5:01 p.m. “Hop on the phones. Do a great job. Raise lots of money. Sound enthusiastic.” Greeting me with those simple lines, managers start each night shift of the semester. At the Michigan Telefund, I call alumni to fundraise on behalf of the Office of Development. I see these managerial words as nourishment, a protein providing some energy for the work before us.
On this Saturday evening at the Telefund, I sit in a damp room on the second floor of our building. The odor of the room is a mixture of moldy old furniture with a masking hint of women’s 1970s signature cologne. I sign onto my computer, and a long list of prospects appears on the screen. My earpiece headset sits annoyingly against my temples. I prepare for the next four hours ahead.
While on the phones, we follow a script: “Hello, my name is __________,” etc. The reminder, listen and respond, is printed in bold at the end, as though we don’t know how a conversation works. I have willingly become an expert on building a shallow relationship with each alumni on the other end of the line; we must always be in a positive mood with clear, enunciated vowels and professional voices.
When asking for money from these prospects, my hands moisten systematically at that same point during each call. Two minutes in, I analyze my asking strategy. I find myself laughing occasionally just to lighten the mood. Sometimes, there is laughter in response. I can sense their smile by the tone of their voices. It’s predictable that those smiling types will end up offering the school some money in the end. With less pleasant people, I silently wish to send them a script with bolded letters. Listen and Respond.
Between calls, and despite the ringing in my headset, I strain to listen to the student callers sitting around me. Carolyn finds a seat next to me at every shift; we make a daily effort to build our rapport as friends. She continues her story about the mess her roommates left in the fridge last week. Some days I feel as though I’m interviewing her rather than just talking with her.
I feel my body getting tense when a prospect actually picks up the call instead of leaving the answering machine. Even though I can recite my script with ease, I look over it every night. I tell these alumni my perspective. I force energy into each sentence. I discuss liberal arts majors and our hopeful, lifelong dreams of a career over and over.
They respect my words. I bask in my 10 minutes of authority, but my preference would be to only hear their advice. I can smell someone’s dinner heating up in the break room — some sort of meat. My stomach’s voice becomes the loudest in my head. I feel weakened by the flavors in the air, but our break doesn’t come for another half hour. I can’t walk around the room or rest my voice; I am locked to my chair. Name after name — Johnson, Huang, Miller — the lists of prospects scroll down my screen.
I sit thinking about a time I was home one weekend. I came downstairs, and my mom was already moving about the kitchen in her cotton-blend apron. It wasn’t Thanksgiving or the day before someone’s birthday, but I knew what she was making. There was a faint smell of fleshy, raw meat. I have always wanted to learn to make those meatballs with her. I walked down into our kitchen and saw layers. There were layers of food, utensils and recipes lining the countertop.
I began to compile the ingredients. It takes painstaking effort and careful handiwork to form each one. Attention was all they demanded from me. I looked back and forth across the kitchen and couldn’t see or hear my mom. I combined all of the other ingredients before adding the meat. Intricately forming dozens of them, I covered the meat masses and dipped them in the sauce. After all the tearing, mixing, melting, adding, removing, weighing and shaping, my hands began to throb.
I grip the mouse of my computer in frustration at my current prospect. He tells me how unsatisfied he is with the University and how upset he is that I called. He doesn’t appreciate me or my plea for money. My energy and positive tone aren’t enough. My only way of escape is the restroom. Though I wish I could use those hours to call my mom and tell her how I felt each day, Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Milne and Mrs. Andrews are my moms for now.
When I am given a list of people living in southern Florida, I bring myself there. When a man named Al described the feel of the misty, mild breeze blanketing the eastern coast, I wasn’t on the calling floor. I was sitting next to him before the water. Certainly the last names of some, like Rothschildmanheim and Wojciechowskiwojec, give me relief as they flash across my screen. I am glad to hear Carolyn as she interjects a nasally snort of laughter. We spend five minutes figuring out the pronunciation and another five minutes wondering where these people came from.
I just need to waste those minutes, but at other points I relish each minute I have. I wonder if I am making the most of each call for myself. I ask a member of the 2009 class what he thinks of my accounting class, a lady from 2002 what her advice is on a topic for my English paper and someone from 1970, if graduate school is worth the years.
My lack of sleep is evident as I surrender to my slipping eyelids. I need to maintain my voice, but otherwise, who could tell? My stomach feels like an empty cave of echoing voices. I find myself becoming more and more hypersensitive, apologetic, polite and respectful with each new prospect. The repetition of my words echoes in my mind as I approach the end of my shift. It has become a routine with the start, the grueling and repetitive middle, and then the final end at 9:01.
9:02 p.m. I am walking back to my room; I feel my stomach and think back to being in the kitchen. As I prepare each ingredient one by one, I realize how the oven would so easily yield my desired results. I call out for my mom, but there is no response. The recipe for these meatballs is basic; I need sustenance and that’s all that matters. I abuse the whisking utensils as I compile, mix and prepare the mixture in half an hour. I force each ball together between my palms. My stomach aches restlessly with hunger; I swing open the oven door. My mom’s hand seizes mine. “Slow down,” she says in a gentle voice.