Monday, September 25, 2023 Sep 25, 2023
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Confessions of a telephone solicitor
By Maggie Oman |

I’M A DECENT sort of person-nice, even. When I was in the sixth grade, I won a satin bookmark embroidered with the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for knowing my Bible stories the best. My parents dutifully taught me only too well to say “please” and “thank you” (I once thanked a cop for giving me a traffic ticket). I graduated from Hockaday. You see my point. But none of this changes the fact that I, for a mercifully brief time, joined the legions who harass and hype and eventually get hung up on. I, yea I, was a telephone solicitor.

My descent into the dregs of equal-employment opportunities began innocently enough. It was the summer of 1980, and I had moved to Austin to attend summer school at the University of Texas to make up credits I’d lost after transferring to Smith College. Having rolled into town too late to snap up any of the most desirable jobs and needing flexible hours to accommodate my class and study schedule (which simply means that I wanted the option of taking off for Barton Springs), I had somewhat of a problem. The most obvious job option, waitressing, was out of the question; my brief high school stint in that field ended abruptly when I had accidentally spilled a glass of ice water on a pregnant woman. Beginning to feel rather frantic, I was vastly relieved when a friend’s brother sauntered into her apartment one day, extolling the virtues of his new job.

“It’s easy money,” he gloated.

“What do you have to do?” I asked.

“Talk on the telephone,” he said, grinning.

Given the fact that at this point, I was looking in the want ads under “TradesManual Labor” and “Trades-Truck Delivery,” the prospect of talking on the phone for “easy money” sounded all right to me. (Later I discovered that this was a misnomer on all counts. Neither ease nor money were significant parts of this venture.) I had just rented my first apartment, so I was rather ignorant as to what a telephone solicitor even was. My mother had always hung up on any unknown agent who called our house; and whenever I had answered the phone at home during high school, I’d usually enjoyed responding to the survey questions, having a typical adolescent preoccupation with my own opinions. So, being somewhat uninitiated, I asked my friend’s brother for the number.

I called the next day. No cordially saccharine secretary or languorous Muzak here; the man who answered the phone simply yelled, “Yeah?” with the lilt of a sadistic drill sergeant. I politely requested an appointment for an interview. Sounding irritated, he said, “Sure, just come on over.” I inquired as to whether there was any particular time that he would like for me to arrive.

“No, just any time! Hey, what’s your name, anyway?” I told him. “Maggie, Maggie,” he repeated. “Just come on over anytime. Gotta go. Bah.”

Following my friend’s brother’s instructions, I drove south toward the building that held the office of Regal Prairie Studios (Regal Prairie is a fictitious name). From the tone of the man’s voice on the phone, I decided against wearing my “professional pumps” to the interview; I did, however, don a businesslike cotton shift. Having arrived at the address I had been given, I found myself at a dismal-looking prefab office building. Spaces, a sign informed me, were available for rent. I made my way up the outside iron stairs to the second floor “suite.” A plastic stick-on plaque announced REGAL PRAIRIE STUDIOS. I opened the door.

A tidal wave of cacophonous voices assaulted me. Spread out within the one big room that now gaped in front of me were 12 card tables with 12 persons seated at them talking on 12 telephones and saying the same thing (in 12 different stages of progression) in 12 tones of voice. Against one wall opposite them stood a dilapidated wooden desk with two phones on it, an island unto itself. Behind the desk reigned a man who looked like an obese, baby-faced Yasser Arafat- without the headdress.

He looked at me. “You Maggie? Have a seat.” He pointed to a seat beside him. I sat, successfully fighting off the urge to say, “Yes, me Maggie. You Tarzan?” I needed this job. But he wasn’t Tarzan, he was Eddie, and he asked me to read aloud the contents of a mimeographed sheet that he had handed me. I began to read.

“Hello, this is ..” I stopped at the blank.

“Maggie,” he prompted me. Right; me Maggie.

“Hello, this is Maggie at Regal Prairie Studios how are you today? Great! Listen the reason I’m calling is, because if you can answer the following question you maybe a winner of your choice of a portible barbeque grill, a set of imported steak knives or a three-day four-night trip to Las Vegas. …” I stopped.

I had muddled it up. The misplaced commas, misspelled words, dubious syntax and a sudden attack of free-floating existential anxiety had thrown off the intonations I wished to speak so persuasively and pleasantly. I asked if I could start over.

“That’s okay,” he said. “You did okay, you got the job. You want the afternoon shift? Come in at one tomorrow afternoon.” I got the job! (I got the job.) In my newly employed fervor, I asked if I could take the printed sheet home to practice. Eddie looked at me in disbelief. “No, that’s not necessary. You did just fine,” he growled.

“No, really, I want to,” I assured him perkily.

“No!” Eddie shouted. “These sheets don’t leave the office!” (In hindsight, I should have learned something from that statement. I didn’t learn anything, except that those sheets didn’t leave the office.)

The next day, after my morning psychology classes, I reported to work. Having taken my wardrobe cue from the employees I had seen the day before, my “dress for success” outfit consisted of a tired but faithful T-shirt and a long Indian cotton skirt with a cigarette hole in it. Eddie ushered me to an unoccupied card table, handed me the speech sheet again along with a list of consecutive telephone numbers torn out of a Cole’s Directory and gave me a few professional tips (“Keep talking-if you stop too long, they may hang up on you. Don’t answer any questions until you get through the whole spiel”). I had launched a new career.

The setup was this: After telling the hapless person on the line that he or she could be a winner of the tantalizing gifts heretofore described, we posed the question that was the “hook” (nobody, after all, wants to seem more stupid than the even more-hapless person who made the call). This was the $19.95 question: What was the first state to elect a woman governor? Was it Texas, Wyoming or Alabama? Now obviously, we wanted the person to guess correctly. In fact, the powers that be were so desirous of giving the victims a fair chance that we posed a question that they had two-out-of-three odds of getting right. (Wyoming and Texas elected female governors on the same day.) If the person answered “Alabama,” we were instructed to say, “No, that’s not right, but there’s still time on the clock!” Of course, we had no clock. Once the contestant had given the correct answer (“Yes, that’s right! Hey, did you guess that or did you know? That’s great!”), we then could tell them what prizes they had “won’-their choice if they bought the Regal Prairie Portrait Package for the low, low price of only $19.95.

Whether I was slightly bemused at my new summer job or simply relieved that I had gotten any job, my first day went fine. The combination of self-consciousness and my growing awareness of the true absurdity of this occupation must have animated the tenor of my voice, because I made eight sales that day.

As the days progressed, my routine settled into a grimly funny familiarity. I would seat myself at my favorite card table (my favorite because it was in the corner facing a wall; I had discovered that I would laugh if I sat at any of the other ones where I could see people’s faces). Part of the table’s plastic vinyl covering was missing; it looked as though someone had clawed it off. I would sit there, doodling in the gap and contemplating the meaning of the inspirational poem that had been photocopied and taped to the wall directly in front of me:

If you smile

When you dial

You ’II get the sale

If you frown

or your [sic] down

You will surely


Above this poem was a happy face that always, no matter how many times they replaced it, was de-(happy)faced by disgruntled or bored employees who would draw mustaches and scars on it. It also boasted some rather choice obscenities.

This gift to the annals of literature was the classiest element of our surroundings. Fake wood-grain wall panels furnished the only obvious decorative motif; the carpet was an ill-fitting and unhemmed remnant that continually carried the broken vestiges of cigarette ashes, can pull-tabs and tiny paper scraps. Someone-no one knew who or how long ago-had attempted to “cheer up” the place by adorning the walls with photographs. In one, a beautiful black baby had a decidedly orange cast to her skin; in another-a group portrait-a blue-faced Caucasian family was pictured frozen in quite unnatural-looking poses. This same nameless person (or perhaps it was another) had jammed plastic ivy behind the framed photos to provide a more festive appearance. Whether these pictures were the shining examples of Regal Prairie Studio’s prowess or the understandable rejects, I never found out.

The people I worked with-my comrades in arms-were a disparate crew, to say the least. In the mornings, I went to class to hear lectures on the manifestations of abnormal psychology; in the afternoons and evenings, I worked with walking-or perhaps I should say, talking-examples of them. Staff turnover was spasmodically high; one girl who wore a rather protuberant crucifix came and went in the span of two hours. Some who came were drifters; some were dropouts; some, perhaps, were victims to a combination of desperation and laziness. With time, however, the staff had sifted down to a few regulars. There was Andrew, a short, unsocial type given to reading historical Penguin classics during our 15-minute break; Hal, a ruddy but handsome 29-year-old blond with a defeated air but a Magnum, P.I.-esque amiability; Jim, a lean, long-haired “freak” from Midland with a penchant for wearing rock T-shirts but not for bathing; and me. And Eddie. Sitting at his desk like Jabba the Hutt, Eddie would man his two phones with an air of self-importance and authority that would give Tom Snyder a run for his money. Eddie had perfected a strain of telephone shorthand. Phrases he was the most partial to included “Get that sucker?”, “Did he have a foreign accent?” and the inevitable, conclusive “Bah!”

For a while, the job was something I more or less resigned myself to, but I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t flashes of fun. I had honed my vocal chords to be as responsive to the situation as any politician’s: If an elderly man or grandmotherly type answered, I used my sweet, “I could be your own daughter” voice; if a man who sounded between the ages of 18 and 50 answered, I used my “come hither (but not too hither)”/se-ductress voice; for both male and female students, I used my “hey, I’m cool, too,” palsy voice. The success I was having in terms of sales astounded me.

But I remember the day my innocence died. It was a Saturday morning-summoning enough effort to roust myself from bed at 8 was hard enough, but trying to sell “portrait packages” to people at 9 (who I knew hadn’t rousted themselves up) was truly a daunting task. Assured that, naturally, people would be up at 9, I used to procrastinate-I dialed time and temperature; I dialed my own apartment number; I dialed an out-of-order number twice, three times-anything to avoid the ire of people awakened too early on a weekend morning.

Perhaps it was a joke someone made at work. Perhaps it was hearing the gaggle of chirping voices making herculean attempts to sound as chipper as Bob Barker while saying, “That’s right!” Perhaps it was the overdue realization of the utter ludicrous-ness of my situation. But whatever it was, on that Saturday morning, I was reduced to giggles.

Chortles, actually, guffaws. I couldn’t stop laughing. What was worse was that I was trying to conduct business: I would get as far as, “Hi, this is Maggie from Regal Prairie Studios. . .HAR HAR HAR!” I broke up every time. Needless to say, it wasn’t very good for business. I was so out of control that the unfortunate co-workers sitting around me were beginning to laugh, too. All this came abruptly to an end when Eddie (who had the physique of a beer keg) heaved his massive frame away from his desk and stood in front of me. “Sump-thin FUNNY?” he yelled. I sobered up quickly. “No-o-o,” I started to get out, but the sight of his huge paunch, quivering with indignation, set me off again. He tried threatening me: “If you don’t stop, you’re fired!” I laughed harder. He then tried a cajoling approach: “If you stop laughing long enough to make four sales, I’ll give you a set of the steak knives.” Now, that one did give me pause; for being an apartment fledgling, my kitchen utensils consisted of my grandmother’s hand-me-downs and the Dollarama 3-for-$l specials I’d picked up at Woolworth’s. It did the trick, and four sales later, I approached Eddie to claim my prize.

He told me to wait until after work when most of the others had left; he didn’t want to “have to give one to everybody.” In a side room, under a picnic-sized card table covered with an oilcloth, Eddie pulled out a packing box, snatched something off the top and threw it to me. My reward: a set of six imported steak knives.

They were imported all right. Right there, printed on the toothbrush-sized cardboard box they came in, was the proof: MADE IN JAPAN. I opened the box and slid the knives out. The “fine imported cutlery” I had been describing was obviously machine-made- and by an ailing machine at that. One steel blade, two wooden slabs, one or two rivets to hold it together. I was horrified.

“What.. .what about the portable barbecue grill with three adjustable cooking positions?” I asked.

Eddie lifted another item from the box and passed it to me. This “prize” consisted of a plastic tub 12 inches in diameter with attached perpendicular metal spikes that had three notches cut into them. “Adjustable?” I asked. Eddie took the 11-inch grill and placed it into the first notch, then the second, then the third. “Adjustable,” he said.

“Eddie,” I practically screamed, “how can you do this to people?” “Maggie,” he replied calmly, “we’re not selling the prizes. We’re selling the photographs.”

I never did find out what the three-day, four-night accommodations in Las Vegas looked like.

The first step of assuaging my burgeoning feelings of guilt took the form-as it always does-of rationalizations. They were getting a product, and for those people with burnt-orange or baby-blue color schemes, it was a hell of a deal.

But now, I was tired-tired of the surroundings, tired of the people, tired of the “work” involved. Having people hang up on me was never pleasant, but it was to be expected. (Eddie would encourage us by saying heartily, “So what if you get hung up on nine times out of 10? That 10th call could be a sale! Make a hundred calls in an afternoon and that’s 10 sales!”) It wasn’t that. I was now used to the times I would give my speech, growing more and more excited as the lack of interruptions on the other end promised the likelihood of a sale, only to hear a soft voice finally say, “You want to talk to my mommy?” Or having masculine Middle-Eastern accented voices say, “Furgeet peec-tures. You wanta have a date weeth me?” I was used to that. I was used to people getting angry at me, used to people telling me they were blind, friendless or deformed-anything to escape the pitch. But I was getting sloppy, something I realized when I placed a call that went like this:

“Hi, this is Maggie from Regal Prairie Studios; how are you today?”

“Pretty damn lousy.”

“Great! Listen, the reason…”


I hadn’t even been listening to the woman. I hadn’t heard her say that.

It was downhill from there. I did stay long enough to develop frightening symptoms that I was sure signaled an advanced case of multiple sclerosis (actually, propping my left elbow on the table, receiver in hand, for seven hours a day had simply cut off my circulation). I stayed long enough to watch a co-worker I had befriended quit because a man she’d called had asked her if she were retarded or crippled. He told her that only retarded or crippled people would do the job-that anyone else “should have more pride.” But the writing was on the prefab wall. It was time to hang up my spurs-or my headset, as the case happened to be.

I kept those steak knives; now and then I come across them when I’m rummaging in my junk drawer looking for a rubber band or a candle. I keep them for the same reason that I saved a sweatshirt with an elk’s head on it. It’s a memento of the summer I worked at a dusty KOA Campground in Jackson, Wyoming. But that’s another story.

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