“Hi, Mrs. Grimes, this is Helen with… ”
“Not interested.” Click.
“Hi, Mr. Lester, this is Helen with Tank Titan Septic System Cleaner. We make ---”
“I told you people to take my name off this list.” Click.
“Hi, Mr. Hardy, this is Helen with Tank Titan Septic System Cleaner. We make a septic tank cleaner for your home system that is guaranteed to help reduce large chunks, odors and wet spots… .”
“You just woke me up, bitch. Call here again and I’ll kill you.” Click.
“Have a good day, sir,” Helen said, as he hung up on her.
It was ten o’clock in the morning. Helen Hawthorne had made more than a hundred calls all over the country in two hours, waking up people in Connecticut, irritating them in Iowa, ticking them off in Texas.
She hadn’t sold anything so far today. She was desperate. So was everyone else in the telemarketing boiler room. Desperation was ground into the foul wrinkled carpet. It clung to the dirty computer screens. It soaked into the scuffed white walls.
How did scuff marks get eight feet up on the walls? Helen wondered.
“Let’s hear you selling, people,” Vito the manager said, as he prowled the aisles, making sure everyone was calling. “Loud and proud.”
There was nothing proud about this job, although it was loud. All sixty telemarketers were shouting their sales spiel into the phones . . .
Girdner Inc. was a company with a split personality. The Girdner Sales boiler room was on the fourth floor of the office building. Dirty, dingy, hidden from sight in the back of the building, its staff sold septic-tank cleaner from Maine to California.
On the first floor was their showcase, Girdner Surveys. They conducted slick surveys for suits at the national ad agencies. Girdner Surveys looked like an expensive lawyer’s office. A rain forest had been cleared to provide its mahogany paneling. The carpet was expensively subdued, some color between blue and gray. It was like walking through a soft smoky fog. The dignified receptionist could have been a dean at an exclusive women’s college.
Helen thought there was something weird about the dual operations. Why was the survey side fit for corporate kings, while the boiler room was the most awful office squalor? Couldn’t Girdner afford fresh paint and carpeting for the boiler room? Couldn’t they at least clean the place?
Vito the boiler-room manager was never seen in the elite Girdner Surveys. Neither were most of his telemarketing employees. The Hispanics and young blacks in their tight tank tops and outrageous platform shoes, the junkies, felons and bikers, were not allowed through the mahogany doors.
Boiler-room refugees like Helen came in the side entrance and were hidden away in a phone room. That door was kept shut. She was below-stairs help, well-spoken enough for survey work, but never seen by the high-priced clients.
Girdner Surveys was presided over by a preppie named Penelope. In her early thirties, Penelope’s beige hair, skin and suits were forgettable. What Helen remembered was her stiff, rigid manner. She reminded Helen of those dolls with the bendable joints. Penelope talked through clenched teeth. Helen thought her other orifices were probably clenched, too.
Penelope did not give pep talks to the phone staff like Vito. She hated talking to them. When she was forced to communicate with the lower orders, she sat behind her desk, gripping her chair arms and staring straight ahead.
Mostly she issued orders to the phone room supervisor, Nellie, a lively blonde who had more personality in her little finger than Penelope had in her whole body. Nellie, fat and fifty, had a voice so alluring that men proposed marriage when she called them.
“OK, ladies, it’s just the three of us tonight,” Nellie said. “We’re recruiting from the A-list, which does not stand for asshole, no matter how abusive these guys get. These are the richest names in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Broward Counties. We’ll pay good money -- two hundred bucks if they’ll participate in a martini study. Just remember, two hundred bucks is pocket change to these people.”
Berletta, the other woman working the phones, groaned. “The richer they are, the meaner they are,” she said in her beautiful Bahamian accent.
It was true. Surveys for beauty products, candy and beer, paid only forty or fifty dollars. But most blue collar subjects needed the money. They were polite.
“Cheer up,” Nellie said. “You could be calling doctors.”
Doctors were paid the most -- up to three hundred dollars per survey. Arrogant and greedy, they acted as if they were stepping off their thrones to participate.
“You know the drill,” Nellie said. “Be polite. Be persuasive. We need to sign up thirty people, ages twenty-five to forty, who make more than one hundred thousand dollars a year and drink martinis made with Silver Spur vodka. The computer data base is sorted and ready. Start dialing.”
Girdner computers had incredible information on the survey subjects. Tidbits mentioned in a casual phone conversation with a survey recruiter found their way into the database.
The computer told Helen who took Prozac, lived with a boyfriend, split with their mate or suffered from bipolar disorder. She knew who had a baby -- a newborn opportunity for diaper and formula surveys. Helen could see which women used tampons or pads, information used for personal-care product surveys. She knew who had hysterectomies, disqualifying them for those same surveys.
For nearly an hour, she labored through voice mail, answering machines, “he’s not home” and “don’t call me at dinner” without one bite. Not even a nibble. She was getting discouraged.
She looked at the information on the next prospect: “Age 40. Occupation: Financier. Annual income: more than five hundred thousand. College educated. Smokes Dunhills. Drives a Land Rover and a vintage Porsche 911. Owns a Cigarette boat. No pets. Uses MCI long-distance service. Drinks martinis made with Silver Spur Vodka more than three times a week. “
There was one other comment, this one by a survey recruiter: “Good talker in focus groups but has a bad temper on phone. Can be mean.”
Mean or not, he had the right demographics for this survey. Helen took a deep breath, dialed and said, “May I please speak to Mr. Henry Asporth?”
“This is Hank.” The man had a rich voice to go with all that money.
“Hi, this is Helen and I’m with the --”
“What? Sweetie, wait just a minute.” Sweetie. Helen ground her teeth. She’d rather he was mean than call her sweetie.
Asporth had put the phone down. Helen would wait thirty seconds before she hung up on him. An old anti-telemarketer trick was to put down the phone and never come back.
Helen heard someone say, “Hey! Wait a minute.” A woman. She sounded young. She seemed surprised and a little scared. Then Helen heard a man and a woman arguing, but it sounded far away. It probably was. A house like Hank’s was measured in acres, not square feet.
“What do you mean, what am I doing in here?” The woman’s voice was higher and clearer than the man’s.
The man’s voice was a low, angry rumble, but Helen couldn’t pick up any words.
The woman sounded defiant, but there was a taunting, teasing quality to her voice. She seemed to have the upper hand. “You want it? Well, then you better give me what I want. Otherwise, you’ll never get your hands on it. You’ll be sorry. I can put you away for a long time. You’ve been a bad boy, Hank. You’re just lucky I like bad boys. I’ve waited long enough. I want an answer, and I want it tonight.”
Helen heard the man’s voice again, low and angry, but still impossible to decipher. Even without the words, Helen felt its cutting edge.
“I’m not lying,” the woman insisted, her voice rising.
Then the woman’s voice changed. Now she was afraid. “What are you doing here? Get away from me. No!” More voices, talking over each other. The man, angry. The woman, sounding more frightened. Her high, light voice was easier to understand. His was a low rumble. And was that a third person? Helen couldn’t tell. They were too far away.
Helen heard a loud clunking noise, like something heavy was overturned. Then the woman said something that didn’t make sense. It sounded like, “It’s the coffee --” Her words were stretched into a short, explosive scream.
But there was no misunderstanding her next frantic words: “What are you doing? No! No! Hank!” Her scream was cut off.
Helen had never heard anything as terrifying as the next sound. It sounded like someone was fighting for air. Helen had her hand protectively on her own throat, as if the strangler might grab her through the phone.
“Hello?” Helen said, her voice a frightened croak.
Dead air. Then a click.
Someone had hung up the phone.