The Brotherhood of The Cold Call
By Jack Cashill
Courtesy of the Cashill Newsletter - July 29, 1999
I called him "Burdette." We all did. I didn't know if Burdette was his first name or his last name or if it was even his real name at all. But that, as it turned out, was one of the least important things I did not know about the improbable, cane-sporting Burdette, the king of the cold call.
"One successful call an hour, and you got minimum wage," Burdette told me that first night, sensing my reluctance to hire on. "two you got a real job. Four you got a career." Twenty and broke, I had answered a vaguely-worded ad for a job at the local paper. Naively, I had hoped it was for cub reporter or city editor or something semi-glamorous. It wasn't.
It was for telephone sales--of which department the wan, sad-eyed, honey-tongued Burdette was manager. Within moments, he would talk me into the job. Easy work for Burdette. In the next year, this ill-fated gentleman would initiate me into the brotherhood of the cold call and teach me more about the true grit of the American economy than anyone has before or since.
"THE COLD CALL."
In a corporate world eyeball-deep in acronym and euphemism, this phrase retains its primal, chilling bluntness. No matter how you dress it up, cold calling remains a loner's art like, say, kayaking or assassination. It is the ultimate solitary gesture, the essential act of economic survival distilled into one bold moment, a vestigial remnant of leaner times before the advent of ERISA, OSHA, COBRA and a thousand other corporate buffers. Even for veterans, every single call takes courage.
There are two kinds of people in the world, Burdette would tell me: those who belong to the brotherhood of the cold call and those who don't. In my house, I belong. My wife doesn't. This fact is obvious to seasoned solictors who pray that it is I who pick up their call. Over the years I have sent busloads of the blind, the retarded, the orphaned, the handicapped, the dyslexic, the confused to circuses, ice shows, rodeos, and bad pop concerts too numerous to count.
My wife, despite my urgings, has sent no one anywhere. I have participated with gusto in a score of voter polls, a hundred media surveys, and a thousand homely sales jobs dressed up as "market research." Lightbulbs? GE should have so many! The "vinyl" siding salesman, "account executives," and "financial planners" whose aluminum, stock, or insurance I could not possibly buy, I thank for thinking of me and encourage in their work. Even in the middle of dinner. Always to the amazement of my wife who, to be sure, has never made a cold call.
Not too long ago, I was at a friend's house eating dinner when the phone rang. My mild-mannered host, an avowed buddy of the less fortunate, picked up the phone, overflowed in a veritable Niagara of damnation, and returned to the table with the casually exculpatory, "telphone solicitor." But, of course. That explained it all. He then launched a mean-spirited parody of the solictor's painfully rehearsed, rural-flavored spiel, "Ha, ah represent Standard Improvements and ah wonder if ah could have a mo-ment of your tahm etc. etc." So much for the underclass.
Burdette could have spotted this guy an area code away. He knew the brotherhood well enough to be its membership chairman. One night, while he tallied up the day's bounty, an economist --John Kenneth Galbraith, if I remember right--was holding forth on the small black & white TV Burdette kept on his desk. It was a hip talk show, and Galbraith was gleefully pointing out the peccadillos of what he saw as America's cut-throat capitalism. Burdette listened for a moment, looked up, and said with artless finality, "The man's never made a cold call." I imagined he was right.
Burdette had a Zen-like approach to solicitation. "Always remember," he would say cryptically, "you're not selling the newspaper. You're selling your relation to that newspaper." He sensed my potential early on--perhaps, alas, because I was among the few non-winos in his employ--and encouraged me to get off the script. "Create," he would say, "Feel."
Interpreting Burdette as best I could, I developed a "poor-kid-just-working-his-way-through-college" schtick that actually seemed to work. It was a precious gambit, one that I used only on the waverers, and one that would lead me to both the high and the low points of my solicitation career, simultaneously.
It happened on a good night. I was on a roll. I would not have had the nerve otherwise. On the call in question, an older gentleman answered. He demurred at first on the not unreasonable grounds that he was blind. I reminded him, of course, that the money from his subscription would benefit others in need, specifically the retarded children as Burnett's generic scripts alleged it would.
This was not enough, but it moved him to thank The Man Upstairs for the good health of his own grandchildren. "Do they visit?" I inquired, spotting an opening. "Often, yes." Wouldn't it be nice, I suggested, if they had comics to read when they came over. He hadn't thought of that. He began to waver. I moved in for the kill.
"I wouldn't ask," I said. "But I'm putting myself through college on this job, and every little bit helps."
"Oh, O.K.," he said. "Why not? Sign me up."
Ah, sweet triumph! For a moment, I reveled in the pure glory of it. Selling a newspaper subscription to a blind man! Incredible! If only Pulitzer gave prizes for solicitation! By evening's end, however, the historic warring forces of the American psyche were staging a prize fight in my conscience--in one corner, individualism, cold and rugged; in the other, community responsibility, warm and fuzzy. "Community" prevailed in a split decision. Egad! I thought. I sold a newspaper subscription to a blind man! What has become of me?
"The man didn't need a newspaper subscription," I confessed later to Burdette.
"Don't worry about it," Burdette consoled me. "No one does."
Some time afterward, I stopped by the newspaper office in the daytime to pick up my check. Burdette was working the phone himself which he did not do at night. I watched in awe. His body was curled up as though in bed, and he cooed into the phone as he might to a lover lying next to him. As he talked, he was writing down an order. He had obviously scored. And scored often. As I could see on his report, his tally for this one day matched the best I had ever done in a week at night. (Like Dracula, solicitors usually shun the daytime.) This was a magical performance, and I told him so.
He then reached into his wallet and showed me a dog-eared photo of himself wearing a leather jacket and standing on what appeared to be a stage. He told me casually, almost apologetically, that this picture was taken about ten years ago when he had played Stanley Kowalski in a London staging of Street Car Named Desire. Acting came naturally.
He could see the shock in my eyes. What had happened? How could he have descended so quickly from the London stage to this ill-starred, smoke-filled theater of the absurd?
"When you have a wife and kids, Jack," Burdette said wearily, anticipating my question, "you'll understand."
I have them now, and I do understand. Every few months, when business runs slow, I brace myself and pick up the phone. ("When the cold calls stop," Burdette would say, "the economy stops too.") Rejection still stings, especially when it's uglier than it needs to be. But Burdette taught me well, and I do OK, even if I still don't like to do it.
JUST BEFORE GRADUATION, I stopped down to the paper to say good-bye to Burdette and thank him for his help. He wasn't there. I asked around, but no one knew him: he worked alone during the day, isolated and irrelevant. Finally, I stopped by Personnel, and they told me coldly, that he had died. Died?
Didn't I see the cane? Didn't I know he was dying?
No, I didn't know. But I should have. Ah, Burdette! If only your art could have found its audience, if only you could have endured--at least until the cold call donned fancier garb and took center stage as telemarketing.