Authors: Dan Fante
IN ORDER TO live at the sober-living house where I lived, I had to not drink and attend three Alcoholics Anonymous meetings per week. At these meetings, I would hear reformed alkies stand up and blubber on about how great and miraculous their lives were without booze and drugs. How wonderful their new job was and what gifts from God and all manner of preposterous, come-to-Jesus bullshit. How they were now able to form lasting relationships or patch up the old ones with their separated wives and girlfriends and how their children had stopped darting behind furniture and fleeing to their bedrooms when they saw them coming through the front door. Tra-la-la. Etcetera. So forth. Not my experience. I was not what AA’s call a WINNER even though the WINNERS are supposed to be the people who haven’t had a drink all day. I was not some transformed, anointed, cured gimp, tap dancing my way through life and thanking God and the Twelve Steps for keeping him sober and saving his ass. Recently, I’d heard Chickenbone, our moron, sober-living house manager, giving an AA peptalk to one of the miserable new guys who was two weeks off alcohol and rock cocaine. At the end of his lecture, he looked the kid in the face and said, ‘You know boy, sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.’ I hate hearing pig snot like that. AA is full of that shit. Philosophical one-liners that imply that life on life’s terms has its ups and downs but will somehow all equal out in the
end. Tell that shit to the guys collecting plastic bottles and soda cans pushing their shopping carts down Broadway in Santa Monica or the young kid I met at the Friday Night meeting who was out on bail after a his last ‘slippy-poo’. He thumped his girlfriend in a blackout and is now about to be sentenced to five years because of the O.J. violence laws in California. Nice work God. Hail Mary, full of grace.
For me, going without booze for the last four months straight was the hardest thing I had ever done. I was sober and no better off than before.
My weekly rent for my dormitory room at the sober-living house was already three days late. I telephoned my AA sponsor, Liquor Store Dave, from the coin phone in the upper hallway. In AA a ‘sponsor’ is your support system, someone who has already worked the Twelve Steps and has been sober a while. Liquor Store Dave had dozens of recovering alkie friends. My hope was to catch a break and get a job recommendation.
After spilling my guts to Dave about getting bumped from Fong’s Home Maintenance and letting him know about my rent situation, he made me endure a five-minutes sponsor lecture. In the end, he insisted that I be willing to surrender to his advice. ‘You can’t think your way into right acting, Bruno. You have to act your way into right thinking. Your Higher Power has to be your top priority. Recovery first, right?’
I heard him leafing through his address book on the other end, looking for a number. Then he stopped. ‘Didn’t you once tell me that you were a writer too?’
‘I’ve got a friend who writes résumes. He has an office in Culver City. Used to be a serious drunk; a hot-shot genius like you.’
‘I don’t know anything about writing résumes, Dave.’
‘What kind of stuff have you written? Bad checks? Ha ha.’
‘Poetry—a short story now and then.’
‘You the next Stephen King?’
‘The last Bruno Dante.’
‘Ever make any money writing, Bruno?’
‘High two digits.’
‘Ha ha.’ Dave kept flipping through his address book. ‘You used to do phone work, didn’t you? Boiler rooms? Telemarketing?’
‘In New York,’ I said.
He stopped turning pages. ‘Perfect. Okay, call this guy.’
I copied down the phone number of a friend of Dave’s, Frankie Freebase. According to Dave, Frankie was a ‘Winner’. He had over seven years of continuous sobriety and was now making good money at a phone sales gig. Then I was given more sponsor direction. Dave told me to write a letter to God asking for help in finding the right career.
What follows here is a copy of the letter I wrote after I got back to my room:
Please help me to know what the fuck to do with my life and how to fix it.
Sincerest personal regards,
When I was done, I folded the letter and stuck it in the fly leaf of the novel I had been reading,
by David Martin.
After sitting quietly for a minute or two, a thought came to me. The AA Big Book on page eighty-seven calls this inspiration and spiritual guidance. The guidance I got was to
go out to my Chrysler and try to start it again. I scooped up my car keys, went downstairs in the nostril-searing heat, and did what the guidance said.
No God. Not a fuck. Nothing.
THE MINUTE HE came on the line and opened his mouth, I knew that Frankie Freebase was from New York City—the typical-type phone guy I had worked with a dozen times. Only more so, because he was an ex-drug dealer.
His questions came at me like Uzi machine-gun fire. When I said that I had six years of experience in phone sales, it didn’t mean anything. But when I said my AA sponsor was Liquor Store Dave, it was as if I knew the secret handshake. I was in.
We talked more. Frankie talked. Non-stop. Twenty minutes worth of words, syllables, and paragraphs escaping his mouth like the Bosnia army fleeing nerve gas.
The company where he worked, Orbit Computer Products, was in the business of selling generic label computer printer ribbons and new and re-stuffed laser printer cartridges. They employed about seventy-five telemarketers. Frankie was one of the top salesmen. Orbit paid its people straight commission. No paid vacations. No 401-K’s. The owner of the company was also a sober AA guy, Eddy Kammegian. Through Frankie Freebase, I got a job interview with Kammegian.
Leon, my room mate at the sober-living house, worked nights as a security guard. He came home, and I talked him into driving me to Olympic Boulevard in downtown L.A. to Fong’s Home Maintenance. In Al Berlinski’s office I turned in my
coupon books, all the vacuums, and my demo kit. Berlinski inspected everything, counting each page of each coupon book to make sure I hadn’t pilfered any of his precious fucking coupons. An hour later, I got my final check. One hundred and forty-three dollars.
Next morning at 5.30 a.m., as prearranged by Liquor Store Dave and Frankie Freebase, Frankie swung by my sober-living house to pick me up. I had slept for two hours. Standing on the front steps, I watched a new, racing-green Jaguar convertible pull to the curb. Frankie was slurping coffee from a Starbuck’s 16-ounce traveling mug. Already wired.
I had my tie on, my sports jacket, and my only pair of good shoes. But I was a schlub compared to my ride. His tan double-breasted suit alone was easily worth a thousand dollars. And either his tie pin was fake glass or a four karat mug-me diamond.
It was still dark, and the streets were empty and wet with ocean mist as we zipped along on our way toward Santa Monica. Boiler rooms in L.A. get started early because of the 3-hour time difference for their East Coast customers. Frankie cranked up the sound level on a Zig Ziglar motivational CD. I had never heard Zig or anything else other than rap music played that loud before. A bank thermometer said it was already seventy degrees. In the distance, to the east, the sun was a wavy bubble just beginning to pulse up through the haze, peeking between the high rise office buildings in Century City. My mind, the firing squad, numb and dumb and tired, went into neutral for the rest of the ride.
Pulling into the company parking lot, Frankie tucked the ragtop Jag into his spot. My interview with Eddy Kammegian was set for six o’clock.
Orbit’s offices were located in a deserted warehouse area
of Santa Monica near where the old Southern Pacific railroad used to dead-end. The company didn’t look like much from the outside as we walked toward it across the gravel: a plain, older, freestanding, one-story concrete box. High up near the roof was a single row of opaque, wire-covered windows. The sharp incandescent lighting from inside was the only evidence of life.
We were stopped by a fancy security door that sported an elaborately-lettered gold sign. The sign read, ‘Through This Portal Pass The World’s Greatest Salespeople.’
To the right above the door frame was a blinking red alarm bulb. Frankie sliced a plastic card through a device and the light stopped blinking, changed to green, and the thick entry way clunked open.
Inside, everything was different.
Orbit was huge—dozens of partitioned-off desks and cubbyholes. The space itself was large enough to be an airport hangar.
Already I could hear the chatter of ‘front’ pitches and whoops of celebration from people closing sales. The room’s intensity reminded me of the Stock Exchange in New York or Sunday afternoon at an Atlantic City casino.
Frankie pointed across the marketing area to an all-glass office overlooking the floor. ‘Up those stairs, hotshot,’ he barked. ‘Remember, knock first. Kammegian don’t like surprises.’
‘Wish me luck?’
Eddy Kammegian’s smile had as much sincerity as Bill Clinton’s. Orbit’s dress code was that all the males wore ties. The suits, like Eddy and Frankie Freebase, were the wheels, the bosses. The guys without jackets, the ones in
plain white shirts with ties, were the regular grunts like me. Women at the company wore dresses or pants with blouses.
He was young to be as successful as Frankie said he was, middle thirties. Big too. Six-three or six-four, weighing at least two hundred and twenty-five pounds, with the look and moves of a nimble primate as he crossed the carpet to his desk. High forehead, hair cut short. Mark McGwire in a Georgio Armani pinstripe. Behind him on the wall were trophies and plaques and a lot of militaristic-looking shit and paraphernalia.
We sat down. His desk surface was the size of two mahogany coffins. The silence was so clumsy I had to talk. ‘Shouldn’t I be filling something out: an application?’ I said.
The salesman’s teeth were back. ‘There’s no paperwork to fill out, Mister Dante.’
Now I smiled. ‘So, how does your company hire people? Like this?’ I asked.
‘Just like this, Mister Dante. Exactly like this.’
‘What about work history? References? A résume?’
‘My agenda in the interview phase is to create a relationship with each of our potential new Account Executives.’
‘You interview everybody yourself?’
I must have made a face. Kammegian noticed me doing it. ‘That bothers you?’ he asked.
‘No. But most other companies this size have a department for hiring. Human Resources. Personnel.’
‘Frankie tells me that you’re new on the AA program. You moved here from New York?’
I nodded. ‘Right. Correct. But I was born and raised in L.A.’
‘And you have experience in telemarketing?’
‘Yes I do. I have experience.’
‘And you’re “good” on the phone?’
‘Oh, just okay?’
‘No, I’m good…I’m a winner.’
Kammegian’s big body tilted back in his oxblood leather chair. ‘Question, Bruno: What’s your definition of “courage”?’
‘In telemarketing. In sales. Real balls.’
I noticed a gold or brass dish on my side of the desk. I took it for an ash tray. ‘Okay to smoke?’ I asked.
‘Orbit is a tobacco-free environment.’
‘Well—okay—I think courage in phone sales is being persistent, continuing to ask for the order—to keep closing until the mooch says yes. That takes guts.’
‘I’d call that tenacity.’
! Tenacity is an admirable quality, but it’s not what I’m talking about. I’m referring here to genuine courage, Bruno.’
‘It takes genuine courage to keep asking for the order, Eddy.’
‘May I give you my definition?’
‘The essence of true courage in any dynamic, proactive sales environment is a systematic sustained effort despite whatever obstacles one may encounter.’
‘Setting goals! Maintaining focus through the beginning days and months of massive rejection. Making call after call. Lashing oneself to the task of achievement, making the unshakable conscious decision to do and go through whatever
is necessary to be a success. That’s real courage. Front-line foxhole courage.’
‘I hear what you’re saying, Eddy.’
‘No, Mister Dante, you don’t. You’re full of shit! You want a job with my company and I’m the boss so the astute thing to do is to agree with whatever I say. Sitting here now if I told you that my senior managers and I ritually put on flowing orange robes, shave our pubic hair, and drink chicken blood in the moonlight on Tuesday nights, you’d look across at me, smile, then nod your head approvingly.’
‘I’m ready. When do I start?’
‘Frankly Bruno, candidly, the person I see before me, across the desk, is a loser, a train-wreck. Your body language screams it. The smell of what you are is now stuck to the walls of my office like the odor of tenement piss.’
I was on my feet.
‘Sit down, Dante. I’m not finished. You’re sober how many days—thirty? Sixty?’
‘What is this?’
‘Sit down. Or leave. Take your choice.’
I stayed standing.
‘In December, I’ll be ten years off booze and drugs.’
‘You’re here for a job, correct?’
‘Yeah, but no one told me I’d have to suck your cock for it.’
‘My top salesman earned two hundred-and-ninety-two thousand dollars last year. If that kind of income interests you, then sit down!’
I sat down.
‘I ask the questions. You answer. Understood?’
I nodded ‘yes’ then changed my mind. ‘So how about asking some of the ones that don’t make the interviewee feel like a gulag inmate?’
The big man’s smile was back. ‘You should have seen your face just now,’ he sneered. ‘Your eyes had the expression of a stray dog loose on the freeway in rush hour traffic. Was that your success face?’
I got up. ‘Know what Eddy—fuck this!’
Kammegian was up too, pointing. ‘There’s the door, bitch! Have a nice day.’
I wanted to move but couldn’t. There was nowhere to go. I felt frozen. Instead, finally, I sat back down.
‘Better,’ he hissed. ‘Now tell me how many phone sales jobs you’ve had in the past few years. What types of products have you sold?’
‘What have I sold?…Everything. Why?’
‘That’s a non-answer.’
‘Okay, name a boiler room hustle…’
‘Let’s narrow it down. What’ve you sold here in Los Angeles?’
‘In L.A. I’ve sold vacuum cleaners door to door and a dating service. No phone stuff.’
I realized that I had nothing to lose. ‘I was a flameout at telemarketing,’ I said. ‘I wound up pounding vodka and snorting coke all day in the phone rooms where I worked.’
‘How many telephone selling jobs have you had? Total?’
‘I don’t know. A lot.’
‘My fuse is getting short, Mister Dante. How many?’
I ticked them off. ‘Credit correction, guaranteed loans, hair restoration, rare coins, tools, office supplies, copier toner, oil and gas leases, knock-off feature videos, ad space, fund raising, porno, cable and wire, driveway cleaner, vitamins, internet website manuals, and discount long-distance. There’s probably more. How many is that?’
‘Orbit is a straight deal, Mister Dante. No lying, no bribing. Our customers are “clients”, not mooches. Clear?’
‘What makes you want to do phone work again?’
‘I wasn’t sure until this morning when I saw Frankie Freebase’s green Jag convertible. Then I was sure. What time should I be here tomorrow?’
‘Our policy is that your first four weeks are probationary. You will be assigned to our “Incubator” on Monday. If you make quota for a month, you’re hired. Understood?’
‘How many AA meetings are you attending per week?’
‘Three, usually. How about you?’
‘Three’s not enough for someone like you. You’ve got stinking thinking. Five thirty a.m. Monday morning. Not five thirty-one.’
‘I’ll be here.’
Kammegian leaned across the big desk. ‘Mister Dante, there are three important dates in my life. Would you like to hear what they are?’
‘Absolutely. I can’t wait.’
‘The first one is the date of my birth. The second one is the day I got sober. That day changed my life. And the third most important date in my life is right now! Today. Mister Dante, to hire one champion closer I have to train fifty people. That’s the mortality rate at Orbit.’
‘You won’t be sorry about me.’
‘My advice: put your balls on the line. I’m a history buff. Washington is my favorite American general.’
‘Glad to hear it. I liked Ronald Reagan.’
‘He wasn’t a general.’
‘He was in the movies. Can I go now?’
‘When Washington was outnumbered, outgunned, his army
exhausted and in retreat, someone—a reporter of the day—asked the great leader if he was considering a surrender. He hadn’t slept in forty-eight hours, he had an unattended leg wound. Washington looked the man in the eye, never even pausing. “We shall re-group and attack,” he said. You too, Mister Dante. Regroup. Attack. You have just joined an elite assault force. And take that ridiculous chip off your shoulder.’
The big man stood up. His hand was out. ‘Welcome to Orbit. Onward and upward.’
‘Banzai,’ I said. Then I shook the hand.