(from a Katrina prompt, The Path)
When I was 37, I started working at a business-to-business telemarketing office that has long since gone out of business. Because of that, and because I name no names, I feel I can write honestly about what went on there. Also, the owner got married, closed the business, and moved to a sunny retirement state twenty years ago. I’m out of her reach and she’s out of mine. Mostly.
Anyway, the office was located off Barbur Boulevard/Highway 99 on a sliver of land between 99 and I5 South, overlooking South Terwilliger. This is a hilly area. The building had a tall front entrance, but I would always walk around the building and scramble up a gravel path to the back entrance.
It’s hard to remember why I chose this route. I have a dim memory that this shortcut knocked off a set of stairs. I’m lazy about stairs and always have been, so this is possible. But it’s just as likely that I did this to avoid the smokers who congregated out front.
There was a man and two women who stood out there discussing “politics” and aggressively flirting with each other in ways that were downright graphic. The man liked to share details of his sex life, which was bad enough, but the women (one of them an ex-con, the other an ex-logger) both had unfortunate teeth and eating disorders. They were always angling to get their skinny limbs next to each other for size comparison.
You can see why I might bypass.
My preference for the back entrance prefigured my initial attitude towards working at this office. I quietly did my own thing, so it took some time for me to realize that the owner of this company yelled at her employees, especially one woman with a pronounced lisp. The owner would summon this employee into her office, close the door, and let that person have it over, I don’t know, like seven second pauses between calls, or too-frequent bathroom breaks, or two-minute conversations on company time. Once her bile was expelled, the door would open and disgorge a bile-covered, shuffling, often sniffling employee, who was then expected to go back to a desk and produce, produce, produce.
For some reason, she never yelled at me.
In addition to running her telemarketing business and berating her employees, the owner also offered business consulting services. I sat in on a few of her presentations to small business owners about how to improve their sales. Her answer was always the same: they needed to hire a business-to-business telemarketing agency. She just happened to own one of those.
Once she got the contract, skilled marketers like me (a single mother with a high school diploma who had not worked in an office since she was twenty) would deliver results. Leads. Sales. Signups. You name it, we’d give it the best effort that $8.00 an hour could buy.
It was grift at its finest.
First on the list was ease. The office itself was close to my home. The hours aligned with my kids’ school schedules. I was paid more than I earned at the mall. I wasn’t on my feet all day.
Second on the list was that I learned how to use a computer here. I had no idea how to do that when I started, none. I started on an old DOS based program. Within months, I almost Windows-literate. I was also learning the intricacies of business-to-business telemarketing—meeting with clients, writing scripts, assigning campaigns, analyzing data and then writing reports that blame the databases for the abject failure of all campaigns to achieve promised results—that stuff. For this, I received trifling raises and unofficial promotions.
Third, and perhaps most important to me, there were good people in this office. We had fun. Sometimes, when the boss was out on a sales call, we frisked and gamboled like giddy lambs, throwing Kush balls at each other and comparing Solitaire scores. Once, I wrote the office manager a check for a million dollars so he would mow my overgrown lawn (he mowed the lawn but never cashed it). One of our seasonal employees was incredibly intelligent (she’s one of two people I know who have been on Jeopardy). I became friends with another woman, enough to have her to my home off and on for a year. You can find her in the Gentry books (hint: she’s an English major).
So I stayed.
I’d been there just over a year when the owner called me into her office, sat me down, and offered me an exciting opportunity. She wanted me to join her in the consulting part of her endeavor. I’d be out there at her side, doing consultations and drumming up business. According to her, I’d be a natural.
In the six weeks between when I left this office and when I started school, I wrote the screenplay that became my first novel, which quickly led to my second, and so on. At the end of the first book, Gentry has failed everyone and God, and he hates himself for it. He would need to be punishing himself in the second book.
I had an idea what that punishment might look like.
I remember jotting down a page of notes about the second book, back when I was still trying to hide the fact that I was writing from everyone. Most new writers do this. You don’t want anyone to know about your new secret addiction, so you hide it and lie about it because what if someone found out that you were writing???
Anyway, as I made notes, I was cackling. It was fun to imagine how terrible an office would be for Gentry. An assault and an affront and a perfect way to punish himself for his self-perceived transgressions in Oregon.
His purgatorial workplace held a sad woman who lisped, a creepy guy who said gross things, and Fanny, of course. Gentry was a beleaguered IT guy who committed small acts of secret rebellion. My characters were constantly berated by the owner of the company, who summoned them one after another for a good cleansing yelling session about how useless they were. My favorite bit was when Gentry summarized the PTO/health insurance benefits offered by his employer.
How can I explain my benefit package to Mike? It’s a complicated arrangement of smoke and mirrors, designed to give the illusion of benefits. I have health leave as long as I never get sick. I lose all accrued personal time off if I ever take any. I’m paid by the hour if I work less than forty hours a week, switching immediately to salary the moment I put in an hour over that. “Mike, I’m told that I have benefits, but I have no retirement, no life insurance, no dental, no vision, and my health insurance covers no prescriptions, no physicals and no illnesses.”
This was absolutely accurate.
Were there parallels? Clearly, yes. But my fictional office was in Oklahoma, not Oregon. I assumed I was safe, even though much of what I used would be familiar to anyone who had worked there. I couldn’t help myself. And this book has been my favorite of all the Gentry books, right up until I finished the fifth one.
I wrote a lot of first drafts while finishing my degree at Portland State. I mistook them for finished novels, but thankfully I graduated with honors and went to work in a different type of business. One that creates products, as opposed to grift. My company offers employee benefits, as opposed to that stuff I described earlier. I’ve worked there for over twenty years.
My office is downtown. When I take the freeway home, I pass the old building where I learned about B2B telemarketing. It’s right there, and perpetually hung with “FOR LEASE” banners. How could I miss it?
But sometimes, I drive right past without a glance. I’m thinking about my day, or singing too loudly, and I don’t even see it. Other times, I look over toward that back entrance and I swear, I can see myself as I was back then. A much younger me, dressed in the office attire of the day. A pastel striped top. A pale pink skirt. White pumps with one-inch heels, and pantyhose, by god, I used to wear pantyhose. I look like Easter Sunday, 1998.
But those one-inch heels dig into the gravel as I scramble up that path, on my way to wherever it is I’m going.