It was New Year's Eve, and you were getting ready to go out. The phone rang. It was me.
"Hi, is this ________?" I asked.
"Yes," you said.
"Hey, this is Neal from the Halsted Theatre Centre, how are you tonight?"
"I'm fine. It's New Year's Eve, you know."
"Yes, sir, but if I can take just a moment of your time to tell you about a great deal we've got going here at the Halsted--"
"It's New Year's Eve, Neal. Can you call me back next week?"
I could, and I did.
I was impossibly broke late last December, and I answered an ad to sell theater subscriptions by phone. My interview took about two minutes.
"You seem like a sharp dude," the guy who interviewed me said.
"Thanks," I said.
"Can you start tonight?"
"I guess so."
"Can you work New Year's Eve?"
"Do you mind smokers?"
The Halsted shut its doors in June; the extent to which its ongoing phone-sales campaign contributed to its demise remains unclear. The plight of the telemarketer is a difficult one. Under the supervision of people we didn't like, we had to call people we didn't know to sell them things they didn't want. The utter meaninglessness of the work made any amount of success seem like an incredible personal victory.
My fellow phone salespeople and I sat around tables arranged in a rectangle. Our phones had been pieced together from different-colored receivers, bodies, and cords; our straight-backed green chairs had long ceased to be comfortable. The room was always filled with smoke; even when the shift hadn't yet started, some of us would be on our second or third cigarette. The radio played loud, fast, rowdy tunes above us.
Sometimes, if we were having a slow sales night, Ben, our boss, would give us a motivational talk. Ben was balding and pudgy and wore thin-rimmed glasses.
"You've got to sell, sell, sell," he would say. "You've got to make some money. Because if you make money, I make money. If I make money, my boss makes money, and that makes him happy. It makes me happy. Happy, happy, happy. We're having a shitty, shitty night tonight. You've got to attack those phones."
Our shift went from 5:30 to 9:30, five nights a week. We made $5 an hour the first week, $4.50 an hour plus commission the second week. Making commission was almost impossible; you had to sell at least nine pairs of subscriptions a week. Single subscriptions didn't count, except that they kept Ben out of my hair.
"Only two singles tonight," he said. "That's better than nothing. Let's get some pairs next time. Pairs mean money."
They gave us long lists of people to call, and they gave us a script--not all people who sell theater subscriptions by phone know a lot about theater. The script approximated colloquial human speech.
"Hi, is this ________?" the script went. "Hi, this is ________ from the Halsted Theatre Centre. First let me ask you, are you familiar with the Halsted? Well I want to tell you a little bit about a great deal we've got going here, OK?"
After a few calls, I learned to improvise. I made up things to say about Derek Jacobi, who was slotted to star in a play at the Halsted this fall. Some sellers used the grabber that Jacobi had starred in Dead Again. I used "world-renowned Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi--you've probably seen him on PBS."
Some of my coworkers were also uninterested in the script. A nervous guy named Arrington who worked there my first week ignored it completely.
"Hi, this is Arrington from Halsted Theatre Centre," he said to one customer. "How're you doing tonight?"
They answered. He kept talking.
"I'm just fine ma'am, just fine indeed. Are you enjoying the weather? No? Oh, you just got back from vacation, that's nice. And may I ask where you went? Really! Well, you know what, that's an amazing coincidence because my dad went there just a few years ago and he said--"
The customer hung up on Arrington.
"What am I doing wrong?" he asked me. "I'm trying really hard."
"Maybe you should talk more about the plays," I said.
"Is that your secret?" he asked.
Arrington didn't make even one sale. He worked three nights and disappeared.
"I gave him a little talk," Ben said. "He wasn't working out."
Ben told us there are three principles of telemarketing. The first two were Assume the Sale and Satisfy the Customer. I don't remember the third.
The Halsted could claim a few master salespeople. A guy named Mike was so good that they hired him to do group sales during the day. Mike had built a list of clients, and he called them consistently for referrals to other clients. Mike developed so much rapport that he made commission nearly every week.
I tried to emulate Mike's smooth patter, his consistent style. I would go to sleep thinking about who I would sell to the next day. I developed friendships with my clients. I was getting addicted.
"Dale, Dale, you're breaking my heart," I said to one. "I thought we had you set up for a year of great theater."
"I really want to," Dale said. "But things are so tight this year."
"For you and me both, pal," I said. "Good luck to you."
"No," Dale said, "good luck to you." I was so smooth.
Ben started giving me lists of potential clients from the suburbs.
"Kenilworth, Wilmette, Evanston, these people are pure gold," he said. "If you don't sell at least ten pairs this week, I'll be very disappointed." By the end of that week, my second, Ben had every reason to be happy. Customers liked me.
"I wasn't interested in tickets at all," one Winnetka woman told me, "but you are such a good salesman. What do you really want to do?" I had impressed her with my intimate knowledge of Joel Grey's career.
When I came to work the next Monday, Ben praised me to all the new salesmen. He assigned me to train Sergei, a new employee with a thick, unfamiliar accent and an unkempt pompadour.
I explained to Sergei the intricacies of my profession. "You've just got to keep calling, you've got to be smooth," I said. "You've got to be convincing."
Sergei's first call didn't go well. The patter was not snappy.
"Hi, is this ________?" he asked. "This is Sergei from the Halsted Theatre Centre. Let me ask you just one question. Are you familiar with going to the theater?" The client hung up.
Two hours into the shift, Sergei was getting frustrated. He told me about his other job, selling protein supplements for a bodybuilding firm. "You could get some great muscles if you used it," he said.
Sergei also showed a propensity for public relations, offering me some free protein powder if I wrote an article about his company. Ben came by and scolded us.
"Now boys, it's nice that you're making friends, but we're not here to make friends, we're here to make money. So call call call."
"I don't like this," Sergei said.
I took a bathroom break. When I came back, Sergei had quit. He gave me his phone number.
"Do you like this job?" he asked.
"Sure," I said.
"I think it is bullshit," he said.
Later that week, I also left the Halsted. I had made $200, and I had found other work. Even if I hadn't, I still would have quit; almost no one lasted more than three weeks. The Halsted counted on that: high turnover meant they had to pay fewer commissions.
I padded my time on my final night, calling friends and going over numbers I knew were disconnected. Like most employees on their last day, I was pretending to work.
For most of the shift, I listened to an exuberant young woman named Heather, a performance artist who told me she was working on a piece about "Barbie and Ken, and all that shit." Like most of my coworkers, Heather had no idea what she was doing. Nevertheless, she had developed her own approach.
"We have many, many great plays here at the Halsted Theatre Centre," she said to a client, "and it's all for a terrific price. I swear I wouldn't lie to you. And hey, guess what else? You also get free parking!"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.