Gail Collins' column from yesterday's New York Times brought back memories of my first-ever temp job as a telemarketer.
Picture it: Portland, Oregon, the fall of 1993. I was preparing to transfer to a school in New York City and took a semester off to live at home and work to save money for the move. I signed up with a temp agency.
When they called with the first assignment, they didn't really make clear that this was going to be a telemarketing job. I'm pretty sure they said I would be "handling the phones" at a comedy club downtown. It wasn't exactly what I had in mind -- anyone who knows me knows I hate telephones -- but I had to accept the first job.
I took an instant dislike to the manager of the club, the type of guy who obviously thinks of himself as a complete hot-shot. After telling me I didn't need to dress for work since the place wasn't open during the day, he showed me to a small, fluorescent-lit office where about four other people were sitting at folding tables with telephones and phonebooks.
"Here you go," he said, pointing to a chair and handing me a script.
"Hi, my name is _________________, and I'm calling from the Last Laugh Comedy Club in downtown Portland. Do you like to laugh? I thought so! The Last Laugh features today's hottest comics, including headliners from top-rated cable comedy shows. Can I interest you in a free pass for two to our club for this weekend?"
Now, this was before the days of fancy computer operations. I had an old-style touch-tone phone and a phonebook. We were under explicit instructions to ask for the person in the listing.
So, do you know who's home in the middle of the day? The unemployed, the elderly, sick people, and people who work the night shift. Very few of these folks are interested in free passes (with a two-drink minimum...) to a comedy club, and even fewer of them appreciate being awakened from their nap for the offer. I was hung up on. A lot. This exchange stayed in my memory:
Me: Hello, may I please speak with Mr. Edward Thomas?
[long, uncomfortable pause]
Fragile-sounding elderly voice on the other end: Who's calling, please?
Me: Hi there, my name is Andy, and I'm calling from the Last Laugh Comedy Club in downtown Portland. Is Mr. Thomas available?
Fragile voice: [after another awkward pause] Mr. Thomas has been dead for ten years, sir.
Me: [thinking silently, then why is he still in the white pages?!?!!?!] Oh. Ermm...well...I'm sorry to have bothered you...
That was one of the more successful conversations. The goal was to get them to give us their address so we could mail the flyer, which presumably they would present upon entry. The reason we were required to speak only with the person listed in the phonebook was because the management wanted to be sure we were sending the flyers to actual people; on my first day, the guy sitting next to me got reamed out by Mr. Hot Shot because a flyer came back marked "undeliverable." It was addressed to a guy named...Jim Shorts.
On my second day, Mr. Hot Shot told me I was "a natural" and that I had a really good "schpiel." This made me feel icky and it began to dawn on me that this was not actually a temp job, but professional limbo, where I supposed to linger indefinitely between hell and New York.
I called the temp agency back, explained that I was not comfortable in that environment, and asked if something else might be available. The receptionist who took my call was cheery and supportive and understanding and said, "No problem, Andy."
Except, she forgot to tell the person who assigned me. Which meant that no one told Mr. Hot Shot. So when I didn't show up the next day, he called the agency. The staffer called me and demanded to know why I hadn't gone to work; my explanation that I called yesterday and asked to be reassigned fell on deaf ears. "You embarrassed me in front of my client!" she shrieked, before hanging up on me.
I took a job at the mall, instead.