Every morning, Lisa goes to the public library and checks for jobs on the computer. She scans Craigslist ads in fifteen-minute increments while a man at the terminal beside her watches a woman onscreen farting into a birthday cake. He keeps the window with the video small and at the bottom of his screen. But Lisa can still see it—she knew instantly the first time she saw it. She’s pretty sure he knows she can see it too.
He’s also on the library’s time limit and waits patiently in the same line as Lisa to watch that video over and over for a quarter of an hour, eight hours a day. They are the only two black people waiting to use the computer at this branch of the Boston Public Library, but Lisa makes sure to never say hello.
One morning, she gets an email from a job she doesn’t remember applying to. She checks the ad. “$tudent$!” it calls. “Working Parent$! Thinker$! Dreamer$! Ideali$t$!” Lisa’s heart sinks a little. She hasn’t heard back from anyone else, so she responds.
When she walks into her apartment, her roommate Rosemarie is at the kitchen table on a new laptop.
“Anything good happen today?” Rosemarie asks, pushing her blonde hair out of her eyes without looking up.
“Nothing,” Lisa says, and heads to her room.
Rosemarie and Lisa went to college together, where they lived in a large, decrepit house, rented by the University. They threw dinner parties and dance parties and went on crummy spring break vacations: camping or driving to Rosemarie’s aunt’s house in Myrtle Beach. They talked about how they were maybe failing every class and maybe secretly dumb. But both graduated with honors and pretended not to care. “Those won’t matter in the real world,” they said.
They graduated in May and now live in Jamaica Plain. Rosemarie had an internship lined up before graduation—gallery assistant on Newbury Street. Lisa tried for a few internships as well—she wants to be a radio producer for NPR. She likes microphones and XLR cables. She likes the purposefulness of recording equipment. But isn’t sure how she’s supposed to do internships unpaid. No one has been able to answer this for her. During an internship interview, the reporter at WBUR sighed when Lisa brought up money. “Look, I know it sucks, but sometimes you have to swallow your pride and ask your parents.”
Oh, Lisa thought. Oh.
Lisa pays her mother’s cell phone bill, alongside her own, with money from a prize she won for writing the best Undergraduate American Studies thesis. She also used the money for first month’s rent and the U-haul to move to Jamaica Plain. It’s going to run out soon: it was only $3,000. Her mother is a massage therapist. When Lisa was little, they always went to demonstrations and marches and potlucks. Her mother fights for good things but can’t hold onto money. She never exactly told Lisa they were poor, and would say she isn’t the type of woman who believes in labels, that to identify as poor means surrendering to a false paradigm. Lisa put it together. “You’re a smart girl,” her mom said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that’s bad.”
She didn’t say any of this to the NPR reporter. She just thanked her and said she couldn’t take the internship because of a previous commitment.
Lisa and Rosemarie shop for kitchenware at the dollar store and pool their money at the supermarket so they can buy cans of Goya beans. But Rosemarie has a brand new Macbook Air and iPhone. “I bought it on credit,” she’d said, laughing. “Apple gives it to anyone young and stupid enough to apply. You should do it before they catch on about your student loans and see your ruined credit.” Lisa put her information into the Apple website and received a message, “Based on your profile, we can extend $150 worth of credit.” Lisa has a flip phone that was donated to her in high school. She can’t get rid of it because of her shared bill with her mother. Every morning on her way to the library, Lisa passes Rosemarie’s open laptop on the kitchen table.
The job interview is in a Victorian on a side street of David Square. The siding has been repainted in the last few years to a whimsical lavender. But the original wood peels through in some spots. Lisa enters the lobby, which must have been the living room. There’s a receptionist’s desk and a wavy, yellowing pane of glass.
No one is at reception. After staring at the glass for another moment, Lisa realizes it’s bulletproof.
There’s a doorbell on the wall near the glass, and she pushes it and sits on a brown plastic chair. She lifts an old copy of Ms. Magazine from the table, and finds it curiously light. When she opens it, whole pages have been ripped out, so she sets it on her lap and pretends to read.
“Hello,” a woman calls through a hole cut into the bulletproof glass. “Hello? You should have yelled. Are you here for an interview?”
The woman comes out from behind the glass and shakes Lisa’s hand. “I’m Dorothy.”
Lisa is relieved. She looks like a white version of her own mother: heavy wooden jewelry, multiple scarves with loud patterns, a bulky, bright sweater and an earnest, chubby face, like a wizened little girl. Dorothy has a thick Boston accent, heavy with smoke. A voice Lisa instantly trusts; someone who knows that dollar signs replacing S’s is silly.
Dorothy opens the door that separates the reception from the lobby. She smiles. “Don’t be put off by the glass. We’re temporarily renting from the old Social Security office. We’re expanding so fast; we should be out of here soon. We’re thinking of moving to a new facility downtown”.
Lisa nods. Good.
Dorothy’s office is at the end of a hallway, perhaps the house’s pantry. There’s a small window that looks out on the parking lot, a spider plant, and a large desktop computer. Dorothy sits and begins, “We raise money for non-profits.” Dorothy began rattling off acronyms, mostly fading names of the old Left—those that littered Lisa’s high school textbooks and college campus center flyers. “When you’re hired, your base pay is the same as minimum wage, plus a twenty-percent bonus for every membership renewal or donation you can get. The higher the donation, the more you earn. You work for a couple of hours on the phone. We call people at home. Most of them are already members of the organizations you’ll be calling for. There’s no limit to how much we pay.” She waits for a laugh. Lisa does.
Lisa walks out of the office a probationary telefundraiser for the Mindful World Corporation.
Training is on Monday night. There are four others in the room. A pale boy with dirty incisors who doesn’t look old enough to drink, wearing a black duster and black terry-cloth wristbands–an unsuccessful attempt to look menacing on a limited budget; a woman with a blonde buzz-cut and glasses, wearing tie-dyed t-shirt and orange webbed athletic shorts; a man whose skin is a shock of gray and who wears a yellowing short-sleeve dress shirt. It feels like an existential statement to slide in beside them, but Lisa forces herself to do it.
The room is silent.
The boy in black turns to her. “So how do you want to touch people?” “I don’t want to touch anyone,” Lisa answers, alarmed. The idea of physical contact with anyone here repulses her.
“You’re not interested in helping people?”
“Of course I am,” she says, even though she’s not sure what that means anymore. Rosemarie, tethered to her iPhone at her uneventful gallery internship, is constantly sending Lisa links to horrible things in the world. Little girls burned in India and clownfish dying on Hawaiian beaches and boys in North Dakota beaten for wearing skirts. These things horrify Lisa and when she watches the videos or reads the stories she feels an overwhelming sense of sadness and hopelessness. Then she feels shame, because isn’t sadness and hopelessness what everyone feels? In college she studied post-colonial politics and protests and looked at the pictures of demonstrations in some dusty street and looked at the people in the background, in the crowd, the ones who never marched but only watched, and thought she would never be one of them.
Dorothy strides to the front. “You’re being offered a wonderful opportunity. You get to come here everyday and earn money talking about what you believe in. Do you know how few people can say that? We’re not pushing a product or trying to sell something false. You know you’re on the right side here.”
Part of the training is to complete a number of improvised mock phone calls. Lisa is paired with the boy in black. His name is Vladimir.
Lisa is the telefundraiser, Vladimir is something their training manual calls a ‘conflicted caller’.
“Ring, ring,” Vladimir says,
“Hello, I’m calling on behalf of the DNC—“
“DNC? What is that?”
“Democratic National Convention–”
“I love Boehner. Down with Obama. Give me the RNC!” Vladimir grins.
Lisa isn’t sure what to say. She smiles weakly.
“You’re doing really good,” Vladimir whispers.
Dorothy notices they’ve stopped talking. “Lisa, what’s the problem?”
“Well, Vladimir is supposed to be a conflicted caller. But wouldn’t the caller already be a member of the DNC if they’re on our list? Isn’t this role-play not really accurate to who we’ll be talking to?’
Dorothy leans back and narrows her eyes. She says slowly, with great import, “Good catch. You’re going to be very good at this.”
Lisa beams in spite of herself.
“You’re going to make a lot of money,” Dorothy says, and Lisa believes her.
Lisa signs up for the next open night shift, six to midnight.
Her first night is a week later. There are two rooms full of phones—a front room and a back room. The back room is for lifers, people who have been at the job a year or more. They eat dinner in there, even though they aren’t supposed to. Their beige computer terminals are streaked with hard, tacky stains of mustard and guacamole. Their freedom comes with a price, though. No one wants to be a lifer. Eating guacamole on the phone is a small reward for being stuck at this job.
The front room is for the casual workers, although a few of the cantankerous lifers have desks there. At the beginning of the night, everyone looks at a big dry erase board at the front of the calling room to see what organization they are assigned to represent, and then there is a mad rush to claim a phone when the shift begins. Everyone, lifers and casual callers alike, wants the same phone they had last night.
All the desirable seats are taken, so Lisa is forced to sit next to Vladimir.
Lisa picks up the company phone on her desk and listens to the dial tone.
“We still have five minutes,” Vladimir tells her, but Lisa smiles blankly and pretends not to hear.
Lisa is assigned to call for the ASPCA. She takes out the binder given in training, full of scripts for different organizations.
Vladimir whistles. “Your first night and you pull that? Lucky girl. Animal lovers will give you anything.”
Lying over the telephone seems like a crime. She imagined her mother’s cry of disbelief underneath the ringing. “What is this world doing to you?” she screeched whenever Lisa recounted her own unseemly behavior. Jumping fare on the subway, stealing her classmate’s English book, embezzling small amounts from her junior high school store, all these everyday lapses of character were answered with the same despair of Lisa’s abuse of the common good.
The first caller answers. Lisa panics and begins inventing. “Hello, my name is Lisa and I’m calling on behalf of the ASPCA to let you know about a very disturbing trend. Did you know in China they’re shaving live puppies? And then taking that fur and making knock-off mink coats, and then sewing those knock-off coats onto live kittens? It’s horrible—”
“Oh I wouldn’t doubt it—” the woman on the other end has such conviction that Lisa wonders if it’s true. Maybe it’s a half-remembered news story. “Those Chinese are just awful, you know?”
“Um, I see your ASPCA membership is coming to an end—“ “The Chinese have no respect for life.”
“It expires November twelfth and for thirty-nine ninety-nine you can renew tonight—”
“The number of animal abuse stories coming out of that country—”
“Tonight we’re offering an exclusive gift of one wall calendar, highlighting our ASPCA shelters.”
The woman says, yes, of course she wants to renew.
“Hello, my name is Lisa. I’m calling from the ASPCA. Is Hannah Smith home, please?”
“Hello, my name is Lisa. I’m calling from the ASPCA. Is John Ricks home, please?”
“Hello, my name is Lisa. I’m calling from the ASPCA. Is Pauline Walker home, please?”
“Don’t say please,” Dorothy says in Lisa’s first review. “Just ask for the person. Don’t say who you are. Don’t say please, because then they know you’re calling for something. Or they’ll think you’re a foreigner and hang up. Someone caller ID’d us after one of your calls and said some Canadian woman was calling and asking for money. You keep saying please and it traces you back to us.”
The second week, Lisa and the only other black girl in the office are assigned to the United Negro College Fund account.
“Hello, I’m Lisa. I’m calling from United Negro College Fund.”
“Who?” the man on the other end asks.
“United Negro College Fund. I see you’ve donated in the past–“
“Yes and I’ll keep donating as long as they give our young people jobs.” “We appreciate your contribution.”
“I know I’m not supposed to say this. It’s not p.c. But they should be hiring young black people to make this call. Not a white girl like you. I hear your voice and I bet you don’t even know a black person. The youth, the black youth should be doing this.“
“I’m sorry?” Lisa says. She hates herself. She hates how pinched and high her voice has gotten, how polite.
“Look, I’m sure you’re perfectly nice. You sound very sweet, but they should get the youth off the streets and have them do this.” He hangs up.
“But I am a black youth,” Lisa says to the dial tone.
Lisa starts doing horribly on her calls. She lets three people off the hook when they say they’re making dinner. She says, “Oh, thank you,” when four people tell her they’ll mail their checks on their own time. Dorothy pulls her off of the phones for the rest of the night and has her listen in on better callers. There is one woman, Virgil, who regularly makes $500 a night. She works mostly ACLU and the AIDS charities. She won’t work anything else. Virgil’s voice is deep and slow. She has a southern accent and sometimes sounds drunk. But everyone gives her money. Lisa listens to her calls in the managers’ lounge.
“ACLU,” Virgil sings into the phone.
“I’m sorry? This is the ACLU. You’re calling the Denver office right now.”
“ACLU,” Virgil says.
“Are you one of our fundraisers?”
“I have a Mr. Garrett Smith on my list for renewal for the ACLU.”
“Well, he’s field director of the Western Region. I’m his administrative assistant. I’m sure he’s up to date.”
“ACLU,” Virgil sings again. “What I have before me says he isn’t.” The woman on the other end doesn’t say anything and neither does Virgil. There is a long, crackling silence. Lisa can hear the secretary in Denver breathing across the wires, but Virgil’s breath is unrecorded. That’s what growing money sounds like, Lisa thinks. Silent and confident. I will never sound like that.
“ACLU,” Virgil says again.
“My goodness. I am sorry. I’ll get his credit card number for renewal.”
“And if he donates fifty dollars, it’s doubled this hour.”
The woman agrees. Lisa will never be good at this. Dorothy was wrong. She will not make money here.
It is early November and the prize money for the Best American Studies Undergraduate Thesis has dwindled to a few hundred dollars, only partially replenished by the meager checks from Mindful World. Lisa doesn’t know what she’ll do when the money’s gone. She tries hard not to think about it. She would certainly never talk about it.
Lisa is at a mustache party—Rosemarie and three friends from college spent an afternoon cutting dozens of fake moustaches out of construction paper, and now everyone has one taped to their upper lips. A few people drew theirs on with Sharpie. Lisa wears an orange handlebar mustache that itches the sides of her mouth. She is trying to stay inconspicuous but she’s the only black person there.
Everyone is talking about jobs: even the ones who, a few months ago, made leisure a point of pride. Everyone has a normal job, or at least something that sounds good. Someone is working in a vegan bakery, three people are temping while starting a band, another is a tour guide at the aquarium. Lisa doesn’t want to say what she does, but is forced to.
“I answer phones. I’m kind of a telefundraiser?” She hates that she put a question mark on it. “I work at Mindful World.”
“Where is that?”
“Davis Square. Behind the movie theater—“
“Oh, I know that place. There’s maybe an AA meeting that meets in that building?”
“I don’t think so.”
“No? Maybe a half-way house? There’s always a crowd of jacked looking people coming outside to smoke every fifteen minutes.”
“That’s Mindful World. That’s just the people who work there. We’re mandated to have a smoke break every hour. It’s written into our union contract.”
Everyone laughs and Lisa does too after a few moments.
When not discussing jobs, they compete to deliver the most depressing political news they can think of.
“We have a chance of taking back the House.”
“Doesn’t matter. The Left is dead.”
The thing Lisa can never understand in these airless debates—that conclude by proclaiming the futility of the youthful ideals she is forced to mouth into phone receivers—is the distance everyone maintains, as if predicating a terrible future means being exempt from living it. She learned the same distance in college. Wasn’t that what education was for? So she cannot admit that the wooden scripts she recites at work about bleeding women and lost prisoners and mutilated birds of prey frighten her deeply.
Out of this terror, she starts to fool around with Vladimir at work. It is actually rather nice except that she has to listen to him talk about Zizek first.
“I know. I read him already.” But this isn’t true: Lisa’s read the comic book summary, and then only half of it because it was a long overdue library book.
Lisa’s only slept with one other person before. That’s what growing up the only black girl in white groups of friends will do to you. It feels like she’s discovered a secret with Vladimir You can do the most ludicrous things and, with luck, only one other person knows you’ve done it. Lisa can be a dedicated and virtuous foot soldier in the fight for a return to progressive ideals, and no one needs to know that she has recently licked his finger before he stuck it in her asshole in an abandoned conference room. Lisa can be a black girl with no credit and less than five hundred dollars with no idea how to get more, and Vladimir will still get on his knees in front of her and she will be the one with the hand at the back of his neck, guiding.
Lisa is realizing Mindful World Corporation is beginning to matter and will soon be part of her permanent resume.
It is Election Night Eve and everyone is assigned to political calls.
“I’m calling for NOW. You know how important this election is.”
”I’m calling for the DNC. We’ve got to work hard tomorrow.”
But Lisa, in her disgrace, barely making over her mandated nine seventy-five per hour, is assigned to Beacon of Light, a charity for blind Manhattanites. She is the only one on this account.
The first three people she calls are dead. She types an X beside their names.
Her next call is a woman, Evelyn A. Cresch.
Lisa whispers, “Don’t pick up, don’t pick up.”
“Hello. My name is Lisa and I’m calling on behalf of Beacon of Light.”
“As you know, Beacon of Light has long fought for the rights of vision-impaired New Yorkers.”
“Are you at the Manhattan office?”
“A satellite office,” Lisa says without hesitation. “For over thirty-five years we’ve worked hard for you and your loved ones to ensure access to quality health care and to promote awareness of the vision impaired—”
Lisa tries not to think about what she is saying. She has recently begun an elaborate fantasy that she is starring in a deeply ironic music video for a European techno dance band. She imagines synth lines and bass scored to her fingers typing: she imagines poker-faced dancers doing throwback aerobic routines out of the corner of her eye.
“I was at the fifty-seventh street office Monday. Do you know Cheryl?”
“No, I don’t think I’ve met her. As I was saying—”
“It’s no use, dear. I’m not listening to you,” the woman sighs. She hasn’t hung up.
Lisa can hear her breathing, and then a chirping sound in the background, a parakeet probably, close to the phone. Lisa doesn’t know what to do, so she starts the speech again.
“For over 35 years we’ve worked hard, very hard, for the visually impaired—”
“Are you blind yourself?” the woman asks.
“No,” Lisa says. “I wear contacts.”
“I’m not blind, really. I wear a patch over my left eye. My son calls me a pirate.” The woman waits for Lisa to laugh.
“That’s very funny.”
“Yes. It’s working out all right. But I see a little cloud in the corner of my left eye. Green. I didn’t notice it for a long time, but it’s getting bigger. There’s something on the cloud. It looks like a little foot. I’d almost say it’s an animal. Can you help with that?”
“That’s not really what we do—”
“I just want to know what it is. What sort of thing grows a leg after six weeks?” Lisa can hear Vladimir discussing the end of free speech.
“It would be nice to know when something is going wrong,” the woman says.
Lisa stares at the next name on her call list, and before hanging up, says, “No it wouldn’t. It’s better not to know at all.”