“Hello?” A tentative voice answers the phone.
“Good morning, ma’am,” I say. “This is Michelle from MBNA and I am just calling to find out why you decided to give up your platinum card.”
“Well, uh — I,” the voice stammers through excuses. “You charged me late fees when I was only late once in 10 years and then you all were rude to me on the phone.”
“Did we do that?” my voice sounds shocked, although I am not in the slightest. Taking on a hint of “Southern Belle,” I proceed to clean up the damage.
“Oh my goodness — the computer says that we did do that and I am just so sorry. Let me fix that for you and tell you what, between you and me, I’ll drop your interest rate to 2.9 percent. Would that help you decide to take the card back?”
“Really? You can do that?” Got her. I check her off my list and sign her up. You bet I can do that. I can do just about anything if it means the person on the other end of the phone will take back their credit card.
I sit back down in my cubicle and wait for the computer to dial up another victim. All day long I talk to people who have given up their credit cards in a noble effort to whittle down their debt or were angered by customer service or just had enough cards already. There are people with medical bills and with college tuition and none of this matters to me because I have one goal in mind: To sign them back up. That is my sole duty, for I am a customer retentionist.
Unfortunately for debt-ridden America, I am also quite good at it.
Of course, I didn’t start out my life wanting to sell people back things they had already given up, but after a long stint of bartending and cleaning houses, a “corporate” job seemed like a good idea. There were benefits for me and my children, steady hours and steady paychecks. I also was getting the increasing impression that my parents were not impressed with my choice to be a career barmaid.
It was nothing overt. Just a strategically-placed classified ads section of the newspaper opened to the “professional” section on the dining room table during a visit home or a conversation dominated by tales of my former classmates who were making six figures and had a “marvelous” home by the bay was all it really took for me to get the hint.
Since college, I had more or less subscribed to the “if it’s not fun, don’t do it” school of job placement.
I am the antithesis of the American Dream. It boils down to the fact, I think, that I hate having a job. Now, don’t misunderstand, I don’t hate work. I quite enjoy all forms of work; from working up a sweat while pulling weeds to typing feverishly for a deadline. I have found, though, in my many years of searching for the “right” job and consequently working at many of the wrong ones, that jobs are boring.
Oh sure, there is the initial excitement and if there is training involved, there is a high learning curve, so that keeps things interesting, but after that — after the job itself has begun — I guarantee that within three months, maybe less, I am on the lookout for a new challenge.
In first grade when the teacher would ask us all what we wanted to be when we grew up, all of the other children had answers. Little Suzie wanted to be a nurse or a teacher. Little Timmy wanted to be doctor or a fireman. There was always one kid who said something like “microbiologist” and would send the teacher to the encyclopedia saying, “That’s very interesting, Johnny.” My answer changed daily.
I am quite certain that Suzie grew up and went on to college, completed it and then very happily made her life as a kindergarten teacher. I am sure that every day she shows up to work on time, puts an appropriate amount in her pension plan, takes her yearly raise, gets married, has kids and emulates what the American Dream is supposed to be.
Every day I meet people who did things the “right” way. They have excellent credit; they waited until their careers were well underway before having the 2.2 children recommended by the FDA; they lived in small condos until they had children and then they bought big, beautiful(actually, I prefer the word ostentatious) houses to raise them in. Their cars always start and they get a new one every three years or when it hits 75,000 miles, whichever comes first.
I, on the other hand, did things backwards, upside down and altogether wrong. I graduated high school and went to a reasonably prestigious and very expensive college in Washington D.C. I changed my major three times in the first semester.
Sitting in Japanese class early one morning, I glanced around the room and for the first time really noticed the other students. Every single one of them looked as though they had just stepped out of a Neiman Marcus catalog. There was not a sweatshirt or sneaker among them. I looked down at myself.
Having just barely made it to class on time, I was in a pair of flannel (today they’re pajamas, tomorrow they’re evening wear) pants and a t-shirt. Having lacked the time for a shower, I pulled my hair into a “you can’t tell I haven’t washed my hair yet” ponytail and ran to class.
“Who are these people,” I thought to myself amid chants of ‘Ohaiyo Gozaimasu.’ “Where do they have to go that requires so much prep time?”
Of course the answer was internships. Everyone had an internship; a little unpaid apprenticeship in the field of their choice designed to prepare them for the $75,000/year job they expected straight out of college. I hadn’t even decided what I wanted to do yet, much less get an internship for it. Did someone offer an internship in “finding yourself?” How about an unpaid volunteer position at the “What Color is Your Parachute” Institute? I was sure I could handle that.
Bartending seemed to me like the perfect job. It was relatively fun. I got to take home cash every night and there were lots of different people to talk to. Also, no matter where you go, even the smallest towns have bars (a sad commentary on society’s priorities, I am sure, but a great reason to have such a portable skill).
“Work is just work, Shell,” my father said one evening over dinner. “If it were fun, they’d call it fun — but it’s not, it’s work.”
In an effort to find that one true calling, I have held many jobs: nursing assistant, Ben and Jerry’s tour guide, weed-puller, babysitter, restaurant-owner — the list is almost endless. I even attended nursing school briefly. Through every single job, one thought stood out in my mind: “How can I do this everyday for the next 30 years of my life?”
I could never resolve that part in my head. Even the fact that I have kept a child alive for nine years still stuns me.
Reading the Sunday paper is an experience for me. It’s not just a look into the world and a base for information, but it’s a fantastical experience where I envision whole new lives for myself. Flipping through the want-ads I can see the choices: marine biologist, teacher, bartender, computer specialist, waitress, engineer — and while it does occur to me that I am only qualified for a couple of these positions, the possibilities seem endless.
The possibilities seemed very real when I read, “Wanted: friendly people to help large credit card company. Excellent pay and benefits.” I got the job.
One particularly ruthless 20 minutes was spent talking to a woman who had given up her card because of her medical bills. After a nice conversation during which I was only half listening to what she was saying because I was waiting for my opening to sell her back her card, she told me that ever since she had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer she had been trying to reduce the debt she would leave behind.
Still, this was not enough to sequester my desire to sell. I was an addict and I would do anything to mark another name off my list. I was about to regale this poor woman with a tale of a lower interest rate designed to make her debt load easier when I caught myself. I realized I had become everyone in that Japanese class, and I wanted to put my flannel pants back on.
So I did, sort of.
I told that woman that she certainly didn’t need this card or any other. I also told her that I didn’t even have a credit card and then we spent the rest of my shift talking about the evils of credit card companies and doctors. Big Brother tapes every call and so I am sure that this one was on the top of the list for the next staff meeting, but it didn’t matter.
I called in sick the next day and never came back. Corporations are funny, though. Even though I had been promoted three times in as many months, no one seemed to notice that I was gone.
How do I know? They kept paying me for three months after I left. Every other week another paycheck would appear in my bank account. I called and told them, but they told me I was wrong, that that couldn’t possibly be happening.
So I kept the money and was blissfully jobless for a few months. I was at my parents’ house reading the Sunday paper when I saw it: “Looking for an exciting career?”