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.