twenny-fahve this yeuh, hep eeeee-RAD-icate drunk drivin' frum the highways an'byways a our fair and bounnyful state. Now y'all still out thar at..."
Perhaps the most inter- esting aspect of this new employment was the company kept. What a crew -- every loser, slacker, and reprobate within 50 miles: skinheads, white rastas, trailer trash of all hues and points of reference, the occasional gangsta', ancient junkies with chalk-like pallor, halfway house tenants of every stripe. We were all, basically, "posing" as Rangers, or cops, or firemen, or Coast Guard auxiliaries, or whatever title management threw at us that particular day. The dichotomy between a voice and its owner was spooky in an abstract, offhand sort-of-way -- like a Fellini film: "Bag-a-donuts," a 400lb Brobdingnagian who marked his territory with discarded food wrappers and weirdly misshapen aluminum chairs; Willard, a rangy, laconic creature straight out of Deliverance -- a part-time crackhead, wanted in several municipalities, the best "salesman" of the lot; Octavio, a fast-talking Hispanic half-pint who was finally dismissed after stumbling out of a blood-drenched employee restroom with a syringe embedded in his arm; Simpkin, the guy who tried to murder his father-in-law with a pickup truck; Piney, the python-wrasslin' Sooner and habitual KLBJ morning show caller; Norko, the worm who kept his family sequestered in a camper out in the parking lot....
Yes, community paragons every one.
Needless to say, many of these clowns were on probation or parole. "How much paper you on?" practically constituted a greeting. They were constantly complaining about their fines. After hearing 30 or 40 of these sad tales, the scheme of things became clear. Here you have some guy with a felony rap, a couple of grand in fines, and all the upscale employment opportunities of the average high school dropout. How's he going to pay those fines and live?
There was a kind of wonderful irony to the thing -- societal misfits, ripped to the gills, raising money for the "police." Amazingly, it worked -- for a time.
In a roundabout way, it began to appear as if Southwestern was acting in collusion with the state, employing these "unemployables," at relatively high wages, in order to pay said fines and still afford an overpriced room and a healthy regimen of Ramen, accordion bread, and 16oz Busch beers.
The gender spread favored males by the simple expedient of their sounding more "authoritative" ("You get some sweet, young college girl askin' for the money, these old broads gonna rip her a new asshole," explains the current general manager). With sparse, and then unsuitable female companionship we bonded -- as males tend to do -- huffing on joints, vilifying management, boasting of our manipulative prowess.
We were also very good at what we did. It got so my personalized versions of the scripts were so ingrained I could recite them, from memory, in character, while reading the newspaper from front to back, getting a "donation" every third or fourth call. I'm sure I raised thousands of dollars for Southwestern during my year-and-a-half stay. The percentage of my efforts, via salary, seems decidedly "trickle-down" on reflection. But then it seemed money was flowing like booze at an Irish wedding. I was a "telemarketeer," and it seemed better than nothing.
The marijuana factor should be obvious. You've got to be able to bullshit people if you plan to telemarket. It's tedious, repetitive, a nightmare if you've got a rejection complex. Many people flee Southwestern within an hour of completing training. You've got to "leave your heart at home," and cultivate the oiliness of a rockabilly 'do. Marijuana helps. A lot.
"...2229 Landfill Road out thar in Waco, right, Miz Smith? Miz Smith... you thar Miz Smith?"
"This here's Mistuh Smith. Who the hell's this?"
"Why, this here's Tom Acres, suh. Lone Star Rangers Association of Texas, suh. Havin' a Anti-Drunk Driving Crusade yer missus was doe-natin' to, suh"
"S'me do all doe-natin' this household, son. Ah ain't nevuh heard a no `Lone Star Rangers' afore, neether."
"Where yuh frum, suh?"
"Oklahoma! Well Lord have mercy! Ah near grow up in Tulsa. Used to race hot rods up'n down Pee-oria Av'nu when Ah was a boy."
"Ah thought yuh said y'all was Rangers."
"When Ah come to be a man, suh. Yes, suh, Oklahoma, the Sooner State, wunnerfuhl place, Oklahoma, suh."
"Yeah-boy. Yuh know, we'all used to run them hot rods out to Pee-oria -- in the Fifties. We'all'd come up frum Okmulgee, raht..."
The general concept behind Southwestern is just plain rapacious. Only God can help you if you're actually foolish enough to promise a mere 10 or 15 bucks just to get off the line. That's the kiss of death, for you are then automatically categorized as a "PD" (previous donor) and entered in the computers to be hit, simultaneously, by every organizational name "rented" under Southwestern auspices. Then, your number will be slotted on "call lists" for sale to other telemarketing outfits. This is known as "tapping." Incredibly, some folks just give and give and give. One glance at top management's Yuppie Lifestyle transportation and you can discern exactly where the money goes.
Of course, you can report this sort of wolfish opportunism to the authorities. According to the Attorney General's Tisdale, the office receives hundreds of complaints about telemarketing per year. "It is a problem in Texas, no doubt, because there are a number of organizations out there using the good name of law enforcement, fire fighters, veterans, as a means to solicit `funds' of which benefits never reach those groups." But Southwestern is a different story. "There's nothing illegal [about the scenario you described]. I'm not saying we endorse this, there's just nothing illegal about it. That's why we recommend a consumer find out percentages."
"...an' them exhaust pipes was spittin' fire, son. Po-leece chase us all way to Jenks afore we lost 'em."
"Well ain't that-a hoot. Bet-cha wasn't doin' no drinkin', runnin' them rods, huh?"
"Cain't claim that, son. Them was daze afore Ah met the Lord..."
"An' Lord doan count-nance no drinkin' `n' drivin', do he?"
"No suh, cain't say as he might."
"Well then, suh, kin'yuh'fine'it'in'yuh'hart'hep them Rangers out -- DEFEAT drunk drivin' -- sev'nee-fahve, fif-tah-fahve, thirtah-fahve..."
"Awfuh steep, son."
"Ah unnerstan, Ah unnerstan. How 'bout Ah take off ten, make it jest twenny-fahve..."
With the signing into Texas law of a bill prohibiting identity blocking on Caller ID, a golden era, as it were, has passed. Though a fluff punch, the move illustrates an awareness unthinkable a decade ago. When you're a "telemarketeer," you're counting on stock responses to "pore lil' kilt babies," and such rote acquiescence is fading like a morning mist.
Southwestern has acclimated itself to this new atmosphere. Nearly all the "telemarketeers" are gone. Personnel is now run through the place like beef through a grinder, the rationale being "more callers equals better numbers, more terminations equals a lower overall wage scale." As if to kick in the point, Southwestern recently terminated all of its first and second "level" callers. People wear ties now. You have to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. There are mandatory "forums," buzzers indicating break times -- it's a job, finally. And who'd want it?
It's all too easy to romanticize my participation à la The Flim Flam Man, although Glengarry Glen Ross comes much closer to the truth. Still, there remains a perverse wistfulness for my suspension of conscience -- my feet propped up in front of me, reading ex-girlfriends' horoscopes, brain be-numbed, scamming America.
Gawd, hep me.
"Now, y'all still out that at 2229 Landfill, raht?"
"Waco, raht, Mistuh Smith?"
"Great, now here in the next coupla daze goan be receivin' that pledge kit, that dee-cal, an'a oh-fishy-al Ree-ceet fuh twenny fahve dollah..."
"...an' a pre-dress envelope sen' back that REAL generous nontaxdeductable check or money ordah."
"Fantastic, Mistuh Smith. Now them Rangers kin count on y'all get that generous twenny five dollah donation back thuh day y'all get that pledge kit inna mail, raht?"
"Awraht then, suh. Wanna 'spress my 'spreciation fuh yuh generous suhpport, let yuh know them Rangers, an' them chillren countin' on y'all."
"Y'all have a nice day, hear?"
Tom Aiken regularly reviews books for The Austin Chronicle and has held a variety of odd jobs.
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