Tuesday, October 04, 2005

invisible zines #2 

my worst job

The phone line was based in an office block on the outskirts of Leeds; next to the motorway and I never did work out what went on in the rest of the building. My supervisor was evangelical about the job: so much fun, such easy money and I’ll admit I imagined it’d be a cinch.

All I had to do was keep paying punters on the line without admitting I was getting paid to be their friend. . I mean it wasn’t a job I was proud of taking, but I was a student and skint. Talking nonsense has never been a struggle for me, and there was no nasty uniform to wear so it sounded pretty good to me.

Over zealous colleagues should always ring an alarm bell, I realise that now. That were 5 of us who joined at the same time; only two of us ever started paid employment. The first thing we had to do was assume a new identity; we needed a new name for security reasons and a fictional location because not everyone could come from the same town. I remember I chose Brighton because it had to be somewhere you could talk about convincingly if necessary.

Strangely I can’t remember what my alias was; somehow I find that quite disturbing because it was such a big deal at the time. It makes me fear what else I have forgotten. You had to use your adopted name at all times; it was strictly forbidden to reveal your real name to anyone, including the other workers. I found that slightly creepy, not having a clue who anyone really was because somehow names do matter. I was made to feel slightly guilty for the small talk I’d made with the other new starters; of course I’d introduced myself and asked them who they were; now we all had to erase our memories.

Training consisted of repeating two mantras: Never use your real name and this is a chatline, not a sexline but the line seemed pretty blurry to me.

We were all supposed to flirt like crazy and seduce the callers into staying on line by any means necessary; the supervisor said we could, and should, say anything except we were ‘sticking x in y’ or ‘touching hairy parts’ This required a different license apparently. At the same time we were encouraged to tell callers what underwear we were wearing and to make very poor carry on style innuendos. I guess we were the teleporn equivalent of loaded; a guilty little secret for people too scared to reach for the top shelf.

Apart from the two commandments, training entailed learning how to use the phones and the not-quite-live chat relay system; You said something then hit the number for the line you were saying it too; they could retrieve it when they had finished talking to whoever else they were in conversation with; this got slightly confusing on occasion, I was pretty good at forgetting who I was wittering onto about what but I usually found a flirtly little giggle or an admiring sigh got me out of most things. Induction took less than an hour and then we were working

I was surprised by the number of calls we got; just how many people wanted
Three types of callers. The first were the inevitable leery men; mostly they sounded middle aged, middle england, small minded. They wanted flattery and flirting; I pretended to be impressed by a lot of swish cars and flashy job titles; I often wondered how truthful they were being and if they really believed I was as prefect as I sounded. I quite enjoyed creating a whole new persona based on the not so subtle clues they passed on about what they wanted me to be.

When I think about it now I feel nauseous about this but at the time I figured if they are stupid enough to call they deserve exploiting. Perhaps my karmic payback for my complicity in this sick game is my total inability to flirt in the real world.

The second type of caller were the most fun and the ones I never felt guilty about; they were people calling from offices to waste a bit of time and company money. They wanted to exchange the kind of mildly amusing trivia you hear down the pub; judging by the kids tv they remembered most were in their twenties and thirties. Once I asked a guy why he risked his job for they sake of a few crap jokes about pot noodles; I assumed his office had a pretty severe netnanny. I never heard his answer; my call was terminated and a voice on the line gave me a bollocking for sounding like a worker instead of an ordinary bloke.

The third kind of callers were the ones that really disturbed me and that I hated talking to. They didn’t have much in common with each other except they were clearly desperately lonely and needed to talk to someone.

The person I remember most was a young woman with a baby I could hear crying in the background. She told me she lived in a flat in Glasgow and her mum couldn’t forgive her for having a baby and all her friends were doing their gcses and couldn’t be doing with her an more. The baby wouldn’t shut up and how could she stop it and what was she meant to do when it screaming was driving her mad and she couldn’t sleep and did I know what happened in Coronation Street tonight because the bloody baby kept throwing up and she just didn’t know what to do. I was crying too by the time she hung up.

I was told people like this would phone almost every night and often bond with a particular person, so if you got on well with them sometimes you’d have to pretend not to be there or it might look suspicious – this also gave someone else a chance to chat to them so hopefully they would start forming a ‘friendship’ with them too. After a couple of months this needy soul would vanish because their phone had been cut off. I hated that we were supposed to string them along and I’ll admit I did my best to surrepticously tell them to find help. This was hard to do but I’d suggest a book or talk about a friend who had been through something similar and called the Samaritans; something like that. I often got criticised by my boss for being too nice but this making money out of loneliness really got me down.

I wish I could say I left for ethical reasons but actually my resignation was far more pragmatic. I got put on an 11pm-4am shift; for obvious reasons post pub and club hours were always the busiest. There were no buses home at that time and we weren’t allowed to call taxis to the office; the location had to be kept secret at all costs but even if it didn’t the cab fare home would have cost too much. I didn’t fancy walking 4 miles home on my own every night so I quit.


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