The summer after high school I lived at home with my parents in Phoenix counting down the days until the dorms opened up and I could move down to Tucson for college. I was like a prisoner scratching days into the wall. That was a bad summer. I had no boyfriend and no romantic prospects, I had two friends and I was pretty sure they liked each other better than me, my parents were mad at me all the time or maybe I was mad at them, I was broke as a joke, and the state took away my driver’s license after I racked up my third speeding ticket before turning eighteen. I also had this terrible job. It was a job I could mention in passing without it sounding terrible. I worked at a photography studio, a fixture of the community that shot family portraits and engagement photos and senior pics. I was an artsy kid, always aiming my point and shoot at the clouds and chain link fences and art deco buildings downtown, so the job sounded pretty good, except that I never went near a camera, print, or prop. I never even saw the clients. I was a telemarketer.
The boss was an older lady who wore quite a lot of jewelry and shimmery, silky tops. If she wasn’t glamorous, she was at least reaching for it. If she wasn’t the owner, she ran the place within the inch of its life, and she kept a stable of girls in the back room wearing headsets and working the phones to get people on the books for a free sitting for an 8×10.
Does it sound like we were offering free 8×10 portraits? Yeah, that’s what the customers thought, too. There were no free portraits. We were offering a free sitting, i.e., we were waiving the $50 fee the studio usually charged just to walk in the door.
We had a few different lists–customers who had come in before and residential lists that the boss had recently invested in with the hope of reaching new customers. The warm contacts were not warm. Most of them remembered that for years and years, the studio had offered free 8×10 portraits to first time customers. Most of them had taken advantage of that deal to score a new family photo or picture of the new baby and not been back since. People loved that deal, but too many people didn’t buy anything on top of the free 8×10 and the studio was losing money, which is the reason it had to go and also the reason that the portrait studio had a telemarketing arm.
The boss had updated the scripts to be technically accurate but not explicitly clear. On the phone, I always tried to emphasize that I was inviting people to come in for a free sitting not a free photo. The offer was not enticing. Most people didn’t realize there was a sitting fee in the first place. The people who picked up on the distinction right away were pissed and disinclined to schedule an appointment. The people who didn’t catch on until the end of the call, after they had gone to the trouble of finding time on their calendars to book and I reiterated that we couldn’t wait to see them for their free sitting, were even more pissed and inclined to cancel or not show up. There were also people who sounded so excited about the appointment that I was pretty sure they had misunderstood. I felt bad about those people, but I couldn’t explain to them what they had done, warn them what was coming. It wasn’t in the script. Were they pissed when their pictures were printed and they got the bill with no free 8×10? I had no way of knowing–that was weeks down the line and the photographers handled their invoicing–but I could guess, and those were the customers that made me feel the worst.
The cold contacts may have lived in the desert but they were like ice. The National Do Not Call list had been signed into law that spring, just two months before I started working at the studio, and registration for it opened up while I was on the job. Enforcement wouldn’t begin until October, but the people who knew about the law were not shy about screaming “Put me on your Do Not Call List!” into my ear. People who didn’t know about the law were not shy about yelling at me, either. Of course, most people didn’t answer or hung up the phone when they realized I was selling something. The few people who stayed on the line long enough to hear my pitch seemed to understand that there was no free picture but didn’t think much of the offer and even if they did, weren’t about to take time off work to come in for a family portrait in the middle of the summer.
That was the other thing. The people who did schedule always wanted to book a few weeks or even months out but we were trying to fill empty slots in the next two days. The whole thing was weird and we all knew it, the people on the phone and the girls in the back room.
The job was embarrassing and demoralizing and the teeniest bit sleazy and I’m not in contract with a single former coworker, and when I think about it I have nothing but warmth in my heart. In my memories, it’s always golden hour and the strip mall studio is glowing in the desert sun. The call lists and fresh and the appointment books are full. The boss is beatific and bestowing us with dollar store goodies for a job well done. The radio is on, alternating between country and r&b. The girls are taking a break from dialing or covering their mouthpieces while the phone rings and telling jokes. We are all busting up.
Those girls, and the boss too, did a lot for me. The girls treated me like part of the team even though I had nothing in common with the peppy former cheerleader or the farm girl from the rural northeastern part of the state or the older girl from downtown Mesa who lived with her grandparents and loved The Temptations or the ex-meth addict who paid her utilities one week and lived next to a guy who gave people tattoos on his porch. The girls made me laugh all day at a time when the rest of my life felt bleak. The girls taught me that the cheapest place to get lunch was the cafe at the Target across the street. The girls told me not to trust the guy I’d met on a dating site for Mormon singles who would end up selling me drugs and ripping me off. The girls helped me call the police when I thought I wasn’t sure if I’d been assaulted by a different guy. The boss let the police come to the studio, let me make the report in her private office. The girls covered for me when I wanted to sneak out for the day and interview for what I thought would be a better job and comforted me when I came crawling back a few hours later, having realized that the better job involved selling knives door-to-door and required an upfront investment of $400.
My job at the portrait studio suuuuuuucked but it was 100x better than calling voters in Texas on behalf of the Democratic party, which is what I did yesterday afternoon. The answering machines and hangups that made up the majority of my calls were a relief. Every interaction with a person on the other end of the phone was painful. There was the woman who got pissed when she heard the word “Democrat” and refused to give any indication who she was voting for except that it wasn’t Biden. There was the troll who said he wanted to talk and then kept me on the phone while he pretended to take a piss and sighed and groaned into the phone. There was the Biden voter who said he’d only vote if we took him off our list, NOW. There was the woman trying to do e-learning with her child and the man at work who asked me to call back after five and I said I would knowing I had no control over when the software would dial their numbers again. There was the military guy who wasn’t planning to vote because he couldn’t figure out how to get a mail in ballot and I couldn’t help him because the script didn’t allow it. There were the names I butchered and the languages I couldn’t speak and the calls I didn’t know how to code. Turning out the vote sounds like fun when it’s a rock concert. Turning out the vote sounds easy when it’s on Facebook. Turning out the vote sounds self-important when it’s pestering your family. When it involves talking to real voters you don’t know, turning out the vote turns into a job.
It didn’t matter how badly a day at the portrait studio went, at the end of every two weeks I took home a paycheck. I’m not sure if I did anything worthwhile yesterday except save the campaign from wasting a few seconds on hostile voters and reassigned numbers. I didn’t even come out of it with a good feeling.
I’m going to do it again today.
Do you want to know why?
It’s sure as hell not love of the Democratic party. I support Democratic policies, but I can’t say that the party as an institution has done more for more than the girls at the portrait studio did.
I’m supporting Dems because the other side put a man on the Supreme Court who did the same thing to Dr. Blasey Ford that I reported to the police in the back office of the portrait studio.
I’m supporting Dems because the other side wants to shut down planned parenthood, which is where I went that summer when I was afraid I had been exposed to HIV.
I’m supporting Biden because the other guy paid less in federal taxes in two years in which he was running for and serving as president of the United States of America than I did in two years of working minimum wage job.
Calling people at home is rude as hell but not as rude as Trump was during last night’s debate.
Calling people at home is embarrassing but not as embarrassing as having Trump at the helm of our country.
Calling people at home sucks for everybody involved but I’m going to do it anyway because, unlike our president, I actually give a shit about Americans and want us all to have good lives.
Calling people at home might not make a difference but I want to live in a world where at least I can try.
Voters might not want to hear from the Democratic Party but at least I’m not offering them a free sitting for a $50 8×10.