Putting My Ethics on Hold

We’ve all done things we’re ashamed of—line dancing, acting innocent after unleashing something silent but deadly, heresy. If by chance you just thought to yourself, “Not me!” Well, the heck with you. Tell you what. Save yourself some time and page through to another article, because I think you’re lying.

Twenty years ago, I had a job saying suggestive things over the phone. I’d like to say that I only did it once, and that it was just that one time for the money … but I was good at it. I was so wicked good at it that I worked for two different syndicates simultaneously. I was a telemarketer. I sold quickie carpet cleaning in the afternoons, and a disreputable knockoff of Happenings Books in the evenings.

I started out innocent enough. I was seventeen, inexperienced, tired of waitressing, and I didn’t have the hair for retail. I saw a listing in the want ads: “Work in a rock ’n’ roll atmosphere.” Air-conditioned office. Base pay $6.50 an hour, with generous commissions. It was July and I was living in a fourth-floor-walk-up-one-bedroom microwave oven. It was the air conditioning that sold me.

Refrigerate hell all you want; it still stinks of sulfur. The new boss gave me a script, a stack of contacts, and a phone, and showed me the rack where I could hang my ethics. They didn’t order me to lie exactly, but unless you were pretty limber with the truth you wouldn’t ring the sales bell on the wall beside the manager’s desk very often. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thy integrity. And if it tolled three times before noon you’d get free pizza for lunch.

I couldn’t go back to my old grease-pit restaurant job. I had left, pompously boasting to my manager that I was leaving to work in an office. I had to keep the phone-bank gig for at least a couple of months, by which time the jerk would be fired. (Restaurant managers I worked for never lasted longer than a trial magazine subscription.) So, for the time being, my rent (and pride) depended on convincing shut-ins that they should invest in half-priced oil-change coupons.

Rationalization kicked in right away. People have to get their carpets cleaned, right? They may as well hire us—even if our rent-a-drunk servicemen were really off-season carnies. That’s not the way I pitched it, though. I did voice profiling. If I heard an age tremor in your voice, I filibustered about the eighteen kinds of sick that come from dust mites. Grandmas respond well to scare tactics. “Do you ever babysit your grandkids? Do they play on the floor?”

If I heard the voice of a tired man, my voice would turn warm and liquid. Once that lock de-icer went to work, I’d shove the key right in and twist it. Because you know, if you’re a weary, hardworking man, “you sure do have things you’d rather do on Saturday than suck crud out of your carpets.”

The evening gig’s “rock ’n’ roll atmosphere” was a portable radio set to KQ and a twenty-eight-year-old boss with a mullet and sport-coat sleeves jacked up to his forearms. The coupon-book tycoon’s office “adornment” looked like she was right out of a ZZ Top video. She wore tight miniskirts and heels, sucked on lollipops and used crayons to fill in supermarket coloring books. She could manage all this while cradling the phone to her ear and talking to friends for the entire shift.

But she did less harm than I did. She was innocuous. I hustled strangers, sticking on them like a burr, hyping mom-and-pop businesses in neighborhoods I knew nothing about. I told the callers about great deals right in their own backyards, available to them only if they bought this thirty-dollar book. “Do you ever go to Emily’s Pizzeria?” I chirped to one mark. “You can get a free pitcher of Coke with the purchase of a large two-topping.” “Emily’s has been closed for three months,” she informed me. I hung up to spare us both any more of my lies.

As penance for these crimes of my youth, I listen to every single sales call that I get. I don’t buy, but I do listen. I won’t be needing free Coke, anyway. I recently got an email from the widow of an African king promising me a fortune in exchange for a small, temporary loan.