Peter Marlton: Crazy Job Vignettes
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been on job interviews, and on many of them I would’ve been crushed if I got hired. I’ve worked in retail, including an upscale coffee store in Westwood (I got fired for “lack of enthusiasm”) and a now-defunct store in Soho called Think Big. It was the ultimate targeted-at-yuppies’-self-indulgence-store selling wonderfully useless things, like gigantic Crayons, four-foot-tall No. 2 pencils, and massive baseball mitts. There was a great sense of humor in all this but what a drag it was working there. The owner had a conniption when I forgot to tell a prospective customer on the phone that there was a satellite store on the Upper West Side. I got fired. I guess for failure to “think big.”
I worked graveyard at Dunkin’ Donuts in Greenwich Village. I had to wear a uniform, which set me back fourteen dollars, almost a fortune at the time. A homeless guy came in at four in the morning once asking for some food. I set a place for him at the counter and gave him coffee, soup, and a couple of donuts. I was unaware there was a surveillance camera. I got fired. I’d like to think I would have served him anyway.
I worked one summer with a bunch of fellow actors in an ice cream store on Hollywood Boulevard. There were lines of tourists down the block every afternoon. By the end of the day I felt like my right arm would fall off from all the digging. I lasted three weeks and quit, unable to wave at friends and unable to afford rehab.
My first job, when I was fifteen, was as a Fuller-Brush man in the Haight-Ashbury. I’d get stoned and try to sell home cleaning supplies, going door to door. One time a very attractive young woman listened to my entire spiel, which took about half an hour. I described and explained, to the extent I was able, all the amazing qualities of the products I knew next to nothing about. She was so attentive, more than any customer I’d ever encountered. And I was so attracted to her. I was lost in my fantasies. I thought there might be a Penthouse Forum piece coming my way, one I would write in a state of stunned ecstasy when I got home. But no, she turned out to be uninterested in anything I had to sell and instead tried to convince me to become a Jehovah’s Witness.
The one job I could always get, no matter what, whenever I was desperate, which was quite often, was selling stuff over the phone. Those phone sales guys would hire anybody. I sold Time-Life Books from an office in the Time-Life building in Manhattan. I spoke to an older man in New Jersey, pitching the World War II series (you had to target products to sell based on the person’s perceived age). The poor guy said, “I fought in the Pacific and had enough of that war to last me a couple of lifetimes.” I sold TV Guides over the phone on Saturday nights to people in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Georgia, who were correctly identified by the marketing department as people who would be home on Saturday nights and answer their phones. I remember walking down Eighth Street to the Lexington Avenue subway in a near-blizzard, on my way to sell those things, wondering what had become of my life. I was twenty.
The most memorable telephone sales job I had was my first, selling office supplies—again, to people in the South. The office was in a dilapidated building in Santa Monica. This was long before there were any legal guidelines limiting the kinds of lies you could tell potential customers. The spiel was as follows, once you got the authorized buyer on the line:
“Good morning, ma’am. My name is (always a fake name – I always used Robert Evans, the head of production at Paramount) calling you from (any big city you felt like saying as long as it was far away). You know that UPS depot that’s right around the block there from you?”
“We have a shipment there of (# of boxes of paper, # of containers of toner) that our customer couldn’t accept due to (fill in the blank:….a water main break…a fire…the owner was deported…the manager got married and stole all the money in the safe…etc). You see, ma’am, it would cost us a fortune to ship such premium product back to our warehouse in (same named city) than it would be to sell it to you at a gigantic discount.”
“No thanks, we’ve got plenty of both.”
“Well, that’s exactly why I gave you the call.”
“Because I don’t need or want what you’re selling?”
“You won’t find a discount like this in a million years.”
Typical response with rare exception: “I’m going to hang up now.”
It was a crazy job! It was fun at first. There were two guys who ran the business, eccentric and entertaining. Extremely talented bullshitters, they were the kind of guys who could sell lingerie to a nun. My fellow co-workers were a wild bunch of miscreants from all over the country.
I wrote about the “interview” for that job in my novel, Eternal Graffiti. Without a doubt the best interview I ever had. I desperately needed the job, so it was a rare case of actually wanting to be hired. The fact that I was hired immediately was astounding to me at the time, although I soon understood why. The guy that hired me, Lee, (whose first name I kept in the book), was one of the most dynamic, hilarious, and likeable people I’ve ever met.
I managed to scrape out a living for a while, and in a way I long for that comparatively uncomplicated period of my life, when all that mattered was just that, making enough to pay rent and eat and have endless adventures. The great thing I find about writing fiction is I get to have as many adventures as I want, as many as I can conjure up, and it’s a real privilege to write them and share them with readers. Writing that interview scene was one of the most fun. So was getting fired from all those jobs. I got to leave work early every time. Those were the days.
About the Author...
Peter Marlton is the pseudonym for Pete MacDonald, who has discovered that writing fiction under another name can be psychologically and artistically liberating—it somehow skirts, without wholly avoiding, the imposter syndrome. Stories and essays published as Pete MacDonald have appeared in The New York Times, The Battered Suitcase (a novella), Inkwell Journal, Barrellhouse Magazine, and others. His original screenplay was a finalist in the Austin Screenwriting Competition.