THE BLOG

The Cleansing

06/02/2014 01:56 pm ET

The wretched practice of telephone sales is rarely selected by choice, but endured as a consequence of misfortune, desperation, or poor life skills. Most see it as a brief employment cul-de-sac, never soiling the pages of a resume or causing embarrassment with family or friends. With time, the experience can merge with other regrettable life events to form that greater part of ourselves we call wisdom. For others, phone sales might be like a gateway drug, leading them down the road to selling health club memberships, or, God forbid, time shares.

It was the summer of 1977 and only a few weeks remained before starting my junior year at the University. I'd already exhausted a string of crappy temp jobs and needed only a couple hundred bucks to close out the summer. I wasn't picky - menial factory work, house cleaning, whatever, but telemarketing was not on my radar when the man from the staffing agency called to tell me I was "in luck".

An order had been placed for telephone solicitors from TeleMark, Inc., who occupied the first floor of the Parkway Plaza office building at the busy intersection of Turner Road and Crabtree Parkway. No experience was needed, and the money "could go pretty high if you worked hard." Without enthusiasm I agreed to an interview, which turned out to be more of an orientation. Arriving at 3:00 pm I entered a large open room about 25 by 50 feet with one long side containing large picture windows and furnished only with a matrix of tiny desks. Great, I thought - I'm back in third grade. The place was deserted except for the supervisor, a short clean-cut stereo salesman type guy named Brian Bemis. He offered a perfunctory handshake, and I introduced myself.

"Carl Kessler. So Brian, where is everybody?"

"Shift doesn't start until five-thirty. No point calling people when they're not at home eating dinner."

"What?"

"Just some telemarketing humor. So, tell me Carl, ever done phone sales before?"

"No."

"Ever done any sales before?"

"No." I assumed that small-time pot dealing didn't count.

"It's easy! Just grab a stack of 3 by 5 contact cards, dial the numbers, and read this little pitch. You can change it up a bit, see what works for you. Each ticket to the Fireman's benefit show is twelve dollars. Your commission is two dollars per ticket. The show is at the County Fairgrounds in October, and this year we have The BJ Blues Revue! Here's how I do it:"

"Good afternoon Mrs. Smith! Hi, Barry Blevin calling for the Bonita County Fire Department everything okay at your home tonight hope you remembered to install new smoke detector batteries did you know Mrs. Smith there are many challenges to serving the public and each year we ask GOOD citizens such as yourself to look in your hearts and help out by pickin' up some tickets to the big show can we count on you Mrs. Smith?"

"You get the idea, right Carl?"

"Ah, I guess. Don't stop, use an alias, that sort of thing?" I ventured, vaguely hoping that cynicism would sabotage my chances of getting hired. A twinge of disapproval flashed briefly across Brian's face, but he soon recovered. You've got to have a thick skin in this business.

"You won't have much time, so it's easier when you don't give them a chance to interrupt. We've got guys here making twenty bucks an hour. You'll find most people want to support something as vital as fire and rescue operations." He's good, I thought, wondering if he was going to offer me tickets to the damn Ball.

Already I was suspicious; it didn't take a genius to see the questionable mathematics of the thing. "Brian, if the tickets are twelve bucks and I get two, how much do the firemen get?"

Brian winced. I'd innocently touched on the foul truth about TeleMark. He looked me right in the eye. "The Firefighter's Protective Fund receives ten percent. The rest goes to us."

"They get a buck twenty?" I said, unable to conceal my incredulity.

"Naturally we don't like to promote this fact, but you ARE required to answer truthfully if anyone asks." Then he smiled again, pointing out the bright side, "It's pretty much the only rule we have here. Remember, fund raising costs money, and The BJ Blues Revue isn't cheap either. So whaddya say Carl, can we count on you?"

Jesus, the entire thing was a con. "Okay," I reluctantly agreed, assuming a few weeks of this would only tarnish, and not destroy, my soul. Oddly, I had already begun to feel like a trusted insider, having been let in on the parameters of this game. I was being indoctrinated into a small-time hustling ring. Were people gullible enough to fear some vague consequence of not buying the tickets? Perhaps the Fire Department kept some secret list of ticket buyers, and if you weren't on it - well, just hope your house never caught fire.

*****

Returning later to begin my shift, I was assigned to desk #17, a crude platform not much bigger than a TV tray, containing a telephone, ashtray, and a gooseneck lamp. There was a small mirror at eye level rising from the back of the desk and attached via a cheap wooden yardstick. The desk faced the long wall of plate-glass windows overlooking the busy intersection. Between the building and the street was a lush landscaped area highlighted by an artificial pond surrounded by overgrown bougainvilleas and bird-of-paradise. From a distance the pond looked natural, but upon closer inspection was nothing more than a disgusting scum-laden cement tub, thick with decomposing lily pads and blooming with emerald-green algae. It fits I thought; a fake backdrop to a dubious fundraising operation; better not to look beneath the surface.

Soon the office began filling with a dangerous assortment of rough-looking characters whose most notable features -- tattoos and greasy hair -- were partially obscured by dingy clouds of bluish-grey cigarette smoke. I figured them for bikers, alcoholics, wife-beaters, small-time hustlers and ex-cons. In short, losers. They comprised a world my sheltered middle class background pretended did not exist, and now here they were -- my co-workers. Each received a stack of 3x5 cards from Brian, who shifted nervously in his seat and tried to avoid eye contact. To my right sat a large, muscular, blond-haired man, possibly of Nordic descent, around 45, wearing a plain white undershirt, blue jeans, and black cowboy boots. He was watching the others listlessly drift in, a slight smirk on his otherwise inscrutable face. Immediately I pegged him as the toughest of the bunch. Rolled up in his sleeve was a pack of unfiltered Camels, a USMC tattoo visible on his left bicep.

I extended my right hand and offered a meager "Hi, I'm Carl Kessler." He responded in a gravelly voice "Chuck Brickman -- Top Salesman," squeezing my hand as if it were a soggy dishrag.

On my left sat another college student, who looked even more out of place than I did. Classic hippie, complete with shoulder-length hair and a rainbow-colored peace sign embroidered on his denim backpack. He looked at me and asked "First day?"

"Yup. Carl Kessler, nice to meet you, uh..."

"William H. Zepeda, Jr. Call me Billy."

We exchanged hippie handshakes, which Brickman regarded with disdain. Billy looked uncomfortable. He lowered his head, placing both hands on the edges of the desk as if to steady himself. After a moment he turned to me. "Just what in the hell, are we doing in this -- place?"

"Just trying to earn some cash," I shrugged.

"But it's so... dirty"

"Oh. So you know about the 10 percent thing?" I asked.

"What ten percent thing?" Evidently Billy didn't know just how dirty it was.

"Oh nothing. Hey Billy, what's with these little mirrors?"

He explained that, according to Bemis, customers can tell over the phone if the salesman was happy. If you're happy, you get more sales. If you smile, it makes you sound happy. And if you watch yourself talk, it's easier to smile.

"Customers buy crap from happy people! Can you believe that shit? Who needs a fuckin' MBA, man? These dudes have it all figured out," Billy concluded. So that was it? I was pretty much on my own, guided only by this vague lesson. Smile and sell. Could an entire business operate with such dogmatic simplicity?

As I quickly discovered, no. I smiled into the mirror, recited the pitch, and got nowhere. Most people were annoyed by the intrusion, some lectured me about the importance of eating dinner in peace, and others simply hung up. I preferred those. One call was surreal; a syrupy-voiced woman asked me to "hold on" because "she was in the middle of something". Shortly I could hear the muffled sounds of erotic moaning over a radio talk-show in the background. This time, I hung up. By the end of the shift, I'd sold nothing.

The next day I managed to sell a few tickets here and there, but there was no pattern to my success, nothing to build on. Take Mr. Russell Freyor, for example:

"Good evening, Mr. Freyor, this is Carl Kessler, and I..."

(Heavy sigh) "What are you selling, Carl?"

"Sir, I'm with the Bonita County Fire..."

(Heavy sigh) "How much are the tickets, Carl?"

"Tickets? Oh yes sir, I'm, ah, I mean, they're twelve dollars each. This year we have a great show..."

(Heavy sigh) "Give me two, Carl."

Another woman kept asking if I was her grandson Albert. She sounded about ninety. Eventually I learned that she hadn't left her house in months. Her neighbor Rose brought groceries every week. Her cat and her birds kept her company, but lately they've stopped talking to her. Show? "Oh my stars, I haven't been to a show since Sammy Davis Jr. at the Sands Hotel in... was it the fifties? Or maybe the sixties?" She asked me for one ticket. I considered talking her out of it, or maybe delivering the ticket to her house along with a cup of hot cocoa. I figured someone needed to check on her pets, which were probably dead.

After a few days, Billy and I were tied for last place in sales. To make matters worse, property tax bills had recently gone out to homeowners in Bonita County. The mill levy had been increased which, together with rising valuations, resulted in shocking increases. The timing could not have been worse. Any government agency was an easy target for the wrath of the public. My meager sales dropped. Billy and I were now earning an hourly wage slightly higher than unskilled labor in Mexico. The most notable exception was Chuck Brickman, who set a blistering nightly pace of nearly forty tickets. Billy and I would stop and listen to his calls, trying to pick up some pointers:

"Good evening Mr. Gonzales? Sir, this is Fernando De La Cruz with the Bonita County Fire Department, how are you his evening? Oh excuse me one moment, senor." He placed his hand lightly over the phone and shouted to no one in particular, 'Manuel! Please call your sister Consuela, what? Yes, she is still at the hospital!' Then he took his hand off the mouthpiece, shooting a little smile in my direction. He continued. "Sorry sir. Things are very busy tonight. We're short-handed and these Santa Ana winds are trouble for us..."

We listened in astonishment as he transitioned seamlessly from one contrived character to another, painting a phony backdrop of sorrow and despair for the poor firefighters of Bonita County. In talking to Mr. Gonzales, he explained it was too bad the recent tax increase has all gone to pay for the overworked school teachers who can barely keep up with the rise in kindergarten attendance. And who can blame the schools, or all the new immigrant children who deserve a better life? Mr. Gonzales didn't hesitate to buy seven tickets, one for each of his family members plus his parents. He was only sorry he couldn't do more.

Billy checked to make sure Brickman was busy on a call, before leaning over to me and whispering, "This is bullshit, man. They don't teach fraud at the University. And you know why? Because it's a felony." Billy again gripped the corners of his table with a grimace. "This ain't right."

"So why do it? Why take a job like this?" I asked.

"It sucks, but I promised my dad that I would try it for at least a month. He's a big-shot broker with Solomon Smith Barney. See... I had this little problem with The Man a while back, and he got me out of it. Now he's holding my damn tuition over my head. He wants me to be like him. He thinks if I learn to be persuasive, I can turn into an asshole executive or something. Not a chance, man. Billy Z's gonna be a wildlife biologist. Live in a cabin in the mountains, no telephones. But without that degree, I'll be kissin' his Cadillac drivin', martini slurpin', Elk's Club partyin' ASS until he's dead."

I considered Billy's difficult situation and was about to reply when some shouting broke out over by Brian's desk. About six of the bikers had gotten up and now circled around his desk menacingly. Brian was still seated, making him appear even smaller than he already was. The rest of the crew sensed trouble and began wrapping up their calls. I asked Billy what was going on.

"I'm not sure, but some of these guys haven't been paid in almost a month. Last week some of these biker dudes confronted him, and Brian promised them their money by the end of the week and it didn't happen."

"Have you gotten paid?"

"No, not yet, but I've only been here about a week and a half. They said payday was every two weeks. Can you imagine doing this evil shit... for free?"

The commotion grew. Several of the guys were now shouting at Brian all at once, things like "Gonna kick your scrawny ass," and "Don't mess with a man's paycheck." Bemis was spooked, and kept glancing over to the front door as if to gauge his chances of escape. It was hopeless, he'd never make it. One of the bikers reached over and picked up the phone. He handed it to Brian and calmly stated, "Call your Dude. Do it now. Tell him to bring our goddamn money. Tonight." He motioned towards the percolating mob. "Do you understand, Mr. Bemis, or do I have to draw you a picture on a 3x5 card?"

Bemis understood enough, and urgently began dialing. Soon the connection was made. He tried to keep the conversation private, but it was useless, the mob was listening to prevent any double-cross. Brian's only option was to simply recite the litany of complaints and demands. This pleased the mob, which began to ease off. Brian hung up and shakily addressed the group. "Mr. Smith said he will be here in an hour with your money. Every penny. That's what he said."

Already doubtful of my employer's legitimacy, I wondered about this Mr. "Smith". It was either irony or just a lazy choice for an alias. I looked at my watch; six forty-five. I picked up the next index card and began to dial but it was no use, I was too distracted and just hung up and sat there. Billy Z. was on the phone talking in hushed tones to his girlfriend. The impervious Chuck Brickman kept dialing, relentlessly hustling tickets and unfazed by the simmering labor dispute. He gazed with disgust at the collection of slackers around him, annoyed by their lack of competitiveness in this exciting sales campaign. While looking at Billy and me, he performed the universal whack-off hand gesture and nodded towards the others with a big smile. We laughed. Billy wanted to find out more about Brickman and walked over to his desk between calls.

"Excuse me, ah, Mr. Brickman, I..."

"Chuck."

"Right, ah, Chuck? I was wondering if you could tell Carl and me how you became such a great salesman. We've been selling squat here sir and we thought maybe you could..."

"Sure, kid. It's like this: It doesn't matter what you're selling. It's all the same. Could be furniture, club memberships, cars, boats, tickets, whatever. Few years ago I was fundraising for the AFLCIO in Long Beach. Down near the docks. Know what I mean? Our annual convention was in two weeks. Boss didn't think we were getting enough support from the local businesses. You know -- the freight companies, construction outfits, and what not. Different unions, but that didn't matter. So anyway I got on the phone and started selling flags."

"Flags?" I asked.

"Advertising banners. We'd put the sponsor's names on 'em and hang 'em from the ceiling at the convention center. Sweet deal, really. Didn't cost us shit. I called this one guy, some fat-cat who owned a big industrial supply shop. Guy was easily worth a mil. Told him the AFLCIO really needed his support this year, and would he buy a five hundred dollar flag. So the guy starts dickin' around, giving me this song and dance about his budgets. I tell him again that the AFLCIO needs his support, because organized labor is what made America great, but all I hear is whining and excuses. So I figured the hell with him. I rattled off my name and number, told him to call me when he worked out his budget problems, and slammed the phone down."

"I don't get it," Billy interjected.

Brickman rolled his eyes. "That's 'cause I'm not done, college boy. So anyway I write this guy off. Twenty minutes later he calls me back. Sounds different. Dude is scared. You could hear it in his voice. Probably spent the whole time wondering if some angry mob of steel workers was coming down to torch his warehouse. HAAAAA! So he asks me again how much the flags are. I say one thousand. He says 'what happened to the five-hundred dollar flags?' I tell him they're all sold out. He says he'll take the thou. Sends the check over to me by courier an hour later. Never heard from him again."

Billy and I were hopelessly lost. "Sorry, Chuck, but, well, I still don't get it. Are you saying Carl and me should get a little, well, rough with people about these tickets? You think that would help?"

"No, no, listen kid, you're missing the point. See, everyone keeps a padlock on their wallet. If you find the right key you can take out whatever you like. Selling is nothing more than knowing which key to use. It's different for everybody. The guy in Long Beach was just a wimp who'd get scared if the wind blows. He figured it was worth a grand just to make me go away. Understand?"

Billy nodded slowly, still chewing it over in his mind. It did seem more believable than that crap about smiling into the mirror. I was having trouble also; it sounded like extortion, a bit extreme for The BJ Blues Revue. I asked Brickman, "So, did you ever put up that guy's thousand-dollar flag?" Brickman was already dialing another number, lighting a fresh smoke. He just smiled and gave the universal whack-off gesture.

*****

At seven forty the front door swings open and in walks this sharp-looking guy, slicked black hair, around thirty, in no less than an actual tuxedo. Attached to his arm was a striking blonde barely contained in a tight red dress, fur wrap, and trimmed in deep red lipstick and long fake eyelashes. They looked like they'd just come from a formal banquet where he'd won the coveted Cocaine Dealer of the Year award. Mr. Smith carried a slim brushed aluminum attaché case. He nodded to Brian, who had the look of a man pardoned by the Governor seconds before they throw the switch.

Bemis walked out the front door for some air. Nobody noticed because they were either looking at the blonde or the attaché case. Smith sat down at an unoccupied mini-desk a couple of rows over, set the case on top, and opened it. To my amazement, it contained the following items: Four stacks of fresh U.S. currency in various denominations, one adding machine (with paper tape), two thick bundles of ticket sales tallies, and a small spiral-bound notebook. The rest of the case was so clean it looked as if it had been purchased for this specific purpose earlier in the day. Over the next hour, Smith proceeded to calculate everyone's pay, make notebook entries, draw the cash, and hand it to Brian, who distributed it. When everyone had been paid, Smith and the woman left without having said a single word to anyone.

Over the next couple of days, Billy and I fumbled through one embarrassing call after another. I spoke with one woman who sounded cultured and exceedingly pleasant, with a soft whispery Marilyn Monroe voice. I pictured her lying on a white leather sofa, clothed only with a handful of tickets for The BJ Blues Revue, each one covering a strategic area of her body. I was ready to ask "how many tickets can I put you down for" when disaster struck.

"So, tell me, Carl, how long have you been a firefighter? You're all so brave," she cooed.

"Well, you see, Mrs. Verella, I..."

"That's Miss Verella, Carl," she corrected.

"Yes, well, ma'am, you see I'm not actually a firefighter per se." Brickman overheard this and looked up at the ceiling while shaking his head. Even Billy winced.

"Whaddya mean you're not a firefighter?"

"Yes, ma'am, well you see I work for TeleMark, and..."

"Who the hell is TeleMark?" Marilyn Monroe now sounded more like Joan Rivers.

The following evening, things proceeded to get worse. The property tax issue had erupted into angry protests at the assessor's office and the evening news was covering the story. Hostility towards the weary phone solicitors turned to verbal abuse or just hang-ups if we were lucky. Billy struggled with the irony that he felt insulted by people's reactions even though he was not a fireman and in fact was only vaguely impersonating one. Would he have better luck being honest and telling people that TeleMark was really a shadowy gang of con men whose leader walked around with briefcases full of cash?

Finally, even Brickman started to feel the pressure. After a couple of bad calls he looked over and offered me a cigarette, which I accepted. We just sat there, deflated. Most of the other guys had stopped also. The room was soon enveloped in thick clouds of smoke. Brian was finishing up a phone call to Mr. Smith. He rose in front of the room and signaled for everyone to listen.

"Okay, I know this tax thing is really kicking our asses. We've just got to work through it. Try to stay positive. I just talked to my boss and he told me to give fifty dollars cash to the next person who sells ten tickets. Special bonus, starts right now. Just ten measly tickets." A few guys were shaking their heads, so Brian took out the money from his own wallet and held it up to the group. "No BS, just sell ten tickets. I've got the cash right here. Okay?"

The listless crew responded with some feeble enthusiasm. Slowly the cigarettes were snubbed out and phones were dialed. The overall mood started to improve. Even Billy was getting into the act, adopting a decidedly more Eastern approach -- psyching himself into a sort of Zen-like state of elevated sales consciousness. His voice shifted into a harmonious delivery brimming with wisdom and sincerity. He sold two tickets right off the bat, and was up to four in the first half hour. This put him in the lead, Brickman was second with three. I'd sold nothing, but suffered the wrath of one irate taxpayer who decried a massive government conspiracy to kill the elderly. I added "and Kennedy too!" and hung up.

Despite the initial success of the bonus-inspired sales drive, the dark mood of the customers was still palpable. But with $50 on the line, the frenzied crew really churned through the cards. Billy's phone karma drifted away in the cosmos. He couldn't make it past four tickets, and started wilting against the harsh, combative tone of his customers. Brickman rolled with the punches, now on top with seven tickets. I noticed Billy wincing every time he delivered the pitch, his little mirror reflecting a grimace and his voice starting to crack. For the first time it struck me just how raw this type of work was. Something had to give, and the way it worked out, it was Billy.

It wasn't such a bad call. Just some fed-up young housewife who kept needling him, eager to debate the tax issue. She rejected this type of fundraising and was trying to get him to admit its true nature. At first restrained and polite, Billy's voice began creeping louder. "YES MA'AM, I UNDERSTAND, BUT... YES, BUT..." Soon I couldn't hear my own calls. Brickman placed a hand over his ear and turned his head away. Others shot dirty looks in Billy's direction. No one knows the precise moment of his unraveling. He said to the woman, "I'm sorry ma'am, but would you please excuse me for just a moment?" Then he rose, gazed out the window, announcing to the rest of Telemark, Inc., "I MUST BE CLEANSED." In slow-motion, trance-like, Billy walked out the front door. We assumed he was resigning right in the middle of a call, never to return.

Now outside, he turned back around in front of the main windows, the rest of the crew exchanging puzzled glances and curious grins. Gazing towards the busy intersection, Billy faced the street and gracefully stepped onto the rim of the artificial pond, his arms raised out from his sides. Beneath him, the putrid muck-covered water awaited. Pausing only for a moment to smile at the faces of the drivers stopped at the intersection, he leaned forward and fell, face first, into the thick slime.

The stunned crew watched in utter disbelief as the distraught young hippie remained submerged for several seconds before slowly rising up, like some swamp-thing, covered in goo. The entire office erupted in hysterical laughter and applause at the sudden birth of this unlikely and courageous new workingman's antihero, who was now standing up and casually strolling back towards the office. The spectacle was not lost on the public; some drivers had remained at the now green light, in awe of this dripping thing rising from the dank pond. Wild cheers, whistles, and an extended ovation greeted Billy as he nonchalantly sat back down at his desk, and picked up the phone. Incredibly, the young housewife was still on the line.

This generated even more laughter, the entire staff now virtually incapacitated, while a freshly-cleansed and forever immortalized William Zepeda, Jr. continued his sales pitch. Slowly the group circled around, fixated as long tendrils of ooze slid from his arms and landed on the linoleum floor with tiny plop sounds. Billy demonstrated world-class self control, calmly chatting with the woman, who eventually wore down and agreed to purchase one ticket, only out of respect for their stimulating exchange. He bid her sincere thanks, a gracious farewell, and heartfelt best wishes. Whistles and clapping resumed as he hung up the phone and began removing stringy vegetation from his face and neck.

Brickman won the bonus shortly after. To Billy, it no longer mattered. The experience had transformed him from pre-pond angst and frustration to post-pond hope and confidence. With fresh clarity he could see himself transcending this little ticket scam job, fixing the situation with Dad, focusing on his studies, and taking control of his future. Billy had seized the moment, spontaneously creating his own strange metaphor, The Cleansing, and a fulcrum in his life he would use to accomplish greater things. He left before the end of the shift, mentioning to Bemis that he needed a shower and to do some laundry. As he was leaving, I got up to shake his green hand, as did Brickman, who understood that the fifty-dollar bonus would soon be forgotten, but The Cleansing would endure.

My shift ended. I didn't return to TeleMark. Soon the summer was over and I was back in school. I never saw Billy again, but thought of him often. One afternoon, as I getting ready for class, the phone rang.

"Hello?"

"Hi there Mr. Kessler? Jack Conway here I'm with the Bonita County Police Benevolent Association how are you tonight?"

"Sorry Jack, but I'm getting ready to leave for..."

"Sure Mr. Kessler I understand but we could really use your help to support the police most people have been helping out with our charity show you know this year we've got the beautiful and talented Sally McWhithers as our headliner, and..."

"Sally McWhithers? Really?" I asked.

"You bet!"

"Listen, Jack, could you hold on for just a sec while I turn off the TV?"

"Sure!"

Very gently I laid the handset on the counter and quietly walked out the front door.