'Do You Have a Few Minutes?'

I don't want to be called, exactly, but I have not signed up for the Do Not Call registry. Oh, sure, the phone will ring just as my family settles down to dinner, or in the middle of my work day, and I'll think, Sign us up, baby! But then I'll remember the worst job I ever had and something happens to my resolve.

About a decade ago, I was a telemarketer. I was home on winter break from college. The company had an opening and the money was good -- about three dollars an hour more than I made at the video store where I had worked the summer before. My sister Erin, who was about to start school herself, had worked there for months. It was the first favor of this sort -- that is, the job-getting sort -- that Erin ever did for me, and we both focused on the money.

Because the job sucked. Each day, I was given a long printout of calls to make to businesses in the greater Washington, D.C., area. I was Jennifer. Was I speaking to the person in charge of making office supply decisions? Were they happy with their copier? Would they like to hear more from my manager about the variety of sub-par copiers that we could offer them? Had anyone ever even heard of the copier brand names I was talking about? Would you please be kind to me? Will you act as if I'm a human being? No? All right, then.

We -- myself and my fellow telemarketers -- sat in a large windowless room under fluorescent lights. I believe the décor was early steno pool. On my desk sat a mirror. As I made my calls, I was encouraged to look into the mirror and smile; it’s the if-you're-happy-and-you-know-it method of voice training. After I mastered reading the script, I used the mirror out of boredom. I practiced seeing how uninviting I could make my voice while grinning at my own image. It was the opposite of phone sex.

I made mistakes. No one told me that "do not call" next to a number actually meant, "Do not call this number." Why would they keep it in the database if they didn't want me to dial it up? I did not ask follow-up questions to wheedle unsuspecting office managers into giving up their nice Xeroxes for a copier I had never laid eyes on. I sometimes got distracted by the flat-toned spiel emanating from the desk behind me. And I raced through the list of phone numbers like an all-paid vacation was waiting for me at the bottom. As Erin and I drove home one afternoon, she pointed out that this over-industriousness did little for my popularity with my coworkers.

My coworkers. One thing worse than being a college girl with no marketable skills in a mind-numbing job is not being a college girl, with no marketable skills in a mind-numbing job. My coworkers were all women about my age. They were funny and outrageous and, in most cases, utterly stuck. This was the best it was going to get, without other job skills, and the time and money to gain those skills. They had rent and no student loans and relied on food stamps. A few of them lived together in an apartment in the roughest neighborhood in the area. A few of them had kids.

When the boss wasn't listening, they talked. I wasn't exactly invited to join in the chat, but after my conversation with Erin, I'd stop my speed race through the list to listen in a friendly way. They talked about the men in their lives. They talked about parties. They talked about their families. Then they got back to work.

It's the sort of experience that, for me, anyway, brings up stuff like The Path Not Taken and There But For the Grace of God, etc. As the weeks dragged on, I began to dread the next day. Dreaded the script, dreaded the reactions on the other end of the line, dreaded the monotony and the mirror. Dreaded the cold and the waking up early and the smirking manager with eyeglass frames suggesting a future on the FBI's Most Wanted list. But I was leaving. My sister was leaving, too, and we would not think of ourselves as human arrows hurtling unprotected between the company and its sales targets. We had bright futures and paychecks to cash.

Of course, not everyone could leave. They needed this job, this money -- and this is what makes me reluctant to sign up for the Do Not Call Registry. It's a misguided reluctance, probably. Telemarketing is not a good way of life and only marginally more profitable than retail or fast food. And I imagine the industry is different now, finer honed. When my phone rings these days, it’s invariably someone who can ad lib the script, someone who seems to care very much whether I buy the product. Still, like a superstition, I answer the phone, say no thanks, and remember that even as Erin and I sped away, my co-workers still had a long winter in front of the mirror to get through.

Jennifer Niesslein is co-editor of 'Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers' (brainchildmag.com).


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