In late September of my senior year in college, my situation was as follows. My girlfriend and I were splitting the rent—$450 a month, about right for the time—on half of a duplex on the edge of Tallahassee’s questionable Frenchtown neighborhood. I hadn’t got a paycheck of any kind since April, when I moved out of the residence hall on campus where I’d been an RA the previous year. My savings were tapped out, and my girlfriend was, understandably, tired of shouldering the entirety of the household expenses. It was a critical juncture for our continued existence as a couple. She was planning to graduate in December, a semester ahead of me, and we’d started to talk about making plans for what might come next. So I needed a job. Any job.
“How about this one,” I said as I perused the Sunday want ads over our morning coffee. By then, scanning the classifieds was the second step of my daily routine. Step one: Make coffee. Step two: Check the help-wanted section. Step three: Sink into a funk because there’s nothing remotely lucrative, interesting, or dignified on offer. Repeat daily until dead. “‘Phone reps needed ASAP for fast-growing company with steady, built-in demand. Evening hours. Salary + comm. + generous bonuses. Call Southern Pre-Need Services at—” I looked up. “I think this is a funeral home or something.”
“Did it say salary or commission?”
“You should call,” she said.
I didn’t want to call. I didn’t want to sell headstones over the phone. I didn’t want to sell anything, really, certainly not by cold-calling people in the middle of dinner. If I’d seen that ad a month earlier, I probably would have ignored it. But I’d spent that month driving all over town in a mounting state of anxiety, putting in applications wherever I could, typing up cover letters, shoving them into envelopes, dropping them in the mail and waiting. Yet the phone stubbornly remained unrung.
I worried about what this might mean for my upcoming job market fortunes. If I can’t even land a part-time, minimum-wage gig at the frozen yogurt shop across from campus, what chance do I have in a situation where they’ll expect me to actually know things or have useful skills? Maybe my girlfriend’s father was right about me. Unlike his daughter, I didn’t have an obvious career trajectory. I was a liberal arts person, not a larval civil engineer. Maybe I really was unemployable.
I didn’t want to call. Something would surely break my way soon. It had to. Just a question of finding the right fit.
My girlfriend stared at me across the kitchen table.
I went to the phone and called the number.
As it was Sunday morning, I got the answering machine. “I saw your ad in today’s Democrat, and I’d love to learn more about the position,” I said. “It sounds like an exciting opportunity, and I think I’d have a lot to offer.” This was the kind of shit we had to say back then, just to get a foot in the door, even though everyone knew it was a transparent lie. It was the ‘90s version of “I’m truly passionate about delivering optimal customer service experiences.” I left my name and number and hung up.
“Think they’ll buy that?” I said.
“I didn’t,” my girlfriend said.
As it turned out, they did buy it. A few hours later, they called back and asked me to come in for an interview on Thursday.
“One question,” I said. “Your ad was a little vague. If I were to get this job, what, exactly, would I be selling?”
“Burial plots,” the woman on the other end of the line said. “We contract with cemeteries all around here. Most people don’t think of making this kind of arrangement ahead of time.”
“I see,” I said. I did not hang up. I immediately hated myself for that.
“Lemme give you the address,” she said. I got a pen.
The interview was at the “call center,” an early 1960s-vintage ranch house on a generous lot way the hell up on Thomasville Road. An imposing live oak shaded half of the front yard. The other half was all sun-baked dirt and loose rock, an improvised parking lot for the poor luckless bastards who worked there—and for me, visitor and aspirant to their state of lucklessness. The area was still mostly countryside back then but by now has probably been built up with car dealerships or McMansion subdivisions. The only sounds were from the birds; there was no traffic noise that far out.
Inside, the nerve center of the operation was set up in the living room. The curtains were drawn and the air was thick with cigarette smoke. Six or seven plus-sized women sat at a pair of card tables set end to end, reading from their yellowed scripts into the rotary phones (ancient even back then) sitting in front of them. Several eyed me warily but did not acknowledge me otherwise. They had calls to make.
The woman who interviewed me looked exactly like you’d expect the manager of a dismal, marginal enterprise like this one to look. Weathered skin, unkempt hair, glasses about ten years out of date, cigarette burning in her ashtray. She explained the job—call the people listed on the three-by-five cards you get at the beginning of each shift, follow the script, make at least one sale per shift—then scanned my resume. She noted the lack of sales experience.
“I’ve done some retail,” I said, even though I didn’t want the job and had already decided I wouldn’t accept it if they offered it. Which they obviously wouldn’t. But if I could make this woman believe I wanted the job, it might be easier to convince myself, and then my girlfriend, that I’d really tried, that I was sincerely disappointed not to get hired. In the moment, this made sense to me.
“Yeah, but not much of it,” she said. That was true. The most I’d ever sold anyone was an entry-level cappuccino machine, when I’d worked at a coffee shop in the mall a year or two before. She twisted her lips into an expression I interpreted to mean that I was lucky to even be getting this much consideration, that I had some balls bringing a resume like this through the front door. This was Southern Pre-Need Services, for Chrissakes. Bring your A-game or stay home, chump.
Then she stuck out her hand. Congratulations, she said. You’re hired. Come back Tuesday at 5:00.
“Great,” I said, caving instantly. “See you then.”
And just like that, I’d broken into the exciting world of post-funerary real estate brokering. Yeah. That sounded better.
Utterly demoralized, I shuffled out to my car. I’d been in the call center for maybe fifteen minutes, tops, but it was more than enough time for the car’s interior to heat up like a convection oven. I got in and sat there for a few moments, processing what had just happened.
In the plus column: I had a job now. I could finally stop filling out applications and mailing in resumes, which was no small consideration. I could relax a little.
And then I imagined going back inside that call center on Tuesday: stepping into that living room and sitting on the folding chair that would be waiting for me. Feeling the smoke settle into the membranes and ducts around my eyes. Leafing through the stack of prospect cards, each one worn and creased from having passed through the hands of so many different sales reps, trying to pick an easy one to start with and having no idea what an easy one might look like. Dialing number after number after number, repeating the sentence or two of that script I’d be able to get out before the prospect would hang up on me. Doing that for four hours a night, five days a week. Coming home each night with a sore throat and reeking of smoke I couldn’t even smell anymore.
Of course, at twenty years old, I did not have the life experience or the perspective to understand that this job, like all jobs, would ultimately be only temporary. That it would have the power to define my life and identity only so far as I chose to give it that power. I had not yet figured out that the movies I’d seen in which college-age protagonists worked in trendy and exciting internships weren’t real, weren’t even meant to be real, and were not at all reflective of the world of work that someone like myself—a person with no connections who was working in college because he needed the money more than the resume padding—should expect.
“I don’t feel good about this,” I said to my girlfriend that evening. We’d opted to go out to dinner at Buffalo’s Wings and Things and pre-spend my first paycheck.
She shrugged. “Would you rather get evicted?” I noted the absence of a we in that sentence.
“Let’s just not tell anyone about this,” I said.
“Why not? You should be proud of yourself.”
I should? Proud of what, exactly? Of being willing to sell my time—to devote twenty hours of it each week to performing a tacky and deeply intrusive task in the service of making someone else rich—for the princely sum of eighty-five pre-tax dollars a week, plus commission, which would be zero because I’d almost certainly never make even a single sale? My heart wasn’t in it and never would be, and while that’s been true of many of the jobs I’d had before and have had since, it seemed more pertinent this time. How could I sell to someone who can hear it in my voice that I’d rather be anywhere than on that call with them?
The weekend came. I tried not to think about the number of hours left until I had to go back to the call center. Even when I did manage to distract myself for a while by watching a movie or a football game, it didn’t last very long. Eventually the countdown was all I could think about.
Tuesday. I woke up immobilized with dread. My first thought was to call the woman who had hired me and tell her I wouldn’t be coming in after all. Sorry. Can’t be helped. My sanity and dignity are too important to sacrifice this easily.
My girlfriend was already gone, either to class or to her own job, in the city’s public works department. Eventually I got out of bed. I made coffee. Poured a bowl of cereal. Eyeballed the phone the entire time.
If I’d heard back from any of the other jobs I’d applied for between my interview and that moment—even just to schedule a phone screen—I might have done it. But I couldn’t risk another month or more of no income. The tension that had come to define the experience of being in our apartment had eased noticeably, and I understood that anything going wrong with this job had the potential to jeopardize the entire relationship, which had been going on for nearly three years by then.
I went to class. My plan was to come home after, change into something I didn’t mind losing to the cigarette smoke, scarf a quick early dinner and then drive up to the call center. It was fine. I could handle it. It was just a job. People do things they don’t want to do all the time. I could grit my teeth and hack through it, for as long as was necessary.
The phone rang as I was rinsing my dinner plate in the sink. It was the call center.
“I was told 5:00,” I said. “Did I get that wrong?”
“No, no, you didn’t,” said a woman who was not the one who’d hired me. This one had a different accent; there was much more South Georgia in her voice. “I was hoping to catch you before you left. I hate to do this, but it turns out we over-hired, so you won’t need to come in today after all.”
“Okay,” I said. “When, then?”
“I don’t think you’re following me here. We, uh, we can’t hire you after all.”
“Are you serious? You’re firing me?” This was an outrage. I hadn’t even had a chance to fuck anything up yet.
“No, not firing, exactly,” she said. “Think of it more as un-hiring.”
“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” I said.
“I know this is disappointing, but there’s no need for that kind of talk.”
“My girlfriend isn’t going to believe a word of this. You’ve screwed me over big time here, so hey, thanks for that.”
“Huh,” she said. “I was about to say that we’d keep your resume on file, but if this is representative of your telephone etiquette …” She trailed off.
“Don’t bother,” I said. “I didn’t even want this shit job in the first place.” And I hung up. This was back in the pre-cell phone days, so I actually got to slam the handset back down on the cradle. It turned out to be much less satisfying than I’d anticipated.
I was free, but it sure didn’t feel like it. Over the previous four or five days, I’d invested a lot of myself, emotionally speaking, into that job I didn’t even want. The job I thought I was too good for. No, I knew I was too good for it. I’d been trying to think of a way to weasel out of it since the moment I accepted it. And now that I didn’t have to lower myself after all, I was crushed.
How could a job as shitty as that—a job that would be made illegal in the state of Florida several years later—reject me?
I probably wouldn’t have cared if I just hadn’t been hired in the first place. There was something especially galling about having that consolation prize dumped into my lap, and then so casually yanked back. The tease of it all. But the worst thing was knowing how easily I could be made to dance to such a meager tune.