Smile And Dial

It is dark in the desert. It is so early in the morning that the black predawn sky shows no hint of blue. Streetlights shine, illuminating row after row of tan colored houses, all almost identical, as they line the smooth asphalt curve of a suburban street. I have to walk a mile and a half to catch the only commuter bus to Phoenix that leaves every day at 6 am. Its cold outside, but not for long, soon the scorching sun will rise and make the day oppressive with heat. I am thankful it is cool as I make way on foot through one identical housing development after another till I hit the main drag of grocery stores and fast food restaurants, John Wayne Parkway. The development stops to one side of the Parkway, and once I cross it, and head on up a windy road with no sidewalks, the neighborhoods turn to dilapidated trailers and saggy Spanish looking houses made out of cinderblocks.

The bus picks people up in a gravel parking lot, that also doubles as the parking lot for the local police station. I think I am the only person who walks to this bus, everyone else parks their car here or is dropped off by a family member. They’re all dressed “business casual,” slacks and dress shirts, messenger bags, and Blackberrys (iPhones had just come out and were not ubiquitous yet). I am 22 and still look like a high school kid, in baggy khakis and oversized Polo shirts and fitted hats. The collar on my shirt is blown out, and my Air Jordan’s are beat to hell.

The bus crosses 30 miles of open desert before depositing all of us off at a single stop in Downtown Phoenix. Somewhere along the way the sun has started to rise, and the palm trees stand out against a pale dark blue sky. My journey isn’t over yet. I have to walk another mile to get to my job. The only people who walk in Phoenix seem to be the destitute; the down and out; the downtrodden. The city was not designed for walking, 4-lane boulevards extend into eternity lined on either side by corporate chain stores and small businesses. McDonald’s Arches, and Mexican delis with hand-painted signs, strip malls, nail salons, and giant gas stations.

Cars whizz by at high speeds, and I trudge on. My place of employment is in a  nondescript strip mall on a nondescript street full of nondescript strip malls. I don’t remember the name of my work, I think it had marketing somewhere in the title. A few of my fellow employees were lined up outside, although they looked more like they were in line at the unemployment office then in line to get into work. Everyone smelled like cheap tobacco, the women smelled like cheap perfume. A lot of the men had the hard lean look, body language, and shaved heads of men recently released from prison. There were two hispanic transexuals, both fighting an uphill battle with their apparent masculinity. There were people with the telltale sores and scabs of drug abuse. There were more normal looking people my age, and they like me were adrift in life.

The owner would pull up everyday in his Mercedes. He was tall and obese, with dark hair and a swarthy complexion. Him and his wife both spoke in thick New York accents (Long Island?), the wife was pretty in a way, and was probably quite good looking in her heyday. He would waddle from the car balancing a file folder box with one hand, fumbling with the keys with his other to let us in.

Inside the office was about 60 small cubicles, each with a telephone. There was a white board on the wall displaying the top performers for the week. I was on the list, it was something I took a perverse pride in, even though my job sucked. I was good at it, and better than these other people. The walls were covered with motivational sales propaganda. Each cubicle was decorated by the individual that occupied it. You were supposed to put up a list of goals, and maybe cut out from magazine the luxury car you wanted. Whatever got you motivated to sell.

You’d have a stack of paper “leads,” that had peoples name and phone numbers on them, and they only gave you 15 new ones a day. If you made lots of sales they’d give you more. I think if you did bad enough, they’d give you even fewer, but it never happened to me. There was a script you would follow if you ever managed to get a live human on the phone long enough to deliver it. The whole point of the script was to get the customer to listen to a 4 minute prerecorded advertisement. This was called a roll, you got paid $8 for every successful roll. Once the roll was over they’d get transferred to a closer, that is, if they hadn’t hung up during the prerecorded advertisement. I’d say at least 50% of people hung up during the ad, and thats a generous evaluation.

The closers were not as downtrodden as the rollers, and some of them were downright amazing at conning people out of money over the phone. In my brief tenure as a roller, I aspired to be a closer. Because they seemed to actually make money.

I averaged 13 rolls in a 8 hour day.  Of those 13 rolls anywhere from 4 to 8 stayed on the line to talk to the closer. If the call was closed Id receive a $300 dollar commission. I usually got one of those a month. But on average I was making $40 dollars a day. The bus I took everyday cost $8. Although there was no hourly pay, the owners did provide lunch everyday, and I know for a fact that there were people working there who made no money at all. All they got out of the day was a free lunch and a place they could tell there parole officer they worked at.

The whole business was a sham that sold get rich quick schemes…I think the owner preferred the term “investments,” and I’m fairly certain the whole business existed in a legal gray area which was probably illegal in some states. “Smile and Dial” was the mantra, the more you dialed the more chance you had of making money. People would scream at us to stop calling them. Threaten us. Pretend not to speak English. Inform us that they were on a no call list. Smile and Dial. Smile and Dial. Smile and Dial. Smile and Dial. The majority of people dumb enough to make it to the closing stage were usually broker than us, making them a waste of time.

I began to obsess over the leads, deluded myself into thinking that if only I could get some hot leads, my whole life would change and that I would be rolling in dough. This was during the height of the economic recession, with no college degree and no car, this was the only job I could find. Luckily, I wasn’t paying rent at my brother’s house, or I would have been completely destitute.

The best closer was a sandy hair man addicted to meth, who spoke with a slow country drawl. He was quite possibly the greatest liar I ever met. The sandy haired man managed to support him and his wife’s substantial drug habit solely by lying to people over the phone. He probably made around 2 or 3 grand a month and lived in sleazy weekly rent hotels. I would watch in amazement as he would sweet talk people out of money, if any of these people could have seen the hollow-eyed skeleton on the other end of the phone, I don’t think they would have trusted him as much.

It repeated like this day in, and day out. Smiling and dialing, eeking out a meager existence. Watching people come and go. No one ever got fired they simply left or didn’t show up. Some people left the first day, some people left after a week, some people stuck around. Desperation hung heavy in the air. Everyone smoked Bugler roll-your-own cigarettes, because the pre-rolled kind were too expensive. I came to think of pre-rolled cigarettes as a luxury on par with a steak dinner.

The only time I ever saw someone get fired, it was because the local mugshot newspaper had posted him on the Sex Offender page. It wasn’t even a recent arrest, it had happened years in the past. Someone at the office had seen the paper in the morning, and by mid-afternoon the whole office knew and was avoiding the guy. The boss came by his desk before lunch and fired him.

Myself and the few people I was friends with at work, were all too poor to go out for drinks. So we would meet up after work on Fridays to drink rotgut St Ides 40-ounces of beer on my coworkers sister’s porch. I would spend the night on the couch, because going out meant missing my bus home, but it was worth it to break the monotony of the week.

The first time I got a check with a commission on it, it was a check for $600. Normally my checks had been $100-$250. I was so certain they had made a clerical error, that I rushed to the bank to deposit it before they figured out the mistake. My boss came over to my desk the next day, and I was certain he was going to ask for the money back and fire me for stealing money. The hair on my neck stood up. He said, “Congratulations, on the big commission Joe, great work!” I breathed a sigh of relief.

The fluorescent lighting began to feel like it was burning a hole in my soul. The well deserved verbal abuse I received on a daily basis from the people I called relentlessly was wearing thin on my ego. The heavy smell of desperation that hung around each cubicle in that office grew more unbearable by the day. I despaired at the thought of this being my life. I asked myself, “Is this the best I can do?”

Obviously, it must be, I thought, because its the only place I had been able to find work, not for lack of trying. I  had filled out hundreds of applications and dropped off tons of resumes. I was so desperate for a steady paycheck I had even applied for a job at an industrial chicken farm and been turned away. I wasn’t even good enough to work there. Despair turned to depression, magnified by the heat of the omnipresent Arizona sun. Watching people drive past me as I waited at bus stops.  The worst would be when I’d see a pretty girl, and knowing I had absolutely nothing to offer her. My clothes shabby and falling apart, holes in the bottom of my sneakers.

One day about 8 months after I started, I woke up, and I just didn’t go to work that day.


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