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facts & arguments

DANIEL FISHEL/The Globe and Mail

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'So, what do you do?"

There are two types of people in the world: those who ask that question, and those who try to avoid them.

When you're a telemarketer in a call centre, you fall into the latter category.

It wasn't supposed to go like this. I had been working as a counsellor at a group home for high-risk youth. When they announced cuts, I reassured myself I would find something. I had two degrees, work experience, great references. After months of applying to jobs online, asking friends and family if they knew anyone who was hiring, and a handful of unsuccessful interviews – a women's shelter, a language school – my panic had fully developed. The worst thing about being jobless is not knowing how long it will last.

When I found myself scanning my apartment for furniture to sell and Googling things like "Can you get mercury poisoning from eating Dollarama tuna fish every day?" it was clear that I didn't need a career. What I needed was a job, immediately.

I turned to the dark abyss of the desperate – Craigslist. Searching through the customer service jobs, I clicked on a headline that chirped: "Interview today, work tomorrow!" I quickly printed out a copy of my résumé, the stripped-down version where I leave out both my degrees and my jobs in Africa. I didn't want to seem like a flight risk.

At the downtown office, a man explained that the job consisted of calling people across the country to sell them newspaper subscriptions. I swallowed. Hard. He asked me to read aloud from a call script. As I cleared my throat, it suddenly hit me that I might actually get turned down for this job, too. I wasn't sure my ego could handle the blow.

But he nodded approvingly and asked when I could start. I had an actual paying job and would be making money the very next day.

I asked for the evening shift so I could keep my days free for job-searching. The night manager showed me to my work station, explained the automatic dialling system and gave me the script. The desks were set up in little pods of four, just like in Grade 3. A young woman twirling her hair smiled and waved. Across from me was Wayne, a 40ish guy in denim and cowboy boots, next to Don, a bald guy in a suit jacket, vastly overdressed in this sea of jeans and hoodies.

In between auto-calls, I got to know my neighbour, Nereen, who worked there six days a week.

"I'm saving money to go to Iran this summer," she said.

"Wow, Iran! Do you have family there?"

"Family? No!" She raised her perfectly arched eyebrows. "Did you think I was from there? I'm going for a nose job."

"Oh." I nodded knowingly.

Of course. Iran – the cosmetic surgery capital of the world.

As for my other podmates, Wayne was an "entrepreneur" trying to pay off some "business debts." Don, a laid-off sales manager, caught my eye while we were both on calls, and mouthed: "What the hell are we doing with our lives?"

Shockingly, the man I was on the phone with wanted a subscription. "Well done," my manager said as I handed him my order form. I got two more sales that night. Leona, the feisty retiree who walked with a cane, shouted: "Ooh girl! You cooking with gas tonight!"

On top of a weekly paycheque, each sale meant an instant cash bonus – $5 for a weekend subscription, $10 for a weekly one. My manager handed me $25. I calculated how much I was making and how much I could spend on groceries. On the way home, I splurged on a brick of no-name cheddar.

Although I had been warned about the abuse, most people I spoke with were polite. I always knew when my podmates had been told off because they'd mutter an insulting generalization about the offender's city of origin.

I thought I was above all that – at first. Then, one night, an angry Albertan snatched me out of my half-trance.

"Oh for God's sake!" he shouted after I'd introduced myself. "Why don't you go screw yourself?"

It wasn't the first time I'd been told this at work. The kids at the group home would often scream insults, sometimes lunging at me, throwing whatever was within reach at my head. It was jarring, but I understood. Really, if anyone has a right to tell me where to go, it's a 14-year old who's been shuffled from one group home to another her whole life.

But this guy on the phone, who did he think he was? I slammed down the receiver. "Is everyone in Alberta a jerk?"

At home the next morning, settled into the couch with coffee and laptop, I got an e-mail from a women's health organization I'd once worked for. They were short-staffed – could I come back for a few months? The pay worked out to a little less than the call centre. Still, it was a respectable 9-to-5 job.

On my last night, I hugged my podmates good-bye. I told Nereen her nose was perfect. Wayne was disappointed we never went out for beers. Don tousled my hair: "Good luck, kiddo." I wished him the same and walked out with 20 bucks.

I started my new job that Monday. Cat calendars and pictures of babies adorned the cubicles. On the bulletin board was a tip sheet on "How to Keep Cool During Menopause." At lunch, everyone took turns heating their frozen Lean Cuisines in the microwave and ate at their desks. Sitting alone in front of my computer, I thought of what I'd tell people when asked what I do.

"Fundraising for a women's health organization," I'd say. "Yes, it's very rewarding. Really."

Before I left the call centre, I told my manager, sincerely, that I had really enjoyed working there.

"I hate to lose you," he said, "You're a natural. Give me a call if you ever need a job again, even if it's just temporary."

It was the greatest assurance of job security I've ever had.

Natalie Willett lives in Montreal.

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