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The Telemarketer

September 22, 2011 | by Yael Zoldan M.A.

Sometimes, you have to throw away the script.

I was working my way through college doing telemarketing, a job despised by almost everyone with brain cells. But it was easy and it paid by the hour.

The room was crowded, divided into small partitions and filled with young people like me. We were fundraising for various Jewish charities, calling numbers from a national list usually during dinner time. With bright, cheery voices, we faked intimacy with the unsuspecting person on the other end of the line. We read smoothly from a pre-written script, reminding people of their last year’s commitment and looking for a higher one.

To make ourselves sound as non-denominational as possible, all the girls were told to say that their names were Rachel Cohen and all the boys called themselves David Levine. It was a ridiculous farce, but that’s the way it was done and there was a bonus every time you got someone to commit to a high dollar amount. I wanted the bonus.

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Magda Schein was the next name on the list and I rehearsed the charity’s script in my head as I waited for the connection. The phone rang shrilly.

“Hello?” an unused voice quavered over the line.

“Hi there, Mrs. Schein! This is Rachel Cohen,” I chirped, bright as a mirror and equally false. “How are you this evening?”

“I am very well,” she answered carefully with that old European accent I knew so well from my own grandparents. I heard the years of etiquette training kick in as she added, “And yourself, how are you?”

“Fine, thanks,” I answered briskly. “So, anyway, as I said my name is Rachel Cohen and I’m calling on behalf of…”

“Rachel who?” she interrupted.

“Rachel Cohen,” I answered enunciating loudly in case the poor old woman was hard of hearing. Then, unwilling to be swayed from my script, I continued, “And I’m calling on behalf of...”

“Rachel Cohen,” she said in a wondering voice, “I’m sorry, I don’t know any Rachel Cohen and I … Oh! Wait, Wait a minute, Rachel! Yes I think I remember now, little Rachel! I didn’t hear from you already such a long time!”

Then with a warmth I didn’t deserve, “Rachel, darling, how are you?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” I answered carefully, trying to figure out how to barrel ahead, get back on track, make the sale. “So anyway, I just called to…”

“Of course I know why you called, darling,” she said with a little laugh. “You just called to vinch me un, to wish me a good year. Ach, Rachel, you were always such a good girl.”

I looked at the script but there was nothing there to help me. I had lost my words.

I was startled for a minute. Was I always such a good girl? I didn’t think so.

I looked at the script but there was nothing there to help me. I had lost my words.

“I didn’t hear from you such a long time already,” Mrs. Schein continued happily. “I didn’t hear from nobody a long time already until you called now. I was just sitting here looking out the window. It's silly I know, so much to do before Yom Tov and me just sitting!”

Her voice burbled on and on like joyful waters released from a dam and I imagined her apartment with the dark wooden chairs on delicate clawed legs and the faded maroon velvet couch and the doilies. I saw the cherished sepia photographs and breathed the smell of things that were clean but not quite fresh.

“So what’s going on with you Rachel? How’s your mommy? How’s your bubby?”

I could hear her eagerness, her joy at the call and it made me want to cry. Instead, I reached for the script on the desk in front of me and pushed it away.

“I’m good, Mrs. Schein,” I said leaning back into my seat and injecting a warmth into my voice. “I’m good and my mother and grandmother are too. I’m sorry I haven’t called for so long.”

“Darling! Don’t apologize, you’re busy! All the young people are very busy.”

“Yes, busy,” I agreed. “But not so busy and I just couldn’t let another day pass without calling you up and wishing you happy new year – a gut, gebenscht yor.”

“And to you!” she said quickly, “I should have said before! A year for you and yours, of health and happiness, and nachas. A year of alles gut, all the good things!”

“Amen, Mrs. Schein.”

“And a year filled with good friends like you!” she added.

“Amen,” I said again, ashamed.

We talked a few minutes more about Yom Tov recipes and how quickly the weather had turned. Then we hung up the phone. I stared at the receiver for a while wondering about the impossible loneliness of the elderly and how little we understand about the greatness of small gestures. Then I reached for a pad of paper and a pen and I carefully wrote down her number and put it in my pocket.

To call later.

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