Telemarketing: Donna Reed Writes

My first real job was as a telemarketer for the Los Angeles Times. A couple of friends worked there first, so I glommed on. This was 1985 when I was sixteen, and it was every weekday from four o’clock to nine. I was a pretty diligent worker; I needed that $3.35 an hour. The eighty bucks or so each week was weed money, and it was just about enough to keep me high full-time as long as I didn’t share too much on the weekends.

I was a shit telemarketer; I think most of us stoners were. I’m not sure why they kept us around. Our job was to sell home delivery subscriptions to the newspaper via cold phone calls, and for every sale we’d get a ten dollar commission. I think I averaged about one sale a week, tops, for 25 hours of work. Seems unproductive, but consider that one customer could turn into a lifetime subscriber, so eighty bucks a week to a stoner from North Hollywood was probably a small price to pay for the bosses.

fa_831_newlatcityhall600
We didn’t work in this building, but, you know, someone must have.

We’d drink wine out of juice bottles while we made our calls, and smoked pot on our dinner breaks. We were allowed to smoke cigarettes in this boiler room on Victory Boulevard in Van Nuys, the next neighborhood over from where I lived in North Hollywood. It was at the L.A. Times that I switched from Marlboro Reds to Marlboro 100’s, because 100’s lasted longer. Cigarettes seemed to be over in a flash when you were stoned, drinking wine, and cold-calling people on the telephone. Before you worry about the nonsmokers in that telemarketing office, you’ll be happy to know that the two rows of desks on the very western-most side of the building were for nonsmokers. The other five rows were for us smokers.

The star of the office was an older redhead named Rita, but when she called folks she introduced herself as Fern. She absolutely killed it! She was cranky as all hell off the phone, and she smoked like a chimney, but she was so charming to these customers she was swimming in commissions. We figured the fake name was the key – rather than her professional attitude and natural ease with people – so we started using different names too: Mike, Steve, Jason. Then we tried to think of funnier names to make each other laugh, names like Stu, Lawrence, Jimmy, or Floyd. I don’t know what made those names so funny, but they were. One day Scott outdid us all and introduced himself to a customer as BONGO, and it was all over after that. I laughed so hard I hung up on a customer. Scott won! He was the king of all fake names! But no, I don’t think any of it helped with sales.

Today computers do all this, but in 1985 the calls were generated by us telemarkerters ourselves, via a wire mesh basket in the back of the room that had sheets with the first five digits of local phone numbers. You would dig in the basket for 765 or 762 prefixes, as those numbers were likely to be Studio City, or Burbank, and you had a fair chance of getting English speakers. If you called 504 you would likely be greeted with “Bueno?” Not knowing Spanish, we were unequipped to sell newspapers to our Latino brothers and sisters. I’m not proud of this, but if they said “Bueno,” we hung up.

Our supervisor was a cool, curly-haired, mustachioed cat named Mark, who seemed adult and worldly, but might have been only twenty-five. He was more a motivator than a boss; he was the guy who let a forty-person room know that we were having fun selling newspapers to innocent victims whose dinners we were interrupting. He’d walk around swinging his arms, always in a cheerful mood: “Smilin’ and dialin’ in Van Nuys!” was Mark’s catchphrase. When you’d make a sale, it was called “writing,” because he’d write your name on the big markerboard in the front of the office. “Chip writes!” and “Sean writes!” and “Scott writes!” were things we didn’t hear often, but it was always a thrill to write. Rita/Fern wrote more than anyone, of course.

west_d20
Donna Reed, writer

Somewhere along the way this turned into dead celebrities writing. I don’t know how it happened, but around the time I was working there Donna Reed died, so there was a lot of talk about how “Donna Reed writes.” Yul Brynner and Phil Silvers all wrote while I worked there too. Rita/Fern would write, and Mark would put her name on the board, and we’d become indignant: “No, no! Donna Reed writes!” we’d shout. We didn’t want to see Rita’s name, we wanted to see Donna Reed’s name. I can’t explain why this was so funny to us. Rita/Fern would shake her head at our idiocy. Sometimes Mark would write Donna Reed alongside Rita’s name, other times he’d use it as a motivator. “Chip, if you write you can give it to Donna Reed.” I would try desperately to make a sale so Mark would write Donna Reed instead of Chip on the board. I would still get the commission, of course. To this day I will post on my old friend Sean’s Facebook wall that “Prince writes” or “Gene Wilder writes.” He’s still in touch with that dude Mark, and he says Mark always gets a chuckle out of us still carrying on with this little joke thirty years later.

We also formed a fake gang called The Skulls, and we would draw and write SKULLS all over everything, practicing our gangland script. We’d draw pictures of skulls on the dialing sheets, we’d etch them into the desks with pocket knives, we’d ink them onto our hands with Bics. If we’d get our names on the board, we’d sneak up and draw little skulls next to them. Donna Reed with a skull next to her name was the granddaddy of all great days at work. Mark would either notice or not notice, and he’d either erase our handiwork or he’d sigh and leave it up there. Eventually we started introducing ourselves to customers as Scully, as in SKULLy. The hard part was keeping your voice from breaking while your buzzed friends cracked up while you talked to a customer. Why the bosses kept us around, I can’t say.

Once during dinner break we got into Scott’s Datsun 510 to get some food after smoking some weed. He turned down an unfamiliar street that ended in a “T.” For some reason – maybe the marijuana, who can say? – he thought the street kept going and he drove at 30 miles per hour into a concrete, vertical curb. The car slammed to a stop, and it pretty well tore the front axle off. We had to walk to a pay phone, call the office, and tell Mark we had a car crash and couldn’t make it back for the rest of the shift. I guess we were too far away to walk back to work, or we felt a duty to stay with Scott until he got his car dealt with. The Times wasn’t happy with us.

It was a good job. I took the bus there after school, as by that time I had been expelled from North Hollywood High School and was going to Grant High, not far from the Times telemarketing office. Sometimes my mom would pick me up afterwards, sometimes this older, bushy-haired, bespectacled, stoner named Al would drive me home in his Chevy Nova. Al once described in great detail how he had sex in the back seat of this tiny car with a quite unattractive woman he met one night. Al was no prize himself, he admitted, but I never forgot that salacious story. It’s still all I think of when I think “Chevy Nova.”

I had the job until I overdosed on formaldehyde-soaked marijuana in January of 1986 and went into rehab. My next real paying job was almost two years later. I didn’t smoke marijuana or drink alcohol for the next thirty years, until 2016, about the time Muhammad Ali was writing.

Other Chip, or, On Shyness

Recently I heard that everyone is shy to some degree. I’m somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, not overly shy nor overly confident. As I’ve gotten older I’ve certainly become more confident than shy, but no one relishes going to a party where they are bound to know no one. No one except Other Chip, but more on him later.

Conference

The most embarrassing situation I ever found myself in due to shyness was at a conference in San Francisco in the late ’90s. At this early-ish point in my I.T. career I hadn’t yet been to many technical conferences. From a content standpoint I got a lot out of them: attending workshops and keynote sessions by experts in my field. Of course I also took advantage of the free meals, as being a new homeowner and raising a young family was sapping every nickel Amy and I could earn. The problem – for me – was that some of these free meals were planned for conference attendees to gather, “network,” and swap ideas and email addresses. You know, the stuff you’re supposed to do at an industry conference, and truthfully one of the key things that make these events worthwhile.

Capture
Socially confident conference attendees in the 1990s. Notice I’m not there.

But these forced gatherings filled me with dread. I didn’t know anyone at the conference; I felt too young, too inexperienced, and I didn’t drink back then. (And let’s be honest, alcohol is the great defeater of shyness.) I felt the “I’m a fraud” feelings that most of us have at some point or another, especially early in our careers. I had a habit of grabbing the free food and scurrying back to my hotel room to eat it, like a squirrel with a nut up an oak. These meals were typically continental breakfasts of croissants and fruit, or box lunches: easily portable items, tailor-made for stealing away with. Sometimes I saw fellow shy folk, clutching their own plates on the way back to their rooms instead of sitting in the designated eating sections. It was never clear if you were supposed to do this or not. Were we stealing food, or dishes?

One day at this conference they had a “regional lunch,” where we were supposed to line up, serve ourselves from the buffet, and sit in assigned areas that corresponded with our regions, like West Coast, East Coast, International, etc. I waited in line, feeling lonely and out of place as the older, seemingly smarter and more sociable people in line were chit-chatting with each other. I loaded up a plate of food, made a conspicuous beeline away from the West Coast seating area, got in the elevator, and slinked back to my room. I was starving, but as I was ready to dig in I made a horrifying discovery.

I had no silverware.

I couldn’t face returning to the lunch area – a good ten minute walk – for a knife and fork. I felt I would be noticed barging in to grab a cloth napkin and silverware set just to turn around to head back to the elevator. It didn’t seem like a reasonable thing to do, and time was a factor before the next workshop started. So I did the next best thing: I went for my trusty Leatherman multitool that I used to take everywhere until it was confiscated at the Sacramento airport fifteen years later. This was not the kind of multitool that had a fork and spoon on it, though. It had a deadly sharp, serrated knife, a file, a can opener, some pliers, scissors, and a bunch of other stuff that wasn’t too helpful for eating a plate of pasta, chicken, and salad. Nevertheless, the Leatherman was all I had, so I used some combination of file and sharp knife to eat this meal. I laughed at myself the whole time, fully aware that my ridiculous shyness had led me to this strange fate. I didn’t feel sorry for myself, though. I wasn’t a misanthrope; I seemed to like most people and vice versa when we got to know each other. Sitting in that hotel room balancing pasta on a pair of pliers may have been a turning point because I don’t remember shyness being much of a problem after that. At dinner that night – not provided by the conference – I ate at a 50’s diner and stole some silverware to ensure the problem wouldn’t recur.

image
Avaya Engage 2017 in Las Vegas with friends old and new

Fifteen years later I found myself running the regional chapter of the Avaya users group, I have presented workshop sessions at this same conference, have moderated forums there, and have had a part in planning this three-thousand-person event. Attending this conference is now the highlight of my year, as I see great friends at every meal, every event, and every bar at 11:00 p.m. Colleagues that I adore are gathered there from all over the U.S., Africa, New Zealand, Europe…it’s a blast! From a technical and professional perspective I get a tremendous amount out of it, and seeing these colleagues, making memories, and having great times is the icing on the cake. This is the difference between four years in the industry and twenty, at least for me.

But no matter how much fun I have at my conference every year, I always remember that early conference when I felt so alone. I think most people have a story of feeling out of place and insecure at a point in their lives. Some have stories much sadder than eating pasta with a Leatherman multitool in a San Francisco hotel room. But there is one person in this world who has never had those feelings: Other Chip. He is not my alter ego, he is another guy named Chip.

Other Chip

When I was ten years old I had a friend named Glen, whose mom seemed younger, prettier, and singler than the other moms. I was to spend the night at Glen’s house one Saturday night, but then his mom wanted to go to a party, so we had to go with her.  In order to go to the party, Glen’s mom had to ask my mom if it was alright if we went with her. My mom said OK, but asked for the phone number of the party house. This was the 1970s, thus a routine request, but still – so embarrassing!

Later, Glen and I were doing kid stuff at the party while adults were drinking, laughing, and dancing. Suddenly the front door opens, and in walk a couple of people followed by a third man whom I’ll never forget. This third man was white, bearded, with sandy blonde hair, Gabardine shirt, probably in his late twenties, and he loudly announced to the entire party as he entered – and I swear the music screeched to a stop: “Hey everyone, I’m Chip, and I don’t know anybody here!” Other Chip was immediately offered a beer, and within moments became the life of the party. He was drinking, he was dancing, he was whispering into ladies’ ears, he was hootin’ and hollerin’ and high-fiving people. The guy knew no one there (who even invited him?), proudly proclaimed his social disadvantage as an opening salvo, and proceeded to rule that party until the end of the night.

9ecc3487-a5e8-4cea-88b4-f81dc8586cdd
Not Other Chip, but you get the vibe

Other Chip fascinated me. I didn’t know a human being could possess this level of confidence, especially someone who shared my strange boy-name. I had until this point never heard of another human being named Chip. It was a strange feeling to grow up with a name that, as far as I knew, was assigned solely to me of all the billions of people who had ever lived. Until that night.

I watched Other Chip for hours. I just didn’t understand how another person could have my name, nor could I grasp how a person – regardless of name – could walk into a room not knowing anyone and become the life of the party. Despite my youth, I knew I was witnessing something rare in nature.

Another reason I remember Other Chip is because of what happened when my mom called the party house. I can’t remember why she was calling – maybe to tell me to come home at a certain time in the morning. So Mom calls the party house and asks for Chip.

You see where this is going.

Mom certainly knew I was not the only Chip who had ever lived, but she also understood it was an uncommon name. When she called the party house she felt she did not need to specify a brown-haired, green-eyed, smallish boy. She just asked for Chip, and said it was his mother calling. Whoever answered the phone immediately corralled the life of the party and dragged him to the phone.

“Hello?” Other Chip said.

“Hello?” Mom replied.

“Who is this?” asked Other Chip.

“I’m looking for Chip, this is his mother.”

“This is Chip!”

“What?”

(Confused) “This is Chip, who is this?”

(Annoyed) “His mother, my name is Gloria!”

Other Chip’s face screwed up, trying to emerge from a beer-soaked haze. He blinked his eyes and tried to wrap his brain around what was happening. Finally he said,

“My mom’s name is Betty!

Well, that settled it! Other Chip’s mom’s name was Betty, and this woman’s name was Gloria, so the facts didn’t add up: Gloria was not Chip’s mom.

I caught this because I heard the rumblings through the party: “Chip…” and “Mom…” and “Phone…” My face flushed because I knew exactly what was happening, and as I quietly made my way through the grown-ups I saw Other Chip becoming increasingly bewildered as he argued with this strange woman.

Somehow the phone got to me, and Mom told me whatever she needed to tell me. The next day she relayed to me the story of her conversation with the rude man; Mom thought Other Chip was pulling her leg. She was worried and getting angry during the call because this man was obviously drunk and her little boy was in a strange place. I felt it my duty to inform her that the inebriated, confident man was indeed named Chip, and was likely legitimately confused by the phone call.

I did not meet Other Chip that night, and I never saw him again. I received no high-five from this older, cooler guy in solidarity with a ten-year-old with the same ridiculous nickname. The course of my life may have changed if that supremely confident partygoer from the seventies had shared a handshake or a witty aside with a small kid who shared his odd, boyish name. “Hey kid, Chip is a cool name. Go ahead and eat lunch with the industry nerds at the conference, it’s fine. Tell ’em Chip said so.”

Bill Gets Hit By a Bus

Where I grew up in Southern California, we didn’t call them bodegas, packies, party stores, markets, delis, or deps. We called them liquor stores. The one closest to my house in North Hollywood was on the corner of Laurel Canyon and Burbank Boulevard. When I was younger, the liquor store’s chief draw was candy and video games. When I was older, about fifteen, the proprietor’s adult nephew would leave me cash rolled in tight bills hidden on the sidewalk out front, and in turn I would leave him baggies of marijuana behind the Bazooka Joe display inside the store.

The quickest route to the liquor store was to climb over the six-foot wall in my back yard, drop onto a ledge, and then hang drop about nine feet down to the subterranean parking structure of the massive apartment complex behind my house. Then go through the sunken parking lot, which jogged through a narrow passageway to its sister parking lot, and eventually to the far north end of this hundred-unit monstrosity. From there, walk halfway up an outdoor stairwell, and climb over another wall to a much more modest apartment complex. Cut through the small, street-level parking lot behind this complex onto the strange, jungle-like yard of a house on Laurel Canyon that was probably over an acre in size. This could have been the only actual house on that stretch of Laurel Canyon. It was all dirt driveway and jungle, with smallish living quarters toward the back of the lot, and a natural shortcut on the way to the liquor store. After all this hopping, dropping, and cutting through, you finally emerged onto Laurel Canyon proper, and were halfway to your destination.

I had a friend named Bill, and I don’t remember much about him. If I hadn’t been there when he got hit by a bus, I might not even remember him today. I must have known him  from Walter Reed Junior High, but I have almost no memory of him before or after getting hit by the bus. We were at the liquor store because we took the bus home from school together down Laurel Canyon. I disembarked at the Laurel and Burbank stop, and normally Bill would have stayed on the bus for a few more stops. But on this fateful day Bill got off at my stop to play video games. The plan was for him to jump on the next bus that would come twenty or thirty minutes later and not be too late getting home himself. The video game we played was a Donkey Kong knockoff called Crazy Kong.

crazykongMy memories are notoriously unreliable, especially from the smoke-filled teenage years, but what follows is the best of my limited recollection. Bill and I both loved hard rock and heavy metal, and we had been listening to Live Evil by Black Sabbath on his boom box. And yes, teenagers – myself included – would regularly  bring boom boxes to school in the 1980’s. (I realize only a handful of pieces into Police Horse, Black Sabbath already plays a major part in two of them.)

Time got away from us, and I was in the middle of playing Crazy Kong when Bill noticed the next bus arriving. He grabbed his boom box and bolted out of the liquor store, jay-ran across Laurel Canyon IN FRONT OF THE FUCKING BUS trying to catch it, and the bus hit him. I didn’t witness Bill getting hit, but I feel like I did. Just prior, I heard him panic when we both saw and heard the bus coming, I saw him grab his things and bolt out of the door, then I heard screeching and crashing and screaming from the street. So in my mind I can picture the gruesome collision, although there was no way I could have actually seen it.

In an uncharacteristically unselfish move I abandoned my game mid-play, ran outside, and saw Bill across the street laying down in front of the bus. I freaked out of course; I thought he was dead. But when I made it across the street I was relieved to see he was alive and probably not dying. An ambulance came quickly and took Bill to the hospital, while I collected his damaged boom box and his school backpack for safe keeping.

The radio was smashed to pieces, but Black Sabbath’s Live Evil cassette was miraculously unharmed. I played it on my own boom box at home, and Children of the Sea sounded as smoking hot as ever. I chalked it up to the Evil Overlord’s grand plan: The Metal could never be destroyed. I told this BlackSabbath-LiveEvil-Frontstory for months, convinced that demonic forces preserved the infamously occultish band’s unholy offering. Years later, I came to realize that audio cassettes were quite durable; the best way to break one was to play it ten thousand times or leave it on the dashboard of a hot car. Other than that, those white or tan plastic pieces of music were pretty well indestructible.

The next time I saw Bill he was hopping around on crutches in a full-leg cast, and I returned his Black Sabbath tape, backpack, and broken boom box. His mom thanked me for being a good friend. Of course I felt guilty for leading him off the bus in the first place, but – you know – not crippling, soul-sucking guilt. He must not have gone to my high school because I had no further memory of him. I don’t know his last name, and I’m not in contact with him on social media. I wonder what his version of this story is? Does he even remember who was there with him, or what tape was in his boom box?

It’s a common expression, getting hit by a bus. Someone at work told me the other day “If you get hit by a bus, we’re screwed.” I thought “YOU’RE screwed? I’m the one who will be screwed!” I assured my colleague no one would be screwed, because I document every fucking thing I do and how all my systems work, but still, we describe losing someone quickly as getting hit by a bus. Like Bill, poor old Bill with the indestructible Black Sabbath cassette.