Growing up, doing odd-jobs and earning some extra cash was never a necessity. I was fortunate enough to have parents who never failed to fulfil not just the needs, but also the wants. While this seems like an incredible privilege, its price only manifested themselves when I turned into a young adult. Through a string of not-so-wise decisions and some colourfully regrettable actions, I found myself taking up a job in a call center. Having never worked in one before, yet alone having done an odd job, my expectations going into the job were vastly unrealistic. My orientation included a collection of “This is a very dynamic environment with so many friendly faces that lift you up,” and “We have this amazing lounge with three foosball tables, two pool tables, arcade games, and free wifi!” and the classic “We are expanding right now, so there is a ton of potential for you to grow within the company.”
Walking into my new work place, with 317 pairs of eyes on me, watching my every move, sizing me up and already forming judgements about me was intimidating; to say the least. I was seated in a corner station, next to a squeaky, Spanish girl who looked like she was barely out of high school. She gave me a sympathetic “I’ve been there” look before turning her attention back to her computer screen. Needless to say, my first day did not take off as smoothly as I had hoped. My station did not start up, as if already rejecting my presence there. Subsequently, I was granted the “privilege” of sitting next to the team leader, Jeremy, who would soon become my self-appointed mentor for the next few weeks.
Jeremy was a talker, threading the fine line between confidence and arrogance. He was a professional wrestler, with many years of fights under his belt. He used his combative and competitive nature to his advantage when doing the job. He also took pride in being extremely straightforward and brazen. Although I found this quality to be endearing at first, it became rather irritating as the days went by. His general disdain for the people around him was nauseating. He would call me his ‘pet project’ and would shower me with advice and tips that at times, came across as patronizing. He took a keen interest in my worldliness and prodded me with questions about my upbringing and travels. He often told me that he did not understand why I was doing this job and that I was “way too classy to be in here.” Of course, it was this worldliness of mine that helped me see through the flattery and into the self-serving individual that he was.
At the end of my first week, I met Alessandro. A happy go lucky Peruvian man who never seemed to let the weight of his troubles get him down. Much of what came out of his mouth was foul language. Yet, I could not help but smile every time he spoke to me. He had a 1,000,000 dollar bill pinned to the board in front of his desk. He said that it reminded him what is waiting for him in a few years when he becomes rich and helped him “give the middle finger to anyone who was not nice” to him. Alessandro and I soon became friends. One day he came to work distraught at having lost his phone. Actually, what has happened was that he had had way too much to drink the night before and had taken a cab and paid for it with his phone since he did not have any cash with him. I found his story amusing and relatable. So I let him use my phone to try to track down where his phone may be. In return, he would get me a nice, foamy cappuccino. “The coffee in the kitchen is way too nasty for your sweet soul” he would say.
During my second week at the job, I found myself at the other end of a particularly difficult phone call. The owner of that business had been harassed by telemarketers so many times that he was ready for me, biding his time, when he picked up the phone. What followed was a deluge of curse words, challenges and accusations. I felt my confidence shrink, self-esteem falter and negative emotions kick in to high gear. All my demons rushed at me through the tiny hole that the insults had bulleted through. I found my mind tumbling through the years of regret, pain, confusion and self-loathing. Every irresponsible decision that I had made flashed in front of me as if a projector deep inside of my brain was playing a PowerPoint presentation. “You alright? Tough one eh?” I felt Alessando’s hand give me an empathetic pat on the back. I smiled in an effort to regain my composure and turned back to my screen to receive the next call. “Fight back. Don’t let them overpower you. Match their energy’ flooded in Jeremy’s mentoring words. I took a deep breath and got on with my day as the only thing to do was to keep going.
Initially I ate at my desk so that I would not have to socialize or make obligatory conversation with my coworkers. Sometimes Jeremy would sit next to me and chomp down half a chicken and a plate full of rice. When he was done, he would wipe his hands on the sides of his jeans. I found this habit to be repulsive but I pretended not to take notice. Instead, I would politely answer his curiosity-dipped questions with as little detail as possible. After a few days, I noticed that he had a deluge of female admirers who would stop by the table and chat with him as he ate. Their conversations left me amazed at how little ambition these people had. Some of the women had a child or two out of wedlock and were raising them on their own. One particularly spunky girl once recounted how she had pulled out the door of her rich boyfriend’s Audi just because he would not move in to her dingy old studio apartment. She was wondering whether she should try to win him back or keep “having one night stands.” Needless to say, I needed a change of lunching spot.
For the next two weeks, I would find solace in Alessandro’s company. His humour and the way he approached this job with such a blasé nature would make the weight that I was carrying around much lighter and the dread that overcame me every morning, much less. Even then, I did not stop counting down the days till this ordeal was over. The people I met there were bizarre and the stories I heard of their lives were pitiful. I listened to their stories and wondered how they came to be this way, and how I came to be amongst them.
Most young adults take up jobs in call centers while they are in a state of “transition,” whether it be from education to a career or from one job to another. I ended up spending 2 months at that call center before eventually quitting to take up a “real job.” Working in a call center taught me to appreciate education, opportunities, and ambitions for a stable career. As elated as I was at the thought of not hearing a vivid variety of abuse over the phone every day, I also felt a sense of sadness. I felt sad for the people who did not have the option to actually leave the job if they wanted to. The Alessandros and the Jeremys who had no choice but to hang on to the phones as if they are a lifeline.