Wednesday, September 16, 2009

West Telemarketing, part 2 of 2

West Telemarketing called its its huge complex the "campus," even though just stepping on the grounds your IQ dropped 10 points or so.

I found the "Interviews" building. It was bland and gray and had ivy growing in small garden beds all on the outside. I imagined interviewing the building itself.

Bill: "Why are you so drab? Why do you suck all the life out of every man who walks through your doors?"
Interview Building: "I take great pleasure in reducing the pleasures and dreams of man into a mediocre rubble."
Bill: "Yes, but why is that exactly?"
Interview Building: "Not sure exactly. Maybe it was bad architecture. Maybe they shouldn't have used stucco. I'm allergic to that shit."

And so forth.

Inside, the walls were plastered with all sorts of "go get em" pep-talking posters, with slogans like "Your future is in your hands!" written under a giant pair of hands holding a wad of cash and a clock. Some sort of reminder about mortality? Or maybe just how expensive clocks can be. Time is money? I just wondered why in the hell somebody would carry that much cash in a pair of open hands. Ever hear of a wallet? And why the hell carry around a wall clock? Isn't that why we use wristwatches?

Also in the interview building hung the poster seen in so many dorm rooms, depicting a Porsche and Ferrari in the garage of a sprawling mansion. The caption read, "The Benefits of Higher Education." Now I can't necessarily argue with the supposition of the poster. But it seemed a strange place for it. West Telemarketing, after all, didn't require any higher education. In fact, the poster seemed to scream: "Get the hell out of here and get a better job! Go back to school for crying out loud!"

I bet they draped all that self-help crap in case folks were having second thoughts. It really seemed a bit ironic to me. These posters promoted initiative, ambition, and excitement, when it was the precise lack of these that would allow someone to succeed there.

Like showing up to a Weight Watchers meeting and urging the attendees to throw caution to the wind. Yeah, thanks, but a little too late. Now was not the time for ambition nor initiative nor excitement. You came to West Tele to be a robot, a paid-slightly-above-minimum-wage-earning robot.

Indeed, everyone looked like robots, especially while wearing "the headset." Sort-of like headphones except with an attached microphone. Its presence was mandatory for all employees, even when not calling customers. You could plug into various ports in the wall for conference calls and things of that sort.

The interview went really quickly. They were basically just testing to see if I was schizophrenic. I'm not even sure that would've disqualified me. I just would be cold-calling a whole different clientele. Who knows? Maybe I would've been promoted.

The following is not the actual interview transcript. But it would be a much better interview, I think, much better suited to the actual work I did at West Tele.

Interviewer: "Are you alive?"
Bill: "Yes."
Interviewer: "Do you plan on using smack, heroin or crystal meth while on the job?"
Bill: "Only in the parking lot."
Interviewer: "Are you stuck in a position in life where you will do anything for a paycheck?"
Bill: "Pretty much."
Interviewer: "So it won't bother you to practically steal money from those who can least afford to lose it? Those dumb enough to fall for our scams?"
Bill: "I'll use my paycheck to get some therapy sessions."
Interviewer: "You're hired."

Did I mention this was a telemarketing job selling overpriced life insurance plans to senior citizens in financially strapped communities? We would drape pleasantries all over these folks while stealing the crumbs off their plate. It's hard to describe the soul-crushing numbness this job makes you feel. Perhaps I should have been alarmed by their high job turnover, but I guess it was that factor precisely that allowed me to get hired.

So yes, the interview went well and I did get hired. And within an hour, I was in the call center, getting my orientation, getting a name-tag, and meeting my fellow co-workers. Frittering away my soul.

The other new employees seemed people wearing a tie for the first time in their lives. I guess I don't know much about tie wearing habits. Just seems like wearing a Tweety tie sort of defeats the whole purpose of wearing a tie or even dressing nicely? Well, everyone had to wear a tie. The content of the tie didn't matter much. I always wanted to make a tie that looked like a rippling chest full of muscles. But West Tele had a way of draining your motivation and I never did make that rippling muscle tie.

The job situation as a whole seemed neatly regimented and very sterile and mediocre. Like a tray of ice cubes allowed to melt in an unplugged microwave. There were 20 building on the campus, each building had two floors, each floor had two halves divided by a glass wall. Every building the same, every parking lot the same, every break area the same. In the main congregation area between the buildings sat always parked a taco truck and a place to immediately cash your checks. I would smoke cigarettes out there and dream of escape and watch people get royally ripped off by the "Instant Cash!" truck.

Each call floor had supervisors and assistant supervisors and even more assistant supervisors. And then just brown-nosing types who wanted to be supervisors and took it upon themselves to point our your faults. Oh, those people just warmed my heart. Like a flamethrower would, perhaps.

I think there is a special section in hell reserved for workplace folks who are not in positions of authority and never will be, but enjoy asserting their imagined superiority. I imagine that special section of hell made up entirely of all these powerless people on power trips, all trying to assert authority over each other.

But in reality some of these people did get promoted and put in positions of some authority, small as it might be. I had three different assistant supervisors.

The only one worth discussing, Ron, had a "Caesar" haircut and strutted around the floor like an angry primate. Well, I guess humans are primates. You know what I'm saying. He swung his arms around, he emphatically pointed his fingers to the sky, he was a "player." Never mind that players don't cold call senior citizens in Arkansas tricking them into buying more life insurance. Perhaps I'm just being a little nitpicky here.

No, really, Ron had skills! As he would kindly remind everyone. It seemed his greatest skill was talking about his skills.

Although he did have this very strange way to get us employees "pumped up." He would strut around the call floor and if he saw somebody who seemed a bit lackadaisical, he would hop on their desk and start doing push-ups.

"Count! Count my push-ups!"
I would count for a little bit, usually up to ten. He would thump his chest. "Doesn't that get you pumped up?!"

Um, no.

But actually he did have a skill, if you consider a lack of something to be a skill. Like his lack of intelligence, for example. This would serve him well at West Tele. Just consider a typical day there:

Slog through traffic, pull off the interstate into the West Tele campus, witness the tragic march of a thousand workers with Tweety ties and sunken eyes and little hopes for the future or self-improvement or even anything beyond next week's San Antonio Spurs game. Sit down at a computer, chair not very comfortable, but before using the chair or equipment you are required to wipe everything down with a moist sanitary antibacterial napkin. boot up your workstation, and you're connected to an unsuspecting victim, or "potential customer." You didn't have any information about the person, but within 5 seconds you could glean the victim's age, race, and financial status. The majority of folks sounded white, poor, and old.

I sold All-state life insurance to these people. Most had insurance already, so it was really quite difficult to make a sale. West Tele knew this. That's why we were rated largely on our call volume. I guess if you call enough people, you're bound to find a sucker somewhere.

"Hello sir, how are you doing today? (pause momentarily for customer answer). That's great, sir. Now I'm calling today to see if you are interested in an incredible opportunity. A way to save money for you and your family. No more piggie banks and hiding money under the mattress. This opportunity could revolutionize your life. Is this something you might be interested in?
(pause for customer response).
Now, what if something happened to you, something tragic or life-ending? You must provide for your family even if you're not there. And that's where All State steps in."

The most difficult part of the job was the automaton nature of it. Every sentence was scripted, every single one. The kind bosses had mapped out every possible rebuttal, too. I would be staring at something like this:

Customer rebuttals:
A) not interested
B) I already have insurance
C) don't need insurance / too young
D) I am covered under my spouse's plan
E) I don't trust you
F) Who is this?
G) I can't talk until I've taken my medication

And so forth. Every rebuttal had its own follow-up script. We were never, ever to go off the script. Except, of course, to interupt the customer and keep him/her on the line.

Employees used to do a drill where we interupted each other by saying, "But please sir, if I may say one last thing..." We sat there in a small room, practicing that technique for an hour. Yes, for an hour, we interupted each sentences. Eventually we would start interupting each others interuptions. We were a highly caffeinated bunch.

But I never really felt comfortable reading scripts and turning off my brain. Like any true slacker, I was looking for a shortcut, an easier way to make sales with less work.

Not long after I took the job, I started going off the script and speaking honestly to the people I was calling. You see, we were trying to sign old people up for All State life insurance. When they signed up, they received three free months of insurance with no obligation to buy more. And it was this that I focused on.

"You could have free life insurance for three months," I would tell them, "and on the first morning of the fourth month just call and cancel and you would not owe a penny."

People could hardly believe their luck when I told them the loophole. My sales went through the roof. I received a bonus check and was brought out to the front of the floor and everyone clapped at my statistics. It was a special moment. Two of my co-workers rolled a large blunt and smoked it in my honor. They told me about this later, while we were smoking a blunt in the parking lot (different occasion). Actually, I just watched them and hung out in the car. The second-hand smoke alone made me unable to complete a sentence for the rest of the day.

I remember my next paycheck after starting the scam was very large. I was being considered for a promotion. And so forth. Perhaps I had taken those posters to heart, the Interview building posters. Initiative! It's in my hands!

But the higher-ups were onto me. They started recording my calls, combing through them. Ron, one of my assistant managers, pulled me aside one day. "We know you're going off the script. That's why this hurts me so bad."

He handed me my report card. At West Tele, we received "report cards" based on our performance. Mine had "F-" written very large across the top.

Wow, an F minus. That's like failing with honors. Or should I say dishonors?

"You know what an F minus means," Ron asked, his face about an inch from mine. He was panting hungrily and his breath smelled like garbage.

"I don't know, I get held back a year," I laughed at my own joke. Ron did not laugh. He got closer, his nose now touching mine.

"It means you're history, shithead." He jumped on my desk and starting flexing his pectoral muscles. "Hit the road."

And I did, thankfully. I don't know why they didn't actually reward me for my behavior. Sure I had violated every rule they had, but I had brought in twice as many customers as my associates. Didn't matter to me now, though. With the commission bonus from my last couple of paychecks I could take a month off and live at my friend's grandmother's house and all would be well. Sneaking warm beer from her shed and trying to meet another girl who would pass me over for a monkey-brained jock-strap.

So I drove home and threw my tie out the window of my car. Freedom! But I realized about two seconds later it was a borrowed tie. I pulled over to the side of the road and ran back for the tie, by now muddy and tire-tracked.

When I arrived back at Brian's grandma's house, where we were both staying, Brian had a surprise for me.

"Dude, I made the most amazing bong! Check it out!"

He had indeed constructed a bong and it looked like a jungle gym for a mouse, all tangled tubes and duct taped pvc pipe. "Yeah, looks great Brian."

Brian smiled on his creation. "I found this long tube in Grandma's closet, it's perfect. Those tubes are expensive, too. So I decided to take advantage. Voila!"

And it worked like a charm. We both smoked from the bong and sprawled back on the couch, watching mindless t.v. and drinking Diet Caffeine-Free Pepsi. It was all his grandmother had in the fridge.

After a bit, Grandma came upstairs and saw the bong on the table.

"My God, Brian, what have you done with my enema tube?"

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

West Telemarketing, part 1

I knew lots of pot smokers in high school. We weren't particularly close or anything, but I knew of their existence. Take this guy Brad; he was well-known in our high school for his lung capacity. He could inhale for something like 30 seconds. I'm sure it's helped him along on his life's path.

Brad wore this braided leather necklace that had a wooden mushroom dangling on the end. He wore the necklace tight around his throat, and every time I saw him it made me a little uneasy. Seemed like it would cut off the airflow. But Brad didn't much mind, and didn't seem to care about anything, and therein lied his charm. Brad drifted through his day, his head stuck in the clouds. By clouds, I am course referring to the insane amount of pot the guy smoked before school, between periods, and at lunch. The clouds were actually inside his head.

But no matter. I saw the girls flock towards this Brad character, like flies around a pile of dog shit. A typical interaction:

Girl: "Oh Brad, what's up?"
Brad: "Just chilling. Chilling."
Girl: "What are you up to this weekend?"
Brad: "I dunno? Chilling. Maybe some grilling."
Girl: "Brad, I love how little you talk. You're the strong silent type, aren't you?"
Brad: "Niiiiccce." (Brad would especially draw out his vowels. Perhaps the smoke in his head interfered with his vocal cords in some way).
Girl: "Brad, will you take me home and make love to me, with no strings attached?"
Brad: "Ohhh yeaaaaahhhhh."

And so forth. I was a lot smarter and better looking than Brad, but he had this dumb confidence that appealed to dumb girls. I had heard that dumb girls would "put out," so I naturally tried to make myself dumber, but it always came off wrong. I tried walking slowly, with a certain swagger, but it just looked like I was tip-toeing down the hallway. Some people thought I had been injured.

I also tried smoking pot here and there. I never much had a mind for it. I would laugh uncontrollably at this absurd little world we live in. I guess my high-pitched laughter would be the polar opposite of Brad's oblivious stupor disguised as detached coolness.

Once I tried smoking weed, my lady-skills took a rapid turn for the worse. Not sure how attritubutable it is to the weed, but I determined that the most "natural" way to healthy hair would be to renounce washing my hair altogether. I went several months without washing my hair, and my hair morphed into a stringy, greasy tangle. Like a pile of slivery albino snakes in full revolt.

Needless to say, the women kept away, probably thinking that my hair experiment was contagious in some way. It seems that women want their men laid-back, yes, but not in regards to their hygiene.

My marijuana dabbling continued on past high school, where I found my first post-graduate job, as a camp counselor. I didn't fit in so well at the camp, I guess. When I first arrived, I was jeered and called a "goddamn hippie." Seems I'd left my bubble of friends and stepped into a hornet's nest of short-haired angry white men.

An old friend of mine, Curtis Crow, turned on me quite quickly when I had apparently defected to "the dark side." He greeted my arrival at the camp with a large spit of his chewing tobacco. It splashed all viscous and brown on the parking lot pavement.

"What in the hell are you wearing?" He grabbed a fistful of thrift-store plaid shirt. "You turned into a goddamn hippie. What the fuck happened to you?" I could see this conversation wasn't going anywhere, but I gave it a shot anyhow.

"I'm the same guy I've always been," I said. "Don't be fooled by the hair and clothes."

But Curtis was shaking his head in disgust and didn't seem convinced. He spit his tobacco juice on the sizzling pavement. "You're a fucking traitor. A goddamn hippie."

As I was soon to discover, this summer camp of my youth was actually a breeding ground for many things I'd come to stand against: buzz cuts, fraternity life, bland country music, large rumbling trucks, mystery meat, conversations about popularity, and good clean fun. I'd indeed gone to the dark side and my fellow counselors took some pride in reminding me of this at every turn. They took to calling me "Dirty Hippie." Rumors quickly spread that I was dealing drugs within the camp.

At this point I had never even bought weed, but I certainly looked the part. My only friend at the camp had bought marijuana, which we shared. His car had inexplicably burned down and melted and exploded, not sure in which order. In any case, he asked to store his weed in my car, and I stupidly agreed. Given the rumors swirling about my activities as a "drug dealer," I should have known that the heads of camp had their targets set straight on my gross stringy blonde mop-head.

The downfall came quite quickly. Somehow, the kids in my cabin heard about "the donkey show," from some other folks at camp and asked me for an explanation. In the gentlest and vaguest of terms, I described "the donkey show" to my youngsters. The next day, I had several counselors ask me, "Did you tell your kids about a woman who has sex with donkeys?" Not only was I a drug dealer now, but also a pervert intent on corrupting young minds.

Later that day, an announcement came over the loudspeaker. "Missster Billll Baird, Misssttter Billll Baaaird. Please report to the front office."

Once there, they informed me I had 15 minutes to leave the camp before the police were called. I guess they don't take too kindly to drug-dealing perverts.

So I headed back home with my tail between my legs. At least I hadn't been forced to wash my hair during my brief stint as camp counselor (they had asked repeatedly).

There wasn't really much of a bright side to this tragedy, though. I arrived back home, got in an argument with my dad, and moved out. Oh well, no more home. I went to stay with a friend at his grandma's while coming up with a plan to make a little money.

It was a rough few days, and in my desperation, I cut my hair and even washed it. Maybe I just wanted to say that I had been to "Chong's Uni-sex Hair Salon" on Austin Highway. I did get my haircut there and the Bee-Gee's "Night Fever" was playing through a boombox perched on top of a coke machine. The soundtrack to my only haircut while 18 years of age. Seems the barbers at "Chong's" are also chiropractors; after my cut, the reticent barber jerked my neck sideways and I could hear joints crack in a hundred different places. Sounded sort of like Rice Crispies, maybe a little louder.

This haircut helped my job prospects immensely. Not because it made me more employable, really, but because while inside "Chong's Unisex Hair Salon" I found one of those small employment newspapers, this one called the "Greensheet."

The "Greensheet" typically would be your best bet for finding a place to unintentionally donate a kidney (you know, get drugged, wake in a bathtub of ice, etc), or to find all the latest job listings for area McDonald's. I'd only ever perused it in a laughing manner, but I'd just gotten fired and they probably weren't gonna give me a good reference. I needed a job that required no skills, no references, no nothing except the willingness to prostrate oneself. I'd hit rock bottom, I guess.

In the "Greensheet" I found an employer that advertised $15 hourly, full benefits, no skills needed. "Just a friendly voice," it said.

Turns out the employer was West Telemarketing, the 2nd largest employer in San Antonio behind the military. I drove out to their headquarters, address scrawled on small piece of paper. I needn't have written down the address. The building complex was at least as large as Disney Land.
to be continued tomorrow.