Monday, April 21, 2008

The American Dream - Cold Calling

In 1989, after my junior year in college, I decided I wanted to live in New York City. I had been here a couple of times, but wanted a chance to LIVE here and be gay. Though I ultimately wanted to be in San Francisco after I graduated, NYC was easier because it was close to Philly but still had a thriving gay scene. I also wanted to get away from working with my father who would have kept me enslaved all summer cutting lawns and painting the slums he owned as he had for the previous 10 years.

I found cheap summer housing at NYU and shared a dorm room with 3 other guys - a 32-year old Parisian taxi driver, 20-year old Bernard Tisch (as in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts) and a 21 year old Israeli NYU business student who was taking classes to graduate a year early so he could start making money as quickly as possible. A fascinating group of people with whom I had nothing in common (though when the Parisian taxi driver offered me some cheap weed he had scored in Washington Square, I did finally find some common ground)

In NYC in 1989, there were still some remnants of the 1980s “Bonfire of the Vanities” culture. That summer, I worked at a Wall Street penny-stock broker making cold calls to rich people from a list of rich people some company had created. I worked with two classic, Queens-born NY strivers (one Irish, one Jewish) who epitomized the outer borough middle class kid come to Wall Street to hit it rich. They had more ambition than intelligence but played at the slick Wall Street broker game with determination. The slick-backed hair, the suspenders and the cufflinks barely camouflaged the middle class kid with the New Yawk accent and big-city provincialism whose life-long dream was to move to Manhattan. Tony Manero on Wall Street. It was the end of the era that started the whole myth that anybody can hit it big on Wall Street if they worked hard enough and really, really, really wanted to be rich.

In fact they were shucksters, confidence-men like most of the successful guys on Wall Street. “Churn and burn” was the motto. It dispelled for me the notion that stockbrokers were analytical, thoughtful stock pickers who lived the upper crust life that I so yearned to attain. It was a hard, depressing, desperate life. But at least they weren’t working outside on a construction site in the freezing cold and sweltering heat. Or, like my father, in the warehouse freezer of a meatpacking factory with little hope of ever striking it rich.

So I arrived every morning at 8 AM at the small office that I shared with the two of them and started dialing from my little corner table. I would use my innocent, educated voice and manipulative skills to try to get past the secretary to the “big fish” who had money to invest according to the “list of big fish”. Surprisingly often (maybe 20% of the time), I did actually get through.

At the point where I got through the to big Kahuna, I yelled at the Sherman McCoy wannabes “Go!” and they would pick up the phone and start their spiel. It amazes me how even wealthy people could be so ignorant as to put money in the hands of these guys, but America is full of blind optimists.

I did this for 9 hours a day for the entire summer. I finally just couldn’t do it anymore and left 2 weeks earlier than planned. But it allowed me to experience big city life and was an awesome resume-builder when I started to look for a “real” job the next year. In fact, I could say that its the reason I ended up in NYC instead of San Francisco.

Even though I realized I didn’t want to get stuck doing this for the rest of my life, I also wasn’t as appalled by it as your average Ivy league student. That’s because in high school, I was a professional cold caller for Evergreen Lawns. It was a ChemLawn type service that sprayed chemicals on suburban lawns to make them greener and more weed-free than their neighbors.

Again, I wasn’t as disgusted by this job as most suburban Philly teens because I was just glad not to have to work with my father cutting lawns as I had done since I was 11. The freedom from my father’s dictatorship was satisfying in itself. Yeah, it was kind of slimy. But I had an innocent voice and realized that if I just kept dialing new numbers (at dinner time and early Saturdays when people would most likely be home), eventually some people would say “Yes, I would like a free estimate on my lawn done by one of your lawn care specialists”. It always kind of shocked me and made me realize Americans are suckers and will buy pretty much anything.

I eventually was promoted to Office Manager. Which was an honor, but had its drawbacks. I am not a born manager. Especially of my friends and other teens who were my co-workers now turned subordinates. But because I was a pretty nice guy and lead more by example than demand by working harder than anyone else, they gave me respect.

The summer after high school and before I started college, the CEO tried to woo me into staying on, selling me on all the opportunities that lay ahead as an employee of Evergreen Lawns. Someday I could even be his right-hand man. I listened to him politely and feigned sincere interest, but I could see clearly the pathetic life that would lie ahead of me clearly exemplified by the adults who worked there. I was smart enough to realize you don’t stay in a $6 an hour job instead of getting an Ivy League education. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and start my new glamorous life as a pampered student of a high-class institution that would forever distance me from the possibility of living the decidedly unglamorous life of a working class peon.

Of course, after 4 years of college and my stint on “Wall Street”, I realized that life wasn’t going to be so effortlessly glamorous and would require humiliating servitude in corporate sweatshops. But it was still more exciting and possibility-filled than my life at a chemical facility in working class Philadelphia.

And I realized that the American Dream is a myth. There is never a completely fulfilling “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow. There are only more rainbows with promises of even bigger pots of gold. Happiness comes not from the money we have but the people we love.

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