22. “What We Talk about when We Talk about Love”

The summer of 1988 was a terrible one for me.  I worked two jobs, one for Amway, where I was instructed to give minute to minute briefs about what my bosses were doing,  and one working as a telemarketer selling tickets to Broadway shows.  I got to see Broadway shows for free, which is why I took such an annoying, humiliating job.  Once I voiced my opinion to  a co-worker.  “People hate us.  We call their homes, interrupting whatever they’re doing, trying to sell them something they don’t need.”  She looked at me as though I had had a lobotomy.  Obviously, you can’t have too much self awareness to be a telemarketer.

Being a pesky telemarketer was just as bad as my previous job as one of those annoying people who spray perfume on you in Bloomingdale’s.  They dressed me as “Nina Ricci” in a long floral dress that was shapeless, so they actually found a rope and tied it around my waist.  I was wearing too much make-up.  They taught me the correct pronounciation of “Lair du temps” (lair do tom) and sent me to the escalators to spray people like a skunk.  Once they had me sell soap twinkies and whiskey-smelling mouthwash.  I hawked them by hollering,”Wash your kids’ mouths out with soap twinkies!”

“Want to pretend to be drunk at work?  Use our whiskey-smelling mouthwash!”

I was taken off the floor and reprimanded.

I was a terrible Willy Loman.  I was not a positive person, but a cynic.  Once I called a man to sell him tickets and he said, “I’m inside my wife.”  Then why are you answering the phone?  I had a couple of regular lonely sad customers who told me to call again and again, just to chat.  One woman wanted to meet up in Central Park.

The supervisor woman wore sundresses and acted like a drill sargent.  She screamed at us constantly.  “You’re a playwright, huh?  Well you have to sell yourself to be a playwright, and I don’t think you have it in you!”  When I left the wiry boss with a mustache gave me his number and invited me out to dinner.

Raymond Carver’s ” What We Talk About When We Talk about Love”  saved me.  I was down and out, and his tales of broken down poor people gave me comfort.  I had no time to eat a proper dinner between jobs,  so at ten o’clock p.m every night I took the subway and walked home, often in the pouring rain without an umbrella, and ate a Dove Bar for dinner.

Alison, of the couple we met in Paris, had invited me to come live with her in her studio apartment on the Upper East Side.  I slept on a mattress on the floor.  The apartment was on the ground floor with bars over the windows so there was no air conditioner.  Either it was raining or it was 100 degrees that summer.

Alison kept trying to tell me that success in school and an Ivy League education did not determine your success in the job market.  I knew that.  I had read Mary McCarthy’s The Group.

Alison first recommended that I join a temp agency for girls with Ivy League educations.  On the first day of a new job, my new boss called me from his car.

“You’re a @#$% temp? Oh @#$!”  He was screaming bloody murder at me, cursing me out and complaining about everything.  I lasted one day at that job, so the agency sent me to Amway.  I knew nothing about Amway, so I didn’t realize it was a kind of Christian Ponzi Scheme.  All I knew was that I had to call the vendors and get them to submit photos of their cheap, ugly merchandise for the catalogue.  One of the bosses there was a screamer, a woman who screamed at the male co-worker who was nice to me.

At lunch, I would sit in the bosses’ comfortable chair and order pizza.  It was so hot that the delivery man stunk up the whole office when he came in the door with the worst body odor I had ever smelled.

Alison introduced me to her friend Tim, who worked in the theater world.  He told me that that there was a job opening at Playwright’s Horizons theater, selling concessions.  So I applied, mentioning Tim’s name and that I had a master’s degree in playwriting from Brown University.  When I told Alison that I had used Tim’s name, she flew into a rage.  A lot of people were raging at me that summer.

“You don’t know how hard it is to make connections in theater in this city!” She screamed.  “Tim has cultivated his contacts for years.  He didn’t give you permission to use his name!  He doesn’t even know you!”
She wouldn’t let up.  Obviously the real reason she was upset is that she was tired of me living there.  Especially since I never bothered to clean but just watched her and commented on what a drag it was for her to have to clean on the weekend.

To shut her up, I told her I would write a letter to Playwright’s Horizons withdrawing my application.  She regarded me with stony silence until she suggested that I move back in with my mother until it was time for me to move to Seattle to earn my Ph.d.

When I got home, I saw my mother rinsing out my suitcase with a hose. “I wasn’t going to tell you this,” she said, “But your suitcase was filled with cockroaches and cockroach eggs.”  Oh, God, all the time I had been sleeping on the mattress on the floor, cockroaches had probably been crawling over me.

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