Walter Cronkite needed a summer vacation backup on the CBS Evening News. Why not me? The call never came. At 15 years-old, CBS was not an option. Instead, I accepted a telemarketing assignment peddling Topholus Brothers circus tickets. Age and experience aside, my patter and diction showed promise. But the evolving maturity of my voice, sounding like a cross between the teenager I was and a clarinet, reduced my broadcasting career to calling random strangers to sell them things they didn't need or want. My summer work home became a windowless call center next to the Beaver Brand horseradish factory, in Beaverton, in the Beaver State. For one-dollar an hour, and discount circus tickets, I tortured people on the phone.
The job interviewer was a talking blowtorch.
"So, what is MI4-7935?," said the guy with the bearded-lady lapel button named Rob.
"It's a phone number."
"What kind of phone number
"An American one."
"North or South?"
"Northwest of North or South America?" Rob said. What's with this guy, I thought. "What's the MI for?" he added.
"It's part of the number."
"Right, what number?"
"For the letters?"
"Yeah, the letters, what's the number for the letters?"
"The M-I part…? I don't know, give me the phone?"
"So I can tell you what the numbers are."
"Oh…yeah." He pushes a rotary dial across the plywood tabletop.
"Alright, well, I guess you can handle our phone lists then. You get it."
Taking more questions about my work history, I mumbled through my youthfully thin resume recounting a paper route at the Beaverton Valley Times, a window washer job at the Beaverton Car Wash, and picking strawberries. Nothing about sales experience or closing deals. We talked hours and pay, and I was ready to go. Rob had an extraordinarily low bar and I somehow met or exceeded it.
I was escorted to the call center pit: a dingy set-up with plywood tables and plastic folding chairs, whitewashed walls, and a half-dozen framed pictures of circus performers going full throttle: a pudgy trapeze artist, roustabouts manhandling a big-top tent into position, and a man on stilts juggling balls. The photo gallery also included a post office-style wanted poster of two grimacing blockheads, later identified as the Topholus twins. Eight call stations filled the dimly lit room, bare bulbs swinging from the ceiling. Staffing this hellhole were three guys who channeled a cross between the Three Stooges and the Beverly Hillbillies, a Hindenburg-sized woman named Stephanie spilling from her skimpy clothes, a pair of toothy guys who might have been from the Osmond Family, and a caramel-skinned girl from Mexico or Honduras or wherever. The Topholus Brothers spared no expense in hiring the best of the worst, excluding the girl: she had a certain charm despite the Rin Tin Tin t-shirt. The call center was the kind of place the Marine Corps loved because it drove young men to recruiting centers to take their chances getting killed in Vietnam, potentially seen as a better option.
"Sit and go." said call commander Rob. "Start calling." He turned on his heels, bounding out the door.
At my workplace sat a sales-pitch script. The text was a nonsensical manifesto filled with typos, hype and false promise. If chimpanzees could fumble together letters of the alphabet into a Wheel of Fortune message, it would have read: "Never give a sucker an even break." The pitch:
"Good morning/afternoon/evening Mr/Mrs/Miss Whatever-your-name-was/is…
The child inside you and your own children, excited by the art of clowning, jugglers on stilts, and the smell of fresh cotton candy, would love to see the Greatest Show in (your city here)!
Today and today only, discounted tickets are flying off the shelf allowing you to experience the combination of great circus traditions: Almost naked men, women and children swinging from rooftops – performance that seems super-human and almost is. Acrobats, clowns and animals -- prancing, dancing and entertaining! All for you and yours.
Topholus Brothers Circus brings to (your city here), for five nights only, the connection of people and things, the smell of wonder, the joy of flying – memories for the rest of your life and beyond. Slapstick humor and comedy at your doorstep, all for the discounted price of seven-dollars a ticket. Half-price for the kids and almost half-price for our lovely seniors."
The circus had been started by Theo Topholus, the brother's father. Launched in the Greektown section of Omaha, Nebraska, he'd made a modest amount of money touring the show through the Midwest post-WWII. The Topholus Circus was to circuses what Betty Crocker was to cooking. Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey would funnel their rejects to Topholus. Roaming from Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas, north to South and North Dakota, Theo scraped together a basic existence to keep the dreary enterprise afloat. In 1968, Theo suffered a fatal heart attack, slumping against an outside tent turnbuckle while canoodling a blonde ticket taker during a show. The twins inherited the business and were methodically running it into foreclosure, accumulating enough debt to float land-locked Omaha. The Topholus Brothers dressed in matching sea-blue overalls, blue and white sailor T's underneath, their salt and pepper mustaches spilling over their lips. The stop in Beaverton was part of the Circus's final west coast swing. Once complete, the tired acts, high mileage clowns and the Topholus twins could be shot through a cannon into an unemployment line.
Employing my nascent broadcasting skills, I eagerly launched into my new professional career. Script in hand, intently focused on my first call and the opportunity to separate the working class from their money, I plugged my fingers into the rotary dial and started swinging. My call list included all the people with surnames ranging from L-O, starting with Mr. Alvin Laape.
"Good evening Mr Laape." I said. I had no idea how to pronounce his name. Was it pronounced Lop? Lop-pay? I said Lop. Nice try.
"It's Lop-pay," he said. "L-a-a-p-e."
"Right, well, Mr. Lop-pay, the child inside you and your own children, excited by the art of clowning, jugglers on stilts…."
"…and the smell of fresh cotton candy……Mr. Lop-pay? Hello?
There were two-hundred and seventeen names on the call list. The first 23 names were either not at home, or those who were, hung up somewhere between "stilts" and "Beaverton." Mr. Latham hung up as I hit the word "art" moaning into the phone "Fuuuuuuuuuuu…..click." Mr. Austin Lantana, whose name invoked a bon vivant, was very polite as I made it through the first two paragraphs, politely absorbing my pathetic voice on the phone. Finally, he said "What kind of loser calls people on the phone scrambling circus tickets in the middle of the day? Why don't you apply yourself, go to school and then get a real fucking job. In the meantime, quit fucking calling me. Click." Sound logic. What kind of loser…hmmm. This kind of loser, I thought. Rough bunch. I needed a bathroom break to regroup.
I bounded through the door, realizing that everyone but Stephanie was in the hallway having a smoke. I introduced myself to the Osmond twins first, then the genetic experiments from the holler: Jethro, Elmo or Alvin -- whatever their names were. Looking at Jethro, a tall toothpick in a blue flannel shirt with the sleeves missing, I wondered how he could see straight with one eye focused on Pluto and the other on his Pall Mall. Made me dizzy just looking at him. Next to him was Miss Guatemala, Rin Tin Tin anchoring the security desk, daring me to reach for her. Amidst this gaggle of dropouts and half-wits she looked, if not like a million, then maybe like a quarter-million dollars. "I'm Lita," she said. Lovely Lita meter maid, nothing can come between us, I thought. I guessed that Lita was about 18 or 19. A tall ladder to climb for someone my age. But, hey, gotta start somewhere.
Looking at Lita, I said "You guys having any success scoring points with these dopes on the phone? What a hostile bunch these people are." The taller, thinner Osmond forced a Mad magazine smile filled with broken teeth. Alvin emitted a snort to call the chickens. The other guys were cautionary tales for those who brush their teeth with a hammer. I wondered if there was a used-teeth store I could recommend to get these guys geared up and ready for caramel apple season?
Lita dipped her chin, expelled a plume of smoke, then tilted her head back up and said, "You haven't learned the trick yet?"
"What trick?" I said. The guys waiting patiently or struggling to keep up, I'm not sure.
"That you only score when you hit the old lady lotto," she said. A thin smile creased her lips, her brown eyes like milk chocolate drops.
"How does that work?" I said. Lita was pretty cute, despite a less than generous smile. I wanted to stuff her cigarette into Jethro's Coke and wrestle her into the adjacent broom closet and perform an emergency tonsillectomy with my tongue.
"The only people who buy these useless tickets for this idiot circus are the old ladies. Once you mention children or kids, they go haywire and want to buy up the place. You just have to spot them on the call list," she said. Smart cookie, been around the block.
Armed with new and valuable information, I went back into the box for round two and more calls. Beaver Brands was hard at work next door, the room filling with an acrid mosh of horseradish and organic slop. As the day evolved, I had the worst headache of my life, my temples throbbing like Japanese taiko drums. I recalled my brother telling me a story about his friend Eddie, who worked at Beaver. Eddie said he was told to scoop anything and everything into the batch mixer, and if it included rodents or bugs, so what? Note to self: Never, ever, buy or eat Beaver horseradish.
Scanning the call-list I teed-up Mrs. Ethel Lennon. With a name like Ethel I became hopeful. She sounded like the kind of grandma with deep pockets I needed. The rotary wheeled. A thin reed of a voice answered. "Hellooooo," she said. A sing-song voice that reminded me of Julia Child on that cooking show. Down the dreary road telling my incomprehensible story, I tried my best Cronkite voice, enunciating words just so, hoping to land Mrs. Lennon. Putting special emphasis on the notion that children love circuses, freelancing my own thoughts to include mermaids and sea monkeys, deep-sea diving clowns – a one-of-a-kind circus, I asked Mrs. Lennon whether she had grandchildren who might love to visit the circus. She was patient, she didn't hang up.
There was an initial pause, then, "No, dear, they sadly passed in a car accident early last year. Broke my heart," she said. "The Lord called my daughter as well." Silence. Talk about a show stopper. Maybe I should buy tickets for her to cheer her up? Now what? That won't work. Beaver-on, so to speak. Need to do something. Time for the big sell.
"So sorry Mrs. Lennon," I offered. "But maybe the circus will make you feel better, cheer you up. The clowns are really amazing. They're funny and clever and it might bring back pleasant memories of the family you lost." I felt like I was hitting my stride, developing an ability to improvise on-the-fly and be humane at the same time.
"I don't think so, dear," she said. "I'm just not up to going out. My heart is broken." My thought was either double down or cut my losses. Ethel was starting to get to me. What would Lita do, I wondered. I asked Mrs. Lennon to hold. Lita was between calls.
"Lita, I've got a lotto on my hands and she doesn't want to commit. Any idea how can I close the deal?"
"Tell her the tickets are free if she gives you her credit card number."
"Get her credit card details and tell her the tickets are free. A charitable contribution from the Topholus Brothers. Today is her lucky day. Then just run the transaction and send her the tickets." She said it with such confidence that it seemed the only thing to do. Still, I hesitated.
"That seems a bit off, no?"
"By the time we're out of here next week it won't matter."
With Ethel on the line aging, I had to roll with it. Lita was kind of cute and crazy. I was debating whether to ask her out for a date or call the police.
Pitching the idea to Ethel, she was ambivalent and no doubt wearied by this time. Finally, she said okay, that she'd buy the tickets and give them to friends. Closing a sale was exciting, even if I felt like a heel. Consider the consequences later, I thought.
With the sale closed, I silently celebrated my skill as the world's best telemarketer. At least until India and the Philippines came online with a low-cost solution to deliver the pitch.
After a series of fortunate lotto calls landing squarely in positive territory, I caught Lita's eye and swung my head towards the door to indicate break time maybe? My chance to advance the deal with her.
Standing in the hallway chatting up our successes, Lita recounted her conversation with Mrs. Farquhar, getting the numbers for her Visa, Discover and American Express cards, ringing up three sales at once. No shame in that I guess, if you're lovely Lita grifter lady. Her conversation slowed, her eyes narrowed as she looked through me. She reached across, grabbing my shoulder and planted a kiss on my lips, Rin Tin Tin and her modest breasts pressing against my t-shirt. No words. She leaned back, turned and walked into the call pit, leaving me wondering. Nice innocent peck, for sure, but her breath stood out: Maybe I could recommend a bacterial mouthwash, the smell of cabbage or vinegar making me re-think my strategy with her. Or maybe it was Beaver Brands and the toxic cloud drifting through the air. Whatever. At least I didn't have to make the first move.
Towards the end of the day, Rob charged through the door with what looked like a fresh sunburn to tell us that our ticket sales had fallen short. Channeling George S. Patton from the Battle of the Bulge, he thrust out his chin, threw back his shoulders, and said the quota was not just intended to be our target, but our life and death responsibility. We were dying. We had sold enough tickets to fill the men's and women's bathroom with people. About 20 units. Stephanie was busy painting her fingernails glossy black, her breasts spilling out of her canary yellow tank top, enough real estate showing to build a landing strip. Rob called for her attention. Reaching her right hand up, she admired the gloss on her middle finger. Rob, nonplussed, carried on.
"Guys. We need to step it up. No tickets, no bonuses. We need to stay late to get this done," said Rob. "Gotta bear down a bit, that's it. Let's get it done, OK?" There were some moans and grunts and we were back on the phones. But, by now, I'd had enough. Stealing credit card numbers and ringing up false charges seemed like the short road to Sing Sing or some version of it. Prison didn't appeal to me. Plus, sitting in this room filled with losers was depressing. Once this fiasco of a day ended I was leaving and that was that. With my limited options, I still might make lemonade out of this with Lita, though, maybe.
Team Dysfunction worked the phones until almost midnight, scoring a dozen more sales, setting what Rob said was the all-time worst single-day sales record. With Shetland ponies instead of stallions, a double amputee clown in a wheelchair, a 200-pound four-foot-eight trapeze artist named Hectorina, who doubled as the bearded-lady, along with the dopey Topholus twins, the circus was a disaster destined for community TV in the Balkans.
Shuffling out the door, I approached Lita. "How about a smoke before we head off?" I asked. She studied me, considering her risk progression. "Sure," she said. Flat, unenthusiastic. I had no idea what to talk with her about. Think of a script, I thought. What should I say? The desperation of the inexperienced.
"You might just be the most beautiful girl I've ever seen, Lita, and I'm not making that up." Although that was exactly what I was doing. "I'm no expert, but you're pretty hot," I said, gaining confidence. "Do you have a boyfriend or something?"
"I'm married to Rob," she said with little enthusiasm, a forced confession barely above a whisper. Was she saying no? "I'm married," she repeated with greater emphasis. I pulled on my Marlboro and stared at Rin Tin Tin, who gave nothing away. What was I thinking? A 15-year old trying to date such an older girl? Mustering all that courage for nothing? Jesus. What was that kiss all about? Confusing, but I needed to say something. "Cool," I said. "That's pretty cool." Cool the way shooting a squirrel with a B-B gun is cool. Another pull on the cigarette. Silence. Who cares? I thought. She had breath like mustard gas and was a sociopath. Move on, I thought. No need to belabor this.
"I'm not coming back," I said.
"Did you tell Rob?"
"No, maybe you could."
"You've got a lot to learn kid," she said. This from a woman coming to a prison near you.
"I'm sure I do, Lita," I said. I was rooting for Rob to blow a dog whistle to get Rin Tin Tin motoring and Lita to follow. Time to go.
"Lita, it's been a load of fun," I said, tossing my cigarette into the gutter. "See you around maybe. Gotta go."
"Right," she said.
Walking towards the bus stop, the air filled with failure and relief, I remembered my father's words. He'd said that walking away from failure could be as useful as leaning in, reaching for something good. Sometimes the failures are the most telling, where you learn the most. "You'll win more than you lose, Champ," he promised. With the mercury vapor lights illuminating the quiet, deserted streets, all I could think was, I hope he's right.