I have had a lot of jobs in New York City. Rent is high, food is terribly expensive, and Con-Edison is a cruel mistress. I’ve been a writer, a waitress, a babysitter and a tutor – usually several at once. But perhaps the most interesting job I’ve had in New York was working for a non-profit organization called IndependentVoting.org. A friend discovered the Help Wanted ad buried in the back pages of a little-known periodical. I was instructed to call and leave a message with my name, phone number, and whom I’d voted for in 2008.
A few days later, I got a call from a man named Bob, who let me know I was hired, (that was easy), and I should be at the office at 6:15 p.m. on Monday.
I arrived at the office door that evening after an alarming 20-plus floor ride in the building’s ancient elevator and a wary trek through dank, meandering corridors. I knocked on the locked door – and then I knocked a bit louder. Eventually, it was swung open by a small man in his early 40’s with thinning reddish hair. My new boss.
I had arrived with very few preconceived notions about what this position would entail. I knew it was related to politics, and I knew it paid $12.50 an hour, plus commission.
I was handed a script, which I was instructed to deliver “as though I were Katharine Hepburn,” and a binder full of phone numbers. I had officially become a telemarketer.
There were lists of names and numbers from every state. I spoke with grandfathers in sleepy Montana towns and soccer moms in Connecticut. Some hung up. Most were polite but standoffish – just what you’d expect from people whose dinners had been interrupted with a request for their credit card numbers.
As always, however, New Yorkers were the exception. When I dialed numbers with a 212 area code, it was with trepidation that grew with each ring. People in Minnesota who don’t want to speak with telemarketers simply hang up. New Yorkers get very angry, and want to tell you all about it. In the time it took one bachelor living off Madison Ave. to chew me out for taking up his time, I could have run through the Katharine Hepburn speech and taken his billing information three times over. That world famous Big Apple bitterness has never been more evident to me. I think people are more inclined to say exactly what they’re thinking when they can’t see the person. There are miles of telephone wire separating them from the poor soul they’re berating, so they’re entirely comfortable with just letting it rip.
More interesting than the angry people, though, were the lonely people. The people who were eager to talk, even after I made it clear I was looking for donations. And they couldn’t write it off on their taxes, either.
No, they weren’t interested in politics. No, they didn’t vote. No, they didn’t particularly care whether or not registered Independents could vote in the primaries. They just wanted to chat.
The first lonely New Yorker I encountered was named Maria. Maria answered the phone in a soft singsong voice cracked with age. I launched into my tirade, and she listened patiently all the way through to the end. As I struggled to decide how to go about asking this woman for her credit card number and the expiration date, she interrupted with, “dear, I don’t have any money to give you. I’m sorry to have wasted your time, it’s just nice to have someone calling.”
I thanked Maria sincerely for listening to me, and I hung up. I was supposed to cross the numbers of people who didn’t want to donate off the list, but I left Maria’s number alone. I hope someone else has called her, too.
Apparently, the lists telemarketers use are not updated very often. Many of the people on these lists are dead. Family members answer the phone, and most simply say, “my mother passed away. Please remove her from the list.” You apologize, and cross the name out with a thick black line.
New Yorkers, of course, are different. They are either extraordinarily indignant, because you must have some nerve to call and ask for this dead person, or they want to talk about their lost loved ones.
Jack sounded young, and when I called to speak with his partner, Gary, he didn’t miss a beat. “Gary died a few months back,” he said, in a bafflingly chipper tone. “Where ‘ya calling from?”
I explained that I was calling from “IndependentVoting.org, a non-profit organization in support of the Independent movement.”
Because “Gary would have been so into this,” Jack wanted me to give him the whole spiel. After a 20 minute conversation about the issues, the legislation and the movement itself, Jack said, “Well, I’m a Republican. It’s been wonderful chit-chatting with you,” and hung up.
I began calling the New York lists when I was supposed to be calling somewhere in eastern Oregon. I would daydream about dialing a number on Fifth Avenue, and hearing a movie star’s voice on the other end of the line. I called people with interesting names and addresses on well-known streets. It was a wonderful game of telephone roulette.
I lasted 2 weeks as a telemarketer. I made 5 dollars in commission, and got one hourly paycheck for 24 dollars. I simply wasn’t cut out for the job. I couldn’t handle the anger and rejection, I didn’t like to be called names, and I never did figure out how to rush people off the phone once I’d established they weren’t going to give me any money. I couldn’t do the job in any sort of hurry, and I wasn’t particularly passionate about the organization.
But every night for two weeks, I sat in that dingy, moth-ball scented, windowless room on Broadway and let my imagination run wild. People would ask me to hold on while they put their children to bed. They’d talk about their sister, who was a registered Independent and “had far too many tattoos.” In my head, I saw these people, and their children, and their sisters. They’d give me a fleeting glimpse into their Brooklyn lofts and Upper East Side walk-ups. They gave me a look into their lives. They told me their stories, and I was grateful.