Sweaty days in La Jolla boiler room

Dialin' and Cryin'

How the hell did I end up in Hell? Specifically, how did I end up here, in this “phone room” — what did I do, whom did I screw to land in this, this pissoir of American capitalism?
  • How the hell did I end up in Hell? Specifically, how did I end up here, in this “phone room” — what did I do, whom did I screw to land in this, this pissoir of American capitalism?

When Paul rolled in on a Greyhound from Las Vegas in October, he was so broke that he couldn’t even afford bus fare to get to work, and he was crashing with five other four-flushers in a two-bedroom Clairemont apartment.

When Paul rolled in on a Greyhound from Las Vegas in October, he was so broke that he couldn’t even afford bus fare to get to work, and he was crashing with five other four-flushers in a two-bedroom Clairemont apartment.

My name is Jim West — at least that’s what you’ll hear when you pick up the phone in the middle of dinner as I launch into my pitch for the hundredth time today. I am a telemarketer. I hate my life, and I hate you. Apparently, you hate me too, but I don’t give a shit; in fact, I rather relish your self-righteous anger, your evangelical fulminations: “Take me off your list!” you rage. “We don’t do business over the phone — don’t call again!” I fire off a comeback: “Yeah, right, pal…fuck you too…OK, call you tonight at 3:00 a.m.” Or maybe I just throw out a Mephistophelean laugh, or simply hang up. It doesn’t matter. As long as I’m here in Hell, I’m going to enjoy it, and a big part of enjoying it is dragging you down with me.

How the hell did I end up in Hell? Specifically, how did I end up here, in this “phone room” — what did I do, whom did I screw to land in this, this pissoir of American capitalism at its smegma-scented worst — this repository of the illiterate, the pitiful, the hopeless? I won’t bother you with the banal biographical pap, the early stages, the formative years, all that crap. Suffice it to say that, with a Stanford-Binet II–certified IQ of 157 and several advanced degrees — as well as a familial proclivity for M.D.s, Ph.D.s, and the like — I could not have, would not have, believed that at the age of 41 I would be hawking credit cards and cheesy computer software to jerkwater Appalachians. But here I am, shoulder-to-shoulder with the weirdest fucking cast of tele-losers this side of Alexander Graham Bell’s aborted microcephalic twin.

Let’s pick up this sad and sordid story in 1987, when an erstwhile “best friend” urges me to return to law school, exulting in the promise of shared glory and lucre as plaintiffs’ personal injury attorneys. “I want to make a lot of money, and I want to make it with you” (no added emphasis intended). Enthusiastically and inexorably, I perform, a Cal Western law degree soon in hand, along with a Law Review hard-on, done in two years, no less. But a funny thing happens along the way to Cochran-hood, and I’m left as stranded as a mute in moot court without a Black’s Law Dictionary to piss in.

Nearing law school graduation, and excited by the prospect of a dynamic partnership, I phoned my buddy, a short, insecure (but bright) guy by the name of Greg Patton. He didn’t return my calls, and soon, months had passed. However, I was not alarmed, as he’d always been somewhat incommunicado, as it were. I had fulfilled my part of the bargain, and why would anyone doubt that Greg would fulfill his?

One day, I was finally able to reach him and suggested that it was time to start setting up our law office, to screen paralegals, to choose the walls for our diplomas, to configure the catchy wording for our ads, register at all the way stations on the road to riches. He expressed surprise (real, feigned — who knows?) at my “early” graduation, despite the fact that I’d kept him well within the proverbial loop. He then suddenly and inexplicably announced that he “didn’t need me” and that whatever fame and fortune was to be obtained chasing ambulances would be his alone. He sent me off with a ceremonial “good luck” (the genteel equivalent of an ice pick through the ear) and assured me that I’d “find something.”

He offered no balm by way of apology nor mitigation by way of logic. He lost no sleep, I’m sure, harbored no regrets, felt no guilt, no responsibility. If I had proffered the notion that (to reinterpret Delmore Schwartz) “in promises begin responsibilities,” he would have scoffed. I was just plain out of luck — no — shit out of luck, about to start down a ten-year toll road that would lead, eventually, to a wasted life and a cubicle.

My first boiler room exposure had begun in March 1984 when, lured by the chance of cashing in on a son–of–Bunker Hunt silver rush, I was hired to sell precious metals “on margin” for an outfit called La Jolla Securities Group. Working in a building on Prospect, the “account executives,” many of whom had recently manned the doomed J. David Dominelli ship, worked on a commission-only basis, making hundreds of calls around the country each day extolling silver, which had just hit the $10 mark.

We sold “leveraged” precious metal contracts, luring aggressive investors with promises that, when the next boom came — and it surely would — they’d make staggering profits. By “controlling” $10,000 of silver (or less commonly, copper, gold, or platinum) with only $2000, they would realize huge profits when the metal inevitably rose to $50 an ounce, as it had briefly in 1980 when the Hunts tried to corner the market. Most of the investors and prospects (“marks,” I should say) were obnoxious, rural wheeler-dealers, horse traders — rednecks with money and a penchant for obnoxious objections, paranoia, and secrecy. Still, a few succumbed to greed, wiring thousands of dollars thousands of miles to a company they’d never heard of for a product they’d never get to see or touch.

We told our new “clients” that a slight, steady price increase, just a few cents a month, would enable them to break even by covering the “cost of carry” — or interest — that we charged them to hold their position. “No problem,” we crowed, and assured them that if silver made even a modest $5- or $10-per-ounce gain, they would rake in enormous profits. Over a period of four months, I snared a dozen or so saps and made $1300. That worked out to about a buck an hour.

Each day, I’d rise at 5:30, leave my ugly rented condo on Adobe Falls Road in Mission Valley, and put on a Jerky Boys–style madras sport coat with clashing tie. I fought the La Jolla “Village” traffic to start work at 6:30, left at 11:30 to lift weights at the gym, and returned in the afternoon for another five-hour session of telephonic badgering. I was buoyed somewhat by an initial sale or two, but I was soon burned out, bored beyond belief, and continually pissed off at all the peckerhead prospects who wouldn’t take the bait. I hated them, especially the “strokers” — the guys who’d claim a sincere interest, tell you to call back, but refuse to give you a decision or even be there for your return call.

There were four, six, sometimes eight “brokers” per room, mostly dissipated-looking, longtime salesmen, each assigned to a thin, cheap, particleboard desk and given a stack of shitty leads purchased or otherwise obtained by “the boss.” The boss, a vaguely Mafioso-looking guy, had a white Lamborghini Countach in the parking lot and made, we assumed, a lot of money. But few, if any, of the telemarketers made anything close to minimum wage, and even after just a day or two on the phones — if they hadn’t already quit to start other dead-end jobs — they’d taken on a look I’d once seen on the faces of the catatonic in an introductory undergraduate psychology textbook.

Nonstop phone work is not only frustrating but also stupefying and numbing, even under the best conditions, conditions that did not exist at La Jolla Securities Group. Invariably, to break the monotony, life stories were swapped and the only emoluments of the position — unlimited, free long-distance phone calls to buddies around the country — were exercised. But perhaps the highlight of my stay there was a front-row view of two salesmen, drunk after lunch, beating the crap out of each other in the office, lurching and lunging amid the plastic faux-Rolodex files and boxes of “hot” leads. The price of silver never did skyrocket. By the time I quit in July, silver was down to $8 an ounce, and several years later, glancing at a daily paper, I noticed it selling for about five bucks.

I filed La Jolla Securities Group in that drawer of my memory labeled “Stop-gap jobs: absurd/low-paying.” I was determined never to open that drawer again, never to take another phone job. By the time I’d received my master’s from the University of Southern California School of Journalism and had plunged into the self-contained biosphere that is law school, I’d forgotten where that drawer was. But when the embryonic law partnership had been suctioned out and disposed of by its senior partner, and after I’d sent out over 2000 résumés and cover letters to law firms without receiving a single job offer, the drawer creaked, ever so slightly.

Yes, I’d passed the feared California Bar on the first go-round, had graduated near the top of my class at an American Bar Association–accredited law school, had done all the right things — given it much more than the old law school try. Living in an apartment downtown, I’d planted myself at my desk every Friday and Saturday night, outlining Torts and Contracts while the sound of live music and the taste of cold beer called me from the bars down the street. This was to be delayed gratification in its finest hour, the penultimate self-sacrifice to give every Norman Vincent Peale and Tony Robbins a staggering stiffie. But the big payoff never happened, and within months of being sworn in, buried under a pile of student loans and credit card debts, I found myself working at the post office, delivering mail downtown and other places.

The United States Postal Service was not altogether unpleasant and afforded, albeit at about ten bucks an hour, a certain mindless reverie, a pleasantly droning routine of exercise and suntanning. At night, there was ample opportunity to peruse my rejection collection. These were the cut-and-paste letters, prepared by secretaries and other simple forms of life, notifying me, once again, that my efforts had been pointless. Occasionally, I noted that some of these rejecting law firms had listed, in their chronological roster of attorneys, recent hirees from Cal Western and that, almost without exception, these new associates were good-looking broads from the lower reaches of my class.

I quit my short-term post office assignment to work at a law office where a senile but pleasant old man presided in a facility comprising a makeshift law library and an intricate bank of networked computers, all housed in an uninsulated garage attached to an expensive home on the outskirts of Rancho Santa Fe. During my interview, conducted late one night, my new boss wore denim overalls, a Budweiser tank top, and gold chains and looked like a new arrival at a cut-rate Miami fat farm. The old man, who’d once been a competent, even respected, attorney downtown, had deteriorated, and, ridden by diabetes and gross obesity, held court with wild plans for future expansion and grand schemes to make millions. Still, I had no choice, and at least I would be working as an attorney, right?

The little office was a madhouse, staffed by the old man’s simpleton nephew (who’d flunked out of Western State Law School), a Filipina maid (possibly the proprietor’s girlfriend, I never knew), and a recent law school graduate who surfed daily and smoked weed before coming to work. Each day, the old man’s toy poodles scurried beneath our desks, emptying their rather regular bowels. I soon found my dress shoes smeared with dogshit. The smell was exacerbated by the 85-degree-plus heat in the garage. But I was already miserable, sweating through my starched dress shirts and suit jackets. One payday, the old man’s concubine-attendant told me that they were having a “cash-flow problem,” couldn’t pony up the hourly sawbuck rate, and would have to let me go.

After another two rounds of letters and résumés, follow-up calls, and rejections by those at least polite enough to respond, I finally succeeded in landing a job with a legitimate law firm. Unfortunately, it was in Costa Mesa, and because my wife still worked downtown, I was forced to make a long daily commute, even after we’d moved up to North County. Simply getting to the office was an ordeal, necessitating a nightmarish 4:00 or 4:30 a.m. start so that I could work out at the gym, get ready for work, and take either the nerve-frying freeway or the perpetually late Amtrak.

The work itself was relatively easy and the typical nine-to-six office hours reasonable for the field. But I was seldom home before 9:00 p.m. and often rolled in, zombielike, well past ten. It was a grueling $40,000 a year — not a gold mine, not even a silver mine, and paltry compared with the $300,000 my dad, a physician, had made in his prime. Nevertheless, it was the most money I’d ever made, and I started thinking about saving to buy an old hot rod and other toys I craved.

After a year of this, I was laid off — last-in, first-out — nothing personal, merely another casualty of the slumping Orange County real estate–based economy. Once again, I heard that mental file drawer creaking, this time a bit more insistently, but still faintly. With $230 per week in unemployment bucks and freedom from the daily grind, I wasn’t devastated, though; it was nice spending time with my newborn daughter and taking long runs on the beach in Del Mar. And, armed with a solid year of experience and excellent recommendations from my old firm, I figured I was pretty marketable.

So it was with a sense of renewed optimism that I shot out résumés, perused want ads, visited my alma mater’s career-placement center, did all the right things in a righteous fashion. But the barriers did not come down, and all I’d gained was a bigger rejection collection and warm greetings from paper salesmen each time I bought a ream of résumé paper. After about six months, the Employment Development Department checks stopped and a familiar sense of panic set in. I took all suggestions, tried all strategies and devices, even looked at ancillary professions and far-flung locales, but could kindle no interest. To pay the cable TV bill and pay for beer and baby food, I sought project work from sole practitioners, but it was sporadic and low-paying; these guys were hardly rolling in the dough. I wrote a few articles for newspapers and magazines, but I didn’t have to explain to anyone that freelancing wasn’t a sinecure.

By early 1995, the file drawer opened with little resistance, and it was back to my old friend, the phone. It was tougher this time, though; I was now an attorney, well into my 30s, and the prospect of answering to ged supervisors, the illiterate and humorless drills who infest phone rooms, made me wince. But I still had my resonant DJ’s voice and a legitimate claim of hard-core telemarketing experience, and more importantly, I couldn’t find anything else.

It is easy to demonize the telemarketer, the feckless man or woman who jolts us from sleep, truncates a peaceful bowel movement, forces us into coitus interruptus. It’s always open season, no bag limit; scream at him, fling curses proscribed by every major religion, froth, or just hang up — no one will complain — at least no one who hasn’t had the pleasure of eating generic Top Ramen for 35 days straight.

Newspaper columnists, when not busy slithering around in bed with politicos and maquiladora moguls, rant against telemarketers, calling them “telespielers” and warning the elderly of their devilish ways. Upright assemblymen rail at them and draft convoluted bills to protect the “public.” Telecommunications companies, hawking “screening” devices and services, portray them as plaid-jacketed, cigar-smoking Mafiosi (always middle-aged white men), apparently late of a used-car lot. Call them what you will, despise and ridicule them if you must, but know this: telemarketers are the soft underbelly of the glorious cyber-economy, folks occupying the lowest and slipperiest rungs of the laissez-faire ladder, and hating every minute of it.

For most people, a telemarketing job (or series of jobs, but never a “career”) starts with an ad. Peruse any newspaper, daily or weekly, large or small, in practically any city, and you’ll find the ads, usually unaccompanied by company name. There are many varieties of phone rooms, with a variety of monikers. Some are listed under the warm-and-fuzzy label “customer service,” while others proclaim the grandeur of “surveys” or even “survey research.” Still others make no bones of their aim and are happy to exalt the “phone pro” or the “phone closer” — the brass-knuckled, arm-twisting salesman who’ll say anything to make a sale. No matter the industry, product, or service — irrespective of company “mission statements” and such bullshit — in the end, it boils down to the same thing: endless hours on the phone, ugly cubicles, obnoxious customers, imbecilic managers, and asshole owners.

“Smiling and dialing,” “Full-time pay for part-time work,” “Be at the beach by noon,” the clichés are predictable and laughable, as are the promises of livable, even exciting, pay. Hoping to lure the naïve, the desperate, and the hungry, many telemarketing companies cite top sellers supposedly making $1000 or more per week. Even if it’s true — and it seldom is — they won’t tell you that it rarely happens or that 95 percent of the telemarketers make a small fraction of that. In reality, for most denizens of the phone room (or boiler room, if you insist), compensation ranges from piss-poor to pitiful, seldom topping seven dollars an hour and usually hovering around minimum wage. Couple that with limited work hours (20 to 30 hours, as dictated by monotony and benefit-averse management), and you’ve got a recipe for new-millennium poverty.

My first phone gig in 1995 was in the “soft” end of the tele-continuum at a place called Axis Research in Sorrento Valley, where I called college professors, taking orders for textbooks. It wasn’t completely unpleasant, and, what the hell, I got to thumb through sample ichthyology tomes and other weird, largely technical stuff. My coworkers were congenial, and a few even had college degrees. But it was just another part-time, low-paying job, made tolerable by some decent political and philosophical discussions amid the cubicles. The unspoken aim of the workers was, as always, to kill as much time as possible, minimizing phone time without drawing undue attention from management.

Axis’s annual summer break sent me looking for a short-term engagement, and a temp agency hooked me up with local telecommunications heavy International Satellite, or “IS,” as it’s often referred to. IS appeared a typical corporate creature, with layers of hierarchy and bureaucracy and a gaggle of affirmative-action hires in middle management. Annoying policies and procedures were everywhere, extending deep into the bowels of the company, or “customer service,” where I held forth.

My job consisted of handling complaints of satellite TV customers and was quite uneventful save for the frequent occasions when I questioned IS policy on a variety of trivial matters. It seemed that there were certain “signals” on our computer keyboards that only supervisors (i.e., those with certifiable mental retardation and/or fast-food experience) were “authorized” to send out. When I asked a lobotomite supervisor what horrendous event might occur if, say, I were to press an F-6 or C-2 without her imprimatur, she shot back a quizzical look that told me no one had asked such a question before. “That’s just company policy,” she said, to which I chuckled sardonically and said, “That’s bullshit.”

What I didn’t say but would have said if I’d articulated the concept at the time was, Those who tolerate fascism must themselves, at heart, be fascists. Of course, in the context of corporate authoritarianism, IS probably registers pretty low on the Orwell-meter; San Diego is full of (lousy with, in old-timey parlance) places like saic and General Atomics, bunkers of military-industrial computer-kissers who revel in secrecy and paranoia. Once again, I thought: “How the hell did I end up here?”

Back at Axis after the IS stint had ended, I was now faced with a pudgy little man (an aspiring actor, I’d heard) who fancied himself my “boss” and persuaded management to can me because, inter alia, I’d spent too much time in the shitter. When he informed me of his action, I stared him down. His jowly mug just hung there, like an overripe apple, waiting to be coldcocked. I didn’t, but I should have. At minimum, the punk would have gone to the hospital.

Not long after that, I landed a job with a small San Diego law firm that handled (ironically) plaintiffs’ employment matters such as wrongful termination. My wife cried with joy: a job with a legit law firm at 50k a year. The work was easy, but there wasn’t much of it, and I wasn’t surprised when, three months later, the senior partner told me that the anticipated new cases just hadn’t materialized. He was sorry, he said; he’d miscalculated. My work had been stellar, he sighed, but he was forced to invoke the last-in–first-out doctrine.

By now, I’d defaulted on my student loans, $100,000-plus, with all the interest that had piled up. Our remaining credit cards, long since maxed out for mundane living expenses, had been canceled. Creditors, and later, their collection agencies, descended like bluebottle flies on fresh dung, calling five, sometimes ten times a day.

Early in the game, I made the foolish mistake of engaging one particularly earnest-sounding representative who’d called from some cow town in South Dakota or Iowa. Feigning sympathy for a moment, she suggested, with frightening sobriety, that I seek employment (for the sole purpose of repaying the loan, I would assume) as a late-night janitor cleaning banks. I said, “Babe, you’re a comedian. I’m an attorney, not a toilet cleaner — you must be out of your fuckin’ mind!”

I usually ignored their inane messages on my answering machine: “It is very important that you call [insert area code and number] today.” The command was typically issued by a young woman — speaking in a ghetto slur and invariably mispronouncing my name. Occasionally, I toyed with them, laughing at their rote lines and silly attempts at penny-ante intimidation. After a while, I gave up responding at all, because I knew that they resided — not out of choice — in the lowest abysses of the phone-room world. What I knew, and I suppose they suspected, was that these ciphers would never, not in a million fucking years, get a penny of commission from my “case,” no matter how many times they called me.

My next phone room was at a place in Carlsbad called dim Research, where a local U.S. subsidiary of a German company had set up shop to perform marketing surveys for manufacturers of computer components. At eight bucks an hour with no selling required, it was better than most tele-gigs; however, it had attracted employees who took it all a bit too seriously. Unfortunately, one was the phone-room manager, a frail and nervous gal who resembled an anorexic Emmylou Harris without the pipes.

A recent divorcée and full-on man-hater who lived with a large dog, she decided early on that I was the devil incarnate and that her sacred duty was to purge me from the organization. Her first assault came after she’d overheard me discussing my egregious underemployment with a coworker. She suggested that “I’d be happier somewhere else,” but instead of seconding her heartfelt counsel, I smiled and calmly replied that I enjoyed it there and intended to stay until my golden years. This enraged her, and soon, she targeted me for harassment at every turn, hoping I would wilt.

No violation, no slight, was too microscopic to escape her scrutiny. When I came in a few minutes late or fudged the sign-in sheet, she went nuts. When I cleared my throat loudly after a cold, she huffed that it made her nauseous. I could see her anger and frustration building, and each time she harped on some perceived infraction, some ostensible deficiency, I goaded her, aiming to turn her apoplectic by calmly asserting my rights.

I finally brought her to the cusp one day when the management, which had previously barred us from the company lot, did an about-face and ordered us not to park on the adjacent (public) street. I told her that as long as I was in compliance with city parking regulations, I could park where I damn well pleased. Her voice cracked and she shook visibly, like a late-stage Muhammed Ali who’d lost his L-dopa. After I got fired, I did derive a modicum of satisfaction from sending the company a demand letter threatening to sue them for wrongful termination. Among other things, I gleefully wrote that “Emmylou” would be personally liable and that I intended to depose her, grill her — make her sweat, really make her sweat.

My latest shit-canning didn’t matter much; I’d already lined up another phone job, albeit a lousy one, at a cavernous joint on Miramar Road. Yessir, the American Commerce Network was a gen-u-ine boiler room, the kind of place that keeps the U-T’s Don Bauder in martinis as Hades did for Dante. This was that telephonic den of iniquity, the sort of enterprise where — at least according to News Nine’s “Consumer Dick” — phone-sadists would be hard at work, devising demonically clever methods to Hoover the greenbacks right out of the pockets of crippled, elderly, churchgoing pensioners. If only it had been true. Actually, large-scale theft did go on: that of the telemarketers by the company.

The last time I saw Denny O’Malley, he drove a late-model, metallic-blue BMW, something in the 700 series. Driving in from his golf course–trimmed Coronado home, he’d pull into the American Commerce Network parking lot in the afternoon, get out of his car, and stride with mock-imperial majesty like a Georgia plantation owner surveying tall cotton in August. And what a plantation it was, row upon row of cubicles, hundreds in all, with plans for hundreds more, each station, each field hand, representing another chunk of gold for the master’s Rolex Presidential.

O’Malley had chosen a company name with a grandiose but ambiguous ring, one that implies solidity and respectability. The American Commerce Network, set up as a limited liability corporation to shield its owners from inevitable lawsuits, started as all boiler rooms do, from the still-warm corpses of other boiler rooms. Denny O’Malley had spawned and let die many other telemarketing outfits in San Diego by August 1996. The American Commerce Network premise was simple: Place high-pressure sales calls to small-business owners, persuading them, through distortions and outright lies, to switch their long-distance telephone service from their present carrier — typically AT&T — to a midsize carrier such as Pioneer.

Miramar Road, like the Kearny Mesa sprawl, is one of San Diego’s boiler room districts, areas of town where cheap, abundant commercial realty sits idle much of the year, waiting for suitors like O’Malley and the American Commerce Network. The road, a heavily traveled east-west corridor, is home to heavy-equipment leasing yards, auto-repair shops, and the occasional fuck-book store and burger joint for the nearby Miramar jarheads.

If you want to know what a telemarketer’s guide to San Diego might highlight, get in your car on a smoggy summer afternoon and cruise down Miramar. As you suck in diesel fumes and feel the ruts and gouges in the pavement cut by the incessant pounding of tractor-trailers, you’ll know the San Diego that the phone jockey knows. This isn’t the genteel tourist San Diego of the La Jolla Village or the funky San Diego of O.B.; it sure as hell isn’t Seagrove Park in Del Mar or the polo fields of Rancho Santa Fe. Like Kearny Mesa, like Clairemont, this is another part of town altogether, a place where the information superhighway doesn’t run and where a leap off the Coronado bridge doesn’t seem a half-bad idea, after all.

O’Malley had found a nice, large space in a complex of blocky, three-story buildings just down the street from the now-bulldozed Malibu Grand Prix. If East German or North Korean architects and contractors worked in the United States, this is the kind of property they’d develop — nothing but rectangles, narrow, dark courtyards, a debilitating gray drabness and, after a few years of hard wear, the beginnings of dingy squalor, a place where pigeons scuffle for fast-food scraps amid their own excrement.

With the usual inflated promises of extravagant commissions, American Commerce Network recruited telemarketers from want ads in the Union-Tribune. The goal was to lure hyper-aggressive phone jockeys, people desperate enough and blind enough to sell like crazy just long enough to enable O’Malley to fatten his wallet and then shut the whole operation down late one night. To serve as his point man, someone to conduct five-minute interviews and perfunctory training sessions, O’Malley hired a lieutenant, a prototypical cracker wheeler-dealer named Rod, fresh from God-knows-where Alabama or Georgia.

Rod had a veneer of respectability and the title of vice president; he was in charge of training, assisted by a fresh-faced Oriental kid who’d been selling since the age of five. After my “class” of about 20 telemarketers had assembled, Rod cheerfully drilled us on the lexicon of long-distance telephony. He then presented us with a convoluted commission structure that promised minimum wage plus a variety of “front-end” and “back-end” commissions, totaling $15 per sale, or long-distance line switched. Audible excitement bubbled among the inductees, many of whom were fat black women wearing their best polyester business attire. As it turned out, as it often turns out in the world of the boiler room, many were single mothers who’d just taken an hourlong bus ride to get there. A few shot nervous glances to one another, as if to say they’d heard it all before.

The next day we were dispatched to the sales floor, a space perhaps 200 by 100 feet, which, Denny O’Malley crowed, would soon be jammed wall-to-wall with his army of phone reps. Looking around, I saw that I was one of the few white people there. On this end of the room, most of the reps were black, with a sprinkling of others. Most were in their late teens or early 20s, with a few forlorn older types thrown in. At the other end of the room, the workers and their supervisors were all Vietnamese, Chinese, or Korean. I never heard them speak English, and I assumed that they made all their sales calls in their native tongue. I was told that this was the “Asian group.”

I was assigned a cubicle, a little chrome-plated bell, and a team supervisor, a guy named Rick who looked and acted like a tired used-car salesman and whose task it was to keep us “on the phones” and selling. Most of the others on my team looked like gang extras in movies about the Crips and the Bloods, but in reality, they were harmless and at times even pleasant. The rep across from me, I learned, was named Tyrone and lived in a shabby Mira Mesa apartment with his identical twin, Tyrell. After spending some time as a sheriff’s deputy in a small town in Mississippi, he’d gone west and, once here in America’s Finest City, had the misfortune of answering the same classified ad that I had. Like many of the others, he didn’t own a car and took a 45-minute bus tour to travel the five miles to American Commerce Network. Now and then, I gave him a ride, for which he was effusively grateful.

I wondered, once again, how I had ended up here and what it would take to escape. Ostensibly, theoretically, I had options and, in a worst-case scenario, could always take my wife and little girl and move in with my folks in their big house up in Riverside. But we weren’t ready to pull that trigger quite yet. I knew that few of my coworkers had such options; they were boxed in, pariahs in this booming economy — the resignation on their faces told me so.

Guys like Denny O’Malley need pariahs to make their telephonic sweatshops run and need them to pay homage, to pledge their fealty, even if unwillingly. And pariahs need a master to hate and fear, to make life just a little more miserable than it was the day before. At American Commerce Network, O’Malley played his role beautifully, leading me to believe that he’d once been a midlevel Mafioso or perhaps a prison warden somewhere in the Deep South. A stocky man with an ample gut, he wore expensive, crisply starched shirts. With white hair, a flushed face, and a bulbous nose, he looked like a malevolent Tip O’Neill.

He was at his best when he sauntered by the rows of cubicles, bellowing through a bullhorn. “Get on those goddamn phones.… If I see any of you loafing on company time, I’ll throw your ass out on Miramar Road!” But just as the meanest warden dispenses small favors at his whim — gives cotton-chopping inmates Cokes just before heat stroke sets in — Denny knew the value of incentives and waved five-dollar bills around, offering “spiffs” for those who achieved various sales goals. B.F. Skinner was right about the rats, you know.

Denny O’Malley wanted things run his way, and that meant punching in each morning at 7:00 a.m. on an industrial-style time clock, wearing a tie, and even asking permission to take a piss. Fortunately, Rick was a kind straw boss and, after invariably granting such requests, would quip, “I hope everything comes out all right,” to which I would reply, “I’ll bring back the paperwork for you.” As usual in a phone room, the hours passed slowly, and I found myself resorting to my customary measures to kill time. This meant doodling, writing poetry, and compiling lists of job-search steps to be taken during the next week. Now and then I bore down, attempting to slam home additional sales, but it had become apparent to me, if not to the others, that the promised back-end bonuses, or deferred commissions, would never materialize and that this was a minimum-fucking-wage job.

In order to attract hungry, aggressive tele-sellers, O’Malley, like all good boiler room impresarios, made seemingly sincere promises of lavish compensation, mostly in the form of back-end commissions, ostensibly to be paid when the long-distance customer’s service had officially been switched to the new carrier. During our training, Rod told us that it would be two or three weeks until we received these commissions, and that seemed reasonable to all. By the time October rolled around a month later, no one had received anything except the hourly minimum wage. “Processing delays,” said O’Malley. Before long, the official commission lag-time had grown to 30 days, and then six weeks. There were a few grumbles, but the reps continued to press on, ringing their bells — one for each line switched — and exchanging TV talk-show clichés and ghetto banter.

O’Malley had brought over with him a cadre of loyalists, veterans of his previous boiler rooms, and they swore, to a man, that all was kosher. A few even became angry when I warned them that they’d never see a penny of the back-end commissions. As time passed, though, confidence in the room started to erode and soon — a couple of months into the scam — American Commerce Network management made their next move, one calculated to string along their gullible charges for a few more months. In a neat little memo, they announced that only those who remained with the company at the time back-end commissions were “released” would actually receive their commissions.

Few realized the egregious illegality or even took notice of the disclaimer, which was precisely what O’Malley had planned. Instead, all ears and eyes were trained dutifully on Bwana when he made the big announcement: Each telemarketer who made a certain number of sales by the end of the year would go, courtesy of O’Malley (and with O’Malley), on a weeklong Hawaiian vacation — “all expense paid,” as the TV game shows say. What’s more, he proclaimed, we were all invited to a big, formal American Commerce Network Christmas party at the Hotel Del, where the lucky winners would be announced. O’Malley also said that he’d “made arrangements” for tuxedo rentals at a great price. Cheers went up and the little bells chimed; never mind the fact that the sales goals were impossible and that any winner would, presumably, be forced to sit in a Waikiki chaise lounge next to the corpulent O’Malley.

Just before I left American Commerce Network, one of my coworkers showed me a copy of a contract that had been entered into between American Commerce and one of its long-distance carrier clients. For each line switched, American Commerce was to receive $100, about 80 percent of which was to go to O’Malley. This meant that the average sales rep, making 25 sales per week, generated about $40,000 during the four months American Commerce Network operated from the Miramar Road location. With a minimum of 150 reps working at any given time, I figured that O’Malley pulled in, after paying out minimum wage and giving Rod his cut, about $5 million. Even after deducting rent and phone expenses, it was a nice take.

As I’d planned, I gave American Commerce Network notice, making a formal demand for my wages, including commission; per the California Labor Code, they had 72 hours to pay me in full, and as I’d expected, they refused me anything but my weekly $200. I then filed a claim with the California Labor Board and a few months later — after dozens of phone calls and letters to brain-dead bureaucrats and their flunkies — was granted a hearing. A hard-faced middle-aged woman, acting in O’Malley’s stead, reluctantly agreed to pay a tiny portion of the commissions I’d earned. The hearing officer — some schmuck named Johnson whose only exposure to the law had been a Judge Wapner rerun — sided with O’Malley, providing the perfect Kafkaesque close to a run-of-the-mill shafting of the much-vaunted American wage-earner.

In the months before my hearing, I’d shelled out a few hundred bucks and taken classes to obtain a life insurance license and registration as a stockbroker. I figured that if I had to work the phones, had to exist as some sort of salesman, at least I could do it for higher stakes and under a veneer — however thin — of respectability. In the meantime, I was working 20 hours a week at Dialnet, one of the more reputable and well-established phone rooms in town. Sure, it was filled with down-and-outers, but this was just a pit stop for me, a short-term gig with an outfit that made its weekly payroll and offered flexible hours.

Once I left, I’d never have to take that kind of job again, and that old file drawer would be nailed shut, perhaps even hermetically sealed. I was sure of that much. The management and the other reps treated me with deference, and it seemed appropriate. After all, I was the only guy in the room who’d wangled a bachelor’s degree, much less a master’s and a law sheepskin. This job was below me, and everyone knew it. Still, my presence was fully explicable and quite acceptable, just as the Harvard-bound high school senior is allowed, at least in some plebeian circles, to work at a fast-food joint before consummating his union with academia. I stayed just long enough to note that the branch manager, Frank, was a decent guy and that the carpets stank of body odor.

Before long, I was equipped with a California “life agent” license and Series 7 and 63 National Association of Securities Dealers registration. This entitled me not only to serve as the butt of insurance-salesman jokes but also to join All-American Financial Planning as a financial planner — which is to say, a salesman peddling insurance, mutual funds, and perfunctory, largely boilerplate, financial plans. During the first year, I received a small draw and, together with commission, made about $36,000, putting in 60-hour weeks. Many of those hours were spent on the phone, calling “warm” prospects who’d responded to All-American ads on the tube or in magazines. The goal was to entice the prospect with a free consultation, sell him a financial plan for as much as we could charge (typically $400 to $1000), and then make our “professional recommendations.” I also drafted a few wills and trusts on the side, despite the company’s illegal attempts to prevent me from doing so.

Invariably, my recommendations included huge variable life insurance policies, expensive disability income insurance, and proprietary mutual funds with big front-end loads. I’d often yell to my All-American buddies, “Get loaded with ids mutual funds!”

We paid for our leads, which meant that every call was a battle and each angry “not interested” was like throwing $7.50 — money that could’ve bought a bottle of Belgian ale or a Montecristo Havana — down the shitter. So I worked the leads, and worked them hard, trying some numbers 100 times and cursing the strokers who’d make appointments to come to my office and then never show up or even call to apologize.

I had no illusions about being a “professional” or any such bullshit. Not for a moment did I buy into — accept at any level — the intellectually dishonest claptrap dispensed by the company. “Always do what’s best for the client”? No one believed crap like that, save for a few pitiful sycophants and lame do-gooders. They were all washed out after a few weeks or months anyway. I’d never intended to be a salesman, but for as long as I had to endure my diaspora away from the law, I was going to be the best, and for a while, I was. That’s what I told myself each night as I drank beer and worked the leads.

The managers didn’t mind our struggle, of course; they were all too happy to “service” the clients of the first-year salesmen who fell below quota and were forced to leave the company. Few survived, but I did, earning the reputation of a superaggressive, hell-bent purveyor of insurance to the trailer-parked masses. I was very good, the top producer among the first-year advisors in San Diego and, more than once, was anointed a superstar by the unctuous management. My wife and I were able to pay our bills most of the time, and I enjoyed taking my buddies out for sushi, beer, and weed. After a particularly good commission check, I bought a pair of $1000 hornback alligator cowboy boots.

But after my first year had come to a close, I was faced with the end of company-paid expenses and the draw; I was now an independent contractor and, like all the other veterans, was required to pay All-American’s exorbitant monthly fees for office space, company-mandated (and supplied) computer equipment, and everything else. Sure, I was a professional — a professional, commission-only salesman playing the phone game, once again.

It wasn’t long before paychecks became erratic or nonexistent; my status as a “hard-charger” didn’t pay the bills. The lows of the commission-only salesman had become lower; the nearly acquired clients, the almost-sold policies, the counted-on commissions that never came in all tormented me. But I had hope, because I’d acquired experience, the sine qua non — I’d been assured over the years — for advancement, the ticket to the all-American pot of gold. So I wasn’t surprised when several of the biggest brokerage houses — the traditional “wire houses,” made even bigger by recent years of mergers and acquisitions — reacted with a hard-on when I approached them.

As I progressed through a tedious process of interviews, visits with veteran brokers, obnoxious “personality” tests, written applications, “background checks,” and still more interviews, things looked good — very good. Merrill Lynch, Paine Webber, Prudential, and Solomon Smith Barney were all salivating, or so it seemed, and each spoke of first-year salaries of $40,000 to $50,000, sizable bonuses, and a generous commission structure that would practically guarantee (given my status as a top producer) a six-figure rookie year. There was talk of a signing bonus, a big office with a view and, not far down the road, a title like associate vice president. Company-paid overhead was a given, they said; only a minor-league outfit like All-American Financial Planning would make you pay for your own fuckin’ toilet paper.

Because All-American had been notorious — upon getting wind of imminent defections from the firm — for locking brokers out of their own offices and seizing their clients, I had to plan my move carefully. True to stockbroker tradition, I plotted a clandestine mid-August exit. I would take all of my profitable clients and hot leads with me, and no one, save for a few trusted confederates, would know a damn thing until it was over.

By July, I’d intentionally scaled back my business at All-American. Because the sales cycle, or elapsed time between initial attempts to contact a prospect and the receipt of commissions, is usually two months or longer, and sometimes over six months, I needed to save my good leads and my existing, viable contacts. I sure as hell wasn’t about to bring in new clients just so the managers could lick their chops over commissions I’d generated but would never see.

By late July, everything was in place. It was far too late to turn back, because I was now deep in the hole at All-American. According to my latest commission statement, a wildly convoluted, incomprehensible ten-page booklet of smoke and mirrors, I now “owed” the company about three grand. This meant — or so said the company’s equally recondite and incomprehensible 300-page compensation manual — that even if I’d had the ability to generate substantial and immediate commissions, every cent would have been taken by the company to pay the deficit, as well as my continuing monthly overhead. And it was well-known at All-American that brokers who fell behind on their monthly nut would find that their clients had suddenly “chosen” new financial advisors.

Then, something funny happened on my way to the Merrill Bull: detumescence, rapid, complete, and irreversible. One by one, within the span of two weeks, each firm, using a variety of corporate-speak clichés, dropped me — no, jettisoned me — in the way a big-titted gold digger shrugs off her old boyfriend when Donald Trump hits the dance floor.

The reason proffered by some was that their credit check had revealed (sin of all sins) my “bad credit.” I challenged them, refuting their patently absurd claims that my credit card “charge-offs” and defaulted student loans were somehow relevant. Obviously, it had proven no hindrance at All-American, and only a Nazi or communist could say with conviction that it was any employer’s goddamn business to begin with. I asked my would-be bosses to spell out the criteria for bad credit; i.e., how much debt, of what type, for how long — what was the threshold for disqualification and how would this be weighed against a candidate’s potential to generate business? Not one could give me an answer, preferring instead to defensively cite company policy. Others gave no reason, claiming simply that “other candidates were more qualified.” Interestingly, each firm had recently hired girls in their 20s, several of whom had been with All-American. Not one had an advanced degree or success equal to mine. Courtesy of Wall Street and (with a special thanks to, as they say on the TV award shows) the folks at Equifax, Experian, and Transunion, I was now officially SHIT OUT OF LUCK.

The emptying-out of my office came off without a hitch; the diplomas, awards, client files, Lava Lamp, dead potted plant — all were evacuated without incident. I typed a terse resignation note, left the keys at the front desk, and changed my voice mail greeting so that callers now heard the Reverend Horton Heat’s “That’s Showbiz.” Within a few hours, the files belonged to my buddies who’d stayed behind at All-American, and the rest of the stuff was piled in my garage next to boxes of spent beer bottles.

Arguably, I’d left on my terms, thumbed my nose, and lived to talk about it; but, consistent with my luck, I had managed to step on the lone claymore in an otherwise empty no-man’s-land. The reality was much more prosaic: no paycheck in a month, beer and baby formula to buy.

To make things worse, I’d made the mistake of accepting an invitation to a surprise 40th birthday party for that king of renegers, Greg Patton. I’d kept in touch, hoping he would use my services as a stockbroker and, from time to time, he’d buy me drinks and let me hold his $14,000 Rolex Presidential while he told me how much money he was making. I figured, What the hell — at least I’ll get some good food and booze out of the evening.

His wife, Dawna, a blue-collar gal and overt social climber, hired a stretch limo to pick me up. A few other guys, Greg’s law and business cronies, got in later. After we arrived at a trendy Mexican joint, Dawna, beaming in the way of a rich man’s wife, presented him with a new $80,000 black Jaguar convertible. It was wrapped with a bow and looked like an ad in some fuckin’ cigar magazine. While he mugged for the camera with his little fan club grinning, I thought how nice it would be to have a Molotov cocktail. At the very least, I wanted to be a million miles away, sitting in a dive bar, drinking beer as a morose country song wailed from the jukebox. It was too late to go home; all I could do now was give him the finger inside my pants pocket and try to rack up an enormous bill at dinner.

A little later, we were chauffeured downtown to Morton’s, where I had a superb New York strip steak and a bottle of big, expensive cabernet. After I got home, full of beef and bitterness, my first thought was the file drawer, struggling to stay shut but yielding as I pried it open. My second was Frank Sitra and Dialnet.

Frank Sitra grew up in Philadelphia and, like a lot of Italian kids, studied for the priesthood but eventually dropped out. He spent a few semesters at Temple University and then joined the Navy, working as a radioman for 14 years. After his hitch he ended up in San Diego, where he was hired as a branch manager at Dialnet. A thin, blue-eyed chain smoker with longish graying hair, Frank has a manner about him — easygoing but energetic — that seems copacetic for managing a phone room, dealing with all the personalities in the cubicles.

Frank is a kind man, a bit world-weary but still human, and probably the best “boss” I’ve ever had. True, I don’t believe in the concept of bosses, managers, supervisors, and the like; to me, the entire hierarchical bit has always reeked of authoritarianism and its partner, obsequiousness. But Frank always treated me with respect and didn’t hesitate to hire me back the second time around. He didn’t ask me what happened, although I suspect he sensed that somehow, in some way, things hadn’t quite worked out during my 18-month hiatus. In any case, I was back, and Dialnet fit just like worn, smelly old shoes — the ones that take the place of the glossy new Ferragamo alligator pair that you wear for a week but lose to the repo man.

My second stint at Dialnet was neither a victory tour nor a pleasant reunion with the old gang; it was simply the only place I knew of where I could be hired today, start work immediately, and receive a weekly paycheck that wouldn’t bounce. Still, as that old mental file drawer swung open, gaping and naked to the world, I realized that my return was nothing less than a tacit admission of defeat, my opponent having been, as always, the fucked-up American economy and its bass-ackwards system of toil and reward.

Yes, only in America could I be forced to work for seven bucks an hour in a boiler room while slam-dunking imbeciles and talentless pop-music shriekers — all of them obnoxious and arrogant, to boot — made millions. My gratitude for the “free-enterprise system” swelled as I thought of college-dropout, idiot-savant computer-kissers tooling around in their new Ferraris while I couldn’t pay the fucking rent. That economic inequality had long existed (for better or worse) did not trouble me; that I now officially occupied one of the lower rungs of capitalism’s ladder, far beneath those unfit even to handle my feces, enraged me. But with all my good genes and nice degrees, all I could do was sit in a cubicle and watch the auto-dialer spit out numbers.

One needs to house cubicles and phones somewhere, and Dialnet had long ago chosen for its San Diego office a place appropriately depressing and decrepit, a butt-ugly, tan shit-heap of two-story stucco, perhaps ’70s vintage. It sits on Engineer Road, near Convoy, adjacent to a number of used-car lots, auto-repair shops, and a towing yard. The principal landscape features are the cigarette butts, often still smoldering, found in copious quantities around the building. The butts are a nice touch, because telemarketers, apparently not satisfied with the already dilapidated state of their lives, are fiendish smokers, inhaling their birthright to lung cancer at every opportunity.

On my first day back, the carpet still reeked, and the old beige computer terminals had aged a bit more. The shitter down the hall still smelled like a Tijuana outhouse, and the phones themselves were cracked and Scotch taped, just like before. I picked a cubicle and, as I’d done back in ’96, chose a handset (many reps favored the hands-free headsets), and “logged on,” side-by-side with about 50 other folks who’d been stranded on the information superhighway and left for dead.

The first products we sold were memberships in various cheesy catalog programs put out by Stamarck, a company that I’d never heard of. We were given a script, but only the neophytes stuck to it; those who’d been around adapted it, keeping only the required core when we’d tape record the customer’s assent. The method here was to blast through as many sales pitches as possible, making “assumed” closes on people who would robotically, impulsively agree to the offer without thinking about what a shitty deal it was. Before long, I could recite the pitch while asleep.

To break the monotony, I’d ape prospects’ accents, especially their Southern drawls; at other times, I would launch into the pitch pretending to be an immigrant from Bombay or Calcutta, using a name like V.J. Krishnamurti, and trying not to laugh as reps in nearby cubicles cackled at my exaggerated rendition of the Indian subcontinent’s musicality. Now and then, not giving a shit whether I’d get a sale, I’d counter objections with cornball sales classics like “You’ve tried the rest, now try the best” or “Try it, you’ll like it.”

Strident, angry prospects were the most fun. To those who yelled, complaining that I’d interrupted dinner or fly-tying or a bowel movement, I’d reply, “Then why did you pick up the phone, you fuckin’ moron?” Or, I’d adopt a calm, soothing monotone and say, “You seem to be quite angry. How long have you felt this way?” Not infrequently, the white trash on the other end would respond to my pitch with a hearty “I don’t want nuthin’,” to which I’d retort, “Well, if you ‘don’t want nuthin’,’ that means you do want something.” I can’t recall a single one who got it. I ended most calls with a slurred, Elvis Presley–styled “thankyveramuch.”

My standard time-wasters came in handy too, as I cranked out intricate maze-drawings and geometric pieces, all done on the backs of sales-log sheets. During especially fertile spurts of creativity and boredom, I turned out sardonic caricatures of other reps and the managers, passing the sketches around to my newfound buddies, who hailed me, alternately, as a genius or a madman. When my graphic talents felt tapped out, I turned my attention to poetry (usually bitter commentaries on my plight). If I felt particularly ambitious, I’d pump out correspondence for planned lawsuits or grand, detailed outlines for an impending job-hunting campaign that I half-knew would never materialize. Sometimes, I brought newspapers or magazines, folded strategically for short, concealed moments of browsing.

I soon found that another good way to break the tedium, though it came with a nominal risk, was to call my friends from my phone. The company had equipped each phone with a computer dialer, set up to make human-generated outbound calls impossible. But, in a noble display of the American entrepreneurial spirit, several veteran phoners showed me that this low-rent restriction could easily be defeated. The first step was to disconnect the phone from its monitoring line, to avoid the almost-traumatic specter of summary dismissal upon detection, and the second was just to make sure that none of the bored, roving supervisors — at least not the sticklers — had wandered into listening range. Then if I simply refrained from hanging up at the conclusion of a sales call and waited 30 seconds or so, I could obtain a dial tone, allowing me to call anywhere. I suppose I never took full advantage of it, as I never thought to call my brothers across the country, and I don’t know anyone who lives, let’s say, in Papua New Guinea or Kazakhstan. Nevertheless, I enjoyed making the occasional furtive call to my buddies at All-American.

My best time-waster, though, and the device most reflective of — and redolent of — the crushing boredom that permeates phone rooms, was a tightly wadded-up paper ball, which I would shoot, much in the same way one shoots marbles, against the cubicle wall in front of me. Each day after finding a cubicle and arranging my things — old leather backpack, large bottle of coffee or tea that I’d brewed, jug of water — I constructed the ball, squeezing it as round and tight as possible. I wanted it to be alive, jumping like last year’s rabbit-ball in the big leagues.

Over and over, celebrating the wonderful and unpredictable kinetic energy in the ball, I’d drive it, watching it ricochet pinball-style against the wall, the phone, the computer terminal and, occasionally, the heads of the other reps, who didn’t mind at all. No, they didn’t mind, because, even as unsophisticated as they were, as limited as their mental capacities and formal education might have been, they understood the need to fight boredom, the necessity to derive comfort from whatever silly method, toy, or trick that could be crafted or conceived of. This led me, eventually, to the most natural of devices — conversation with the others, and an investigation, clothed in dialogue and camaraderie, of the roads that lead to Dialnet and the people who travel them.

Some of the roads are short, relatively straight, and not unconventional. This is the case for a number of Dialnet’s 18- to 24-year-olds, some of whom work while attending a local junior college like Mesa and others who simply “hang” at the phone room between parties, earning pocket money for beer, weed, or car stereos. Quite a few live with their parents, although a few crowd four or five strong into apartments. Most are Filipino, Mexican, or Vietnamese, with a handful of Samoans and assorted mixes thrown in, and many have brothers and/or cousins working alongside them. If you’ve ever wondered who drives the lowered Acura Integras and Honda Civics up and down Mira Mesa Boulevard, with thumping, booming rap-bass annoying everyone within miles, these are the folks. And if you’ve ever wondered who would employ these kids (or whether they worked at all), the answer is Dialnet and the other phone rooms.

Out of their little cars, they are quiet, even deferential, usually slight of build, and hardly threatening, though it is said that some have ties to street gangs. The girls are exotic and sexy in a nubile way, notably the incongruously buxom Amerasians, frequently products of American military fathers and Oriental mothers. Irrespective of gender, they are all fabulously unsophisticated, having absorbed the most execrable elements of contemporary American culture (read: inner-city tastes and customs), while at the same time, having lost their native innocence. Still, I found them to be pleasant coworkers, as were most of their white counterparts.

Many of the whites at Dialnet are what — back in the 1970s — we termed stoners, people who enjoy smoking pot and talking about it, and for whom cannabis is a daily routine, if not a sacrament. Some look like throwbacks to 1970, folks I knew a quarter century ago; others are clean-cut, no more subversive or countercultural than the descendants of Norman Rockwell. Most are lower-middle class, some a notch or three below, and many don’t even own cars. Unlike the prototypical college-campus hippies of the “era,” however, the phone-room tokers aren’t politically active or even substantially Bohemian in outlook. They just like to smoke a lot of pot, as well as drink goodly amounts of beer, chew the occasional psilocybin mushroom, and swallow a tab of acid now and then. They come in each day from dumps in Pacific Beach or flytraps in Spring Valley, working and living the minimal life that is telemarketing.

Sarkiz Keloyan seemed typical, yet full of the little surprises one finds in the field. A couple of years out of Mira Mesa High, he is half-Armenian, half-Mexican, a San Diego local whose dad owns several used-car lots in Kearny Mesa. With a closely shaved head, jet-black goatee, long sideburns, and large hoop earrings on both ears, and with a penchant for Pendleton shirts and baggy pants, he looks like a stereotypical Hispanic lowrider, perhaps a gangster. But he doesn’t drive a ’65 Impala and, as far as I could detect, has never stabbed anyone.

Before joining Dialnet, he’d worked as a stockboy at a Vons in Pacific Beach but quit after a year or so, tired of the grueling graveyard hours and peculiar ban on facial hair. When I met him, he had worked at Dialnet for a few months. Disarmingly gentle and soft-spoken, he talked freely and affectionately about the two passions of his life, pot and reggae music, and like dozens of others often came to work high, or “baked.”

We discussed pot extensively, and he waxed poetic over the types of herb he could procure at five minutes’ notice. Unlike the geographically named marijuana of my youth (Acapulco Gold, Oaxacan, et al.), Sarkiz’s connections handled stuff with names like Bullrider and G-13, the latter ostensibly grown in supersecret U.S. government labs. Sarkiz explained that, according to High Times, G-13, an “experimental” strain of pot, was being cultivated for medicinal purposes and was undoubtedly the most potent pot in the cannabis universe. He exclaimed, “It’s the ultimate, you know, for listening to music and shit. I went to the Marleyfest at the Sports Arena, took one hit, and I was good for four, five hours. You gotta try this shit.”

When speaking with Sarkiz and his loosely knit cadre of multiethnic buddies, I was pleased to confirm what I already suspected: that the inane “war on drugs” carried on by fascists like federal “drug czar” Barry McCaffrey had manifestly failed. On several occasions, reps adjacent to me rolled joints in their cubicles, and breaks outside were, more often than not, occasions to round up all the “chronic” that could be stuffed into little pipes and smoked. There was no fear of apprehension, and my smoking buddies regarded my caution as curiously and comically paranoid, reminiscent (if they’d read Ginsberg or Kerouac) of days in which artistic types toked reefers in dark rooms with rolled-up towels under the doors.

More and more these days, employers are diving into the urine of job applicants and those already on board, analyzing their body fluids in the name of safety, godliness, and the red, white, and blue. But such police-state tactics aren’t practiced in the world of telemarketing because it would turn the phone rooms, Dialnet included, into ghost towns. Dope is so popular at Dialnet that some reps sign on for the express purpose of tapping into the ready market for cannabis and other recreational drugs. Larry, a convivial black guy who appeared to be about 35, was generally conceded to be the room’s number-one pro and always had on him — or could always produce upon request — premeasured bags of low-grade Mexican weed, overpriced and weak, but good in a pinch. With gold-rimmed glasses and funky clothes, including a long, shiny leather jacket, he looked like a jovial throwback to the “Shaft” era. Even his manner and patois largely predated the rap scene, the “hip-hop nation,” as it were.

I remember overhearing him offering his goods to a couple of the white guys. “Anything y’all want, I got it. Got some good chronic, man. You want some rocks, I get it fo’ you.” Unlike the quintessential “pusher” of Hollywood (and governmental) myth, however, Larry didn’t need to convince anyone to turn down the dreaded road to ruin. A lot of phone jockeys are already there of their own choice, enjoying it, and seeing it for what it is — a necessary and logical response to the numbing nothingness that is telemarketing, the empty hole that is work for many Americans. At any rate, Larry, who left during my tenure, seemed to be appreciated and respected. On many days, he could be seen coming and going, making furtive hand-offs to buyers in the toilet stalls, and occasionally strolling out to his car (wife and kids in the back seat) to pick up inventory in another part of town.

That Larry worked openly and was more than tolerated speaks volumes for the live-and-let-live atmosphere that pervades Dialnet, and, moreover, to the management’s willingness to hire anyone who wants to work, no matter how checkered his past. I must admit that, save for a fraternity brother who landed in the slammer after a cocaine bust a few years after graduation, I had never personally known anyone who’d done hard time. Sure, I’d had a few buddies who’d been cuffed and tossed into a holding tank after bullshit duis, but no one in my address book, at least to my knowledge, had ever entered the gates of Folsom or San Quentin. That changed soon after my arrival at Dialnet, when I struck up a conversation with Wilma.

Wilma Washington is a benevolent-looking black woman in her late 50s who reminded me, when I met her, of several housekeepers we’d had when I was a child, which is to say that she was someone you would trust in your house with little worry. So, I was taken aback when she matter-of-factly explained that, no, she wasn’t kidding when she said that it was tough to get a job while on parole. She told me that she’d just been released from Valley State Prison — a medium-security lockup in the San Joaquin Valley — after spending two and one-half years for selling crack. She told me, neither by way of apology nor conceit, that she’d never been in trouble before and, desperately short of money, started to “deal a little” in her neighborhood. She had been reluctant to ask her adult daughter, who also lived in San Diego, for help.

While “inside,” as she called Valley State, she met a fellow drug-war prisoner, Dawn Rollins, a voluble biker mama in her 30s with a missing front tooth and an easy laugh. They ended up together at a halfway house called Sober Living and went straight to Dialnet, along with another gal named Nicole. Wilma left after a few weeks, complaining of stress; several months later, another rep told me that she’d seen her and that she was strung out on crack. Dawn stayed, becoming one of the better reps at about $10 an hour.

Nicole was perhaps emblematic of the colorful — or weird, if you wish — cast at Dialnet. A six-footer, she came equipped with long, teased, coal black hair — perhaps dyed — paired up with porcelain skin and set off by flaming red lipstick and false eyelashes; she looked like she had just done the lunch show at Pure Platinum. High heels, dangerously short skirts, low-cut lace tops, she was all neon and paint, a low-rent version of Fran Drescher in The Nanny. With her garish accessories — huge hoop earrings, giant wet-look purse, and oversized silver crucifix — I wondered whether she was actually a man in drag. Apparently, she was nevertheless in full compliance with the bizarre Dialnet dress code, which banned only shorts and blue jeans (black jeans, red jeans, and green jeans were all OK). In any event, I recall that she was at the top of the hourly earnings roster for a few weeks but quit after a pay dispute that left her weeping profusely. Last I’d heard, she had taken a job as a croupier at an Indian casino.

If I’d had any wish to observe a genuine transvestite, there was always Sherie, a six-foot-two black rep with streaky bleached-blond wig and a strong, scary, masculine face. Many reps speculated as to Sherie’s gender, but the husky voice, together with the too-dainty dresses and “off” makeup, threw the smart money on “male,” perhaps with a bit of in-progress transsexualism tossed in. At the other end of the couture spectrum was Scott Parsons, who boasted of his past as a cop in Arizona, a fast-food manager, a security guard, and the number-one paperboy of all time. An annoyingly clean-cut kid in his 20s, he wore Ban-Lon Sears junior-clerk stuff, polyester polo shirts, all the crap that had never been cool, not even for five minutes, and wasn’t funky enough to show up in retro stores. Trying to make time with a nearby rep — a perpetually stoned blonde slacker girl — he triumphantly announced that he’d worked nonstop since the age of 11. As I laughed at her blank response I wondered, What the fuck are you doing here then, pal?

In truth, few of the other reps annoyed me severely, though some were hard to work around. Several did have peculiar personal habits. Andre — or “The Frog,” as I dubbed him — was a Tony Gwynn–double who erupted every few minutes in a loud, amphibian warble that I suspected was Tourette’s syndrome and not just vocal-chord loosening as he claimed. Gabriel was a sad, disheveled man in his 40s with long, stringy hair, wildly mismatched clothes, and a penchant for dangling green, viscous boogers from his nose, oblivious to snickers from nearby cubicles.

A few were obsessed with religion, a common affliction among the lower classes. The worst of the lot was Ricky, a skinny, effeminate, half-Mexican supervisor who was also a diehard Padres fan. Ricky firmly believed that the world would soon be coming to an end. A laughably earnest Bible-beating simpleton, he constantly quoted apocalyptic scripture, expounding, to anyone feigning interest, on the meaning of the numbers “666” and on other inane evangelical delusions. I greatly enjoyed tormenting him after the Yankees crucified his boys in the World Series.

And, there was Bob, a middle-aged guy whose quirky wrinkles, shiny black toupee, and frightening smile caused me to name him “Frankenstein,” much to the delight of my audience of other desperately bored telemarketers. In truth, he was just another guy who’d lost his regular sales job and needed to pay the extortionists at SDG&E and Cox Cable; what made him interesting was the fact that his son also worked at Dialnet.

Dialnet’s manager-recruitment pitches boast of a “family atmosphere,” and in addition to the wacky (or dysfunctional, in current parlance) family of ex-cons and misfits, there are real families here. Frankenstein and his son Jordan were one such unit, the latter a natural salesman who cleared almost a grand one week with a frenetic, manic, attacking style. Gesticulating wildly at the computer screen, as if the prospects were inside, he was quite entertaining. Eventually, though, he left after experiencing Dialnet’s notorious weekly “adjustments” of commission payouts, measures management regularly took when the payrolls swelled unacceptably at the beginning of a new program. Another parent-child combo consisted of Mary, a sad-faced matron who’d lost her bartending job, and her son, Doug, a supervisor who made $9.50 an hour and occasionally visited Mom at her cubicle.

Not everyone who plies the telemarketing circuit is odd. In fact, many are quite ordinary — older sales types who are “between jobs” or are supplementing multilevel-marketing schemes that inevitably fail. Ron Haggard, an upbeat guy from West Virginia, joined Dialnet while his water-filter and vitamin “downline” developed. During the day, Buck, a back-slapping ex-Marine, sold “ad specs” — cheap pens and key-chain fobs with company names on them. Already burned out, he worked a few hours at night, trying to hasten his long-planned exit for what he called “God’s country,” Montana. Once, he asked me if I’d ever been in the military, and when I replied “no,” he asked, “Why not?” as if boot camp were a universal default setting.

Some are people approaching 60, too young to vegetate on social security, but apparently too old for a society that wants its workforce young, compliant, low-paid, and without a history of layoffs or other events that might red-flag a résumé-scanning machine. In some cases, the companies where they’d once worked had “downsized” them or had gone under. Perhaps the work for which they had been trained was no longer needed or was now performed by a machine or done in another country. It didn’t matter much, as long as ceos were able to exercise stock options worth millions.

Until the massive layoffs, Hal Little had worked as an engineer at General Dynamics’ San Diego plant during its Cold War heyday. Despite a math degree and ample technical abilities, he was never able to reenter the field and ended up aging in a series of odd jobs. At one point, he did a stint as a lab technician among the dead and decaying at the Veteran’s Administration hospital.

When I met him, he had been smiling and dialing for over a decade. Hal was the brightest, most erudite person I encountered at Dialnet, and we enjoyed discussing films and books until a team leader ordered Hal to a distant cubicle. With his gentle, professorial manner, white beard, and vaguely leftist politics, he appeared the antithesis of the aerospace techno-drone. I wondered how he ever tolerated the paranoid authoritarianism — the “security measures” — of a place like General Dynamics. I could only conclude that the American economy, in one way or another, eventually makes prostitutes of us all. Approaching 60, Hal knows that the rest of his working life will be played out in a phone room, but he’s too broke to quit.

Telemarketers, as a group, tend to elicit scant sympathy from the public at large, but the elderly, prematurely elderly, and crippled might have the best shot. Elaine, Barbara, and Sally — three affable reps with whom I spoke at length — might fall into that group. These aren’t the tanned, athletic folks pictured in cruise-line and vitamin commercials who look forward to the golden years with endless good cheer and fat bank accounts; these are the people just trying to avoid joining the crowd down at Father Joe’s.

Some members of the telemarketing nation have always been on the outside, looking in at the go-go economy. Elaine, in her late 50s, has struggled her entire life. A cheerful Mexican woman with long, glossy black hair, she lives in an Ocean Beach studio apartment with her unemployed brother. When I met her, making the rent was dicey and she had resorted to working as a maid in the mornings before hitting the phones. She also cooked tamales at home and brought them to Dialnet, selling them for a buck or two. She had married twice, but her second, estranged husband had moved to Oregon. She told me that she was still married to him because she couldn’t afford the divorce-filing fees. Barbara, a short, feisty New York transplant, is 62 and, like Elaine, must live with a roommate to save money. Recovering from a stroke that rendered her right side useless for a time, she was divorced years ago.

Sally’s story is not atypical. “This is the end of the line for me, I guess. I was doin’ real good for a couple of years, sellin’ office supplies up in Fresno. I got hurt on the job and they fired me, those bastards. I couldn’t pay rent anymore and I got evicted. My brother was livin’ down here in Lemon Grove — he’s retired from the Navy — and he said I could move in with him. It’s been about a year now, I think. But I don’t know what I’m gonna do, ’cause we’re not gettin’ along all that good anymore. I might have to look for a new place to stay.”

Sally, an obese woman in her mid-50s, works 20 hours, sometimes 25, at Dialnet. Huffing with effort — cigarettes, diabetes, and bad hips at work — she shuffles gamely, finds an open cubicle, and pitches the same leaden script, over and over, for the next four or five hours. She is disarmingly, disturbingly cheerful. In an average week, if she’s lucky, she’ll have enough for rent, bus fare, a two-pack-a-day Marlboro habit, and a flagon or three of rotgut vodka. She has teeth stained yellow by tobacco and a face cracked like parchment unearthed from Pompeii, and no one who looks at her would ever say she’d once been pretty. In a place where the average stay is just a few weeks, she is a veteran but isn’t proud of it. The last time I checked, she had no golden parachute, no stock options — no options, period.

One needn’t be old to see telemarketing as a last resort. For every young hipster and jaunty drug courier, every boulevard cruiser and phone-bimbo, there are many others for whom telemarketing is not a lifestyle choice but, rather, the only foothold stopping them from falling right into the street. Dialnet and the other phone rooms are full of the “twentysomethings” you won’t see in prime-time television sitcoms, people who’ve done a lot of hard living and are unapologetic about it.

At 22, Betheny, a rustically Rubenesque blonde, is pregnant with her second child and itching for June and the all-clear to resume smoking weed. Marijuana is an integral part of her life, a fact that may or may not square — depending on one’s analytical perspective — with her simple-but-sweet country girl persona. In some ways, Betheny is representative of a generation, or at least part of a generation, whose parents might have been called hippies. As she tells it, her dad — she calls him by his first name, Mark — was a Grateful Dead “roadie,” trucking equipment around the country while Granny raised his little girl. Perhaps, in the argot of TV news anchormen, Dad was a drifter, but by all accounts, he was a doting father of sorts when he was in town, and Betheny was elated when they reunited early in her adolescence.

One day, alarmed by 13-year-old Betheny’s initial backyard cigarettes, Mark suggested cannabis as an alternative, and they started getting high together, a living refutation of the dysfunctional terrors of inculcated recreational drug use. Admittedly, a few years back, Dad had acquired a nasty junk habit, but in 1998, he kicked horse, restricting his synapse-bending to daily reefers, frequent pill-popping, and a weekly acid-fry.

As modest as Betheny’s dreams might have been, they did not include working at Dialnet. In 1995, Betheny had married Johnny, a high school dropout ten years her senior. He was a warehouse manager and, by late 1998, was making $15 an hour, enough to allow Betheny to stay home with her two-year-old boy. Around the time she learned she was pregnant again, Johnny was fired after eight years with the company.

It seems that money had been embezzled and, suspecting an inside job, the higher-ups ordered background investigations and polygraphs for all the men in the warehouse. Johnny, eager to please the company and painfully unassertive, took the lie-detector test and passed. Shortly thereafter, the company chose a likely suspect, and once again, Johnny tried to help, this time testifying against his coworker. However, in the course of digging into Johnny’s history, the company unearthed a felony dui conviction from 1986. No matter that it was over a decade old and unrelated to Johnny’s current duties as a manager, or that he’d had a clean record since, along with years of good performance reviews at the plant; he’d lied on the application, they said, so they had no choice but to terminate him.

Johnny filed an unemployment claim but was denied benefits because, the Employment Development Department ruled, he’d been fired “for cause.” He soon found that prospective employers weren’t too keen on him either; without a high school diploma and with nothing but the tag of “liar” to show for his years of experience, he was forced to take “casual labor” jobs. Minimum wage couldn’t pay the rent, even in a Lakeside trailer park, so Betheny started looking for work. But within a week, after noticing swelling of her ankles and feet, she was diagnosed with toxemia, a potentially serious complication of pregnancy. Her doctor told her that she’d have to stay off her feet and recommended bed rest for the duration of her pregnancy, lest she risk elevated blood pressure and a possible stroke. But Betheny and Johnny were facing eviction, so she looked for a sit-down job. Telemarketing was the only thing she could find, and she ended up sitting in a cubicle in Kearny Mesa.

Amy Worth sometimes sat near Betheny, in the back row. During my six months at Dialnet, I made a point of sitting there too, as it was farthest from the prying eyes and ears of the supervisors. It was there that the freest conversations occurred, and over the course of a few months, I learned — perhaps a bit too much — about Amy’s life and sadness.

She grew up in an upper-middle-class family in the L.A. area, where her parents, both devout, God-fearing Protestants, subjected her to strict discipline, with an occasional beating and molestation thrown in. Her folks were both senior-level engineers and had retired early after a good-sized win in the California Lottery. The money didn’t help Amy, though; after repeated liaisons with black men, she’d been effectively disowned. For a fair-haired, fair-skinned (almost albino) girl from right-wing suburbia — the daughter of Bible-beaters, no less — wasn’t a tryst with an inner-city black man the ultimate rebellion, the perfect way to tell her parents to piss off, big-time? Her parents’ anger was exacerbated when she gave birth to Courtney in 1995.

The baby was light-coffee-colored with wavy black hair, and Amy was smitten, at least as much as, and probably more than, she would have been had the infant’s father been white and married to her. She no longer saw Courtney’s father; their affair had been brief, emotionally inconsequential. Amy had taken up with Eddie, a big, muscular San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputy with a black belt in karate and, as it turned out, a penchant for other types of belts as well. According to Amy, Eddie initially treated her well, but her words came out with an air of self-denial that told me something different. Around the time of the baby’s second birthday, Eddie turned like the pit bull that “was always so gentle.”

Amy, with Courtney perched on her lap, sat watching a movie on television one night when she felt something warm. Courtney had peed, and Eddie offered to change her in the bathroom. After a minute or two, Amy heard a small whimper but thought little of it. Eddie had put clean pajamas on the baby and brought her back in. The next morning, when Amy removed Courtney’s pajama bottoms, she saw that her legs and buttocks were girdled with a series of deep, bleeding marks, 14 in all.

At the emergency room, Amy was told by the attending physician that the baby had been whipped severely, probably with a belt. Before long, Child Protective Services had been called in, and after a series of interrogations and hearings, Courtney was seized and given to foster parents. Without an attorney (her parents refused to help), Amy’s contention — that she couldn’t have known Eddie was de Sade with a badge and that she couldn’t have prevented the beating — fell on deaf ears. They ruled that she had committed “child endangerment” by failing to protect Courtney, and her punishment was to be irrevocable and permanent: no custody, no calls, no letters, nothing that would ever tell the world, or Courtney, who her mother was and how she ached for her. Eddie concocted elaborate lies and, as Amy put it, “knew the system,” enabling him to escape punishment while damning his erstwhile girlfriend to the lowest hell she would ever know.

What followed, she told me, was a dreamlike series of debilitating events, a long night of pain and delirium. Prone to depression, she sank abysmally low, alternately downing Prozac and snorting methamphetamine. Soon, she was wild-eyed and sweating, with a touch of formication and pockmarks as evidence.

She found herself at the bottom one afternoon in the parking lot of Robinson-May in Fashion Valley. Accusing her of shoplifting $100 worth of clothes, five security goons (or “loss prevention officers,” as the stores so antiseptically label them) chased her, tackled her, and left her covered with pepper spray and bruises, ready for a few days in the slammer. Not long after Amy had finished wiping the capsicum from her eyes and the gravel from her abrasions, the San Diego District Attorney’s office completed the mugging by cooking up a creative batch of charges. It seems that, by dint of a swinging purse, Amy’s alleged shoplifting was now armed robbery; this was prosecutorial creativity at its best, a nice, neat little example of how a nascent police state treats its subjects.

With a public defender’s five minutes of perfunctory assistance, she eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser felony. She avoided jail, but the damage had been done. At the time of her arrest, she had been attending Point Loma Nazarene, aiming for a teaching credential and the opportunity to hold sway in an elementary-school classroom. After the dust cleared, her school advisor opined that her criminal record would likely prevent her from teaching in California public schools.

When I spoke with Amy, I was struck by her humor and intelligence and the undeniable warmth she projected even through the filter of pain. As an attorney, I wished I could help, but there seemed to be little recourse for her in the law, what with the machinations of the criminal justice system and the glacial process that is civil litigation. We both agreed that an empathetic psychiatrist would be nice, but when you’re forced to take the bus to a boiler room job, Sigmund doesn’t return your calls. As for religion, she’d already seen its value, and who the hell was I to disabuse her of her hard-won epiphanies? In the end, no matter how flawed she seemed, I couldn’t help but like Amy, probably because she understood, more than anyone else in that gray room, that I didn’t belong there and that my laments were real, palpable, and legitimate.

One might argue that — if I didn’t belong there and that the incongruity of my presence needed no elaboration — there are many for whom such employment might indeed represent a reasonable, even admirable, level of professional attainment. In that case, it is not difficult to argue that Dialnet and the other phone rooms function as private-sector social service agencies by hiring the dregs of society, losers no one else will take.

By his own admission, Paul has been a loser and a westward-drifting rounder, but he isn’t defensive about it, and there is something about his candor and self-effacing humor that makes him likable and makes it a little harder to apply the labels after all. With greasy hair, an acne-scarred face and a broken front tooth, and indifferent, battered clothes, he looks the part, and when I first saw him, he reminded me a little of Richard Speck, circa 1966. When Paul rolled in on a Greyhound from Las Vegas in October, he was so broke that he couldn’t even afford bus fare to get to work, and he was crashing with five other four-flushers in a two-bedroom Clairemont apartment. When Paul walked into Dialnet, Frank Sitra gave him a job and pulled $30 from his own pocket, not asking when he’d be repaid.

One afternoon, Paul unloaded part of his life history as we sat in a break room with a few other reps, waiting (but not too eagerly) for a seat to open up in the phone room. Because Dialnet routinely overstaffs — hedging bets against no-shows — scheduled reps who show up even a minute late can wait for hours for an available phone and computer.

Paul was born into a large Catholic family in an old mill town north of Boston, where his grandparents had come down from Quebec. His father died young, and Paul led an unsettled high school life, gobbling prodigious doses of LSD in his sophomore year. He graduated, barely, and started a succession of odd jobs, mostly manual labor. He partied a lot, landed in jail a few times and, after a while, left New England in search of better fortune elsewhere. By the time he crossed the Nevada state line in the early ’90s at the age of 27, he was shooting heroin and smoking crack, in addition to the other habits he’d picked up along the way.

As we sat around the particleboard table, Paul regaled us, in a matter-of-fact way, with tales of wild boiler rooms manned by junkies and telemarketers waving guns around after a big sale. At one place, he said, the FBI raided the operation, bursting in to handcuff and haul away the owners and managers. Fortunately, he added, they hadn’t noticed his outstanding arrest warrant for “receiving” stolen property in New Hampshire. The other reps were not taken aback by Paul’s admissions, and they rather enjoyed chiming in with stories of their own. There were accounts of casual acid and psilocybin trips, encounters with more exotic hallucinogens and, of course, the inevitable comparisons of one variety of weed with another. After a while, the consensus was that we were being paid (albeit only seven bucks an hour) for what amounted to a drug rehab group-therapy session, or perhaps a Narcotics Anonymous get-together.

As luridly fascinating as I found Paul’s tales of jail, dope, and boiler rooms, I was struck hardest by his recollection of his mother’s death a few years back. He’d gone with his brother Peter to the funeral home to make arrangements, pick out a suitable casket, and all the rest. Always the clown, Paul got into one of the caskets and closed the lid. But when it wouldn’t open, he had to yell for help; a few minutes later, a casket salesman unlocked the box while Peter laughed hysterically.

Dialnet, like all the phone rooms, is a revolving door, where nothing is as permanent as the nothingness of work, meaningless work. In San Diego, there is a circuit of sorts, a carousel of throw-away jobs for throw-away people, where telephonic shills drift like flotsam and jetsam from one boiler room to another.

Orlando, a six-four black kid with gold chains and sweats, chose the white-bread-with-mayonnaise name “Todd Scott” for his phone calls. Orlando had been fired from Disklub for credit-card fraud. I also met Jake, who — according to the other reps — was a “tweaker,” or big-time methamphetamine user. He was a pale, wiry, white-trash dynamo, covered in tattoos and body piercings. He had also been fired from Disklub. During his first shift at Dialnet, he sat in the cubicle next to mine and harangued me nonstop. With religious fervor, bug-eyed and sweating like an apprentice auctioneer, he urged me to work at Disklub and assured me that his “homeboys” would take care of me if I applied for a job there.

Shortly before I left, I also met Gina, who was starting her inaugural day at Dialnet in the cubicle next to mine. She had just made her first sale and had dutifully rung her little bell. A second or two later, one of the team leaders called out, “Hey, let’s hear it for Gina — she’s gonna be a star!” Scattered cheers went up. I asked her if she’d worked in a boiler room before, and she told me that she had been one of Denny O’Malley’s team leaders at the American Commerce Network. Apparently, the place folded not long after my departure, stranding several hundred pissed-off phone jockeys. Gina told me that — as best as she could recall — a handful of the stiffed telemarketers picketed O’Malley’s Coronado estate, but no one was ever paid.

At various junctures in this piece, names of individuals and entities were changed.

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