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.