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.

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.

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.

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