At age 18 I dropped out of the specialist TAFE course I was studying (Professional Writing & Editing) with the unique brand of flair only a cocky teenager can truly muster. I had passed the entrance exam – involving several creative writing prompts and a couple of editing exercises; the ultimate excuse to turn full grammar nazi – attended class for a month or two, and then decided unequivocally that I hated it. In fact, I told myself, ultimately, higher learning just wasn’t for me – I’d be much happier working full time, going to gigs, getting drunk and buying things (theatre, at this stage, had not presented itself as a viable option in my mind, and even if it had I highly doubt I would’ve followed it through – this was, after all, also the age of prime apathy. Passion? Sorry, what?).
Within two weeks of becoming an official Drop Out, I found myself – first through my mother’s pleading, her coercion, then finally through her menacing – gaining employment at a major tele-company’s call-centre, in the sales department. My colleagues were varied in age and education, and most held a level of sadness about them, but this in a sense forced us into a strange and fierce alliance. We’d sit in protective clusters on our breaks, smoking endless cigarettes and chugging energy drinks like water, ever aware of the ominous, insidious clocks hardwired into our computer systems, waiting with glee to rat us out to cruel superiors should we spend too much time away from our assigned duties. But the money was good – well, better than anything I’d seen before – and for the first few months, at least, the job brought with it the intense sense of camaraderie one receives when going through something distinctly horrible with another human being. These were my blood brothers and sisters, and together we served in the telephonic trenches.
The customers, too, enlightened my day. Perhaps if I’d been a “lifer” – one of those sickly, grizzled employees with pale and waxen skin, dead eyes belying zero emotion but a voice thick like honey, full of charm and wanton and extremely ready to get you the Best Deal Possible – I’d have been concerned or hurt by the barrage of abuse, sass or practical jokes played, but given I sat outside the world of “sweet commish” and sales percentages, I mostly just used each phone encounter as a prompt for a piece of writing. Although technically we were actually calling existing customers, these people would go to staggering, beautiful heights to avoid conversation. My first day alone contained:
– a woman who mysteriously changed accents mid conversation, bellowing down the line in an unfortunate parody of Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – “I SOLLY, I NO KNOW WHAT YOU ARE SERRING, SO SOLLY.”
– a man who insisted I should kill myself – but not before cutting off my genitals and shoving them up my mother.
– an older woman who chatted at me for 45 minutes about her cats and put them on the line to purr for me. (I liked this one).
The following days (months, year) were much of the same, and for a while I kept a small black book with which to record each hilarious, mildly devastating encounter. I remained in this job for 13 months and managed to remain impartial for the majority of my employment, but one incident in particular nearly broke me.
I am on a call, following the script with an obedience that, 11 months in, is rare. I am talking to a woman, going through the spiel but not particularly paying attention, when – for a split second – the line crackles and breaks. I know what this means: I am being audited. Even now, the sound sends an anticipatory shiver down my spine. I sit up, stock straight, and immediately pour my attention onto the customer I’m talking to.
“Hello?”. She speaks, her voice frail like tissue-paper, far away yet strangely ethereal; echoing through my headset. On the screen in front of me, my mouse-pointer springs to life – part of the auditing process – and begins to circle an item on the screen. The words scream out at me in bold black type: $89 NET/PHONE COMBO!. Right. Okay. I can do this.
“Sorry, my line dropped out for a second!”, I smile, hating myself already.
“Quite alright,” my Customer replies. “I was worried, for a second.”
Worried. I can hear, in the background, small paws click-clacking on linoleum or tiles, the sound of a fan, I think, and daytime television blasting much too loudly. On the screen in front of me, my mouse-pointer spins pirouettes around the Net/Phone Combo. Yeah, alright.
“Were you aware,” I ask, “That actually – actually! – the deal you’re getting currently on your internet and phone isn’t the best deal available to you right now?”.
“It isn’t?”, my Customer asks.
“No,” I reply. “For just eighty-nine dollars a month you could get fifty gigabites for your internet, combined with a cheaper long-distance rate on your home-phone. The savings,” – through gritted teeth I spit, enunciate – “are endless.”
“Oh, no.” A pause, now, and I can hear her voice, slightly wavering, humming to herself, mixed in with the cacophony of her fan on high, the TV blaring Judge Judy (“Baloney!”) and that ever-present tapping of small paws on ceramics. “I just – I don’t think I can, dear.”
Another beat, and I’ve nothing to say, no redemption to offer.
“Two years is a long time. I don’t…” – her breathing, in and out as constant as bellows blasting sick air into flames – “I don’t know if I’ll last that long, and it’s a terrible imposition to put on my family.”
That afternoon, I discover I’ve only barely passed my audit. I should have closed the deal, I’m told. I should have closed the deal.
The culture inherent in this particular workplace is one of hard drinking and regret, and that night just so happens to be a “company party” night. Once a month our generous employer throws a gargantuan themed party with provided booze, in essence just an attempt to keep everyone happy (or at least to keep them from leaving). This particular party is themed: “boat”. As in, we’re on one.
Within half an hour I’ve set myself up to an alcohol “station” – actually just a deep esky filled with cans of UDLS and some sort of anonymous beer – and am chugging liquids like a man dying of a particular kind of thirst. Checking in on me are my two closest friends at the company, Christine and Matty, to whom I feel I owe a debt of sass – they taught me a lot.
Matty sidles up to me, slinging a familiar arm round my shoulders as I sway, raspberry UDL clutched tight in hand, attempting to pass off my inability to stand as a side-effect of sea-life.
“I’m garn’ to Subway, later, if you wanna come.”
“Subway?”. The catering hasn’t been particularly great, true, but I don’t particularly feel like a foot-long. Unless… oh. Matty leers. I understand in that moment he’s talking of a different sort of foot-long.
“The sauna. Ever been?”
I haven’t. However, I am drunk, 18 and with the requisite horniness to boot, and six or seven UDLs down a gay sex venue seems like one of the most revelatory events of my life.
Matty squeezes my shoulder: “I’ll take you there. I’ll take you there.”
Darkness, all around me. I stumble, running like the wind – though unsure as to why – up past Docklands and through Flinders St station. I have ghosted, disappeared without a word and, fuelled by inebriated gumption and saccharine vodka lolly-drinks, I wander like a mad-man.
Subway. Subway. Subway.
There is a petite blonde man in a tight white singlet at the end of a long, black hallway. Although I am wasted, a hot mess, it strikes me as slightly ironic that he’s the most nautical themed thing I’ve seen after a night spent solely on a boat. I pad – one foot, the other, one foot, the other – towards him, ignoring how the walls of the hallway seem to expand and contract with each jellied step I attempt to make.
Act sober. Act sober. Act sober.
“Huh… …ey,” I manage, aiming for suavity but hitting closer to an unfortunate parody of someone with a learning disability.
“20 dollars”. I hand the man my money. He hands me a towel. “You can take off your clothes just in there.”
I am caught, now, in between two burly, muscled, older men. They are naked, genitals huge and swinging, and I can see out the corner of my eye they’re both covered in a veritable carpet of body hair. I stand in fear – one hand pressed hard against a cool grey locker for support – and attempt to process the prospect, the pros and cons of getting naked: my feet are too far away. I’m wearing skinny jeans. I have, however, paid twenty dollars.
“Hey”, one of the burly men grunts, his face suddenly pressed hard against my ear, one ursine hand appearing from nothing to encapsulate my entire buttocks. “I’ll be in the maze later. Y’know. If you wanna fuck.” Right. Cool. Okay.
He sidles away, scratching himself as he does, and I bolt in the opposite direction. Into the maze.
Silence and blackness all around me, except for the faint and insistent sound of overly lubricated gay sex: wet, slapping, constant. I have stumbled through a door and, in my drunken state, have found myself unable to find my way out.
“Hello?” I call out to nobody in particular. Silence, except for the muffled moans of men in various stages of penetration. They don’t call this the sex maze for nothing, I think. And again – “Hello??”.
A pause. I stand, cheap black vinyl on all sides, and feel the walls with my hands. They’re sticky, however – however – I think, I think I’ve found an out. A door. Surely the door to freedom. With all of my might, I barrel my way in.
“AHA!” I scream, delirious in my drunken revelry. In front of me, a stout young man sucking an erect penis through a hole in the vinyl wall turns, slightly, to catch my eye. Confused, he raises an eyebrow, not missing a beat as the man on the other side of said vinyl wall continues to thrust. On either side, seeming to stretch for miles, poke out dozens, hundreds of phalluses of every shape, size and colour; a veritable funhouse of anonymous, amorphous cock. I feel sick.
“I’m -” …severely uncomfortable?. “I need to go home,” I manage. The man – still going for his life – raises his arm and points towards a door adjacent to the one I’ve just exited. I thank him, but he doesn’t reply.
I make it back to the locker-room before vomiting, and as the long-suffering blonde man from reception ushers me out – not unkindly – I am filled with a bizarre sort of peace.
On Swanston Street I spider-crawl, attempting to right myself but failing miserably, my bearings, my sensibility destroyed. I do not know what I am. I do not know how to get home. Above, in front of me, sits a small woman in a sleeping-bag, curled hair burst out in whorls of grey and white, eyes the colour of off-milk darting warily around as she strokes the frame of a small black dog sleeping beside her.
“Hello,” I offer, a wave of shame flooding every part of my being.
“Hiyah,” she replies, eyes flashing up, down, up, down again, drinking me in with an alien sense of clarity. “You alright?”.
“I don’t – I can’t…” I trail off, unable to find the words, then aware I may already have done so. “I can’t.”
“I get it,” she replies, patting the ground next to her. “Come. Sit. Call ya a taxi.”
The next day is a rare Saturday shift, and as I work I nurse a vitriolic hangover unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. My work friends express what nominal concern they can while nursing their own hangovers, and together we vow to take on the day. Eight hours. Manageable. Doable. Hopefully.
I take a call.”Hello?”. The voice once more is paper-thin, and for a split and terrifying second I am thrust forcibly back to the day before, imagining the grief-stricken family for the voice at the end of the line; the lawyers streaming in with contracts held high, yelling: “SHE PROMISED US 89 DOLLARS A MONTH FOR TWO YEARS OF SERVICE.”
“Hi,” I reply, abandoning decorum and script in my agonizing state.
“May I help you?” the voice asks, a tinge of irritability creeping in.
A pause, and for a moment my infirmary seems to lift, and I see it all, now; the clouds of drink and sick breaking out to allow for a perverse and beautiful kind of clarity that screams with every fibre of my being: this is not the job for me.
“No,” I reply, my throbbing head agreeing. “No, I don’t think you can.”