It was the poorest I had ever been, or ever would be thereafter. I was still young, which was good. The imperviousness of youth protected me to some extent, from the cold, from hunger, from aggravation, from austerity. I found a job in the paper for a telemarketer position at the 5455 building on Wilshire Boulevard. I called the number listed and they hired me right over the phone, which should have been a red flag, but what can I say, I was desperate for any job. I had nothing. I was living above the stage of Al’s bar at the American Hotel. It was a small, single room, not much bigger than a jail cell. The bathrooms were down the hall, no closet space, no kitchen, no food for that matter. I slept on some folded up comforters on the floor, I had a desk, a telephone, a little ten inch TV-VCR combo that had a tape stuck in it, an electric typewriter, and a small refrigerator, which, aside from the block of ice building around the walls of the little freezer, was totally empty most of the time.
I had to be at work at 8 am. I got up at 5:30, took a hot shower, got dressed and headed downstairs into the icy morning air with my allotted six dollars, for bus fare, there and back, and lunch. I’d catch the Dash bus down at the corner in front of Blooms General Store. It was a little bus that only cost a quarter, and took you to the hub of the city’s transit centers, connecting to just about any bus, train or express line heading out of downtown. I’d ride it to Wilshire and Grand, where Wilshire Boulevard begins. Then I’d wait on the corner for a Metro bus to take me west. It was winter and the air was frigid. I had an old tweed coat with a faux-fur collar that I bought in some second-hand shop, but the wind would blow right through it and down my neck. My fingers would be numb and I’d shove them down in my pockets to warm them.
If the bus was too full, the drivers wouldn’t even stop and you’d have to wait for the next one, which was often the case. Hence, my reason for leaving my place at least two hours before my shift began. You never knew what kind of eventualities would arise. Some of the drivers didn’t care though. No matter how filled to capacity the bus might be, the driver would stop, open the doors and yell out, “Come on people, keeping a schedule here, climb on, there’s plenty of room!” But that was mad. They were mad, with their fingerless gloves, gripping at the giant steering wheel, their eyes red and crazy, waving passengers aboard and cramming them in like sardines.
And as desperate, rushed, and out of options as we all were, we’d climb on, cramming and mashing against each other so tightly, your feet were almost lifted off the floor. You were nearly suspended in the mass of bodies, all coffee breath; body odor, farts, bloodshot eyes, scowling faces, faces of disappointment, of hopelessness. Some mornings I was lucky enough to get a seat, and I’d sit with my face buried in a book, trying to wish away all the ugliness of my surroundings. The Wilshire line was one of the angriest, most hostel lines in the city. People would fight for seats, or standing room or a rail to hold on to. Knives would come out of pockets, or broken bottles. Bums would kick the back door and scream at the top of their lungs, “LET ME THE FUCK OFF THIS MOTHER FUCKER OR I”LL FUCKING KILL YOU ALL!!!”
Sometimes, instead of reading, I’d lay my weary head against the window and look out at the city passing by. We’d cross over the Harbor freeway out of downtown, into MacArthur Park. The homeless in the park would be bundled under blankets and stuffed into sleeping bags beside the lake, steam from their snoring mouths rising into the ghostly sunlight. Some of them were junkies. The lucky ones would be splayed out on the grass, soaking in the rising sun, with a nice fat shot of dope warming their bones, smiling and nodding off in morphine soaked dreams.
Wilshire always seemed haunted to me. Not just one old building or storefront, but the whole thoroughfare. It has an ominous aura, the shadows are deeper, the trees are old, their trunks scarred with graffiti and smeared with grease. The buildings are granite and gray, art deco, built by masonic orders at the turn of the century. There were old department stores, synagogues, museums, cathedrals, and flophouses. We passed through Korea Town then, with its noodle houses, hostess bars, and massage parlors, then past The Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the hotel kitchen.
I’d get off on Wilshire and La Brea and rush into the elevator and ride it up to the top floor, and make it into the office, usually, just in the nick of time for my shift to begin. The building was a solid black fortress. I’d go right to the vending machine and buy a Snickers bar for breakfast, then over to the coffee maker and pour a cup. The coffee was always thick as mud and amphetamine strong. My co-workers were all black. I was the only white boy in the phone room. The room had no windows and was very small. There were about fifteen of us crammed in there in small cubicles. The boss was a black man. His name was Mr. Spencer. He was tall, about 6’5 and must have weighed about four hundred pounds. When he came running into the phone room the whole floor shook. He wore a suit and tie and had a loud, booming voice.
“Who here is motivated to make some money today?” he’d exclaim, and would scotch tape a single dollar bill to the wall. Not a fiver, not a ten… a single.
“Whoever gets the first lead today, gets that dollar!” he’d proclaim, storming out of the room and slamming the door behind him. We would roll our eyes at the supposed reward. The job didn’t pay very much, to begin with, a measly one hundred and twenty-six dollars a week, plus commission if we could manage a lead that went through to a sale. The job was a grim and difficult one. We were cold-calling homeowners to see if they were interested in refinancing their homes and taking the money, and reinvesting it into remodeling their kitchens, or bathrooms, or adding on an extra room, or installing a swimming pool. They would give us copies of numbers out of the white pages to call. This was before cell phones or even auto dialing. You had to read the tiny, blurry numbers and dial away.
There was a script that we were told to adhere to, word for word, without variation. You had to say it so many times a day that you developed blisters in certain parts of your mouth from repeating it so often. It went like this…
“Hi, this is Chris, I’m calling from Sunrise Realty and Finance. We’re offering a special rate on refinancing and we see here that you filled out an entry form to win cash prizes and rewards (which was total bullshit) We’re calling to follow up on your inquiry. How are you doing today?” But more often than not, you never got that far. It usually went a little more like this…
“Hi, this is Chris from Sunrise Realty and…” then the voice on the other end would interrupt…
“Who? Who the fuck is this? FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKIN FUCK!” slamming down the phone.
Most of my co-workers had a hard time with the script. Many of them were strung out on crack or heroin. Some were very old, or not very articulate, not too good at reading off the page with ease and grace. Their words sounded scripted and clumsy, they would fumble the words and stammer, and struggle with them. One guy was from the Congo and his accent was so thick, it was nearly unintelligible. The people we were calling were in cities like El Segundo, Compton, Lynwood, and Carson. Working class neighborhoods, people barely getting by, if that. Most were struggling, even unemployed in most cases. Living in homes their parents bought and were paid off years ago when housing was more affordable.
I, however, was able to figure something out the rest of my co-workers were too tired, too strung out, or too apathetic to notice. It was a numbers game. The more people you were able to reach out to, in the shortest amount of time, was what the game was all about. Yes, 99% of the time, you got screamed at and hung up on. But every once in a while you got some interest. The quickest way to do get to those interested was to get right to the point. Not fumbling through some long winded and obviously scripted pitch; people were so burned out on those, especially when poorly delivered. No, the best thing to do was hit them with why you were calling in the first three seconds of them picking up. I would simply say, “Home remodeling?”
If they had no interest, they would simply hang up or tell you to go fuck yourself. Fine, but sometimes they would respond by saying, “Home remodeling? Well, what do you guys do?” That’s when you knew you had a chance. There was something worth going on about…there was hope.
By doing this, I was able to get more leads per day. Making me the leading telemarketer in the office. When the others caught on about how I was doing this, they tried it themselves. But for some reason, they couldn’t make it work, no matter the pitch, or lack thereof, they couldn’t catch a break. The bosses, who couldn’t have been happier with however the hell I was getting them their leads, told the others, “Y’all stick to the script. Chris does what he does and that works for him. It don’t work for Y’all. Read the words in front of you and that’s it!” This created a bit of envy from my co-workers and often ugly, resentful glances were thrown my way. I wasn’t trying to outdo anyone. I was just trying to survive like everyone else. Using was left of my wits to make that happen.
We had our lunch break at half past noon. We had thirty minutes to rush downstairs and grab something, then get back on the phones. Many of my co-workers wouldn’t even bother with food. Most of them went down to the alley behind the building to smoke a joint, or take a pull on the pipe, or to fix in the bathrooms to take the edge off. I would rush up the street to the Burger King, order a 99-cent Whopper, no cheese, who could afford cheese, after all, no fries, and a cup for water. I’d slam it down my throat and run back to the office with the damn thing stuck halfway down my neck. I’d grab a second cup of black coffee and start dialing. Most of my co-workers would meander back, ten or fifteen minutes late, high as a kite, wreaking of booze or weed, taking shit from the boss for being late, nodding, grinning, and bumbling through their lives.
One afternoon, the boss came into the phone room and asked me into his office. He told me that I had more leads that led to sales than almost anyone if the history of the company. Which wasn’t saying a whole lot. It was a fly by night that had just been set up a couple of years prior to my arrival on the scene. He gave me my own little office with a desk facing out a huge window, looking out onto the Hollywood Hills. The pay was the same, however, and there were no other perks aside from the privacy and the lovely view.
I’d stare out the window, high above the city, the whole of it filling my eyes, looking down on the streets, and the hills above them, the opulent homes along Mulholland, the clubs and restaurants along Sunset, the traffic, the jets soaring through the skies, the ghetto birds patrolling the freeways for car chases. The teeming masses, struggling, losing, aching, worrying, rushing, grasping for some small victories, a dollar taped to a wall, a fix, a bottle, some sex, a place to sit on the bus, some cheese on your Whopper…anything.
At 6 o’clock the boss cut us loose. We’d drag our tired bones onto the elevator down to the lobby. A Mexican kid named Julio, who worked at a café on the corner, would be getting off at the same time as me, and we’d walk to the bus stop together. He was a nice kid, plump face, always smiling, always greeting me with a nice pipe full of weed to smoke on the way to the bus. The bus heading back downtown on Wilshire dropped you off back on Grand, and the Dash bus stopped running back into my neighborhood from there at that time of night, so I had to take a bus north on La Brea, up to Sunset, and transfer to the 1,2,3 or number 4 bus, down to Hill and 1st street. We’d stand huddled together under the bus stop overhang, shivering in the freezing cold wind, stoned, hungry and exhausted. We’d ride up to Sunset and La Brea, Id get off, Julio would continue up to Hollywood Boulevard. I’d thank him for the smoke and get off, and wait in the cold for my transfer. I’d get on the first bus that came along. Usually, the buses heading into downtown were much less crowded than the ones leaving it. I guess leaving downtown was much more desirable than going there. Sometimes it would only be me and two or three others on board. The bus driver was a white woman with a southern accent. She was morbidly obese and kept ranting, “Jesus is my lord, the Lord Jesus is with me! Jesus is my lord, the Lord Jesus is with me!” Over and over and over, the whole ride downtown. She wouldn’t stop for five seconds. It was maddening.
I got off on Hill and 1st and walked east through Little Tokyo. The smells coming out of the ramen houses and sushi bars was intoxicating. I watched people from the cold street, through the windows, eating steaming bowls of teriyaki chicken and rice, and spicy tuna rolls, and drinking hot Sake. My stomach growled and my head would spin with hunger. I’d cross Alameda and down across an empty parking lot to the hotel. I’d unlock my door, light the pilot of the little radiator in the corner and warm up. I’d crack a can of tuna, mix it was some mayo, spread it on some wheat bread and scarf it down. I’d take a hot shower down the hall, come back to my room, lie on the floor, cover up, and fall fast asleep. Tomorrow was another day, another bus ride, another cold call, another strong cup of coffee…another chance at a miracle.
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