Many of my fellow callers would almost constantly complain about Share. I would of course agree with this but my frustration went much deeper. I was never happy with the job itself, apart from all the other issues. The boredom, self aggrandizing nature of the job, and the lack of meaning seemed to affect me more than it did most of my co-workers.
For maybe the first year I had been at Share I had been a good fundraiser, sometimes close to the top. After that I had gone steadily downhill, although I had occasional flashes of brilliance throughout the second year. The fact is I had lost interest in the job. My Dad set this in motion, I think. One day he said to me something like “I hate to see someone working so far below their potential”. My Dad was completely right of course. Interestingly after that, after I grew to hate the place, my Dad changed tack somewhat and encouraged me to stay at Share where, “At least you’ll have health insurance”.
Regardless, I certainly didn’t need anyone to tell me I was underemployed. I worked in China and Russia. I ran an education center in Bosnia. I travelled in Central Asia. I’m a historian/anthropologist/activist. I’m a voracious reader. I would never be happy working in a call center. Why was I there as long as I was? Good question. Primarily because, in my situation, its not that easy to get jobs .Of course I always saw Share as strictly a means to an end. I had worked like a dog there for quite a while, doing a huge amount of overtime when it was available, and sometimes when it wasn’t. By the end of the second year though I realized I had made as much progress in my life at Share as I could, given the low pay of the job. That’s when increasing frustration set in.
I goofed around a lot, starting from around when I had been there a year or so, I guess. I had a co-worker who I used to like to sit with, a guy named Brian. Brian was always very quiet. He completely stayed out of all the “bullshit” at Share. He was an extremely nice guy and had a wicked, if understated, sense of humour. Brian and I got into a joking sort of relationship as friends. I liked Brian a lot-he’s one of the few people at Share I miss. Anyway when I first came to Share there was a woman (I’ll call her Jasmine) from India. Jasmine’s father was a veterinarian. The three of us, Brian, Jasmine, and I, would often sit together while making calls. The Humane Society was one of Share’s biggest clients. As I mentioned in an earlier I thought the national Humane Society was basically a scam. The HSUS is a gigantic financial vacuum cleaner, sucking up money from those least able to afford it. Well, part of their “shtick” is that they send a huge amount of unsolicited junk-key chains, name tags, sometimes stuffed animals etc. to anyone on their mailing list (and its impossible to get off their mailing list). Few donors like the junk that they are sent. Jasime started calling the Humane Society “trinkets”, as in “I’m calling trinkets today.” Eventually Jasmine left, having found a “real job” with a biotech law firm. I took a cue from her though. I started calling the Humane Society “weasels and gerbils”. One time I started singing this..”weeeeeasels and geeeerbiiils”. Since this was in effect making fun of the job, I thought Brian would be upset. To my surprise he got a kick out of it.
The goofing increased. Brian, in his late forties I think, was a big fan of classic rock. We’d often talk about music and bands. I think I impressed him by how many songs I knew. “Kate, the human iPod”, he would often call me. In a sort of collaborative effort we made up a song based on “Morning Has Broken”, the Anglican hymn made famous by Cat Stevens. I always thought this song was a very beautiful anthem, a homage to nature and the new day. The version that Brian and I came up with ;
“Please help the geeeeerbiillls
Help theeeeem todayyy
Please help the geeeerbiils
Help theeem to play”
“Help the gerbils/Help help the gerbils/Help the gerbils yeah…
“Imagine” by John Lennon. “Imagine there’s no gerbils/Its not hard to do/Soon I’ll be the only one..”
Besides the singing,I started getting very dramatic about the calls. I would profusely thank the donors for their past support. “Thank you soooo much” I would say in a loud voice, often banging my fist on the desk for emphasis. Of course, I couldn’t care less about their past support, but I had to say something.
I made friends with a guy in his sixties named Len Alterman. A very nice guy, Len was laid off from the chemical industry. Like me he basically hated the job. Len told me that some time before I came to Share there had been a woman caller who used to cry while doing Human Society calls. Of course she didn’t mean it, it was just a way of cynically making a sale. I thought I would try this. I wouldn’t do this to get a pledge, which I really didn’t care about. I would do it as a way of hamming it up, my subtle or not so subtle protest at being stuck in a meaningless, mind numbingly boring job.
I began doing do Humane Society calls with the maximum amount of histrionics.
“Thank you so much…soooo much.” I would graphically describe how chickens were killed somewhere. “Its horrible…just horrible…just awful…they’re gonna die..they’re all GONNA DIE!!” I’d put as much bathos into this as I could and climax with mock crying. Surprisingly, the first period I did this, it worked. People actually gave money. This was something I felt guilty about.
A few friends of mine-Kevin, Nabanita-another friend from India, a few others, and the college students who were working for Share temporarily, thought I was hysterically funny, although in a sarcastic kind of way. An increasing number of my co-workers, the “lifers” though thought I was annoying. Several women, all long term callers, were very upset at my goofing and (I found out later) became very vocal about it. There were complaints to management about me. Surprisingly, for a long time management did not say anything to me about the histrionics. Kevin told me that a lot of other employees were also upset, although they weren’t as vocal about it. I was basically mocking the job and my fellow callers, the long termers for whom Share was (at some level) their chosen career, were offended. I felt bad and , after a few months at least, I toned it down. I could never do the calls completely straight though.
I had a few fans. Several people, including someone who once worked as a stand up comic in New York, said they thought I would be good as a ..stand up comic The catch for me was that my goofing, taken out of the context of Share, might seem mean spirited, making fun of the plight of abused animals or of the donors themselves. I didn’t mean it this way. I was mostly goofing about the job.
I continued goofing but more quietly. I developed a mock obsession about “saving gerbils” (This was completely non-sexual, I know the Richard Gere jokes, my humour did not have this meaning) I would add a few “gerbilisms” to the calls. I would tell donors about the “endangered Mongolian gerbil”. When calling for public radio or public TV I would mention the much beloved “Gerbil Hour” or the award winning “A Boy and his Gerbil”. Our calls were monitored and sometimes Brian would worry about me. “Watch it Kate”, he would warn.
Later on at my tenure at Share I tried to revive the histrionics. It didn’t work as well as when first tried it though-donors would know right away that I was goofing. I continued to subtly goof though. We would often call the Appalachian Mountain Club. I’d tell donors of the need to “clean up the trails…get rid of the vodka bottles and the roach clips, clean up the seeds and stems.”. The AMC was usually a hip crowd and they would take this in stride.
Eventually I developed a set of routines. I would ask for someone. “I’m sorry, he/she isn’t home right now”, would be the answer. I would reply, “Don’t be sorry, its not your fault he/she isn’t home right now”. Most people would get a kick out of this. Sometimes I would get “I’m sorry, he/she is at working” I would reply, “Don’t be sorry, you should be glad he/she is working. So many people are unemployed right now”. Again most people got a chuckle out of this. Occasionally though someone would be annoyed or just confused and hang up.
A fair number of donors would be nasty. People would try to verify that I was a “paid solicitor” and use this as an excuse for not giving. I would turn the tables on them. “Are you paid to this?,” a donor would ask. I would reply, “I do get paid, but not very much” or I would would say, “Of course I get paid, do you get paid for your job?” Most callers would hang up after that. Sometimes an angry donor would ask, Why are you calling me?” I would straightfacedly say, “To pay rent and buy groceries-I need the money”. There would usually be shocked silence and a hang up after this. One time a woman I said this to replied, “I can’t believe you said that” and I felt a bit awkward.
Sometimes if the person I was looking for wasn’t home I would be asked if there were any messages. If I said “no” the person on the other end would usually be offended or angry. Eventually I learned to counter this by simply saying who I was and what I was calling for. One time though ;
Person on phone: “Can I take a message?”Me:”No message” Person on phone:”I think its very rude not to leave a message”. Me: “Okay, I have a message. Tell Lee to be at the Book Depository at 1:00. The president’s motorcade passes by at 2:00. I will bring the package.”
This was an obvious spoof on the JFK assassination and the zillions of conspiracy theories associated with it. The person on the phone was flabbergasted I think. There was silence and then a hang up. The person sitting next to me heard me say this and I think he also was also flabbergasted. I became something of a legend at Share. In hindsight, I think its utterly amazing that I wasn’t fired earlier than I was.
As I mentioned, I did have a few fans. One day Nabanita, a grad student from India, started goofing on me. She did an excellent Kate imitation, going though all the routines I used. She later said she thought I might be upset by this. Instead I got a huge kick out of it. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. We got together for coffee shortly afterwards and got to be good friends.
The boredom and meaninglessness of the job continued. I continued with making up songs. My favourite one was a joint collaboration between Brian and myself. This was during a time when the “dialer” or the server, began speeding up the number of calls. Since Share got paid by the contact, this work speed up would help Share at the expense of the workers. Our song was based on “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel.
“Every time I come to Share /I make the calls/pretend to care/uh huuh…
and every time the dialer cranks/It sends them running to the banks/uh huuh..
and every call I make reminds me that I long to be…
Homeward bound!/Home, where my books are waiting/Home where my music’s waiting
Home, where my computer’s waiting/Silently for me.”
One day a few friends of mine where talking about a place called “American Stonehenge” in Salem, New Hampshire (not to be confused with Salem, Massachusetts, where they did nasty things to witches 300 years ago). I have never been to American Stonehenge. Its supposed to be evidence that some advanced culture had existed in North America, long ago. Barry Fell, “America BC” type of stuff. This gave me another idea for a song. I draw on a long standing interest in paganism and off beat religions. This song is based on “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel.
“Hello Cthulu my old friend
Its Time to speak with you again.
It hasn’t rained in many weeks
Its time to snatch a victim from the streets
To sacrifice him/to all our gods
To make it rain
Oh what a pain
Is this all in vain?
The sound….of sacrifice.
I had a second verse, “I walk the temple halls alone…” A co-worker, Harper,who is an active Quaker and who I had gotten to be friends with, thought this was hysterical. Unfortunately I forgot most of it though.
I continued spoofing on old songs-the Beatles, “When I was younger, so much younger than today/I never cared about/the gerbils in any way.
The Who; “That deaf, dumb and blind kid, sure is mean to the gerbills. /He beats them and he kicks them, he hurts them every day/Please give us money, to stop him right away…/
Sometimes when making calls, after the introduction I would forget what what I was supposed to say next. “Umm…the reason why we’re calling…the reason why we’re calling…ummm..the reason why… Brian sitting next to me would quickly interject, reminding of what call I was on. One day I tried to see how many times I could get away with repeating, “the reason why we’re calling”, before going into my “pitch”. I found I could repeat this up to five times before a potential donor would hang up on me. I made up a techno song about this,
“The reason why we’re calling…
The reason why we’re calling…
The reason/The reason
The reason why we’re calling…
The reason/The reason…”
It had a nice beat to it.
The songs went on and on. After the first year I toned down the histrionics. By my second year or so at Share it was already too late though. The second batch of managers, those who were long termers, had me targeted. I had numerous run ins and what I thought were serious attempts to fire me. Surprisingly I weathered the storms for a total of three years, until the ax finally fell..
As far as I knew there was no policy on what name you could use. My friend Kevin was seriously worried that using his real name to someone could come back to haunt him. He would make up names like “George Alterboy”. One day both of us were reading an old newspaper article on the war in Iraq. There were ideas for names. Kevin could be “Kevin ReveredShiiteCleric”. I could be “Kate TheBattlefor Fallujahcontinuedintoitsfifthday” Making light of the US destruction of a country. We actually tried those names a few times, speeding them up so know one would notice.
Eventually I tried incorporating “gerbils” into the names I used. Once I tried “Jessica Gerbil”. A donor didn’t belief that was my real name. “You’re Jessica Gerbil?” she said, mis-trustingly. I told her it was an old Alsatian name. Later I would be “Katie Gerbilstein”, Kate Gerbilheimer”, Katrina Van den Gerbil” (goofing on Katrina Vandenheuval, the owner/editor of the Nation magazine). For a time I was “Monica Gerbilperson”. These names seemed to work-no one ever questioned me on them. Management must have known I was doing this but for a long time no one directly called me on it. I did have run ins with a supervisor, Susan Santorian, who wanted me to do the “traditional Share call” whatever that was. This was an oblique reference to what I was doing. There was another manager, a young woman named Danielle. For a time she was dating Craig, whom I mentioned in earlier posts. Danielle spoke fluent Mandarin and passable Farsi. Danielle once managed an art gallery in Beijing. She was trying to get a job with a Western bank in Asia. Danielle had a fascinating background but unfortunately she was a rather nasty person. She seemed to tolerate me though. One day she said to me, “I don’t like that name.” I asked, “What name?” The answer was “Gerbils”. I was a bit miffed at her but my friend Brian forced me to restrain myself. Danielle is now working for an investment bank in Singapore. Share gave a going away party for her which very few people attended. She was not well liked.
My performance rating, originally fairly high, plummeted. After the middle of my second year at Share I realized I had accomplished as much as I could there. Anything else was just marking time, or rather a waste of time. I lost interest in the job. Apathy and cynicism turned to hatred. I got to be increasingly vocal about hating the job and the whole place. I had a routine-a
“campaign to burn Share down to the fucking ground! That’s why we need your support now. Millions of Americans are being tormented and hounded by phone calls pressuring them to donate money to bogus non-profits. We have to stop this abuse now! Do to your support, we have won a great victory. Back in march we got most of Share shut down for a week and a half. This is good news but, unfortunately, we still have so much more work ahead of us. That’s why your gift of $20…
This was an oblique reference to a roof fire Share had, towards the end of my time there, after which most people there couldn’t work for almost two weeks.