Friday, October 29, 2010

You Know, The Shriners?

I don't remember how I found the place initially, but I'm guessing it was because of the banner that read "JOBS JOBS JOBS" hanging out front.  People in town didn't know the actual name of the business, but if you told them you worked at "JOBS JOBS JOBS" they would smile in recognition.

It was a series of folding tables - sturdy metal frames with particle board tops laminated in fake wood grain. Stained by years of coffee slopped from Styrofoam cups, they stank like the ashtrays sitting at each telephone. The phones themselves as stripped down and basic as the rest of the room, were black with gray buttons, their cords tangled on the floor.

The sales goal for the night was written on the bottom right hand corner of a small dry erase white board with each of our names listed above. We would fight over whose name was written in what order even though it held no bearing.  Everything was a competition, and nothing was given up lightly.. A notch was made by each name as sales were made. $32 sale was one notch, $64 was two and so forth.

On the phones, my first name was always Frank.  The last name would vary.

"Hello, Mr. Washington?  My name is Frank Stevens and I'm calling with the ______ _____ Shrine Temple Number 53, you know - The Shriners?  How are you this evening?  Great!  The reason for my call is you were kind enough to help us send 6 underprivileged children to our annual variety show last year and we were hoping we could count on your support again this year..."

We always said "you know - The Shriners?" because we wanted the person at the other end of the line thinking of the guys in funny hats and the little cars at parades.  We were told this was preferable to the fact that our contracted client was actually an African American community organization.

I was consistent with my numbers, but I never got the really big sales. I think there was one time where I sold a $128 package, but for the most part they kept the big ticket leads for _______. He would hunch sullenly over his phone, mumbling into the receiver so quietly you rarely heard him until the receiver would go back into the cradle and he’d exclaim “YEAH FUCKERS!” ruining two other potential deals in the process.  He would jump up, his chair tottering on the two back legs until they finally settled down on all four, and run to the board to mark himself four slashes for the sale.

We were children, and we acted like it. 

I was too young to drive when I first started working there.  Some of the other guys drove cars or lived close enough to walk, but I had to be dropped off and picked up each night.  My mom would complain that I smelled like smoke, and I would patiently explain how everyone there but me was a smoker, scared she would catch a whiff of Marlboro under the four pieces of Big Red I would be chomping on.

Occasionally a few girls from our school would get hired on, but the constant smoking or our childish leering meant they'd rarely stick around long enough to see two paychecks.  We were a core group of four or five teenage boys, with a rotating cast of characters who never really made the cut.

We'd work from 5:30 to 9:00 each night, and a few hours Saturday morning, running through the sales script for whatever organization had hired us out for their event.  It was always for the kids though.  Economically disadvantaged, disabled, disenfranchised, whatever.

"Hi, may I speak with Mr. Donaldson?  Hi, this is Frank Griffin calling for Special Heart for Special Children.  How are you tonight?..."

We would walk to the grocery store that anchored the strip mall for snacks during breaks.  We'd stop at the drug store for drinks and cigarettes.  We'd spend our paycheck at the sports card store, and fight over who got the better rookie cards.  We'd brag about the girls we'd been with (or lie about the girls we'd been with, at least in my case), and talk about the beer we were going to drink that weekend until one of the owners would come out of the office in the back and yell at us to get back on the phones.

I don't remember the exact process of how it all came to an end.  One day we had a meeting where the tearful woman who ran the shop explained check kiting to us, a term I had never heard before.  She explained that we would have visits from the FBI and that they were there to just review her books and that we as the sales group had done nothing wrong.  We continued to make our calls, but the two agents in the back office dampened the mood.

No one had been getting rich off the backs of underprivileged kids, she had just been trying to pay bills and cover payroll.  Shockingly, the half a dozen teenage boys they had on the roster hadn't been enough to generate a living for all those involved.  Instead of seeing it as a lost cause, she scrambled to keep things afloat.

The parent company that she worked for said they were going to work with her and she would be able to avoid jail time if she cooperated fully with the FBI and their internal investigation.  She complied on all fronts, and they promptly took her to court.  I had left the job by the time she was sentenced but I'd heard that she'd pulled some sort of weekend only jail time for awhile.

A few years later, I was working the counter at a gas station in Utica, Ohio when a lady came in and asked for a pack of Salem 100's.  I looked up to see it was her.  We chatted for a minute in the awkward way people do when they would really be anywhere else instead of rehashing the past.  I asked about her family, and she asked about mine.  She started to leave, then stopped and said:

"I'm sorry.  I always felt like I let you down.  You're just a really good person...a good guy, and I kind of fucked things up for everyone."

I felt this overwhelming desire to tell her I wasn't great at all.  I wanted to tell her of all the shitty things I had done just that week alone.  I wanted to make up even worse stuff just so she wouldn't feel so bad.  I didn't know where this accountability to me had come from, but I was uncomfortable with the label - unhappy to be seen as a person good enough to warrant this kind of naked apology..  I opened my mouth to say some of this, but she smiled and stepped out...the bell above the door cutting off my words.